IN MAY 2002, the head of talent at World Wrestling Entertainment called Dave Bautista and told him to buy a nice suit.He was going to be on SmackDown.Bautista, then 33, had been ascending within Ohio Valley Wrestling for the past two years, and he was thrilled about his TV debut—recently WWE had “called up” Brock Lesnar, and now Lesnar was a star.Bautista spent $500 on a suit, which was a lot of money for him then, and had it tailored.When he arrived in his new suit, he was quickly processed.Someone cut the sleeves off the suit.Someone else handed him a metal box with a large novelty chain attached.
He’d assumed he would debut as a star, as Lesnar had, but instead he would play Deacon Batista, the menacing bodyguard of Reverend D-Von.Bautista felt ridiculous as Deacon Batista, carrying around a cashbox in a mutilated suit.His body was his identity, and he felt the character had robbed him of that.In Batista Unleashed, his 2007 memoir, he ascribed significant intent to the casting: “They wanted to force me to learn how to work.They were doing it by taking away what I’d always relied on, my body, and forcing me to learn how to work the crowd with other tools.” Maybe there was a lesson, and maybe that was it.
Maybe the lesson was just that wrestling owns you.When his character later feuded with D-Von and he began wrestling as Batista—he believes WWE was unable to trademark his actual surname, so it simply dropped the u and trademarked that—Bautista’s body made him a champion.But now, at 52, he doesn’t want a career built around his body anymore.In his early days as a wrestler, Bautista often felt like he was on the cusp of something grand.Sometimes, as in the case of his SmackDown debut, he was disappointed.But when we meet by Zoom in September, he is trending toward yet another crescendo in his second—or is that third? or fourth?—act.
Despite being a latecomer to Hollywood, Bautista found success quickly, starting with his breakout role as Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy when he was in his mid-40s.Now he’s scored the role, as the villainous unit Glossu “Beast” Rabban in the elegant sci-fi epic Dune (out October 22), with the guy, director Denis Villeneuve, and he should play an even larger role in the film’s forecasted second installment.Dune is big—Dune is “Dave Bautista’s arm” big.For Bautista, who tells me, “It wasn’t until my 40s when I really started to be okay with myself,” his progress from bouncer to wrestler to action star to serious fuckin’ actor is hugely validating.And for those of us who may sometimes feel underactualized and appalled by the rate at which we are careening toward senescence, Bautista’s self-reinvention in his 50s is thrilling.Following a successful career as a dramatic athlete, he has managed to show audiences that he’s more than just his (chiseled, powerful, massive) physique.
While he acknowledges that sometimes his body is what gets him noticed or helps people see him in certain parts, “I didn’t want to be the guy coming from wrestling,” he says, “taking these easy action roles and just kind of pumping up and putting baby oil on my arms.” Then he adds, earnestly and with a shrug, “I really fell in love with acting.” Bautista imprinted on Villeneuve while playing a small part in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, he says, because “with Denis, he took away—stripped away—all my physicality for that role.And he just really focused on my performance, and he made people see me in a different light.” Bautista loves that you can get by as an actor by looking interesting, versus by having the Look.That said, at six-foot-gahhhh!, he is noticeably huge and has his own distinctive appearance.“I realize what I look like,” he says.
“I joke and say I look like I got out of prison yesterday.But I do.
I’m very aware of that.So that’s why I’ll take an extra minute with somebody to show them I’m just not that guy.I may look like that guy, but I’m not that guy.” In a hotel in Serbia in September, after a long day in production for the second Knives Out film, Bautista does look a little intimidating.He’s wearing a black beanie pulled low over his brows and ears, so he appears to be all face.His tattoos—many, I think, until Bautista explains that it’s actually just three tattoos that are mostly connected—explode from a gray tank.His voice has the cadence of an Irish accent without the pronunciation, quick and gruff.
But he instantly dissolves any intimidation with shyness and warmth.He tells me that when he meets children, he kneels down to their level so that he doesn’t tower over them, and he does the same thing conversationally, laughing easily.He is, though I’m sure some of his wrestling opponents might disagree, a little bit adorable.Because of concerns about Covid-19, he hasn’t left his hotel room much during the month he’s been in Serbia, beyond business for the Knives Out sequel.He has a small gym set up in his room.He misses his 14-year-old son, Oliver, and his two dogs back home in Tampa, and cabin fever has consumed him.
Sometimes Hollywood owns you, too.When Bautista was younger, he wanted to look like a bodybuilder because he felt so gangly and out of place all the time—he wanted to fill out.
He began weightlifting when he was a teenager and joined a gym in Falls Church, Virginia.Growing up in a violent neighborhood in D.C., he filled his time the way the other kids filled theirs, whether it was stealing or playing football.But in the gym he felt purposeful, like he belonged.
Bautista didn’t finish his senior year of high school, and he wonders what sort of career he’d have if he had.“I always live with that regret and I’m not ashamed of it,” he says.“My circumstances were different and school wasn’t a priority.So I went a different route, because I wanted to eat.” Soon he started working as a bouncer.
“It was kind of a cool job to go stand in a club or bar and look big,” he wrote in his memoir, but there were incidents that colored the experience for him—and, no doubt, for the bounce-ees.Once, a jury found him guilty of misdemeanor assault after he dragged a man out of the bar who he says had been hassling his then girlfriend, one of the bartenders.“I made sure his head met a couple of brick walls on the way out,” he wrote.The conviction was overturned.
He kept bouncing for years, and he did some bodyguarding work and some lifeguarding work, bodybuilding all the while.He would compete here and there, even though he found the other bodybuilders arrogant and disliked being judged.“I kept at it for years,” he wrote, “because I really wanted to get big physically.” By the time he decided to try out for World Championship Wrestling, when he was nearly 30, Bautista was 340 pounds.He looked the part.But after doing squats and calisthenics until he vomited at an open audition, he was told that he’d never be a professional wrestler.Now he describes the tryout as one of his most humiliating experiences—the trainer made him lie down and say, “I’m a dying cockroach”—but he left feeling constructively resentful.He made it as a wrestler, he likes to say, partly out of spite.
His early years of wrestling involved an array of items getting broken over his head.
At WWE, he worried every day that he was going to get fired.
“I couldn’t get comfortable, people didn’t like me, I was doing something wrong, the company wasn’t going to do anything with me, they didn’t know what to do with me, they didn’t know where I fit in.” But he says he still loved wrestling, despite the mental cost.“It was just a very toxic atmosphere,” he says.“Wrestling is very competitive.It’s very cutthroat.You’re put in a position where you have to posture up all the time, and it’s exhausting.It’s just exhausting.” If wrestling didn’t pan out, he had no fallback besides bouncing.But wrestling did pan out.
In 2005, he earned the first of six WWE World Heavyweight Champion titles.Wrestling had become his entire life, and now he has some regrets about that, too.He wasn’t home a lot, he says, which led to the deterioration of his second marriage.“She wanted a husband who was going to be home, and I was like, ‘Make a choice.’ And sometimes it’s hard for me to say, but admittedly, I chose my career, because it was the only shot I had.” A third marriage followed that one but ended after a few years.For the past two years, he has been seeing someone he declines to name who just gets him, man.They met on a film, he says, and she understands the business and the limitations it brings to his personal life.
Today, he’s reflective about those formative years.He’d never felt comfortable talking to women, but suddenly so many—too many, he says—were interested in him.
And he’d gone from having no money (“I was always broke and people were buying me drinks or buying my food; it was always somebody doing something for me”) to having tons of it.“I wasn’t ready for that.I didn’t know how to deal with it.So I made all the bad cliché mistakes.” He bought “stupid stuff,” he says—Lamborghinis and Mercedes and Bentleys.
He now feels guilty that he didn’t buy his mother a home then, though he adds that she lived in San Francisco and wanted a particular style of Victorian home within a particular ten-block radius.(A few years ago, he finally did find a house for her in her desired neighborhood.) “I wasted all that money, and I could’ve done a lot of good things with that money.I could’ve helped people; I could’ve helped animals,” he says.“But honestly, I was miserable and I was just trying to buy happiness.” I ask whether he lumps his famed lunch-box collection in with the “stupid stuff” of his younger years: He estimates he owns more than 200 of them.The genesis of the lunch-box collection is actually very sweet, though.His second wife, Angie, had just gotten her first office job, and he wanted to buy her a present.
Because E.T.was her favorite movie, he bought her a vintage E.T.lunch box he’d found in great condition with the tags still on.
She told him she didn’t want to bring it to work because she was afraid of damaging it, so he put that one on display and bought her another.
When he found himself at home with an injury, he set out to build his collection in earnest; he just thought lunch boxes were cool and nostalgic.Outside of the excesses from his time as a wrestler, Bautista is proud of his career, but his shift to acting has been total.Physically, he explains, he can’t contribute as a wrestler the way he used to, flying off the top rope.At 52, fitness means something different to him from what it meant when he was a 30-year-old wrestling rookie.
“I think a lot of people think I’m just a meathead and that I live my life lifting weights.And I actually don’t.
I do live my life training, but I think people think that I train because I want to look like a bodybuilder or a big musclehead.And it’s not at all the case.” He continues to train hard, he says, because it’s therapeutic for him and because he enjoys it.“Me looking the way I do is really just kind of a by-product of that.I’m not consumed about like, ‘Oh, I can bench, like, 500 pounds; I can deadlift 800 pounds.’ I’m not that guy at all.I’d rather watch someone else deadlift than do it myself.I’d rather be boxing or doing some type of interesting cardio like cycling.
I’d rather be working with a trainer and keeping it fresh.” Bautista still goes to public gyms sometimes, since he appreciates the community and the energy, but people documenting their workouts for Instagram make him furious: “Get in there and train—put your damn phone away.” He does live by a restrictive diet, avoiding dairy, gluten, and most meat, and he admits he has not sampled much Serbian cuisine, which tends to be meat heavy.He has food prepared for him: lots of vegetables, fish, and eggs.Bautista also likes how he left things with wrestling.“I’m not trying to separate myself from professional wrestling because I’m embarrassed or anything like that,” he says.“It’s just, I needed to make a name for myself and start all over and kind of just get people to see me in a different light.Because if people always see me as a pro wrestler turned actor, then they’re going to put me in a box for roles.” However, his experience playing a heel—the bad guy, he tells me, the opposite of a babyface—has set him up particularly well for villainous roles, which he enjoys.
“I found out in wrestling that I like being the bad guy,” he says.“And I don’t know why this happens, but there’s something about me that people like as a bad guy.” The truth is audiences seem to like him as almost anything.As Drax in Guardians, he was immediately beloved.Though Bautista says that when he started acting he was “horrible,” he brought sublime timing to Drax, who is confidently out of step in every scene.He doesn’t disown Drax, but he has become wary of how “silly characters” affect Hollywood’s perception of him.
Drax, he says, is not going to help him get deep roles.
He expects audiences will cheer for him as the unfeeling Glossu “Beast” Rabban in Dune, and as Edo Voss, brother and foil to Jason Momoa’s character in the second season of See, Apple TV+’s eerie answer to Game of Thrones on which most of the characters are blind.Bautista’s reason for taking the role in Dune (“Denis”) is very clear; his role on See, he says, not necessarily with negative implications, came to him at an interesting time in his career.The character of Edo Voss also seems to have freed him from his own physicality, in that he had to relearn how to move.Learning to play a blind person—learning not to look at an actor when they begin speaking, for instance—was enlightening.Momoa, he says, was excellent at this; to accomplish the same, Bautista had to focus on a spot and try to look left with his left eye and right with his right eye.He doesn’t know whether he’ll take on more bad-guy roles.It depends who’s asking.The same way some people derive their sense of self and progress from being attached to a certain kind of institution, Bautista judges his career based on the people around him.
“When I was working with Hunter [aka pro wrestler Triple H, aka Paul Levesque] and I was working with Ric Flair and Randy Orton, I was like, Man, I’m making it.I’m doing this.
I mean, those guys are the best.If these guys respect me and they want to work with me, I know I’ve made it in this business.” He also weighs whether each offered role interests him, whether it will help him develop his acting chops, and whether it will help people see a new dimension to him as an actor.
He’s very picky.As a wrestler, he had very little agency in curating his identity; perhaps the ability to be so selective about his roles is a novelty.Bautista is very candid about his views, to a point where I begin to wonder whether that, too, is him reveling in his control over his public persona—or maybe an extension of him feeling more “okay with himself.” Consider his take on gun control: He’s pro–Second Amendment and pro–gun reform.
He owns multiple weapons, including an AR-15 that he bought from a buddy years ago, though he feels conflicted about that.
While he believes people who are responsible should be able to own firearms—as long as they’ve “gone through hell” to get them—he no longer thinks that a private citizen should own an assault rifle or any “weapons that are made for war.” After the Parkland shooting in 2018, Bautista says he tried to turn his AR-15 in to police, but they wouldn’t take it.Now it’s locked up in a safe.“It’s one extreme or the other: People think you should abolish the [right to carry arms], or people think that you should be able to buy a bazooka.I don’t think that’s healthy.” Bautista is also very vocal on Twitter, where his username is “Vaxxed AF! #TeamPfizer Poor Kid Chasing Dreams.” He often refers to himself as a “dream chaser”—and soon he’ll open a “bougie” tattoo shop in Tampa; he’s calling it D.
C.Society, because of the dream-chaser moniker and because of where he grew up.This stuff might seem corny, but it’s deeply meaningful to him.“That’s the secret of life,” he says.
“If you can make a living doing what you’re absolutely passionate about, then it doesn’t get any better.I think probably 90 percent of the people in the world are not able to do that.There’s a lot of people sitting behind a desk just dreaming of doing something different.Because I didn’t have anything to lose, I always chased my dreams.” On Twitter he deals with more practical concerns as well.As of September, he’s on a pro-vaccination, pro-choice, pro-dog kick.“I’m on Twitter out of spite,” Bautista explains.
“I wanted to walk away from Twitter years ago, because it’s just such a hostile place ..
but I saw what a bad political environment we’ve come into.I stayed on because I want to be an opposing voice to all those assholes who are out here being racists and bigots and polarizing our country.So I stayed on to spite them.” He jokes that he’s just a spiteful person, nodding back to when his resentment toward the trainer who made him squat in his own barf motivated him to become a professional wrestler.I think he just can’t stand the gray area.
Of Twitter he says: “There’s no middle ground for me.It’s either you do the right thing or you’re not part of the solution.” In the film of Bautista’s career, we cut from his 2002 wrestling debut as Deacon Batista, surr-ounded by a jeering crowd and sporting a soul patch, to September 2021.It’s the Venice International Film Festival, and the slender Venetian isle of Lido is sparkling with a golden crowd.Seagulls caw shrilly for snacks.Flocks of youths caw for Bautista’s Dune costar Timothée Chalamet.
The actors in attendance look even more golden to Bautista, who is wearing the tinted sunglasses that have become a signature for him.He has on another nice suit, this one much more expensive and still in possession of its arms, and a jaunty bow tie.
He has terrible social anxiety, he explains, but that’s mitigated somewhat by the sunglasses, which he says are “a pacifier, a therapeutic thing” that made him feel more comfortable during public appearances when he was a wrestler.He appreciates the brevity of his trip to Venice.
“When press junkets go on for days and days, I struggle,” he says.He’s popped over to Italy for less than 24 hours, on a day off from the home stretch of the Knives Out sequel shoot in Serbia.He stays only long enough for the Dune premiere to begin, before he races to make his flight back to Belgrade.But he appears to be enjoying himself.
To lessen the anxiety and horror of the red carpet, Bautista says, “I look for people that I really love to kind of just grasp on to, and they make me happy.” In Venice, it’s Josh Brolin.As Brolin delivers solemn poses to a wall of photographers, Bautista creeps up behind him, surprisingly light-footed, and gives him a prom-picture hug around the waist before lifting him off the ground, both men giggling, Brolin’s feet dangling.
(Denis Villeneuve receives a reverent arm around the shoulder, versus a Brolin hoist.) Bautista does a jocular interview alongside Stellan Skarsgård.Toward the end of the red-carpet experience, when he’s completed the gauntlet of interviews, there are moments when he almost feels at ease.Here, surrounded by the greats, he knows he’s made it once again..