Dave Bautista: ‘Professional wrestling brought me out of my shell’

Dune actor gets to grip with the dramatics that facilitated leap from fight ring to screen

Dave Bautista in James Herbert’s Dune: ‘I never signed up to be a movie star. The spotlight means nothing to me.’

Dave Bautista in James Herbert’s Dune: ‘I never signed up to be a movie star. The spotlight means nothing to me.’

 

 When Dave Bautista arrived at the auditions for Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve wasted no time in knocking the wrestler-turned-actor back;  “My friend I’m sorry to tell you this,” said the filmmaker,” but you’re too young for the role.” Bautista persisted, however, and went on to play Sapper Mortin, the combat medic turned protein farmer who assisted in the birth of – spoiler alert – Rachael and Deckard’s daughter. 

 Bautista says he almost burst into tears when the same director cast him as Glossu Raban – henchman nephew of Stellan Skarsgard’s corpulent, occasionally floating Baron Vladimir Harkonnen – in Villeneuve’s absurdly lavish adaptation of the earlier sections of James Herbert’s Dune. 

 “This is what I’ve really worked for,” says the actor. “It was weird being there. It’s a pressure I put on myself: nobody’s trying to make me feel intimidated. I’ve been very welcomed. But walking on set with the calibre of actors that are in the Dune cast is something. I’m studying them. I’m watching their process. I want to see what they are doing before the director says action. I’m trying to pick up on all their nuances. I sometimes jokingly say: I’m a movie star. Because it sounds so ridiculous. I never feel like that. And the truth is I just don’t really care. I never signed up to be a movie star. The spotlight means nothing to me. Glitz and glamour mean nothing to me. I just want to figure this out. I want to win the respect of people like Denis Villeneuve. I want to be a better actor. I want to make films. I want to tell stories. That’s my passion in life.”

Bautista, who can boast of Greek and Filipino roots, was born in Washington DC. His mother – who developed photographs at night to make ends meet – was hardworking but the family struggled financially.

Before Dave reached the age of nine, three murders had occurred on his front lawn. By 13, he was stealing cars; by 20, he was on probation following an altercation while on duty as a nightclub bouncer. Five years later, having turned his life around, he signed with the then-World Wrestling Federation (WWF, renamed WWE in 2002). Between 2002 to 2010, he became a six-time world champion. Body building and later wrestling saved him, says the Guardians of the Galaxy star.

Young introvert

“There are lot of musicians in my family but I’m not musically inclined at all,” says Bautista. “I didn’t have an outlet. I was such an introvert growing up. I was so awkward and so shy. I struggled even speaking to people. Even now, when I watch myself on screen, I just cringe. I laugh at myself a lot, especially if, especially if I am trying to do something that is a bit dramatic. When I started wrestling, picking up a microphone was my nightmare. It just kind of goes against who I am as a person. Professional wrestling really brought me out of my shell.”

Dave Bautista: ‘There’s a lot of talented people in professional wrestling. I’m bothered when people badmouth it without knowing anything about it.’ Photograph: Rich Polk/Getty
Dave Bautista: ‘There’s a lot of talented people in professional wrestling. I’m bothered when people badmouth it without knowing anything about it.’ Photograph: Rich Polk/Getty

His dedication to the sport and the blandishments that came with it ultimately cost him his family life. A straight talker who, inspired by his lesbian mother, has been a defender of LGBTQ rights, a Bernie Sanders supporter and a vocal critic of Donald Trump, he remains hugely regretful about missing out on daddy duties.

 “I have an estranged relationship with two of my daughters,” he says with rather more frankness than one expects from anyone in showbusiness. “It’s still something that doesn’t sit well with me today. I always go back and try to think about what I could have done differently.”  

 Following in the footsteps of Dwayne Johnson and John Cena. Bautista is the latest wrestling sensation to successfully transition from the ring into the biggest box office hits of the era, including Spectre in which he takes a swing at James Bond; Kickboxer: Vengeance in which he squares up to Jean-Claude Van Damme; and Riddick, in which he takes aim for Vin Diesel’s title character. His depiction of the lunkheaded Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (2017), Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame has proved one of the highlights of the Marvel cinematic universe. Despite erroneous reports of the character’s retirement, Bautista will reprise in Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 (2023). 

‘Aspect of performance’

“In wrestling, there’s definitely the aspect of performance,” says Bautista. “It’s entertainment, at the end of the day, but at the same time, I think, you know, I think to make a successful transition, you have to be at least interested in being an actor. I’ve seen more people fail than succeed. There’s a lot of talented people in professional wrestling. I’m bothered when people badmouth it without knowing anything about it. It’s such a fun form of entertainment. And that’s obvious because it’s successful all over the world.”

 Against his turns in marquee titles, the actor has carefully cultivated a series of straight-man, family comedy and indie parts. He’s a police officer in Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? He falls out repeatedly with Kumail Nanjiani in Stuber. He’s a terrific biological or surrogate dad in My Spy, Zach Synder’s Army of the Dead and Bushwick. The latter, which he also produced, premiered at Cannes in 2017. 

 Acting, he says, is an emotional business for a 6 ft 5 man who likes to wear his heart on his sleeve. It’s also cathartic. 

 “I have no training as an actor,” he says, almost apologetically. “So I have to think about a lot of things from my childhood. I think a lot about my relationships particularly with my ex-wife and my children, I think about dogs. I think about one dog that I lost in particular. She just breaks my heart every time I think about her. I draw from that a lot. Because there’s still such a lingering sadness would be this has been a few years now. Man, I miss her every day. I know that sounds probably insane to most people that I still after years miss my dog every day, but I do. So I just think about simple life experiences. It’s therapeutic.”

Dune: Part One opens October 22nd

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