TAMPA — Dwayne Johnson may be the most successful professional wrestler-turned-actor, but not even “The Rock” has headlined both the year’s biggest World Wrestling Entertainment event and, by early indications, its biggest Hollywood film.
Tampa’s Dave Bautista is poised to do so.
The 45-year-old Bautista, “Batista” to WWE fans, already headlined this year’s WrestleMania XXX in April, in front of more than 75,000 fans at the Superdome in New Orleans and over 1 million people on pay per view.
Now he plays Drax the Destroyer in the looming blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy,” released in theaters today.
Produced by Marvel Studios, distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, based on a popular comic series and featuring stars Bradley Cooper, Glenn Close, Vin Diesel and Benicio Del Toro, the science fiction action adventure has the ingredients to become the highest grossing film of the year. Early reviews point to that possibility.
“I feel like all my hard work has paid off,” Bautista said. “But I don’t take anything for granted.”
He’s still trying to grasp the WrestleMania XXX experience despite more than a decade in the WWE spotlight. “I think it’s crazy that I’m a part of the WWE in general. I used to watch it as a kid and never imagined I’d be a part of it. I never get used to it.”
Now comes movie star exposure. Bautista got a hint of it at a press conference promoting “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
“I had Vin Diesel on my right and Benicio Del Toro on my left and I kept wondering how I got there. It’s surreal.”
“Guardians of the Galaxy” is about a human pilot and scavenger named Peter Quill who finds a powerful and mysterious orb coveted by intergalactic villain Ronan. With the help of a ragtag group of heroes, including Drax, Quill seeks to keep the powerful orb out of evil hands.
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Drax is a muscular, knife-wielding, tattoo-covered green alien who seeks revenge on Ronan for murdering his family.
In a comic twist, Drax is also incapable of understanding sarcasm or metaphors. So when he’s not smashing the bad guys, or sometimes the good guys, Bautista plays straight man to stars Cooper and Chris Pratt.
With the WWE, Bautista performed live and without the luxury of a second take, in front of tens of thousands of live fans and hundreds of thousands at home. Still, while waiting for “Guardians” director James Gunn to yell “Action,” he was nervous.
“It was intimidating. I was in scenes with these world champions of acting and I was a rookie.”
Bautista’s lack of experience turned some comic book fans against him. They can be protective of their favorite characters.
The Drax character dates back to the early 1970s. Beside “Guardians,” he has been featured in “Iron Man,” “The Avengers” and “The Silver Surfer” comic books.
“They wanted a serious actor playing their beloved Drax,” Bautista said. “And I get that.”
As a wrestler, he’s used to fan criticism.
After four years away from the WWE, pursuing acting, Bautista returned earlier this year for a story line building up to WrestleMania XXX.
He was scripted to play a good guy against then-WWE World Champion and evildoer Randy Orton. But the fans turned on him and booed. So WWE writers turn Bautista to the dark side and inserted a third wrestler, Daniel Bryan, as the fan favorite who won the title.
“I don’t think the WWE put him in a role that allowed him to shine,” said Jason Powell, publisher of professional wrestling news website Prowrestling.net. “The fans all along wanted to see Daniel Bryan fight for the title and when WWE put Batista in the match instead of him, they were angry.
“But make no mistake. Batista has a huge following.”
If early reviews of Bautista’s performance as Drax are an indicator, he may find a huge following among movie fans, too.
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Speaking of the early doubters among those Drax fans, he said, “I don’t think they realized how passionate I am about acting and this role.”
Bautista thinks he is perfectly suited to play Drax. He said he has the brawn and the heart for the role.
At 6-foot-6 and almost 300 pounds of rippling muscle, with a freakish ability to fly around the wrestling ring like a gymnast, Bautista met the character’s physical requirements.
After learning more about the character, he came to think he also fit the emotional ones.
“He’s not this stereotypical muscle head. He’s emotional, intelligent and appreciates friendships.”
As with Drax, Bautista cannot be judged by threatening looks alone.
Bautista has childlike joys, collecting classic lunchboxes. “I have hundreds. Fat Albert, Star Wars, you name it.”
He has a cerebral reputation among some in WWE, said wrestling writer Powell. “I hear he had an entourage that was anything but typical. It included intellectuals, artists and hipsters,” Powell said.
Bautista’s friend Thaddeus Bullard, known by WWE fans as “Titus O’Neil,” described him as selfless. “Dave has a huge heart,” Bullard said. “He would do anything for a friend.”
Bullard was honored in June for his community service by Jessie Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition. Bautista attended the ceremony and wept.
“He is such a good- hearted person,” Bautista said, “that to see him acknowledged for that it choked me up.”
As with Drax, Bautista’s life has been marked by struggle.
Raised with his sister by a single mother in poor neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., he often had no food. Three people were murdered on his front lawn before he was 9.
“He’s been through many trials in life and never let any of them affect his attitude,” Bullard said. “He’s still a happy and kind person and that is why he is successful. Good things happen to good people. I believe that.”
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Bautista didn’t get into the wrestling industry until he was in his 30s but he shot right to the top.
He debuted in 2002 and within a few months was teaming with one of the biggest names in the history of the industry, Ric Flair. In 2005, Bautista became World Heavyweight Champion and over the next five years was one of the WWE’s biggest stars.
Yet in 2010 he walked away from it to pursue a career in acting.
Bautista said he was happy with the WWE, but wanted to challenge himself.
“The only way to get anywhere in life is to step out of your comfort zone,” he said.
Acting is a natural second career for successful wrestlers, Powell said. Wrestling is live theater, after all.
Dwayne Johnson stands alone as box office draw but other wrestlers have enjoyed success in Hollywood.
Jessie Ventura fought alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Predator.” Roddy Piper beat up on aliens in John Carpenter’s cult classic, “They Live.” Hulk Hogan battled Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky III.” Steve Austin later battled Stallone in “The Expendables.” And John Cena has starred in “The Marine” and “12 Rounds.”
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Still, when Batista was cast as Drax in “Guardians,” Powell was surprised.
“He always played the cool and silent type in WWE,” Powell said. “He succeeded because of his physical gifts more than his charisma. But I hear he is excellent in the movie.”
Bautista said he had to prove himself in Hollywood despite his standing as a television star. He struggled to find an agent and even once he did, auditions were few.
He landed roles in two Hollywood films: “The Man with the Iron Fists” starring Russell Crowe, and “Riddick” starring Vin Diesel. But his screen time was limited and his primary job was to look muscular and menacing. His other acting credits were in straight-to-video affairs.
“It wasn’t humbling because I knew it would be hard,” he said. “I had a passion for it and believed I could make it.”
He wanted the role of Drax badly.
When he learned he was cast, he said, he broke down in tears of joy.
“It meant I made the right choice.”
“Guardians of the Galaxy” will have a sequel and Bautista has been cast in a remake of the 1989 action film “Kickboxer.”
“Drax has opened some doors for me. But I still have to audition and work hard.”
And he has not officially retired from WWE.
“I still love wrestling. Physically I’m in great shape so hopefully I can go back to that.”
For now, he is enjoying the moment.
“It’s been an amazing year. It’s been fun.”