This is a piece about Dave Bautista—former pro wrestler, current actor, overall wide human being—and why he should be the biggest character actor in Hollywood both literally and figuratively. For such an exercise, you want to start off with a prime example of his talent, and there are options. There’s his brief but subtly devastating turn as the replicant Sapper in Blade Runner 2049. There’s dozens and dozens of deadpan comedy gems as Drax the Destroyer in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, plus two Avengers films. Hell, watch him trying to revive the buddy-action genre with Kumail Nunjiani in the upcoming Stuber.
But no, the purest example of the gifts Dave Bautista brings to the table is this clip from his latest return to the WWE, in which he repeatedly screams the phrase “give me what I want.”
I respect the absolute hell out of pro wrestlers and all they do, but with a few exceptions over the years the men and women of the WWE aren’t going to win an Oscar anytime soon. So when you stick a legitimately talented actor in their midst, that talent shines like a lighthouse in the fog. I love that clip up there. Love it. On the surface, it’s everything that people who have never seen pro wrestling think pro wrestling is, musclebound beasts screaming nonsense at each other. But Bautista is doing character work here. This moment happened post-Guardians, after Bautista became a recognizable face in the biggest movie franchise of all time. This dude didn’t return to wrestling from obscurity, he returned to wrestling from Hollywood, motherf*cker, land of sparkly jackets and blue-tinted shades worn indoors. Every increasingly-incensed, spit-covered “give me what I want” is a man who has become accustomed to not ever saying those words. It’s funny, it’s real, and the kicker to pay attention to is that final, almost whispered delivery of “thank you” at the end; it’s something like euphoria, a baby in a man-mountain’s body finally being handed its toy.
That’s the key to Bautista’s presence in any role; he does come off like a quiet soul who just happens to inhabit a titanium refrigerator with arms and legs. It’s what sets the guy apart from the modern character actor pack, and especially from two wrestlers-turned-stars that Bautista will always be compared to, for better or worse: Dwayne Johnson and John Cena. Dwayne Johnson, probably the most successful movie star of the last several years, shot from the ring to the box office stratosphere by being insanely, inhumanly talented at playing Dwayne Johnson. Important note: Playing Dwayne Johnson looks really, really hard; you have to be an unending cloud of charisma 24/7 while doing deep squats in the middle of the actual-ass rainforest. Cena, whose acting career is still young, is on a similar path, especially since banking a role in the veiniest of movie franchises, The Fast & the Furious.
Bautista caught a bit of flack in the wake of Cena joining the F&F fambly when he tweeted he’d “rather do good films“. It’s a cheeky move, especially when the next film on his docket is My Spy, which looks suspiciously like early Dwayne Johnson misfire The Tooth Fairy. But really, boiled down it’s just a way of pointing out the track Bautista should ideally be on. Movies like the F&F franchise are big, loud things; cinematic firework shows all hopped up on gasoline and Mountain Dew. But Bautista has proven that, given the right filmmaker with the right eye, he can anchor something quiet. Denis Villeneuve really understood this, as did Luke Scott, who Villeneuve hand-picked to direct the Blade Runner 2049 prequel short, “Nowhere to Run”.
There’s a magic to any on-screen performance, and the bit that character actors understand best is the part where the performer disappears. Larger-than-life stars like Dwayne Johnson or John Cena—or even staples like Vin Diesel and Jason Statham—don’t ever quite disappear; they sort of just bust through the character description like the Kool-Aid man. There’s a reason why the times The Rock plays a father or businessman with a 9-to-5, that guy also happens to be a former Navy SEAL.
But Bautista can pull off the magic trick. He disappears. Is that how he’s going to be used in the coming years? It’s hard to say. His next big film on the horizon is Zack Snyder‘s Army of the Dead, and to say Zack Snyder is interested in subtlety is like saying a stick of dynamite is interested in composing sonnets. But with Bautista, the possibility is, at least, always there. And one day before he hangs it up it’s going to come together into something straight magical. There’s a reason the whole world once tuned in to watch David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear. Making something that huge vanish completely is something closer to a miracle.