On 22 January 1989, Dave Bautista was sat in jail watching the Super Bowl.
“It was one of those defining moments,” he says. “I remember thinking very clearly, ‘This is all wrong… What the hell am I doing here?’”
His beloved San Francisco 49ers would go on to win the game – thumping the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 – but rather than celebrating in the streets with his friends, the 20-year-old was watching his team triumph from the gloomy confines of a Washington DC prisoncell. The US capital was, at the time, “in the heyday of the crack wars” and Bautista had been caught in a car full of drugs.
“I had a friend who was going down the wrong road and I was going right down it with him,” he says, neatly blending metaphor and reality. “It made me aware of the direction I didn’t want my life to go in. From the moment I got out, I was steadily employed, trying to do the right thing.”
Speak to Bautista and you’ll realise that his 49 years on this planet have been littered with defining moments such as this. There was the time he was laughed out of a WCW audition and told he would “never be a professional wrestler”, only to become one of WWE’s most bankable stars five years later. And the time he accepted a role “as a favour” in the Ja Rule-powered action flop Wrong Side Of Town (22 per cent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), only to realise his acting was “so horrible, so godawful” that he quit wrestling just to try to improve it.
“I do have something of a chip on my shoulder,” he laughs down the line from his home in Tampa, Florida. “Maybe sometimes I do things out of spite, just because people tell me I can’t. But I want to be taken seriously as an actor, and there’s this perception people have of me from the way I look. I want to prove that there’s more to me than meets the eye.”
To be fair to Bautista, he’s been proving this pretty successfully for the past few years. He’s no stranger to wrestler-turned-actor action fare. Indeed, the film he’s currently promoting – enjoyably OTT bomb-in-a-football-stadium thriller Final Score – sits squarely in that camp. But more frequently, these straightforward guns-’n’-muscles outings are being overshadowed by roles that allow him to demonstrate some serious dramatic chops.
He exuded Bond-startling terror as the taciturn Mr Hinx in Spectre, and gave Ryan Gosling a run for his money as a quietly unsettling replicant in Blade Runner 2049. And then, of course, there’s the part that “opened all the doors” in the first place: Drax the Destroyer in Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy franchise, a role built as much on masterful comic timing as impressive pectorals.
In conversation, too, Bautista is not quite what you’d expect from a man who’s spent a fair chunk of his adult life pounding opponents in tight-fitting underpants. He’s funny, thoughtful, softly spoken and disarmingly eloquent, happy to discuss everything from social anxiety and insecurity to his highbrow dream of performing Shakespeare on stage.
“That’s top of my bucket list,” he tells me, quite seriously. “It would be so terrifying and challenging because there’s no room for error. Plus, I like improv, and you can’t exactly throw your own words in with Shakespeare’s.”
Has he got his eye on a particular role in the Bard’s canon? “Well, I guess it would have to make sense with how I look,” he laughs. “But I’m pretty open-minded. I’d even play a female part.”
Bautista has always been judged by how he looks. The son of a Filipino father and a Greek mother, he spent his twenties working as a nightclub bouncer in Washington, primarily because he “looked the part: the big musclehead who knew how to talk people down. But it was an interesting job. You learn patience, and you’d be amazed at some of the things you see.”
Such as? “A dead guy,” he says bluntly. “The guy had been shot – someone must have tried to carjack him – and he rolled past the club slowly, still driving. We thought he was passed out drunk, but by the time he reached the kerb he was gone.”
When bouncing became insufficient to pay the bills, wrestling was the obvious choice. But his obsession with just how bad he was in the aforementioned 2010 Ja Rule vehicle meant another career U-turn.
“I fell in love with acting because I was just so godawful horrible at it,” he says. “I wanted the opportunity to get better, but I couldn’t even get an agent at first. My agent turned me down three times. He’d say: ‘I really like you, Dave, but I don’t know what to do with you.’”
In fairness to his agent, this was partly down to Bautista’s stubbornness. The roles were there – big, bulky lunks who cracked heads and spoke only in grunted monosyllables – but Bautista wanted more than that. “I tried not to go down the easy road and take roles that would typecast me,” he says. “For a while, I couldn’t even get auditions. Then Guardians happened and that changed everything.”
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Guardians Of The Galaxy, Marvel’s endearingly bonkers, power-pop-driven space opera, is almost certainly where non-wrestling fans will know Bautista from. When the first instalment landed in 2014, his prosthetics-heavy turn as Drax, a vengeful warrior with a tendency to take things slightly too literally, became an instant fan favourite. Drax is a kind of cross between the Hulk and Mr Logic from Viz – the sort of double-edged role Bautista had been craving. A big, bulky, head-crackin’ dude, sure, but one who could only be played by someone with true emotional depth and scalpel-sharp comic timing.
“I do have a natural talent for being deadpan,” Bautista chuckles. “But I was really anxious walking on to that set [for the first time]. You’re there with some big actors, y’know? It was very intimidating.”
Handily, one of these big actors – Chris Pratt – was a “huge wrestling fan” and soon evened things out in the intimidation stakes by confessing to owning a Dave Bautista WWE beach towel (“He didn’t tell me that until well after the audition process…”).
But if the Guardians have become a tight-knit bunch over the past few years, they’ve been brought significantly closer in the past months.
In July, alt-right and conservative ‘activists’ unearthed years-old offensive tweets by the franchise’s Trump-critical writer/director James Gunn, and within hours, Disney had fired him from the Guardians gig. Bautista was the first of the cast to publicly come out in support of Gunn, and the cast signed an open letter in support of Gunn.
“I don’t think the letter will get him rehired,” Bautista admits. “But I hope it opens people’s eyes to James’s character. Nobody is defending his tweets, but this was a smear campaign against a good man.
I spoke to Chris Pratt the day after it happened and he’s a bit religious so he wanted time to pray and figure it out, but I was more like, ‘F*ck this, this is bullsh*t.’ James is one of the kindest, most decent people I’ve met. He’s already turned in the script for Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3 and where I’m at right now is that if [Marvel] don’t use that script then I’m going to ask them to release me from my contract, cut me out or recast me because I’d be doing James a disservice if I didn’t.”
Bautista’s core reaction to the Gunn controversy makes you realise that he is, at base, a sensitive soul. Over the course of our chat, he cites various actors he admires – Pierce Brosnan, Josh Brolin – and it’s typically because they’ve “struggled with demons” or “dealt with pain” and come out stronger. He mentioned his anxiety on the first Guardians film; does he find his own demons keep him up at night?
“Oh, for sure,” he says. “I still don’t feel I’ve accomplished what I set out to and that’s a major source of my stress. But the thing I’m proudest of with my insecurities is that I own them now. I used to be embarrassed about how much I’d stress with social anxiety, but now I’m more open about it. I remember on the first Guardians, before filming I’d say, ‘Guys, I’m a bit nervous, I’ve got some anxiety, but give me a few takes and I’ll get into my groove.’ I’m aware of it now. It is what it is.”
The ease with which Bautista can speak about his emotions is, he admits, largely down to his mother. As well as being “rebellious and passionate”, she is openly gay and raised him single-handed. When I ask how old he was when she came out, he barks a good-natured laugh: “I don’t remember her not being out! This was the Seventies and it wasn’t as accepted as it is now, but still, she never hid anything. She never made it seem as though it was an odd thing to be gay, and that meant it was never an issue. She was, ‘If you don’t like it, go f*ck yourself.’ So, that’s how I am, too.”
He confesses to still feeling like an “outsider” at Hollywood events – “not one of the inner circle, the cool kids” – and is far happier living a “normal, boring life” with his wife and their three dogs in Tampa.
Since we’ve photographed him in a bookshop, I have to enquire: what’s he reading at the moment? “A lot of scripts,” he says. “My ultimate goal is to develop projects, hopefully even direct them, and I have a bunch of ideas I think would make great films. But Hollywood isn’t the fastest-moving business. That’s why I want to establish myself as a brand, so it’s easier to get my own projects off the ground.”
For someone so determined to break the wrestler-turned-actor mould, doesn’t this path sound strikingly similar to the one currently being beaten by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson? Bautista gives another gravelly chuckle: “I guess it’s that sort of ballpark. Johnson’s gone a certain way and he has his own style, but if he walks into a room, he knows people will sit up and listen. Ultimately, that’s the kind of credibility I want.”
Final Score is at cinemas and on Sky Cinema from 7 September
(Photography: Gavin Bond)