Wrestling their way onto the big screen

Wrestler Dave Bautista is winning hearts as the dimwitted yet lovable Drax the Destroyer in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.
Wrestler Dave Bautista is winning hearts as the dimwitted yet lovable Drax the Destroyer in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, the tale of intergalactic heroes tangling with the universe's baddest baddies, raked in US$145 million (S$203.5 million) in North America on its opening weekend a week ago, aided in no small part by the performance of Dave Bautista. 

The muscular actor's star turn as the dimwitted yet lovable (and hilarious) Drax the Destroyer drew praise from critics.

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the galaxy that Bautista called home until 2014, was quick to ride on his pop culture boost.

That same weekend on its subscription service, WWE touted a package of videos called Batista Unleashed, a collection of his defining moments in the ring as Batista (minus the "u" from his real name).

With multiple WWE stars finding success in acting roles, it seems wrestling's Hollywood invasion is finally landing a knockout punch.

Going back to the days of Hulk Hogan (Rocky III in 1982) and Andre the Giant (The Princess Bride in 1987), professional wrestlers have long appeared in movies and television, but few have managed to break through as top box-office draws.

But following a path paved by Dwayne Johnson - known in the ring as The Rock - current and former WWE stars are pushing themselves further into the public eye.

Johnson, Bautista and John Cena - a 16-time champion who has appeared in feature films and hosted Saturday Night Live and the Today show - have clawed the furthest into mainstream entertainment.

Johnson's early roles came through WWE Studios (then known as WWE Films) in the mid-2000s when he starred in such movies as The Rundown (2003) and Walking Tall (2004).

A decade later, he is a leading man in big-budget films, including Hercules (2014), San Andreas (2015) and the Fast & Furious franchise. Last year, he was the highest-grossing actor of the year on the big screen.

WWE Studios has been involved in more than 40 films since its inception in 2002, from action movies to Christmas comedies.

When its team is casting a movie, it combs through the wrestling roster to find names who might fit an available role. The minute a wrestler is cast, he is set up with an acting coach and taught the basics.

"We want to give everyone an opportunity to show what they can do and build their resume," said Mr Michael Luisi, president of WWE Studios.

"Anyone has a chance to be in a movie, and some of them on multiple occasions, if they do well."

Each project must be of sufficient quality - and the time commitment cannot be too big. Wrestlers have day jobs in a profession that demands weekly television performances, house shows and constant travel. 

And there is the perpetual physical toll from a life of high- octane action in the ring.

Cena is an exception, however. He has assumed more of a part-time role in the ring as he pursues outside projects.

He will appear in the Amazon Studios war story The Wall and voices the titular character in the coming animated film Ferdinand. 

Rena's in-ring appearances are becoming less frequent. He is leaving again this spring to shoot scenes for the sequel to 2015's Daddy's Home, a comedy starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg.

But WWE still benefits from those untethered to the daily grind and the bigger the star, the bigger the win.

Bautista will be playing Drax once more in the next Avengers movie and scored a supporting role in Blade Runner 2049 with Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford.

Said Mr Luisi: "When you've got someone like Dwayne Johnson who is in existing - and creating - franchises, that's fantastic for our company. And he's still back and participating in our events."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2017, with the headline 'Wrestling their way onto the big screen'. Print Edition | Subscribe