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From Accomplished Athlete to An Even More Successful Actor

By Ryan O’Toole

Photo: Rolling Stone - Source

When Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson won his first WWF Championship in 1998, there was an air in the room that this was the start of a truly special career. Here was this charismatic, trash talking spectacle of a man, dominating both in terms of physical performance and in his stage presence. And although he would later win 9 more championships and change the way the WWF was run, he will most be remembered not for his wrestling, but for his movie stardom.

The most prominent wrestler turned actor, Dwayne Johnson was able to transfer his wrestling persona to the silver screen in a way that has eluded others in the past, although many have found success in smaller roles or fewer films. There’s something unique about wrestlers entering Hollywood other than, say, athletes. While athletes have a huge following and often have a certain type of charisma, wrestling is uniquely built around the athletes’ personas; their fights, feuds, and trash talking. So while athletes have had memorable roles and have made their mark on Hollywood — I’m thinking of Michael Jordan in Space Jam (1996), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane! (1980), and Kevin Garnett in Uncut Gems (2019) — they are often playing versions of themselves and have found it difficult to have careers as dominant as their sports careers. But for wrestling, there’s a performative aspect that translates rather well to the screen.

Before the Rock’s time, the wrestler-turned-actor was still an enigma. No one could quite figure out how to translate a wrestler’s star power into a leading man. The most popular wrestler of the 80’s, Hulk Hogan, tried to transition into film, with a notable turn as Thunderlips in Rocky III (1982), but ultimately couldn’t quite make it work. In fact, the most success that wrestlers found were coming from the fringes; from less mainstream players acting in roles that perfectly understand their personality. It’s wrestlers who are weaving themselves into the tapestry of a film instead of imposing their own persona on top of a given film. It’s Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride (1987) or Roddy Piper in They Live (1988). And while Piper has the physicality of a WWE star and his fight with Keith David rivals any bout in the ring, Piper perfectly plays the everyman in John Carpenter’s version of Chicago. Even the iconic line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum” isn’t delivered in the macho bravura of, say, The Rock asking “Can you smell what the Rock is cooking?” It’s understated for Rowdy Roddy Piper, but perfect for John Nada.

For a while, this is how the wrestler-turned-actor worked. The most obvious choices to transition into film rarely worked. In this way, it is very similar to how some TV shows work. If you go back in time and tell someone that one member of the cast of Cheers has a long, successful film career, their minds would immediately jump to Ted Danson, Shelly Long, or even Kelsey Grammar before ever expecting Woody Harrelson to be the one to pop. Movie stardom, like movies in general, is an extremely hard thing to predict. There’s this inexplicable x-factor that certain people have, which eluded the WWE stars of their era, like Hulk Hogan.

That is, until Dwayne Johnson came around. He was the first person to weaponize his wrestling persona and turn it into a movie star career. The character actor mentality of Roddy Piper and Andre the Giant still lives on in Dave Bautista, with Johnson and Bautista epitomizing the two paths wrestlers can take to transition into a film career.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in Fast Five (2011)

Photo: Business Insider - Source

The Rock started his theatrical career as the Scorpion King, first in The Mummy Returns (2001), and later, the subsequent spinoff movies that saw him as a leading man for the first time. For the rest of the decade, Johnson continued working as a leading man in movies that never quite hit as hard as he wanted, like The Rundown (2003), Walking Tall (2004) or his trilogy of family-friendly affair, The Tooth Fairy (2008), Race to Witch Mountain (2009), and The Game Plan (2010).

But his luck would soon change. After his supporting role in 2011’s Fast Five and its sequels, Johnson would skyrocket to international stardom, starring in a slew of blockbusters like San Andreas (2015), Central Intelligence (2016), and Skyscraper (2018). The most successful populist films he’s made are films that combine his intense physicality and his more playful personality. Films like Jungle Cruise (2021) or the Jumanji franchise tap into his penchant for action and skills as a hand-to-hand fighter as well as his carefully crafted, family-friendly, easily marketable personality.

Dwayne Johnson has translated what he’s learned from wrestling into his film career, most notably how meticulous he is at creating his own image. He has created his own brand, which can’t help but seep into his films. The most obvious example of this is his Fast and Furious contract stipulates that he can never lose a fight on screen. In the last 5 years, Johnson has taken on more creative control of his movies, which allows him to have more control over his image, but limits the variability of the types of roles he will play. You know exactly what you’re going to get with a Dwayne Johnson film, which allows him to be a consistent leading man in Hollywood, but severely limits his range as an actor.

His most interesting performances are when he fully gives himself over to a director who uses his “Rock” persona as a way to comment on American masculinity. This can be seen in Johnson’s short cameo in The Other Guys (2010), but the best example of this is Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain (2013), which sees Johnson play an ex-convict turned criminal. Here, the carefully curated nature of his current persona is notably absent as he leans fully into the darker side of masculinity. This is Michael Bay at his Michael Bay-est, with Mark Kermode remarking that the film is “every bit as pumped up and steroidal as the appalling characters it is attempting to portray.” Bay knows exactly how to use “The Rock” and Johnson goes along for the ride, in a way he may never do again. He may work best as a character actor, but it’s clear that he wants to be a movie star.

Dave Bautista and Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Photo: Den of Geek - Source

Dave Bautista, on the other hand, has fully transitioned into being a character actor. He describes the difference between him and other wrestlers-turned-actors as follows: “(The Rock and John Cena) are wrestlers who became movie stars. I'm something else. I was a wrestler. Now, I'm an actor. (The Rock and John Cena) are wrestlers who became movie stars. I'm something else. I was a wrestler. Now, I'm an actor."

And this can be seen in Bautista’s selection of roles. He continually wants to work with interesting directors and fully gives himself over to those characters. He has worked with Academy Award winning/nominated directors like Sam Mendes in Spectre (2015) — where he may have the best performance of the film — and his collaborations with Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Dune (2021). He is perhaps most known for his role as Draxx in the Marvel films, where he consistently puts in great comedic performances.

The biggest difference between him and the Rock is that Bautista never wants to be the biggest person in the room nor does he want to win every fight. He is happy to be a part of a larger team and disappear into the world of the film. He is happy to look like an idiot with Draxx or be the heel to James Bond in Spectre. “I'm proud to be a character actor,” Bautista said, “I want that respect and credibility and education.” For my money, Bautista is the best wrestler-turned-actor and one of the most interesting character actors working today, period.

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