dave bautista army of the dead

Dave Bautista is always looking for a challenge. The Guardians of the Galaxy films may have transformed the former professional wrestler into a household name, but he’s not resting on his laurels. He’s constantly working, headlining action movies (Hotel Artemis, Bushwick), stretching his comedic chops (Stuber, My Spy), and lending unexpected gravitas to science fiction epics (Blade Runner 2049). And that’s before we get to his roles in upcoming films like Dune and Knives Out 2.

His latest role is a big one: he’s the leading man in Army of the Dead, a Netflix action/horror movie directed by Zack Snyder about a crew of mercenaries pulling off a heist in a walled-off, zombie-infested Las Vegas. It’s a very traditional Hollywood role – a stoic man of action – but Bautista finds room for emotion and humor, letting this guy exist in more dimensions than you’d expect.

/Film spoke with Bautista about how he found the emotional through-line of a gory zombie epic, his future in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, his increasingly stacked filmography, and the time he watched himself act and hated it so much that he decided to do something about it.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

I was at the SXSW screening of Stuber a few years ago, and while you were on the stage to introduce it, you were very open about watching Kumail Nanjiani and wanting to learn about how to do comedy on film. This seems to be a trend with you as an actor. You’re open and you’re curious, and you’re always expressing your desire to expand yourself as a performer. Can you talk about how you developed this mindset?

It’s always an experience that makes me sweaty to talk about. I did my first film – I have to say, when I was in wrestling, I just had no desire to act at all. I loved wrestling, I was obsessed with it. It was all I wanted to do and all I wanted to learn. So I actually did a film, and it wasn’t my first acting experience – I had done a couple things before this, Neighbors and Smallville. But I did this film as a favor to a friend, a buddy of mine named Dave DeFalco, but it was a small little role in a film called The Other Side of Town which was starring another wrestler named Rob Van Dam. While I’m on that film, which I figured would be easy, I’d go and do it and leave and never think about it again, I went and I did it and I was sitting there pretending I was an actor realizing how horrible I was at acting and how false everything felt and feeling so humiliated and uncomfortable. It just didn’t sit well with me. I left that set with this sense of shame that I just could not get rid of. I had this hunger, this need to prove that I could be better, because I was just so embarrassed.

That’s where it came from: from me realizing what a horrible actor I was, and this wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I just wanted to be a better actor, so I started asking the questions of the WWE: “You guys might want to have me in one of your films?” The answer was a very quick “no.” I said, “If I can’t do that here, I should be able to go outside the company and pursue roles, pursue acting,” and they said, “Absolutely not.” And I said, “Well, then I’m going to let my contract run out and I’m going to leave.” And they said, “Ha ha, no you’re not.” And I said, “Watch me.” And that’s what happened. About a year later, I walked out the door to try to learn to be an actor, and it was not easy.

I think it’s paid off. Even in a role like Army of the Dead, where it’s a very stoic action hero role, a more traditional man of few words, there’s a soul to it. I think you bring a lot of a personality to a character that could have been more blank. Because this role is so physical, is that something you can ease your way into more easily with your wrestling training?

When I read the script, I read it as a redemption story. I read the part of the character of Scott and what his intent and what his motivation was, and everything else was like a backdrop to me. That was what I focused on, and that’s what made me take this film. Because I wasn’t looking for the action role. It just wasn’t something I was interested in. People know I can do action. I feel like I’ve proven myself in that aspect. But I needed to prove myself in other avenues, because I need to get people to start looking at me differently. I want to be a respected actor where people will be comfortable and confident in hiring me for any part. I want to be that guy. I like being a character actor. So anyway, that’s how I read it and that’s what I was focused on. But at the same time, I didn’t look past the action, because the action sequences were not only great, but I felt like there were more opportunities for me, even there, to kind of showcase stuff that I could do as an action guy.

I’ve done action films, but I haven’t completely gotten a chance to really showcase the action that I’m capable of, and a lot of it I can actually do myself. I’m never embarrassed to admit that I have a very good stunt man and I rely on him to do dangerous stunts. But a lot of the fight choreography, I like to do by myself. It doesn’t excite me, but I know it’s me, I know they can use the shots and they don’t have to CGI my face onto somebody else’s body, or shoot the back of my stunt double’s head. I like being able to do stuff like that, and it connects people more if they can see that it’s me doing it. They believe, they buy into it more and become more invested. But the drama, that’s my challenge. That’s what I’m passionate about. Because that’s the stuff that is still hard for me to figure out as an actor who’s kind of learning on the job. It’s always going to be the dramatic stuff that excites me.

Zack Snyder is known for his stylish action, but I think he’s underrated for really getting good performances out of his actors. None of his movies have a bad performance in them. Can you talk about working with him?

It’s weird. He’s not the most verbal director I’ve worked with. A lot of times, it’s asking Zack questions, should I do this, should I do that, and getting his opinion. I think he doesn’t like to force his opinion on performers. I think he hires them with complete confidence in their abilities. But what he really does, which I witnessed him do and I really appreciate for myself, is he has a particular talent of capturing specific nuances of actors’ performances. I know this because the first time I experienced it was, there’s a part where Scott has to put down his wife and it’s a very emotional thing. It wasn’t written emotional at all, it was written as very violent and very matter of fact. I just made the suggestion that it wouldn’t be the case. Imagine walking into a room and not only realizing your wife is dead, but now you have to stick a knife in her head. Imagine how emotional that would be. It would be soul-crushing.

So we did it, we shot it that way, and I saw Zack’s brain go to work, man. It went to work and he wanted to cover that particular scene from different angles, and then get up very close and make sure that he captured everything in my performance. For a guy like me that really needs that, I need people to see that side of me, it means everything. He invested in me and my performance. He wanted to show that emotion. I know that for a fact because he literally said to me, when I talked to him about the character of Scott, I said, “Will you give me the freedom to dive deeper into this and make this guy more emotional?” and he said, “This is why I want you to play this guy.” That in itself is showing that he’s investing in me as an actor. It’s been hard to get people to do that. It’s been hard to get studios to do that. A lot of times, people don’t see me as that lead, so this was kind of the one opportunity that would open those doors for me, where people would see me not only as a lead, but see that I have a range. I have a range from A to Z. Whatever they want me to do. Action, drama, comedy, I can do it all. Those things are hard to come by in Hollywood.

I think it’s telling that your breakout performance is Drax, who is a full-on character part. He’s soulful and funny and eccentric. Was that a similar situation with you and James Gunn, where it was like you meeting halfway with the character, or was that all in the script at the time?

Obviously, I can take credit for my performance. [laughs] But James writes for Drax – he just wouldn’t be the same character if James wasn’t writing for him. Even the stuff that I did in, like, Infinity War – all the Drax lines were written by James. Drax is James’s muse. I think James wants to amuse himself with Drax, so he writes this stuff that’s just brilliant. I’ll get Drax quotes back for the rest of my life. But I can’t take credit for any of that. But it did – I think through the first film, I was still finding the character. James was helping me find the character. And I think by the second film, we just knew who Drax was. James knew what my strengths were, and he wrote for those strengths. It’s weird, because sometimes you’ll hear me say, “I wish they dove into the Destroyer side,” which originally I thought they were going to do in Guardians 2. Because the Marvel Universe still hasn’t seen Drax the Destroyer. But he tapped into the comedic side, and that’s what people fell in love with, so we just dove into it more. I was just very fortunate to be in that kind of perfect storm of having this huge film and having this great, rich character and having James Gunn write and direct for this character.

I know it’s too early for you talk about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 yet, but do you have a hope? You talked about seeing Drax the Destroyer – is that on your wish list for what possibly be the final Drax moments?

You know, I have to be honest with you. The honest answer is no. I think people are in love with the characters the way they are, and I just want to conclude this journey. But you know what I really wish for? I really hope that going forward they will reboot Drax, and I think Drax the Destroyer could be a standalone film. I think it could be something new and something different. Drax has such a great story, and I think time would have to go by and people would have to be willing to accept a new story, a new character, a new Drax the Destroyer. But I hope someday that they just recast it and reboot just Drax the Destroyer and focus on that story, because it’s a great story. I mean, there’s so much emotion there, so much rage. I still think there could be moments of humor: it’s just funny that Drax takes everything literally. [laughs] But also I think the films can’t be too dark in tone. They have to have moments of levity, and I think Drax would be that perfect character. I hope they reboot him someday.

Looking toward the future again, just this week we saw you join Knives Out 2, which is really exciting. There has to be an honor with that, because that first movie was entirely cast with people that were there because the audience likes them. So in this sequel, it’s like, “People like you, Dave Bautista. Here you are.” How does that feel?

[laughs] It feels terrifying. I’m nervous about it. I’m really nervous. It’s one of those things where now the pressure’s on, because people are expecting things from you. I want to deliver. I take pride in that. I’m a game player. I want to throw a touchdown pass. I know the script is brilliant, I know the director is brilliant, and I know everybody that they’re going to cast – obviously Daniel is there, he’s brilliant, and I believe Ed Norton’s been cast as well. So the names are going to get bigger and better, and for me, I can’t get it out of my head that – there’s always going to be a part of me that feels like I’m new to this and I’m still learning, and I want to be able to hold my own. So there is a bit of an intimidation factor, because all these actors and directors are just accomplished and seasoned and award-winners. But at the end of the day, this is how I gauge [inaudible], the people I’m working with. The projects that I’m on, the directors that I work with. So I know being announced as part of this cast is a huge statement, because the first film crushed. Like you said, the cast was a who’s who, and I like being in that conversation, man. It’s just validation. This is why I was in this. I still aspire to be a great actor, and I don’t know if I can get there unless I get those roles that require me to be a great actor. So again, I’m just kind of stepping the ladder, but it’s very validating to get a role like this in a film like this.

Speaking of great roles with great directors, I’m as curious as anybody about Dune. I’m so excited to see what that movie’s going to be, and I was hoping you might be able to talk a little about the experience of making that. It looks huge and strange and special. Can you tell us about your character and about working with Denis again?

Denis, I always say this, and it’s something that’s really hard to convey in words, but how detailed he is in his performance. I wouldn’t have gotten nearly the love that I got from my small part in Blade Runner [2049] if he hadn’t just been all over me as far as performing. Down to the smallest details of how I walked, how I put my glasses on, how I took my glasses off. Just super up-close-and-personal and detailed. I had the most intimate conversations about putting my glasses on. [laughs] The simplest things. But that’s just the kind of director he is, man, he’s just so involved in the performance, which I loved. It was even more so on Dune. I think a lot of that was pressure that I put on myself. Because it felt different to me. Like, now he already has faith in me, he has expectations of me, so now I want to meet those expectations. So I put the pressure on myself so I can deliver for this guy. I love this guy. He’s opened the doors for me with Blade Runner, and I fought for that part, but man, that role opened a lot of doors for me. So anyway, I want to come through. I think you can find that same sentiment with every actor that works with Denis. He’s a special person and a special director, and at the end of the day, you want to hear him come out from behind that monitor and say, “I deeply love this.” That’s when you know Denis is happy.

But the world that he’s created is so far over my head. It’s so beautiful and different, and a lot of times dark and strange. But it’s something I never could have imagined. I just don’t have that mind. When I think about things, and when I think about directing, it’s all very contained, based on simple stories, a lot of times very simple and inspiring stories. And for someone to see something and create a world this big, a galaxy, a universe this big, it’s something that doesn’t comprehend, doesn’t compute in my brain. But it’s weird that he can do both. He can create these huge epic worlds and scenes, but at the same time just focus on the most simple things about a performance. He’s just a special guy, he’s got a special focus, and man, he’s a brilliant storyteller. Dune is special. I think people are going to be blown away. It’s going to be one of the most beautiful films that people have ever seen. But I think that people who are just diehard fans of Dune, of the novels, they’re going to be blown away. Because they don’t have anything, really, to reference in relation to the books. Now they will. They’ll have that visual reference. He took these characters, he took this world, and he’s taken them off the page and put them on screen. It’s epic.

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Army of the Dead is in theaters now, and streams on Netflix on May 21, 2021.

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