Dave Bautista Tells Us About ‘Room 104,’ His Quest For Respect As An Actor, And Building A Life Outside The Wrestling Ring

Dave Bautista is on a mission, trying to stretch our collective definition of him beyond his wildly successful tenure in the WWE and his work as Drax the Destroyer in the Guardians Of The Galaxy franchise. It’s something Bautista has been doing since his days as a wrestler and something that drives his choice to wink at that past in the latest episode of HBO’s Room 104 anthology series (which airs Friday at 11PM). A one-off appearance that allows Bautista to play a wounded man with a hidden past while displaying a kind of vulnerability that makes an impact in the moment and which might help to further Bautista’s mission.

The challenge Bautista faces in being more than an action star is one a lot of actors face, but few are as open about the strategic side of building a sustainable and rewarding career while dodging typecasting. As Bautista told us recently when promoting his episode of Room 104, he knows exactly what he wants to do and what roles he wants to play from now to the end of the road. Now it’s just about seeking out the opportunities to make that happen. We spoke at length to Bautista about all of that — from his ambition to its origins. But also his apprehension about signing on to a role in Room 104 that would even slightly nod to his past in the ring and his inability to be inauthentic or quiet on social media in these weird and scary times.

How did you get involved in this episode?

When it was first brought to my attention, they did tell me about the nature of the professional wrestling aspect of it and I immediately shot it down. I was really not interested. I’ve really worked hard to remove myself from that and people seeing me as a professional wrestler. And one of my agents said, “You just got to read this, man, please read this. It’s exactly what you’ve been looking for.” And so I did, I read it and I said, “Wow.” I was kind of blown away. It’s just so deep and then I knew it would be a real stretch for me as a performer and also allow people to see me in a different light.

How much did it change from when you see the first script to when you actually sign on? Does it get tailored to you a little bit more?

It didn’t change much. They did let me improv a little bit. And I know a lot of that actually made it into the episode. They didn’t change it all that much. I think they originally had me in mind for this project to begin with. So it was already sort of tailored for me. Ross Partridge, the director of the episode, just gave me a lot of freedom while I was there, and just kind of let me just belt it out and then throw in whatever I wanted to. Even some physicality that wasn’t written into the script. They brought in a good stuntman and had me work with him. So yeah, it was kind of one of those really collaborative processes, which is what I love about projects like this.

You mention people seeing you in a different light. With regard to playing someone who has experienced trauma, there’s a level of vulnerability on display. Can you talk a little bit more about showing that side in particular?

I mean, that’s been my challenge, I think, throughout my career — being able to show that side. I really got into acting wanting to improve myself as an actor. I wanted to be a better actor or [I was] aspiring to be a better and respected actor. So to find roles like this that require you to have a bit of range, have a bit of vulnerability to show that side of a performance… It’s not easy when you come from a professional wrestling background and you are built like a gorilla. Those types of roles are just very few and far between. So yeah, it’s always been my goal to prove myself as an actor. That means more to me than being a movie star.

You’ve worked with some really impressive directors, Room 104 creator Mark Duplass among them. I’m curious about how important that is to your goals.

I don’t even think I could explain how important it is to me because I’ve always said I want to be able to walk on stage with any actor in the world and not only know that they want me there, but that I deserve to be there. And I think roles like this will afford those opportunities. Because I really love acting and I feel like I’m not growing as an actor unless I’m performing. Because I’m a learn on-the-job actor. I didn’t go to drama school or theater school, I learned on the job. So I’m not growing as an actor, I’m not becoming a better actor unless I’m working with those caliber people.

I couldn’t even get auditions when I first decided to go into movies. I couldn’t even get casting directors to see me just because they put that label on me of being a professional wrestler. So if I can gain the respect and earn the respect of not only the audience but my peers, I mean, for me, that makes it all worth it. Because I left a great career and I loved professional wrestling. I still love professional wrestling, but I left it behind because I wanted to be an actor.

Obviously, as a wrestler, the physical punishment you endure — I’m sure that’s a part of it. Similar to the drive to be seen as more than just a physical presence on screen because obviously there’s a time limit on that as opposed to when you can do more interesting things. Is that part of it also?

I never really looked at it like that, it was never really a time thing for me as far as physicality. I’m still in good shape. I think I’m still in better shape than most people that I step on stage with, but those weren’t actually the roles that I was after. I wasn’t after the big action hero type roles. And, oddly enough, those are the roles that are still not being offered to me. Those types of roles. I really just wanted to be a dramatic actor and I pretty much have my career mapped out now and I know what I want to do for the rest of my career as far as being in front of the camera. There are a few roles, certain roles I would still like to play. But I think when I leave this, I will step into producing, which I’ve already kind of laid the groundwork for. And eventually, hopefully direct.

For me, I’ve always had the mindset, “If I can make my name, if I can be respected, if I can become a bigger name than I’ve become in this industry, the more likely it is that people are to listen when I walk in a room.” So if people are listening when I walk in a room, then I can get projects made. I can come in with scripts and say, “This is a beautiful script, this is a beautiful story. This is an inspiring story, I want to tell this story on film,” and then people will listen. They will pay attention if I’m a valuable commodity. So I think I’ve always had that mindset, make my way, earn the respect of my peers, become a big name, become a star and you can get films made. And at the end of the day, that’s what I want to do because throughout professional wrestling, throughout films, I’m a storyteller. I love telling stories. And that’s what I will do for the rest of my life. In one capacity or another.

How much did that goal influence your storylines as a wrestler? How much input did you have on those?

It was kind of a learning process for me. I didn’t know how much value I had. I didn’t know how much stroke I had until I started drawing money. Because to me, when it comes to professional wrestling, it was the same. I didn’t understand storylines, I didn’t understand programs. I didn’t understand all those things. But I learned along the way. And as I learned along the way, I also learned how much influence I had on my storylines or how much people were willing to listen, because sometimes they’re not, sometimes they’re not willing to listen, but they are more likely to listen when you’re making millions of dollars for a company.

So, throughout the rest of my wrestling career, I had a lot of input. There was one time I went back for a few months after I had left to do films. I went back with a certain understanding that I would have influence on my storylines. It was all stripped away from me and I lost control and it ended up being a disaster. And I said that I would never come back until I could control my narrative and what I was doing in professional wrestling. And they let me do that, which is why I went back last year and I retired. I closed up my career, but they let me do it my way. And I think it was great.

I’m curious if there’s anyone in that world or in the acting world (or both) that has been really influential in terms of showing you what the possibilities were and helping you realize that you had that power?

Well, professional wrestling, that was absolutely Triple H. He was the guy who taught me the business. He absolutely taught me the business. I mean the higher end of the business, the storytelling aspect of the business, he absolutely taught me that. And I left professional wrestling with not only that knowledge but also the work ethic that I learned within the WWE because it is a grind. You earn every dollar that you make there. So I left with not only that knowledge but that grind. And again, it was a struggle making it in Hollywood. It was three years before I got the job that set my career path in a different direction, which was Guardians Of The Galaxy. It just set me on a whole different trajectory. But I had that same plan all along. I kind of knew what I wanted to do, I just needed doors to open for me. I needed opportunities and I needed to prove my worth as an actor.

Obviously, there are people that are on social media that are outspoken, but it feels more rehearsed. You’re outspoken in a way that feels very organic, it feels very much like you. I’m curious if there’s ever been any consideration about that or if you’re concerned that you’re going to alienate certain members of your audience? Or have you always not cared about that?

I see how some of my very close peers are very protective of that and they won’t do it. But to me, I think I come from different background. As a child, I watched my mother fighting for her rights. I think that’s how I grew up. I think that’s who I am by nature. I think I’m a fighter by nature, but I think the bigger picture is what’s more important to me. I think integrity is what’s more important to me. I think my integrity will always outweigh my career. I think I will always make a living one way or another, and there will always be people who will agree with me, who will understand me, and who will be on my side and want to work with me. So I think now’s not the time to be worried about losing fans and losing money and losing a career. Because the stakes are too high.

I’ve never been a politically outspoken person. I’ve actually always thought differently. I’ve always thought that people should make up their own minds, it’s their choice. But I think that things have gotten so bad that I couldn’t live with myself if I was quiet. So I need to be able to live with myself. And so I am outspoken and it is very much from the heart, I’m not a rehearsed person and I’m not super politically educated. I kind of base things on just looking and observing and listening and weighing and a little bit of research and then my opinions.

But it’s always from the heart. So it is always organic and it’s always real. And I’m open-minded to have a discussion, have a debate and be open-minded to have someone change my mind. But unless they can do that, I’m just going to speak from my heart, and my opinion is my opinion. And I will share my opinions. I think I have the right to do that and I think everybody at this point in time should be sharing their opinion because, again, stakes are too high. Things have gotten too bad.

The ‘Avalanche’ episode of ‘Room 104’ airs this Friday on HBO.