Why Dave Bautista Risked His Career to Defend James Gunn
In July 2018, Dave Bautista was rocked when Disney fired his friend James Gunn as director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Gunn had helped put the former wrestler on the map as an actor by casting him as Drax, the humorous, literally minded alien in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Bautista soon emerged as the most outspoken Guardians castmember and rallied to Gunn's side, to the point that the actor's then-reps were worried it might damage his career. But Bautista was steadfast.
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"I wasn’t so concerned about my career at that point," Bautista tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I figured if my career was over, I could always fall back on professional wrestling."
Nearly a year later, Bautista finds himself at a special moment in his acting career. His comedy, Stuber, arrives in theaters on July 12th, and he's gearing up to work with Denis Villeneuve on Dune and Zack Snyder on Army of the Dead. After proving to himself and to others that he was right for roles his entire career, Bautista finally feels he's coming into his own as of this summer.
In a conversation with THR, Bautista gives his endorsement for Chris Hemsworth to join Guardians 3 and confirms he and Gunn previously discussed him appearing in The Suicide Squad.
Starting with Stuber, this is your first lead role in a studio film. It’s also your first bona fide comedy, a genre you’ve been hesitant to commit to in the past. What factors led to your commitment?
It was a combination of things. I wanted to do a comedy because I’ve been wanting to round out my career by doing everything. I’d been searching for a comedy, and when this one was first brought to my attention, they told me that Kumail (Nanjiani) was attached. So, immediately I was interested. I read the script and just found myself laughing out loud, which is kind of a rare thing. When you read through scripts and find yourself really getting into it, you know there’s something special about that; I could see myself playing the character. So I connected to the script and was really interested in Kumail as a performer. Then I got some feedback on him from James Gunn; I knew they were buds. So I got some feedback on him, and then I wanted to meet him and do a chemistry thing with him. We just kinda connected right off the bat.
As far as preparation, did you cruise around in an Uber for a day or re-watch films like Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cops?
(Laughs.) There were a few films that were mentioned to me, and the one that really stuck in my head was 48 Hrs. [Director] Michael Dowse said early on that he wanted my character to feel like Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs. — just really kind of salty, surly and sarcastic, but in a very comedic way. So, I watched that again. It holds up; it’s pretty funny, but as far as being politically correct, I understand why I don’t see it played on TV much anymore. As far as political correctness, it just doesn’t hold up at all. The movie is still great, and I really did take a lot from Nick Nolte’s character.
You’ve stated how you’re less comfortable with comedic work. Did that change throughout production?
I think I learned a lot about comedic performance from the director, Michael Dowse. Some things I just didn’t get; it felt odd to me. He kept really insisting that I do things a certain way and even say things in a certain tone. They felt really unnatural to me, but when I watched them after the fact, I saw how they made sense. Otherwise, with Kumail, I just let him do his thing. I played the straight man and bounced off of him. He said all the funny stuff, and I just sat there, saying stupid shit with a straight look on my face like I usually do. (Laughs.) So, I think that’s why we complemented each other. I played to his strengths and he played to mine.
At this point, would you play the funny man or a big personality like Drax in the real world?
It’s definitely something I wouldn’t pursue. If someone I really trusted, like a James Gunn, wanted me to play that role, then I would. I wouldn’t be super confident about it, but I would attempt it. Otherwise, I just couldn’t see myself doing it. I’m not that guy.
Guardians certainly isn’t a two-hander, but at times Drax is the funny man. Because you’re almost unrecognizable in Drax’s costume and makeup, does that ease some of your anxiety over being the funny man?
Yeah, I’m more comfortable with it. On the second Guardians and even going into the Avengers stuff, I didn’t overthink anything. I just felt like I was Drax. I developed the character. He was a part of me, and I’m a part of him. For the first Guardians I overthought a lot — almost everything that came out of my mouth. By the second film, I found that I was really comfortable. I actually had a chemistry test with Pom [Klementieff], and I just felt like I eased right back into it. That’s when I realized how at ease I was with him because he was my character now. I imagine it’ll be the same when I go back. No matter what absurd thing James Gunn writes for me, I just don’t think I’d be uncomfortable with it; I’m too used to it. It’s like putting on an old pair of jeans.
By all accounts, the life of a professional wrestler is grueling — four cities in four nights is the common refrain. By comparison, is the Hollywood lifestyle a piece of cake for you, even though you’re still on the road a lot during production and promotion?
It’s not a piece of cake; it’s a different grind. I think it’s more of a mental grind than a physical grind. Even though you’re traveling a lot, you’re usually stationary in the same place. Although you’re working long hours, they’re not really hard, grueling hours; they’re just long hours. So I think it’s more keeping your head in the game. Obviously, I don’t do the method thing; I don’t like being stuck in a character, but popping in and out of a character is draining in itself.
You publicly stood up for your friend James Gunn, and lo and behold, there was a happy ending. However, I’m curious about how your team or inner circle felt during that time. Given how well your career has been going, did they try to talk you out of that Dave versus Goliath situation?
I’m with a different agency now, but I think my agents at the time were a little concerned. (Laughs.) They were never negative about it; they were never judgmental about it, but they were also worried that I would damage my career. But they knew how I felt about it, personally. I was with Gersh [Agency], and my last agent was named Brett Norensberg. We were actually really good friends; we were very close, so he understood that this was a personal issue with me. So he never tried to stand in the way or stop me from doing anything or taking a stance; he understood, but I think he was concerned. The other major part of my team is Jonathan Meisner. He’s my manager, but first and foremost, he’s my best friend; we’ve been friends since we were teenagers. As he’s always been with me throughout my life and career. He’s been 100 percent supportive.
Since so much of the focus was on your future with Guardians, many people overlooked the fact that Stuber was bound for distribution by Disney as a result of the Fox-Disney merger. You’ve mentioned how you never heard from anyone at Disney, but based on the marketing push I’m seeing for Stuber, it seems like there’s no bad blood. Do you get that sense as well?
Yeah, I do get that sense. I’m not surprised, especially now, since they’ve gone back on their decision. It’s just my opinion, but I think they knew early on that it was a bad call. I think they just didn’t know how to come back from that bad call. I was never really disrespectful; I never shit on Disney. It was a bad decision, and I just called them out on it. That’s all. It wasn’t anything out of malice or disrespect. It was just calling them on a bad decision and trying to make them see the big picture. It was a very rash decision. Basically, I just wanted my friend rehired, and I never really thought about anything else. I wasn’t so concerned about my career at that point. I figured if my career was over, I could always fall back on professional wrestling. That’s one big perk about being a professional wrestler, I can go back to that because nobody can ever take that skill away from me. I will always have it. Hopefully the WWE would always open the door to me, but if they didn’t I could wrestle elsewhere if I was starving and needed to make a living.
When it looked like James wouldn’t be back on Guardians 3, did you guys ever have any conversations about The Suicide Squad?
We did. (Laughs.) Yeah, we did.
You’ve talked a lot about how much you love James’ script for Guardians 3. Do you expect it to change a little bit since it’s coming out at a later point in the MCU timeline than originally planned?
I do, yeah. I expect it will change a bit.
If Chris Hemsworth is a part of it, is the Benatar big enough to house all those big personalities?
Yeah! Absolutely. If we can all do Infinity War and Endgame together… It was a who’s who there and there were no issues. It was pretty amazing to see. That’s a trickle-down thing. That comes from the top. Marvel set the tone for an environment, and that’s what the environment is. I think they take all those things into consideration when people are being hired, and it was incredible to see a who’s who of Hollywood, all interacting together in a very pleasant atmosphere. There were no egos; there was no ego-clashing or attitude. If there was, I didn’t witness it. I think Chris Hemsworth is a great guy; he’s a fun-loving Aussie. He is what you’d expect him to be. He’s very funny, pleasant and upbeat. He’s very social, so I think that would be a perfect fit to be honest with you. I think Hemsworth is hysterical.
So how did Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead come together, and can you say a little bit about your character?
I’ve been talking to Zack Snyder for years now; we’ve been trying to do a project together. I met Zack years ago and always loved him. I had an instant connection with this guy. He’s my type of director. He’s kind of a man’s man; he likes to train a lot and is all tatted up. We just kind of understand each other.
We’d been talking about this other project, which is a really great acting role for me. It’s a passion project for him, but for one reason or another, we just couldn’t get it going. When he got a hold of Army of the Dead, he actually wrote a smaller part for me in there. As he was gearing up for casting, he started thinking about who his lead would be, and he told me this personally, “One day, it just clicked: God, Dave is not that part; Dave is my lead.” So, he called me and asked me if I would do it; I said, “Hell yeah. I’d be happy to do it.” I really just want to work with Zack.
Are you going to ask Zack if your “zombie killer” can make a cameo?
It’s amazing. I might actually take a picture of that and post it. It’s the most insane weapon you’ve ever seen. A friend of mine was visiting me on Guardians 2, and he went to a flea market in Georgia where he came across this thing that they labeled as a “zombie killer.” It’s got four blades on it that are like twelve inches long. I’ll take a picture of it and put it on my Instagram.
I hope to see it in Army of the Dead as well.
You received rave reviews for your performance as Sapper Morton in Blade Runner 2049. Denis Villeneuve clearly agrees since he invited you back for Dune. I know you’re joining the production at the end of June, but what’s your impression of the Beast, as well as Denis’ take on the film, so far?
It’s brilliant. For me to sit and read Dune, it’s hard. The way I read, it’s hard for me to stay focused for that long, but his take on Dune is very true to the books. If you know his style of filmmaking, it’s perfect. He was tailor-made to do this. I hope he won’t mind that I’m saying this, but when I talked to him about Dune, he said that he really wanted to pay honor to the books. He was such a fan of the books growing up. So people who are fans of the book are just going to love this film. They’re actually going to see all these characters brought to life. He’s absolutely, without a doubt, the best person to do it.
As you develop the Beast, will you reference the book the most?
That’s a conversation I’ll have with Denis. I’m not married to any idea of who the Beast is yet. The reason I haven’t done this is because when I auditioned for Sapper, I did it one way; I thought it was great, because Denis loved it. He said, “You got the job; I love this.” When I got to set and started performing Sapper the way I auditioned for it, he said, “No, no, this is who Sapper is,” and he gave me a completely different outlook on who Sapper was. So, I don’t want to wrap my head around my idea of who the Beast is before I get there. I just know Denis is going to tell me that he is someone else. (Laughs.) So, I will follow his direction.
What direction did Denis give you for Sapper since your performance said so much without overspeaking?
The way Sapper read to me was that he was menacing; he was terrifying, almost evil. When I got to set, I started performing as a very ominous Sapper. Denis stopped me very early and said, “He’s not ominous; he’s sad. He’s a sad character because all he wants to do is live. He’s done these horrible things, just because he wants to live. He loves life more than any human, and he’s very sad that he’s hiding from the world. He’s just trying to survive.” I was like, “Wow, that’s a whole different Sapper than who I thought he was.” He said that he even walks like he’s broken down because he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders. His footsteps are very heavy.
Did you shoot Sapper’s short film, 2048: Nowhere to Run, with Luke Scott during principal photography?
Yeah, I did. I shot a few days with Denis, and then I went and did the short with Luke. Then, I went back and shot more with Denis.
When you perform a stunt fight, such as throwing Ryan Gosling, or his stunt double, through a wall, how much overlap is there between screen fighting and your former career?
Screen fighting is so much different than professional wrestling. I’m often guilty of doing it really wrong. I have the best stunt double ever. I met him on the first Guardians, and I fell in love with this guy; he was so qualified and such a gentleman. I said, “Dude, I’m taking you around the world. Where I go, you’re going.” We’ve done ten or eleven films now, and he’s my guy. His name is Rob de Groot; he’s a Dutch guy. I often do something, and then I’ll go and ask him his opinion on what it is and what I need to correct or adjust. He’s usually right on the money; he knows where the punches should be for different camera angles. Unlike wrestling, which is very big and very broad for a live audience, film often doesn’t have to be that big. Or, I’ll go the other route where I use my practical fighting; my practical training, which is very tight. Sometimes, it needs to be bigger, so I usually depend on Rob’s judgement to adjust myself.
You’ve been quite open about how you’ve wanted to establish yourself as a credible actor before jumping into lead roles. Are you at the point now where you consider yourself a genuine actor and not a wrestler-turned-actor?
I never considered myself a wrestler-turned-actor. I have a huge chip on my shoulder; I get really shitty when people say that. I’m understanding, but it just strikes a chord with me. I never thought of myself as a wrestler-turned-actor; I just fell in love with acting and wanted to pursue acting. It is nice to now get people who didn’t know that I was in professional wrestling and are shocked to find out. I got a lot of that this year because I did go back to wrestling. I had more than a few people say that they never knew I was a professional wrestler. It feels kinda good and that I’ve accomplished a lot. To me, that’s a huge statement. I’m not at all embarrassed of my wrestling background; I love it and I’m very proud of my career. I think I ended it on my terms, as a storybook ending for me, but it feels great to be acknowledged as an actor because I love it so much. I really respect the craft of acting. I also love the art of professional wrestling; it’s storytelling and performance. To me, wrestling was always a theater of violence, so it feels really great to be acknowledged for my acting. I wouldn’t consider myself a great actor by any means, but I’m definitely learning.
Based on your original plan, do you think you’ve established yourself since you’re now playing lead roles?
Not completely. I think I’m getting there; I think the two films I have coming out this summer will help me [Stuber and My Spy]. They’ll open people’s eyes even more, and they’ll see me in a different light. A lot of people missed out on Sapper Morton; they didn’t get to see me. A lot of people missed out on a role I’m very proud of — Everest in Hotel Artemis. People know me as Drax; he’s kind of a silly character, but that is by far my biggest role to date. I don’t think people are going to look at that character and respect it as a performance character, but to me, it is. I think they look at it, they laugh and they don’t really see the performance part of it.
Do you know if Denis had seen any of your work before hiring you?
Yeah, he had seen me in Guardians. So, I was on Guardians 2, and the Blade Runner 2049 producers from Alcon loved me for the role of Sapper. So, they asked if Denis would take a meeting with me, and I flew out to meet him while I was filming Guardians 2. As soon as I met him, he told me that I was too young for the part. So, I said, “I flew out from L.A., and I’d love to just sit down and talk with you.” He said, “Great, let’s have lunch.” So, we had lunch and really connected; we just talked about everything else since I figured I didn’t have the part. When I got back to Atlanta for Guardians 2, the 2049 producers asked me if I’d do makeup tests to try and age me; Denis would be open-minded to that. So, I said sure. Denis looked at the makeup tests and still said, “No, it’s not right; it’s not good.” Then, they asked me if I’d do a screen test, where I actually got in costume and makeup and performed as Sapper. So, I did, and Denis saw it, loved it and gave me the job. The producers were very careful not to force me. They never would’ve hired me without Denis’ blessing, so they didn’t want to push it. But, they really wanted me for the part.
I would’ve guessed that he first saw you in Spectre, since he’s a James Bond enthusiast.
(Laughs.) I was on a film called My Spy in Toronto, and Denis called me. It brought tears to my eyes; I couldn’t believe he was calling me to offer me this part in Dune. To me, that says a lot. He said that he had been thinking about me since Blade Runner, and he wanted to do something else. Then, he had this part, and he said that he wanted to call sooner, but it was just too premature. But now, he wanted to call and officially offer me the part. If that doesn’t say you’ve really established yourself as an actor, when an Academy Award-caliber director is calling and offering you a part, and says that he’s been thinking about you for this part — to me, that’s a huge statement.
Stuber opens July 12.
by Pamela McClintock
by Richard Newby