When he isn't guarding the galaxy, Drax the Destroyer's favorite corner of the universe is Tampa.
Neighbors and friends know him as Dave Bautista. Pro wrestling fans cheered him as "Batista," a 10-time WWE champion.
The world now knows Bautista as Drax, the hulking, gray-skinned breakout star of Guardians of the Galaxy, the blockbuster based on Marvel Comics' atypical superheroes. Bautista's past few weeks have been an international whirlwind of red carpets, interviews and Comic Cons, as the phenomenon begins to sink in.
"I'm actually kind of taking a step back right now," Bautista, 45, said in a telephone interview from his recently purchased home in South Tampa. "It's a bit overwhelming for me, you know?"
Turns out Hollywood even tops the WWE when it comes to hype, leaving Bautista shier than expected for a wrestling rampager.
"I'm a pretty low-key guy, not really used to all the attention, nor can I say that I'm all that comfortable with it. … Right now all I want to do is be at home, under my rock, in my normal, everyday life."
In other words, Drax just wants to relax.
"That's one thing I love about Tampa; I can just blend right in," Bautista said, with a pair of pit bulls and a Catahoula barking in the background. "Nobody really cares. We went out (Tuesday) to eat in Hyde Park and then went to the aquarium and nobody said a thing to me."
At 6 feet 6 and 290 pounds, it's likely no one recognized Bautista, who unlike Drax has a head of hair and a beard, and has lost a bit of muscle since filming Guardians of the Galaxy. Or perhaps he fooled them by speaking, without Drax's growling knack for taking everything much too literally, an endearing quality for such a vengeful behemoth.
"Metaphors go over his head," fellow guardian Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) says in the movie, to which Drax replies: "Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it."
Such odd moments set apart Guardians of the Galaxy from other superhero sagas, and Bautista from his better known co-stars. With only a handful of previous movie credits — chiefly Riddick and The Man With the Iron Fists — Bautista has the most to gain professionally of any Guardians star.
And it couldn't have come at a better time, after Bautista's failed co-ownership of a Gracie Fighter Jiu-Jitsu gym in Tampa.
"We closed down right before I left for London (to film Guardians of the Galaxy)," Bautista said. "Our location was just … really bad, and we didn't have AC. We had guys in there who were really hard core, but most fighters don't have any money, so we weren't paying the bills. We were going broke."
The movie is another story. Once considered Marvel's riskiest screen project ever, Guardians of the Galaxy earned $94 million last weekend at U.S. box offices and a bundle overseas, with more foreign expansion to come. It may wind up surpassing Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($259 million) as 2014's top-grossing movie stateside, so far. A sequel due in 2017 was announced before the movie even debuted.
The turbocharge for Bautista's acting career means leaving pro wrestling, at least temporarily. Bautista's most recent WWE match was at Wrestlemania XXX in April, when he lost the heavyweight title to Daniel Bryan.
"I put it aside for now, and that really had a lot to do with my obligations to Marvel," he said. "But it also had to do with the fact that (the WWE and I) weren't seeing eye to eye, creatively. The stuff they were doing with story lines just didn't make sense to me. … I'd love to go back. I'm a professional wrestler at heart and I miss it. But I want to be there and be happy with what I'm doing."
Turning pro wrestlers into movie actors stretches back to Tor Johnson in Plan 9 From Outer Space and Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride, and recently — most famously — with Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, another former Tampa resident with whom Bautista shrugged off comparisons.
"We're different people, different performers,'' he said. "Honestly, I don't aspire to be a huge movie star. I really just fell in love with acting. … Everything I do on-screen is very subtle. Everything the Rock does is larger than life."
Meanwhile, life gets larger for Bautista, who is still a Hollywood fanboy at heart.
"I was actually sitting on stage at a press conference one day and I totally lost touch with reality," he said. "I just thought to myself: 'Vin Diesel is sitting next to me, and Benicio Del Toro's on the other side. This is weird, man.' Benicio, I never could bring myself to bug him about it, but he's in two of my all-time favorite movies, The Usual Suspects and Snatch. Every time I see him, I'm tickled to death."
Someday, somewhere, the same may be said about Bautista. In addition to the Guardians sequel and a remake of Jean-Claude Van Damme's 1989 action flick Kickboxer, there are rumblings about a Drax spinoff project, as Marvel's universe keeps expanding.
"Everybody wants to know more about Drax," Bautista said, "but I think a lot of that will be covered in the Guardians films.
"For some reason I struggle seeing myself as a leading man. Maybe they'd call Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones hunk Khal Drogo) and have him play Drax."
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.