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Dave Bautista doesn’t want to be a movie star, he wants to be an actor. He may be both

Adam Graham – The Detroit News (TNS)

On screen he’s the center of attention, a hulking mass with a bodybuilder’s physique and an air of cool mystique surrounding him. He can play quiet and brooding or loud and boisterous, and either way it’s difficult to take your eyes off of whatever he’s doing when the camera’s rolling.

But off screen, Dave Bautista says he’s unassuming and even a bit shy, and he says it’s been a long road learning to accept himself and feel at home in his own (heavily inked) skin.

“There was a time in my life, like kinda into my 40s, when I just became comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says Bautista, on the phone last month from the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. He’s sheepish enough that even saying the name of the hotel out loud produces a slightly embarrassed chuckle from the star.

But he’s earned his right to be there, as well as his status as the thinking man’s pro wrestler-turned-actor of choice. Over the last decade, he’s built up an impressive resume of roles, working with directors such as Sam Mendes (the 2015 James Bond adventure “Spectre”), Zack Snyder (“Army of the Dead”), M. Night Shyamalan (“Knock at the Cabin”) and Rian Johnson (“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”).

He also played Drax the Destroyer in three “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies (as well as a pair of “Avengers” titles), and this weekend he’s on screen, along with seemingly one-third of Hollywood, in the blockbuster-in-waiting “Dune: Part Two.” It’s his third pairing with A-list director Denis Villeneuve, whom he credits with elevating his acting chops, as well as his ambitions.

“I originally started pursuing acting because I realized what a bad actor I was,” says Bautista, who turned 55 in January.

He got into it after kicking around World Wrestling Entertainment, where he wrestled as Batista, “The Animal,” beginning in 2002. He collected 10 championship titles during his time with WWE, but he had a ways to go before transitioning his in-ring accomplishments to big-screen success.

Early on in his acting career — he was still wrestling at the time — he appeared in a movie “strictly as a favor to a friend,” he says, and the experience left such a bad taste in his mouth that he had to wash it out.

“I went and I did this film and I thought it was going to be easy, and as I was doing it, I was mortified at how bad I was,” he says, without calling out the name of the production. “I was self-conscious, I was embarrassed, and I left that film feeling so unsatisfied that I wanted to prove it to myself that I could be better.”

That began a long journey for Bautista, which continues to this day.

Rough beginnings

Bautista grew up poor in a rough neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and he had to fight to stay out of trouble, a fight he didn’t always win. He was stealing cars in his teenage years and was living on his own by 17, eventually finding work as a nightclub bouncer, where trouble found him: He landed a year’s probation after an incident at the club led to him being tried for assault and battery, which signaled an end to his bouncing days.

Back then Hollywood was another world altogether, several planes removed from his own, but he was always captivated by movies. “I remember going to double and triple features, and just sitting in the movies all day,” he says of his childhood fascination with cinema. He remembers going to see Disney features such as “The Rescuers” and “The Love Bug” on the big screen, along with “Jaws.” In 1977, “‘Star Wars’ changed my life,” he says.

He had no avenue toward movies outside of being a spectator. He found himself pulled toward bodybuilding, where he bulked and toned his 6-foot-4-inch frame, which eventually led to wrestling, where he learned the art of storytelling, albeit via body slams and suplexes. “Professional wrestling is really a physical form of storytelling,” says Bautista, who was billed at 290 pounds in his grappler days. “I refer to it as a ‘theater of violence,’ and I wanted to carry that over into this business that I loved and I’ve been obsessed with since I’ve been a child.”

While he could perform in front of thousands in the ring — in 2007 at WrestleMania 23 at Ford Field in Detroit, he fought the Undertaker in front of a reported crowd of more than 80,000 fans — outside the ring he was timid and unsure of himself, and he suffered from social anxiety.

“I grew up an introverted, kind of shy person, and for a long time, I hadn’t learned that it was OK to be awkward and uncomfortable, because everybody expected me to be this cool guy that I was on TV,” he says. Even doing press and interviews was arduous for him.

In WWE, he was surrounded by big personalities and over-the-top characters, including guys like Ric Flair, who can turn on the world-class charm with the snap of his fingers. “I was always envious of people who were super outgoing, who were the life of the party, who commanded attention,” Bautista says. But as much as he tried, he just wasn’t that guy, and eventually he became OK with not being the superstar, 1,000-watt spotlight at the center of every room.

That only came with age. “I started being comfortable with myself,” he says. “I learned a way to turn my faults into strengths, and I learned how to make it work for me. And I came to the realization that they weren’t faults, it’s just who I am. It may not be everybody else’s standard, but I’ve found over the years that a lot of people feel the same way. I’m always pleasantly surprised that a lot of people share the same anxieties that I do.”

That’s true for some big-name actors that he’s met as well, he says. And as he’s learned to accept himself, Bautista says the more he loosens up — both in life and in his work — the more positive the results.

“I’m a super self-conscious actor, but as I let my guard down, I feel like my performance gets better and better, and the more comfortable I am, the better my performance will be,” he says. “It’s something I had to learn about myself.”

Finding himself

When he decided to lean all the way into acting in 2010, Bautista left WWE behind to pursue his goal. (He closed the door but never slammed it shut; he returned to WWE for stints in 2014 and 2019.)

While he landed roles in films like RZA’s “The Man With the Iron Fists” (2012) and the “Pitch Black” entry “Riddick” (2013), he wasn’t sure how far he could take his acting career, and his bank account was quickly drying up. That’s when he got his shot at “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which “completely changed my life,” Bautista says.

The role of Drax, the blockheaded behemoth of the “Guardians” franchise, showed he was more than just muscle, he also had swift comic timing and a dry wit. He received raves for his performance, and afterward he took full advantage of the opportunities it afforded, embarking on what he calls a “purpose-driven” mission to seek “deeper, more meaningful” roles, and getting “very picky and choosy” about the directors he worked with.

One of the filmmakers he sought out was Villeneuve, the French Canadian filmmaker who was becoming, along with Christopher Nolan, Hollywood’s go-to guy for cerebral blockbusters.

Villeneuve was working on “Blade Runner 2049” at the time, and producers liked Bautista for the role of Sapper Morton, a replicant living in exile outside of Los Angeles. (They were fans of his work in WWE.) Bautista was “crushed,” he says, when Villeneuve told him he was all wrong for the character, but he flew out to L.A. anyway to meet with the director, and they talked about everything except the part.

Meanwhile, producers still had faith in him, and he did makeup, costume and screen tests for the role. Finally after the screen test, Villeneuve was won over and he awarded him the part, and it was working with Villeneuve on “Blade Runner” that changed Bautista’s outlook on acting, he says.

“When I would talk to people, that role — and it’s a very small role — kept coming up over and over and over, because it allowed people to see me in a different light,” Bautista says. “It’s not only that the character was so layered, but Denis was the first director to completely strip away my physicality, which allowed me to completely rely on my acting ability. People saw that and they recognized that, and it just opened up doors for me.”

One of those doors was a revolving one with Villeneuve, who cast Bautista as Glossu Rabban, a darkly vicious character in the director’s “Dune” saga. He played the part in 2021’s “Dune” and returns in “Dune: Part Two,” where his character has several violent outbursts, at one point repeatedly bashing a subordinate’s head into a control panel.

For Bautista, the supporting part is another step toward his goal, and he’s putting in the work to get where he ultimately wants to see himself.

“I never set out to be a movie star, I set out to be an actor,” says the thrice-married father of three. “My end goal is to be a respected actor, and I’m still chasing that. I still have that strong desire to really prove, not only to everyone else but to myself, that I can be a great actor.”

He welcomes the professional success now that he has a better understanding of himself away from the screen — both who he is, and who he isn’t.

“All these things made me who I am today,” Bautista says. “And who I am today, I’m content with.”



MPA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of strong violence, some suggestive material and brief strong language)

Running time: 2:46

How to watch: Now in theaters


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