What does it mean to be a man in Hollywood today? For Dave Bautista, the former pro wrestling superstar turned surprisingly broad film actor, the answer is anything but simple.
Bautista, who is now piledriving into his own as a charming, dashing and, yes, ass-kicking leading man alongside Kumail Nanjiani in the action-comedy Stuber, gives voice to a perspective shared by many in today’s aspirationally woke film industry. But while the defining qualities of his gender are up for debate, Bautista’s alpha status is fixed in cement. From his brightest role as Drax the Destroyer of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers films to his dexterous work for Denis Villeneuve (including the upcoming Dune adaptation and a scene-stealing part in Blade Runner 2049), Bautista—recently retired from the WWE—has proven to be as much an ace with a punchline as he is with a punch. And his ability to flex a sensitive side to the camera is, with the arrival of Stuber, undeniable.
Whether being a man in today’s Hollywood is best exemplified by owning up to past transgressions, like Guardians director James Gunn, by being blessed with the chiseled body of Thor (to quote Drax: “He is not a dude…this is a man—a handsome, muscular man”) or by hugging and crying like our Stuber heroes, Bautista is paving a path for all variations. Here, we chat with all 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds of him over french fries in a Beverly Hills Four Seasons suite.
I was raised by my mother, a single mom, and she encouraged me to be emotional and affectionate. She was very loving. I was a rough kid but I was also very emotional. I never had anyone saying, “Don’t cry; boys don’t cry.” My grandmother said that to me once in my early 20s. I was at a funeral because my cousin died, and I was bawling, heartbroken, and my grandmother—who I didn’t get along with—was behind me saying, “What’s wrong with him? Boys aren’t supposed to cry.” I thought, Well, you’re just an awful ogre anyway.
I have a son, and I encourage him to be open with his feelings and wear his heart on his sleeve. I think it’s harder to do that than it is to be all bottled up. It takes more bravery to actually be open and share your feelings. It’s not an easy thing to spill your guts! You feel vulnerable and judged, so to put yourself in that position takes huge balls.
You were raised in rough neighborhoods in D.C. and San Francisco. How did your upbringing affect your view of manhood, and of right and wrong?
A lot of people are surprised to find out that I grew up so poor, in the ghetto, and that I was raised by a single mom who is a lesbian. But my mom’s tough as shit! I know it’s not politically correct now, but my mom used to whoop my ass. I didn’t have a male figure in my life, so she felt like she had to go the extra mile to keep me in line. She would beat my ass because she was worried about me. She didn’t want me dead or in jail.
I think I always had a pretty good sense of right and wrong. It’s common sense; you can tell whether someone is a good or bad person by the way they’re treating other people. To me, a person who doesn’t respect other people is not a good person.
Did you date much when you were young?
I dated the same girl all the way through junior high and high school, and I was probably the worst boyfriend ever. But I learned from it and I got better as the years went on. But now I’m fucking single again at 50, which is an odd place to be. I don’t have much patience. I don’t want to play the dating game. So I’m super honest with women: This is what I want, this is who I am. I’m a relationship guy. A lot of my friends are like, “Dude, you’re a movie star, play the game!” I was only in long-term relationships until a certain point in my wrestling career where I had divorced, and for the first time in my life I was single and had girls throwing themselves at me. I wasn’t prepared for it. I don’t want that. I like sharing my life with somebody, having someone I can talk to. I love going to bed with the same person, getting up and sharing the morning, bad moods, bad breath—I like sharing those moments together. Going our separate ways but getting together for dinner. I like that stuff.
I’m always uncomfortable with myself, but there came a time when I became comfortable with being uncomfortable.
A lot of it. Especially with action roles where you have to appear super confident. This is why the Rock is perfect for stuff like that: He is a super confident person and he walks into a room and owns it. I’d be okay to sneak into a room without anybody seeing me.
When did you start to feel comfortable in your own skin?
I’m always uncomfortable with myself, but there came a time when I became comfortable with being uncomfortable. I just kind of own it now. I’m an awkward person. I have social anxiety, which I was embarrassed to admit when I was younger. I used to be envious of those super confident guys who could go up and talk to girls and say all the right things. Then there came a time where I couldn’t care less about being that guy. I just got to a point where I liked myself.
Stuber is filled with references to manhood. What is your take on Vic and Stu’s disparate definitions?
Kumail and I joke about this all the time. I’m way more in touch with my feelings than he is, so I’m much more the Stu character than Kumail is. Vic to me is a bad cliché: He’s a John Wayne wannabe, that guy who thinks that boys don’t cry; you gotta live your life a certain way; if you got a problem, duke it out. But that’s not me at all. I believe firmly that you can have confrontation without violence, even if it ends up with agreeing to disagree and going our own separate ways. I’m more than willing to have a debate. If you say something I think is rude or you go to a certain place, then it may go south. [laughs] But I believe you can figure out a lot of things verbally. And not everybody is 6’4” and 265 pounds—I get that. But being willing to defend someone vocally is a form of bravery.
We shouldn’t be so goddamn judgmental of each other. We should be able to talk.
James went through a period in his life where he was after shock value. He said some things that were absurd, but he always said them in what he felt was a humorous way—although maybe gross and shocking, still meant to be funny, and not meant to be taken seriously or condoning anything in particular. And then he realized that times have changed and he may have offended some people, and he apologized. Because he’s a decent fucking guy. Bottom line, he’s just a good dude.
If you go back to comedians 20, 30 years ago, would they hold up today? Not a fucking chance. But back then they were funny, shocking, relevant; they talked about taboo subjects, but it was okay to talk about those things. Now it’s not okay and you’re getting judged when you talk about them, which has put us in a really bad place. If there’s an issue, especially if it’s an issue that is causing problems, the only way to solve it is to fucking talk about it. If everyone’s afraid to talk about it then we’re not getting anywhere. You’ve got all these people who are so self-righteous; as soon as you start talking about something they start pointing fingers. And then when everybody’s pointing fingers, all of a sudden you’re a target, which is a bad place to be. I feel like we’ve stepped back in time. We shouldn’t be so goddamn judgmental of each other. We should be able to talk.
When I got my first agent, his mission was to get me into rooms to meet people so we could get rid of that label of who they thought I was. If they only see me—especially from professional wrestling—it’s never good. It’s been really hard to break. All it takes is spending a couple minutes with me to realize I’m not that guy. Once they meet me, they’re at ease with me. I’m pretty much a nice guy. At least I think I’m a nice guy.
You’re a nice guy, Dave. And a smart guy, too.
Well, I’m nicer than I am smart. [laughs] But I don’t mind being labeled that way. I generally like people. It’s okay to be fucking nice, it’s okay to love other human beings. And if anybody thinks that because I wear my heart on my sleeve, and because my mom’s a lesbian, or that I hug my best friend and tell him I love him, if they think I’m less of a man because of that? I just say, Fuck you, dude, I don’t want you in my life.
Speaking of sensitivity, is Drax’s line about his sensitive nipples going to be the line that follows you around for the rest of your life?
Jesus christ. Yes! And you know the person who actually has sensitive nipples, where it comes from? Fucking James Gunn! Drax is nothing but James Gunn’s muse. James tried to get that line in the first [Guardians] film but it was cut. He was determined to get it into the second one so he wrote it in five or six times and I had to say it a lot. And now I’m stuck with it.