Army of the Dead’s Dave Bautista on his creative ambitions

There’s nothing like the sight of Dave Bautista ripping through a horde of zombies, that fierce fighting spirit decimating the legion of slack-eyed undead ghouls with precision and ease.

Bautista knows that when it comes to action sequences, he’s got it down. And it’s why he wasn’t originally interested in his latest role, as a hired gun trying to pull off a Las Vegas casino heist in the most extreme circumstances in Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead.

It was only once he’d read the script and talked to Snyder, he realised the zombie heist movie was much more than just a zombie heist movie.

“I read it and it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” Bautista told over the phone from the US.

“I read it and really focused on who that character was, and the opportunity to make it something a little different to achieve what I was after, which was real, deeper acting roles. I wanted to make the character even more emotional, dive deeper.

“I focused on the redemption story; everything else was an afterthought or backdrop for me.”

The role of Scott in Army of the Dead called on Bautista to play a mercenary leading a crew breaking into a Vegas casino safe while battling a zombie outbreak. But what appealed to Bautista is Scott’s story as a father with a fractured relationship with his daughter, borne from a shared trauma.

“There was one scene that read as an action scene, but I saw it as a huge opportunity to grow as an actor. It was outside of an elevator and there were so many different emotions that happened in a very short span. I read that and thought, ‘Man, that’s going to be really challenging.’

“I learn on the job, and I don’t feel like I’m learning if I’m not acting.”

Bautista’s preference for a meaty, emotional character arc over the punch-em, shoot-em scenes might surprise fans who have followed him since his WWE wrestling days. But the actor, 52, is very much leaning into the craft of acting these days.

He’s declared his aspirations to be one of the best actors of his generation rather than just a movie star, though he admits that to be both would be a luxury – but not for the fame or glamour, but because of the opportunities.

“There are people who are both, guys like Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt,” Bautista said. “I would like be, but it’s more important to focus on acting.

“The movie star thing is only going to help me get somewhere professionally as far as people can put a value to your name and they are more willing to invest in you. That’s the only reason I would care about being a movie star.

“I don’t care about the title, I don’t care about all the fame, the glory, the glitz and the glamour that goes with it. It just doesn’t mean anything to me.

“If you’re actually a brand, people can put a value to your name. Then they are more willing to listen to you, to invest in you. And I want to get things done.”

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Since transitioning from WWE to the big screen, Bautista has worked with a phenomenal range of lauded filmmakers, including Sam Mendes on Spectre, James Gunn on the Guardians of the Galaxy series as Drax the Destroyer, and twice with Denis Villeneuve, in Blade Runner 2049 and the upcoming Dune adaptation.

He’s also been cast in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out sequel, which reunites with him Bond star Daniel Craig, who he last tussled with on a train in Spectre.

Bautista said that even hearing the names of the filmmakers he’s worked with read back to him makes him “super giggly”.

“It instantly turns me into a happy little child,” he said. “I’m super excited because I never thought in a million years [this would happen]. But it’s something that I wanted, something I craved and wanted so bad.

“I think sometimes people are afraid to admit they’re fans [of someone’s work] or that they want something. I’m not that guy, I don’t have that sense of pride.

“My pride, my integrity lies in more important places, rather than being embarrassed to admit I’m a fan of someone’s work or a certain genre or whatever.”

Bautista has recently been chasing leading roles because he wanted to see if he was in a place – professionally and creatively – to carry a film. But he’s adamant he’s not above taking a small role.

“I’ll take a role that’s got a minute of screen time, as long as it’s interesting. If I feel like it’s interesting and it puts me next to an interesting actor, I’ll take it. I’ll not only take it, I’ll audition for it.”

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As part of the Guardians of the Galaxy ensemble, he’s stolen every scene he’s in in the Marvel superhero flicks and fast became a fan favourite. Earlier this year, he reprised the role for the in-production Thor: Love and Thunder, which brought Bautista to Australia.

Like other international actors who have swamped our shores since the start of the COVID pandemic – Australia’s lack of cases has made it attractive to American productions – Bautista served two weeks of quarantine in a Sydney hotel.

He said he didn’t mind being secluded but found it a little tough to be cooped up.

“I don’t mind being alone, I don’t mind going days without speaking to anyone. I typically spend most of my time with my dogs.

“But the one thing that was frustrating – and this is going to sound really weird – was when I was there, I was in a hotel room, and they took one of the rooms and turned into a gym and it was all weights.

“Which sounds great. I got to lift weights all day, sleep, eat and watch TV. But for a person like myself, I put on muscle really easily, so I got back up to 290 pounds [130kg] during that quarantine, which is way too heavy to be in your 50s. But my body wants to go there. I was really uncomfortably big when I was in Sydney.”

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While Sydney afforded Bautista the freedom of being out and about and let him feel like he was “living a somewhat normal life” for the first time in a long time, he was still keen to go home and return to his beloved puppers.

Though he’ll have to part with his dogs again soon with reports that Knives Out 2 – which will also star Leslie Odom Jr, Janelle Monae, Kathryn Hahn and Ed Norton – is due to start filming in Greece in the northern hemisphere summer.

Knives Out 2 may yet become one of Bautista’s bucket list projects. There are still a few genres he’s keen to play in, and a respected ensemble drama is one of them.

“What I’d really like to do is be in a really respected ensemble-type drama, the type of drama that’s buzzy at the award shows. I want to be in those conversations, I’d like to be in that mix.

“A film that’s not necessarily going to be a blockbuster or even be on a huge radar but with people who love and respect films. Because it’s a good story with good actors and just talented people.”

The first Knives Out was a box office success, especially for an original concept that wasn’t part of an existing franchise or based off source material.

While Johnson’s film wasn’t at the centre of the awards conversation, it was always on the fringes, and nabbed the writer-director an Oscar nomination in Original Screenplay.

The next two films are likely to be much bigger with Netflix having forked out a reported $US450 million ($A580 million) for the rights.

Regardless of whether Knives Out 2 becomes a streaming blockbuster or an awards darling, for Bautista, being part of that ensemble cast is another notch on his belt towards his ambitions. He’s come a long way since the WWE.

“People will see through the muscle, they see through the bad stigma of professional wrestling, and I think they see who I am.”

Army of the Dead is available to stream on Netflix on Friday, May 21 at 5pm AEST

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