When you sit down to have a conversation with Dave Bautista, the wrestler and mixed martial artist turned Marvel movie star, you realize what an impressive actor he really is. While he’s become world famous for his bellowing, battle-enthusiastic and mercilessly mirthful performance as the socially inept and literal-minded intergalactic warrior Drax in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, Bautista simply couldn’t be any further light years away from his on screen alter ego -- save for the hulking size, rippling muscles and shaved dome, that is.
Soft-spoken, low-key and surprisingly self-effacing, the somewhat introverted Bautista admits he doesn’t easily slip right into Drax’s gray-green skin – he works tirelessly alongside filmmaker James Gunn to build a persona that’s utterly different from his own. It’s one that’s used to great effect, both comedic and dramatic, in “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” in which Drax’s complete inability to decipher social cues and utter lack of self-censorship is played largely in direct contrast to a brand new foil, the wide-eyed, emotionally attuned naif Mantis (Pom Klementieff).
“He’s a gentleman, and he’s so sweet,” Klementieff told CBR of her castmate. “Of course, he’s big, and you’re like, ‘Oh, he’s tough,’ but actually, he’s so polite. He never complains. He’s really an amazing guy. He’s just amazing in the role of Drax.”
Bautista joined CBR for a look at how he finds his way into the Drax's headspace, his proud ownership of the character, and what Drax has come to mean to fans. We also dig into why he was stoked to appear opposite the earthbound Avengers in “Infinity War,” and why the fan in him was ready for his upcoming role in the “Blade Runner” sequel.
CBR: you must have been delighted to see what James put on your plate for this one.
Dave Bautista: My plate, not necessarily – on the table, definitely. I was excited to read the script. I knew it was great, for me, as always. I’m always kind of self-conscious about everything I do, especially for this performance.
Yeah, I was excited about the script. [But] when I first read the script, I wasn’t crazy about my part. It went a different direction than what I thought they were going to go with Drax. That’s just because I was expecting one thing and got another. So I was a little bit thrown off at first.
Also, what I usually do when I get a script is I read my dialogue first, I just didn’t really get the jokes. I just didn’t think Drax was that significant in the film, and I don’t find myself funny at all. So I remember reading, and I’m just sitting there not laughing. Like, wow, it was disappointing because I thought Drax was going to be so much more.
When we sat down for the table read, is when it clicked. It clicked in my head. For one, I could hear everybody doing their own parts, and it was just so funny and deep, and some of it sad. But also, when I would say my lines and people would laugh, it would kind of start to make sense.
The second time around, was it easier, given how different you are from Drax, to tap into him again? Or did you have to search for him again this time?
The weird thing – and I actually found this out well before we started filming – was I had gone in to do some screen tests with Pom, and realized how easy it was stepping back into Drax. It was screen tests. We did no makeup or anything like that. I was just on set, just interacting with Pom as Mantis. It just felt so comfortable. It just felt like putting on an old pair of jeans.
That Drax/Mantis relationship – you and Pom really have the right kind of chemistry to pull it off. It’s an interesting dynamic between the two. Tell me how quickly you fell into it with her.
Immediately. Yeah, immediately. We knew right away on the screen test, because I screen tested with three or four other actresses, and Pom was the one who I just connected with emotionally. Like me, she just wears her heart on her sleeve, and she’s just got that emotional range. She also has a knack of being able to deliver a joke in a deadpan manner. She’s got the same knack. It just meshed well together.
Does being Drax do anything helpful for you? Is there anything therapeutic about it, or is there a certain emotional release involved with playing him?
There’s definitely a certain satisfaction. I don’t know if there’s a release. Every time I do something performance-wise, even when I see it on screen, I just kind of cringe. I pick it apart in my head. I’m one of those actors, I don’t like to watch playbacks, because I will watch something and I’ll see myself doing something I don’t like, and I’ll harp on it for the rest of the day. I just don’t watch myself with playbacks.
But I think there’s a satisfaction of -- I feel like I’m becoming a better performer. Especially with James, because I have such an emotional attachment to James. I love him, and he changed my life. So when I know he’s happy with my performance, when I feel like I’ve delivered for him, because he’s written so brilliantly for me, it really just makes me feel good.
Have they made the transformation into the character with the makeup and the applications and everything, is it easier this time?
It’s much easier. It’s easier to put on. It’s a little harder to take off. It’s just more abrasive. But that also means it goes on a lot faster, and it stays on better, and it looks better. It just looks way better.
The first one was like these great big sheets of silicone, and it just didn’t look that great. It buckled here and there. Sometimes I still see films where they couldn’t quite clean it up. I feel like I have a big layer of fat there or something, and it’s actually makeup. It just makes me self-conscious. But this one just looked a lot better. It was just a little bit harder to take off.
Is there part of that process that you feel like you’re Drax once it’s done? Is there an element that gets you there?
You know what it is? It’s when I put the contacts in. I feel full-blown Drax. I’m not method or anything like that, but sometimes I’ll do scenes, and they don’t require me to put in my contacts, but there’s definitely a different feeling that I have. I feel something about putting the contacts in, I feel fully enveloped in Drax.
One of the things I love about Drax is that full-on laugh when he’s having a good time making mayhem, and you get a lot of those moments in this one. How do you get to that point? As you say, you’re more inward-focused than Drax.
For sure. I usually get there through a direction from James Gunn. Now I’ve kind of got a sense of what he wants, and he’ll say, “Yeah, do the big laugh,” and I kind of know what he wants. But sometimes it’s usually just, he’ll gauge me. If he wants it bigger, he’ll say, “Can you do it bigger? Can you do it louder?” And that’s actually how we kind of stumbled on to it.
It’s so funny, because we can a lot of times gauge our performance on James’ laughter off a set, or he gets very excited. He’s a very excited director. If he loves something, he’ll come running out and go, “Oh, my God! That’s great! That was great!” Then walk back. Other times, we can just hear him at the monitors just laughing hysterically.
That’s how we actually found that laugh in the first film. He was saying, “Can you do it bigger?” And I’d start laughing bigger, and I could hear him laughing. The laughing would just get louder and louder. So a lot of times I gauge myself by his laughter or his excitement, which is great.
The last time you and I talked was as the first “Guardians” movie was coming out. And you knew, I think at that time, that you had a good movie on your hands, but you didn’t know how the audience was going to show up and respond. Tell me about life after getting the audience response to Drax, and people wanting to talk to you about him and how much they enjoyed that character.
It wasn’t overwhelming, because I still don’t really get a whole lot of facial recognition from that character. I can walk around in my neighborhood, and grocery stores, and wherever, and people don’t come up and say, “Hey, you’re Drax!”
But people who know me – usually from wrestling, who knew when I made the crossover – and knew me from that film, it’d be like a basic conversation, and they quote my lines and really bad manners. “Nothing goes over your head. Nothing goes over your head.” It actually hasn’t really changed my life drastically.
Did you find that you had a bit of a fanbase among people who are also don’t quite get the same kind of social cues in the way that Drax does?
I didn’t until after the fact, when the film came out, and got a lot of comments, mostly over my social media. That’s when I kind of realized. It’s so weird, because now I feel like not only is Drax kind of the spokesman for that character, but also I am as well.
People are always surprised to find out how socially awkward I am, and how shy I am, and introverted I am, when I tell them and say, “It’s okay.” I think the first step in being okay with that is just admitting it: I’m a socially awkward person. It’s weird. I can’t help it. It’s just who I am. Just kind of being okay with it. You’re okay with it. Sometimes you go home and say, “God, I wish I hadn’t done that or said that.” Just got to let it go, man. It’s just who you are.
You guys have been able to enjoy playing in a certain corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and now it’s getting bigger and you’re going to get to interact with the franchise's earthbound characters. What’s got you excited about doing that?
I think it is just that -- I think it’s the crossover. I think it’s going to be great chemistry that’s going to give us these great characters to kind of interact with. It’s just kind of great when worlds collide. I think it makes it interesting for the fans.
I am a fan, first and foremost, so I’m happy to be a part of it. As watching as a fan, I’m just kind of excited to see what the possibilities are. As far as “Avengers” go. I know we’re in the film. I know the scenes that I’ve shot, but I don’t know the full storyline. I haven’t read the full script. It was offered. It was available to us, but I just chose not to read it, because I want to go and watch it as a fan. I want to go and watch it as a fan. So it’s kind of just exciting.
Has James had conversations with you about the even bigger picture of Drax’s story? Has he kind of said, "You know, I’d like to get to a point where we do this or that with him?”
Yeah, we’ve talked a lot. We’ve even talked standalone movie possibilities. I don’t have high hopes for that. But I’d like to see it happen. Really just because I think Drax has an interesting story. I think people would like to hear more about it. If it doesn’t happen as a standalone film, that’s a super longshot. They’ve got their slate, and I totally get it.
I’m also not getting any younger, but I would like to tell more of Drax’s backstory. I’d also like for fans to be able to put a face to a name. I’d like them to be able to see Drax’s family, and why he’s heartbroken at the loss of his wife and his daughter. It’d be kind of cool. I’d like to see it.
The comics have taken a lot of cues from the movie, and your performance and really adapted in that direction. Do you have an ownership feeling about Drax? Do you check what they do with him?
Yeah, of course! I check it out for two reasons. One, because I love Drax. And two, because, oddly enough, an ex-wrestler, a guy by the name of CM Punk, ended up writing Drax. I’ll hit him up every once in a while. It’s just really a surreal thing, and it’s just a crazy coincidence. We were buds before either one of us had entered into the Marvel universe. It’s just like a crazy coincidence, and now I’m playing Drax on film, and he’s writing Drax in the comics.
You’ve had a fun career in the last few years. Tell me, what are the goalposts ahead? What are the things you still hope to accomplish as an actor?
That’s it, man. I just want to be a better actor. I don’t think of career as far as money and fame. I have a super simple life. I live in Tampa, Florida, and I kind of like just living in a regular neighborhood. I don’t drive fancy cars or anything like that. I just don’t need any of that stuff. I want to be a better actor. I’m on that path. I feel like I’m getting somewhere. I feel like I’m getting respect from my peers, which is something that is very important to me.
But I’m just on that path, man. I’m doing a film with Jodie Foster next month. How crazy is that? That’s really surreal to me. That says something to me that they called me up and asked me if I would costar with Jodie Foster, and that’s insane to me. And I got a few good things. Even the “Blade Runner” role – that’s very surreal. So I think I’m on that path, but at the end of the day, that’s what I want. I want to be a better actor, and I want respect from my peers.
Let’s talk about “Blade Runner.” What got you excited about being a part of that property?
What got me excited was just because I’m a fan, and I knew that this was a sequel and not a reboot. That’s the most exciting thing for me, because we’re picking up where we left off. So I know it’s going to be what I remember it to be. It’s going to be “Blade Runner.” It’s not some other person’s kind of weird version of what “Blade Runner” should be.
This might be a bad comparison, it’s not to me. I hope I’m not going to piss anybody off. But like “Total Recall” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, I thought was a great movie. I was excited that they were going to remake and update it. That was somebody else’s version of “Total Recall,” which I didn’t like at all. I was like, that’s not “Total Recall.”
I know that that’s not going to happen with “Blade Runner.” It’s going to be “Blade Runner.” It’s just going to be a more in-depth story and a continuation. That’s what excites me, and that’s speaking as a fan.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” opens in the US and Canada on May 5. The movie stars Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer, Vin Diesel as Baby Groot, Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon, Michael Rooker as Yondu Udonta, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha, Chris Sullivan as Taserface, Sean Gunn as Kraglin, Glenn Close as Irani Rael and Kurt Russell as Ego.