It’s the night after Christmas, cold and raining, when Dave Bautista emerges from his office and private gym on a boring but busy stretch of Manhattan Avenue in South Tampa. He’s wearing a leather jacket, motorcycle boots and sunglasses with ruby lenses, even though it’s almost 9 p.m. The converted suite of offices behind him could be mistaken for a suburban dental clinic. Only when Bautista invites you inside does it reveal itself — a tasteful man cave, exposed brick and wood beams, stuffed with beefy, antique furniture that looks borrowed from a Game of Thrones set and enough fitness equipment to put your local YMCA to shame.
He calls it the Lion’s Den. It has a haunting portrait of the late Cecil the Lion on a field of smiling skulls, which Bautista calls the place’s spiritual centerpiece. Alternately, he calls the place “alpha house,” because, “you know, muscle head stuff.” Indeed, at that moment, Jake Hager, better known as former WWE champ Jack Swagger, is pumping iron in the next room in preparation for a mixed martial arts fight. A trainer nearby is holding some type of gun that pummels muscles into recovery.
Bautista stands 6-foot-4 and 265-ish pounds with a stony gaze. His voice is low, but not soft. He doles it out sparingly, like he doesn’t want to scare you. He has the kind of presence that turns heads around Tampa when he shops for milk at Publix or goes alone to the CineBistro to watch the re-release of Schindler’s List.
But most people don’t recognize him. He’s smaller and scruffier than he was as a pro wrestling champ, and unlike Drax, his beloved and internationally famous character from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, his skin is not blue-gray.
He’s coming off his biggest year yet, though, in terms of film credits, including a well-regarded role as a bruiser of a hospital orderly alongside Jodie Foster in Hotel Artemis. He’s got the upcoming Uber action comedy Stuber alongside Kumail Nanjiani, and later in the year, My Spy, in which he plays a hardened CIA operative who “finds himself at the mercy of a 9-year-old girl.” Not to mention his just-announced role as Beast Rabban in Denis Villeneuve’s sure-to-be-epic Dune remake. Avengers: Endgame comes out in April, and he says there’s a Zack Snyder project on the horizon.
He’s also returning to wrestling. On Monday, Bautista showed up under his old wrestling name, Batista, on the WWE broadcast Raw to attack Ric Flair during his 70th birthday celebration. It was a tease to a possible match with Triple H at Wrestlemania that could allow him to close out his wrestling career “the right way.”
Bautista is eager, even impatient, for what comes next. He recently turned 50, and he knows he came late to the Hollywood party.
But before he can talk about it, he says, removing the sunglasses and rubbing his eyes, there are two things he must get out of the way. He sinks back into a leather couch and props a foot on the coffee table next to the Butt Book, a photographic “cornucopia of delectable derrières” that Guardians co-star Zoe Saldana gave him.
Number one: dogs. Dave has three, all painted on a wall near his desk in the style of medieval sea monsters and tattooed on his leg. Part of the reason he’s hanging out at his office tonight, and in a gloomy mood, is that his dogs aren’t home. He has just separated from his third wife, he says, and though they have plans to split custody of the pit bulls, she has them right now, and it’s causing him real pain. This is making him think of how precious dogs are to their owners, which is why he says it’s essential he explain Frankie’s Friends, a charity he works with that assists people who can’t afford emergency veterinary care.
Number two: “Do not compare me to The Rock or John Cena. Everyone does it,” and he “hates” it. “Those guys are wrestlers who became movie stars. I’m ... something else. I was a wrestler. Now, I’m an actor.”
This begs for deeper analysis, but then, the meeting is unexpectedly over. Bautista gets up, softens and smiles.
"Next time, you come by the house."
Growing up in Washington, D.C., in the '80s, violence was at Bautista's doorstep, literally. He watched from his window as a mob beat a man and tried to throw him from an overpass. He says he saw his mother get hit.
Bautista's father was a hairdresser from a Filipino-American family.
"He never did anything for me," Bautista said.
His mother, Donna Raye, came from a conservative Greek-American family and raised him and his sister mostly alone, working nights at a shop that developed photos. She was politically liberal and had relationships with women. In his biography, Bautista writes that both things disappointed his maternal grandfather, but of the two, being a Democrat was by far the worst. He has on Twitter declared himself the "proud son of a lesbian," and once implied publicly that he'd put his foot up the backside of Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao, a former "hero" of his, for making anti-gay comments.
His family was so poor he had to tape cardboard inside his shoes to keep his feet from getting wet, but his mother ensured he always felt love at home.
Once, his mother found a man who’d been shot outside their house. She called the cops, but it was taking a long time, and Bautista, his sister and other kids were playing outside, energized by the excitement of something big happening in the neighborhood. They were indifferent to the grisly scene. This mortified Donna Raye, who pulled her children aside and told them the day they could see a man dying without a tear in their eyes was the day they had to go. They moved to San Francisco after that.
By his late teenage years, Bautista possessed a body that implied violence. He took on a protector role with friends and got in trouble for petty crimes. He ended up a bouncer in nightclubs, roughing up drunks — once to the point of being charged with assault.
He fathered two daughters with his first wife but had no plan for what to do next. He'd work all night, then go to the gym for hours, indulging in what he calls a sort of "reverse anorexia." He was never big enough, despite being north of 300 pounds. Then he'd sleep all day.
"The next thing you know, 10 years goes by, and there I am trying to borrow money to buy my kids Christmas presents," he said. "I wasted my 20s."
He’d been watching wrestling on TV. Pushing 30, ancient for a new wrestler, he went to open try-outs at World Championship Wrestling’s Power Plant facility. The trainer told him go home and forget about it.
Instead, he enrolled in wrestling school at the Wild Samoan Training Center in Pennsylvania. Jonathan Meisner, a friend since they were both 18, who is now his manager, and another friend paid the tuition and living expenses, around $100,000. It wasn't really a loan, Meisner said. They wouldn't have expected him to pay it back if things hadn't worked out, but they didn't worry, because "to us, he was clearly going to be the biggest wrestler in the world."
Five years later, Bautista was the WWE heavyweight champion.
Bautista opens an unassuming door near his kitchen and steps into a tiny hallway. At the other end is a vault door. He taps a code on the keypad and it swings open to reveal a closet-sized arsenal. Semi-automatic pistols and rifles line the walls of this former tornado bunker. In the back corner hangs an armored glove with serrated blades protruding like Wolverine’s claws. This is a “zombie killer,” he says flatly. “It came from the flea market.”
Bautista, in real life, is sort of like the very active Twitter account he proudly says he controls himself. It can switch quickly from intense to affable. He tweets that he can eat 50 hardboiled eggs like Cool Hand Luke. He rails against the president. He sincerely promises to pay it forward after a stranger gives him coupons during a recent towel-buying excursion to Bed Bath and Beyond. He blasts local grievances to his million followers. The mini doughnut shop in Tampa canceled his delivery on Postmates. The @CityOfTampa is moving way too slowly issuing permits for a gate on his property.
Bautista has already shown off his Six Million Dollar Man pinball machine, his Volkswagen bus and his collection of hundreds of vintage lunch boxes painted with superheroes, but he opened up this James Bond hidden room, in part, because the conversation turned to politics.
He loves America. Bautista’s fortress-like house — gray, split-block, with actual flaming torches on the outer walls — is in the blue-collar neighborhood of Port Tampa, close enough to MacDill Air Force Base to hear the trumpets playing reveille each morning and The Star-Spangled Banner at night. One of his latest tattoos is an American flag blowing across his trapezius. But lately, like many Americans, he feels an anxiety over the nation’s polarity.
“I was never a party guy. I was all about the candidate,” but it felt “like I had to pick a side. It’s like war, and I’ve come out very Democrat, but I do have some very conservative views, too.”
For instance, he says he strongly supports the right of citizens to bear arms. “I’m pro firearm,” he says, pointing to a scoped AR-15 hanging nearby. “But I don’t think we need assault rifles. I’m fine giving mine up, because if somebody breaks into my house, I’m not running to get my AR. I’m reaching on the side of my bed to get my .44.”
After the Parkland school shooting, Bautista thought he’d turn the AR-15 over to Tampa police, but he heard (wrongly, apparently) that they don’t do that. So he’s held onto it, not wanting it to go into another person’s hands.
Talk of politics leads him to the topic of James Gunn. The writer and director of the Guardians movies was fired by Disney in July after old tweets surfaced in which Gunn made disturbing jokes involving pedophilia and rape. Gunn apologized and said he accepted Disney’s decision. But Bautista steadfastly defended Gunn and called for his reinstatement.
He says Gunn is a decent, kind person who "wouldn't hurt a soul" but made some "gross ... terrible jokes" for "shock value."
“But at the end of the day, the thing I know the most, is that they were jokes, and this harsh, rash decision to fire him empowered some horrible, horrible people,” Bautista says. He’s referring to Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec, the far-right personalities who surfaced Gunn’s tweets.
"It was draining," Bautista says of the backlash he got. "But if I'm not the guy who defends my friends, who am I?"
"There was no thought put into the optics of it," Meisner said. "He didn't agree, and he said it. He's a genuine guy. If you ask him about something, he's going to tell you what he really thinks."
He does know that staying quiet about certain topics could mean a larger fan base.
"That's just never going to be me, and that goes back to the feeling that I only need so much. I only need a certain level of security. I don't need to make $20 million a film. I don't even want $20 million a film. I wouldn't know what to do with it."
So what does Dave Bautista want if not riches? To be a great actor. That has nothing to do with being a movie star, such as, for instance, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
“Rock was, in a way, a movie star before he was even a movie star. There is something about him that’s really special. I’d never take that away from him,” Bautista says. "Would I consider him a great actor? F--- no.
“I want good roles. I don’t care about Fast and Furious or Bumblebee. ... That’s not the kind of stardom I want. ... I want to be in Dune. I want to work with Denis Villeneuve. I want to work with Sam Mendes and Jodie Foster. I want to work with Academy Award winners. I’m proud to be a character actor. I want that respect and credibility and education.”
He was the type of teenager who snuck into a theater with friends who wanted to see Porky’s but split off to go watch Chariots of Fire. Meisner said part of Bautista’s “secret sauce” is an encyclopedic knowledge of film.
And after he becomes a great actor, he wants to retire from acting, maybe in five years, to produce and direct. Maybe it’s cliche, but is it preposterous? Can you picture it? A WWE champion becoming an art house darling. A bruising former bouncer winning a Golden Globe. A self-described “muscle head,” someday the steward of small, woke stories, like a biopic about musician Bo Diddley or a female-led comedy with a diverse cast about actors typecast for being Asian or black or big and muscular.
If you can’t see it, then picture this: Bautista as Sapper Morton, the aging replicant he played in Villeneuve’s cyberpunk sequel Blade Runner 2049. Villeneuve initially thought Bautista was wrong for the role but told the Tampa Bay Times via email that he’d impressed him by bringing “humanity, dignity and vulnerability to a character that was written as a brutal killing machine.” Sapper has seen ugly, beautiful, wondrous things. And you feel all of this, in Bautista’s six-minute performance, without being told any of it. When he fights the film’s lead — Ryan Gosling! — to the death in the opening scene, you actually root for Bautista to win.
Now picture The Rock or John Cena in that role instead. It’s ridiculous, right? Are you laughing? Are you nodding your head now?
Four years after he became WWE champion, Bautista entered a steel cage at Tampa’s Amalie Arena with a razor blade taped to his hand. The razor was there to make him bleed. He was not supposed to bleed, because the WWE was entering its family-friendly era, but he was about to lose the belt. And to him, losing the belt “means something.” Bleeding for your fans? “That means something.” And so he went against the wishes of his boss, Vince McMahon, and gave the fans a show.
McMahon fined him $100,000 for the blood. That, he says, was the night he decided his days as a wrestler were over. He wanted to be in movies.
Wrestling, for him, was always about performance more than personality. He cherished being a "heel," a bad guy, in wrestling jargon. They tried making him a babyface once, and he hated it because faces have to say all the right things in hopes people love and cheer for them. Heels are there to be booed. They can just focus on selling the story.
Four years and a few small roles later, Bautista had packed everything into boxes. He thought moving to Los Angeles might help. First, though, he flew out to audition for Guardians. He was sure that Djimon Honsou or Jason Momoa would get the part. So when he got the call to let him know the role was his, he pulled his truck over in Lutz and started crying. He asked: “Are they sure? Is there any way they could change their mind?”
The movie came out in 2014, and Bautista was an immediate fan favorite. His comic timing is masterful. He learned, for the first time, that he is funny.
Nanjiani, who plays the Uber driver in Stuber alongside Bautista’s Detective Vic, had an idea of Bautista, the muscles and the tough guy roles. But he found him to be “a big, beating, open heart” while shooting in Atlanta last spring. He said he recently got some good career news and called his friend to share it with him. Bautista started choking up on the phone, Nanjiani said, “because he was so happy for me.”
"There's a part in the movie where he has to be very emotionally vulnerable," Nanjiani said, "and I think because he's such a sincere guy, it comes very easy to him."
Bautista lays shirtless on a table in his kitchen. Tattoo artist John Kural presses the buzzing needle to his ribcage, and Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise begins to bump. It’s coming from the TV, where the 1995 film Dangerous Minds just happened to come on cable.
Bautista stares at Uber Eats on his phone, trying to order some burgers. He takes a break to answer a call from his 11-year-old son, Oliver, then beams as he explains the boy wanted to talk about ab workouts.
He is running out of space for new tattoos. He has “D.C. soldier” tattooed inside a bicep and “Washington D.C. is not a state, it’s a state of mind” on a forearm. The tops of his fists say “Passive by Nature” and “Violent by Choice.” His most recent tattoo is a spider on his ring finger to cover the name of his wife, Sarah Jade, a national pole dancing champion who is the proprietor of Tampa’s Buttercup Pole Dance studio. Before that was “Love Is Louder” on his right pec, a gift to his Bushwick co-star Brittany Snow to promote her charity. He decided to add the numbers “143” as a nod to Mister Rogers after seeing the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor and turning into a puddle.
He wants to do a heartfelt indie movie this year but also wants to score a big, studio action movie, only because it could open doors to the things he really wants to do.
Bautista moved to Tampa for his second wife, Oliver's mother, who fell in love with a house here. He stayed because the city's vibe and pace suit him.
He went out to Hollywood recently, at his agent's urging, to attend a house party before the Golden Globes.
"So we get there, and all these random people are there, and it's like none of them go together. It's like a weird, bizarre dream. I look around, and I hope none of them mind me saying this, but Danny DeVito is there and Oliver Stone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger walks by, and over there's Taylor Swift. And all I keep thinking is, what am I doing here? I told my agent's wife I was kind of uncomfortable, and she said: 'Guess what? Everybody here is uncomfortable.' "
At home in Tampa, he is comfortable. In Washington, D.C., too. He was there a few weeks ago and took a walk down to the Lincoln Memorial late at night, one of his favorite things to do. A song by John Lennon came on his iTunes. He'd never been so moved by it before. And right then, he thought of the name for his production company: Imagine Brothers.
He called Meisner. Meisner thought they should probably call Imagine Entertainment, founded by Ron Howard and Bryan Grazer, just to make sure that was cool. It was not cool.
He lays in bed at night worrying about “the same stuff, I think, as anyone. It’s my dogs. My kids. What’s my next job? What will my legacy be? Am I working hard enough? Am I working too hard and I’m going to drop dead with a heart attack? I’m an aging actor, when’s my next Botox?” He laughs again. Mostly, he obsesses over stories, plots, ideas for things he wants to make. And he knows he’s not there yet. Even if people are seeing the potential in roles like Blade Runner and Hotel Artemis, they still required him to throw someone through a wall.
Kural announces that he’s done with the tattoo. Bautista stands and has him take a photo with his phone.
In big letters, it reads “Imagine.”
Contact Christopher Spata at email@example.com. Follow @spatatimes on Twitter.