Dave Bautista Is Wrestling’s First Character Actor

There have been countless examples of professional wrestlers attempting to make the jump to Hollywood, but none are quite like Dave Bautista.

Usually the professional wrestler as actor sticks to what they know, playing characters who are not dissimilar from the persona they crafted as professional wrestlers. There isn’t much distance between The Rock and Dwayne Johnson the actor, because he’s still trading in on the type of riffing and loosely homophobic repartee that made him famous. The few times that someone like Johnson has ventured out of his comfort zone, he still used what we know of him as a professional wrestler to make a fool of himself, like in Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain (2013). John Cena has followed this model so far to better effect with his work in Lonely Island shorts utilizing his ridiculous body for comedy, but even there, it is not dissimilar from the tropes of action stars from the 1980s like Arnold Schwarzenegger venturing out into emasculated comedies.

The professional wrestlers who have tried to act in the past are usually slotted into a model akin to the old Hollywood star making system where the actor in question was the draw and you knew what you were going to get. Dwayne Johnson is his own genre and John Cena is beginning to get there himself, but unlike those two, and other wrestler-actors before him like Roddy Piper and Hulk Hogan, Dave Bautista has the spirit of a character actor and doesn’t actively seek the spotlight, but rather, new ways to challenge himself in the world of cinema.

Trusting the Replicant

Bautista is only in the first ten minutes or so of Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017). He plays a farmer by the name of Sapper Morton, and he’s living in an unknown part of California that has been beset by horrible famine. He’s a replicant (a hhumanoid robot) who has isolated himself from the rest of the world due to a lifetime of prejudice and all he wants is to grow garlic and other vegetables out of an unsalvageable Earth. It’s a small role that he plays in this prologue, but one that informs the humanity of these characters in much the same way that Rutger Hauer’s revolutionary replicant did in the original Blade Runner.

Bautista only has one scene with Ryan Gosling’s assassin, who has come to kill Morton, but in it Bautista shows a depth of emotion through subtle technique that no other wrestler/actor has to date. Villenueve gives Bautista a few close-ups in the conversation and with those he has to set the tone for who the replicants are and give them the definitive characteristics of what their stake in life is, and how they’ve been mistreated. If he fails in this scene the movie doesn’t work.

Bautista plays these scenes with a worn-down quality of a man who has lived his life knowing that inevitably he would be killed for who he is and what he does. There’s a mournfulness to his technique, and his eyes are subtly glassy underneath a pair of small, old glasses. He’s been waiting for this day to come and the realization is in Bautista’s close-up. He has to glance at the reaper and we have to see his entire life in those sad, tired eyes of his, and what a life it might have been. Villenueve gives Bautista a lot in this scene, and allows us to see his face transition from sadness to anger in a final bid for survival. He fights like a brute, as he does in most of his movies, all power, with awkward movements that only emphasize the worn-down quality of his characters. With his final breaths there’s a mysterious begging quality to his announcement that he’s seen a miracle in his time, and it is with those words the film moves on in quest to answer the question he proposes.

It’s a credit to his abilities as an actor that Dave Bautista is trusted with heavier work like the scene in Blade Runner 2049. It is true that he has been typecast to some degree and Hollywood has slotted him into roles and movies that are not dissimilar from the ones wrestlers typically do like My Spy (2020), where he babysits a child, and Stuber (2020), where he and Kumail Nanjani are an odd couple of a sort, but he has also worked alongside Jodie Foster in Hotel Artemis (2019), and holds his own every step of the way.

Bautista plays a bodyguard in that film, but it’s only set-dressing for the fact that he’s an adopted son and nurse to Jodie Foster’s medical overseer of the hotel for criminals. In this film Jodie Foster has a lovely, folksy quality, that would sound and feel awkward out of most other actors, but Foster’s strange rhythms ground the film in an idiosyncratic way that elevates every facet of what would otherwise be a fairly typical action movie. Foster brings the best out of Bautista, as she does with most actors, and he spends much of this movie listening to her performance and responding in a way that feels natural for these two characters. Bautista lifts up the vulnerability of Foster’s wounded mother by playing the role like a softie who is only ever gentle when he feels comfortable enough to feel safe around people, and he does around her. His character is a tried and true mama’s boy, but he doesn’t go about that in a cloying or effeminate way. Instead he opts for something far more confident, which bolsters his character with a unique quality that could have otherwise been a throwaway role in the shade of Foster’s great work.

Wrestling as Physical Cinema

Bautista is also one of our better physical actors these days, and I think this is where his career as a wrestler comes into play. Wrestlers are preternaturally gifted to work in action movies, because while they are working in the sport they must learn how to communicate emotion through how they move. The notion of “selling” is one that reaches across the table from wrestling to movies. Some of the best action stars today, like Keanu Reeves with his Katsuyori Shibata-esque performance in the John Wick series, have traded in on damage being a key component of characterization.

Bautista is also good at this, as he was when he was a wrestler, and his work in Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018), is a wonderful testament to the way a history of wrestling can improve an action movie. Director Yuen Woo-Ping, who Americans will know from his choreographing work in The Matrix (1999) and the Kill Bill (2002-2003) movies, handles the fights in this one, and he lets Bautista be a counter-acting force of power and technique to the far more agile martial artist Zhang Jin.

Bautista’s large size and muscular frame are a great base for Zhang to work off of, and having a history of being a dominant wrestler, Bautista knows how to work on top. He keeps Zhang down and seems impossible to topple at times. It’s classic David versus Goliath and speed versus power storytelling that has worked since the dawn of time. Yuen smartly structures this like a pro wrestling brawl to get the most out of Bautista. He throws Zhang through glass, smashes him through tables and manhandles the poor guy around scenery props. Mid-00s WWE story-telling is based off of this very dynamic. It’s where Bautista cut his teeth in learning how to move his body in action sequences.

Earlier in the film Bautista kills someone using the powerbomb finisher he used in the WWE, and the fight is structured around the danger of that move landing. Near the end of the fight when he lifts Zhang up for a powerbomb Zhang manages to counter out of it with a huricanrana of a sort. If you watch pro wrestling you’ve probably seen this thousands of times, but to see it structured as so in cinema, complete with form from a martial arts expert who knows how to capture the tuck, and the movement in order to counter Bautista, it becomes all the more satisfying. And because Bautista knows how to use his size to seem startling and enormous it feels like a huge victory for the much smaller Zhang to conquer the animal.

This same understanding of how to use his body has made Bautista one of the few actors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who knows how to be funny in more than a witty, verbal way. Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer is a delight in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies because he carries himself like an actual alien, and his stiff qualities, inherited from years of taking bumps, allows his quest for revenge on Thanos to take on a deeper thematic component in the way Drax carries himself. The MCU is structured in a way where little matters except the surface pleasures of what you’re watching in the moment, but Bautista’s work carries on afterward as something of note, because he understands the potential comedy in dead-pan humor and the way his gigantic body can become a strange vessel for irony, because he isn’t afraid to make himself look completely foolish. He steals these movies, and the group effort Avengers films are worse off because he is sidelined in favor of exposition and plotting.

In a recent interview with Screenrant, Dave Bautista illuminated why he has become such a great actor in such a short period of time, and it’s because he’s humble, and always seeks the advice of those who have worked longer than him. He likens his career in movies to that of wrestling where, “I learned from the best, and I picked their brain, and I took advantage of those guys. … I wanted to learn things … I wanted to learn the art … It’s the same thing with films.” Bautista has never been content with merely resting on his laurels of who he used to be. He is always pushing himself into territory where he has to learn and adapt and get better at his craft. The proof is in the work, and like the character actor model I likened him to earlier in the essay, he makes every movie that he’s in better, and that’s all you can ask of an actor. In that same interview with Screenrant, Bautista stated his desire to become a director of small films some day, and knowing everything he’s accomplished thus far, I wouldn’t bet against him.