When Polygon first spoke to Guardians of the Galaxy star Dave Bautista about his role as sensitive widowed dad and action hero Scott Ward in Zack Snyder’s new Netflix movie Army of the Dead, Bautista had just been cast in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out 2, and he was still reeling a little about the way his career is taking off. “It’s a little bit surreal at the moment,” he says. “I’m 52 years old and my career is just getting started.”
Technically, though, this is Bautista’s second career: His first, as an MMA fighter and WWE wrestler, made him a four-time World Heavyweight Championship and two-time WWE Championship winner. Acting gave him a new outlet, initially playing police, pushers, and fighters before he became a breakout star as Drax the Destroyer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. And he says he has a third career in mind: He wants to direct movies, and soon. He says acting has pulled him away from his career plan — “These are good problems to have! I’m not complaining!” — but that within five years, he’d like to be in a director’s chair.
“I have a few ideas for films that I would like to turn into scripts, and that in itself would require a lot of time that I just don’t have,” Bautista says. “For me to sit down and write it would be a nightmare, but for me to even be so involved in it, which I would insist on, would take take a lot of time I don’t have.”
He says his ideal project would be “something very small and contained … dramatic, but also inspiring. Those are the types of films I like, and the types of films I feel like I’m qualified to direct. Something that would be too big, and too over my head, something someone would invest hundreds of millions of dollars in, I’m not there, and I don’t know if I ever want to be there.”
Acting, Bautista says, was mostly a way to build his personal brand and attract the kind of notice and connections he’d need to become a director. But working on projects like Army of the Dead and Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 — where he played a gentle hermit of a replicant — have given him a chance to branch out into more sensitive and drama-focused roles than he played in his early career.
Scott Ward in Army of the Dead was a particularly engaging part for him because Scott is a troubled man who gets a handful of emotional scenes with his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) and old friend Maria (Ana de la Reguera). Both women feel he’s failed them, and both women confront him during the movie, giving Bautista a chance to explore Scott’s guilt, repression, and newly formed regrets.
Bautista says the lure of the role came from director and co-writer Zack Snyder, who let him reinterpret the role in a more personal way. “The way Scott was written on paper wasn’t exactly the way I played him,” Bautista says. “I wanted to dive into him more. I wanted to give a different look at an action hero, just make him more relatable, and give him a little more depth and more humanity, not so invincible. That’s what originally intrigued me about the script.”
He says his interpretation of Scott as a man seeking redemption at any cost may have gotten him the part in the first place. “I had this conversation with Zack, and he said, ‘This is why I want you to play this role.’ We had a lot of conversations, and a lot of moments where I was doing things that weren’t necessarily in the script, and he got in there with his camera to make sure he picked them up. I had tons of freedom, and that’s rare on big films like this. I haven’t had that kind of luxury before.”
One of the bigger changes in the script came during a scene where Scott is forced to kill his wife, Laura (Colby Lemmo) after she becomes a zombie and attempts to bite him and Kate. The sequence in Army of the Dead is intense, with Scott clearly distraught and Kate screaming as Laura tries to attack them both.
“Originally, that wasn’t written like that at all,” Bautista says. “It was a very matter-of-fact, very violent scene. And when I thought it should be more emotional, [Snyder] completely went freelance and picked up his camera and squeezed himself into the tight space between this wall and myself and Colby, so he could just get little moments of my facial expressions.”
Snyder acts as his own cinematographer on Army of the Dead, which surprised Bautista because of moments like that, where Snyder was handling the camera. “I feel like I really got to see Zack’s artistic side,” he says. “We were using a lot of natural light, so there were moments where he’d see something, pick up his camera, call for a lens change, and just start shooting stuff.”
“Usually, cameras and lights are set up in advance — I’ve never seen a director pick up a camera and just start shooting stuff like that,” he says. “And this wasn’t a low-budget film. For a director to just go off on his own and start filming whatever he wants, that’s a lot of freedom. A lot of studios don’t give you that freedom, even when you’re a big-name director like Zack Snyder. There’s a schedule, and you stick to your schedule. They want to know there’s a plan. There are storyboards, you tell them exactly what you’re doing. This felt like I was working with an artist, which is great, because he’s also — Zack is super rough around the edges. He just wants to work out and hang out and joke and have fun. I love that about him, because it makes me feel at ease, makes me feel comfortable. So I feel like I can really connect with this guy who’s kind of a mirror image of me.”
Playing Scott was a challenge for Bautista, whose past roles have often focused more on violence or comedy. “I didn’t go to drama school, I didn’t have the theatrical background, I didn’t do a whole lot of studying,” he says. So in playing emotional roles, he has to draw on his own experience — including his three marriages. “I think I’ve got enough baggage and I’m carrying around enough pain to last me for the rest of my life as an actor,” he says. “That’s what I draw from. It’s not easy. I don’t know what that says about me.”
“With my last ex-wife [Sarah Jade] — we were together for nine years. And looking back, in retrospect, I realize there are a lot of things I did wrong, and I wish I could change them. But while I was in the moment, I just didn’t recognize them. I was so focused on something else, I just wasn’t present. That’s the way I felt about Scott. He was trying to do the right thing somewhere else, but in turn, he neglected the most important things in his life. That was the way I felt about the part. And it was again drawing on real experiences, real feelings, real mistakes. I think that’s who Scott is — he was just really trying to do the right thing, and in turn, he just totally turned his back on his daughter and his family.”
As Bautista ponders the move to directing, he sees roles like Scott in Army of the Dead as chances he can’t pass up. Asked if he has a dream role at this point, an ideal job that would continue to keep him away from his other projects, he admits there are two ideas that stick with him most: “I’ve given a lot of thought to inspirational stories I could play, interesting stories I could play. And the one that seems to keep coming back to me is Ernest Hemingway. If I could play any character, I still think it would be him. I think I could do him justice. I think he’s so interesting, everything about his life, and the way he lived, and also the way he died. It’s just very intriguing, his ideas are intriguing to me.”
He laughs when he abruptly switches tracks to his other dream role: “I’ve also been very vocal lately about playing Bane in the DC Universe, and I still feel very strongly that I could do that character justice. So fiction vs. non-fiction, that would be Bane or Ernest Hemingway.”
One thing that might hold Bautista back in his planned career shift: His frankness on social media, where he was an ardent critic of Donald Trump during his presidency, and an equally outspoken defender of Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn during the period after Disney fired Gunn over a series of old, deleted tweets. (Gunn was later rehired.) Bautista’s direct language stands out in an era where celebrities have learned to be extremely cautious about what they say online, for fear of alienating potential fans or employers.
But Bautista says he just isn’t geared to hold back or be tactful about his beliefs. “I don’t know how else to be,” he says. “I only know how to be myself. I’m positive that I’ve already burned a lot of bridges, and I’ve already lost a lot of fans. But at the end of the day, I just want to be able to live with myself.”
He says his politics may prevent some people from wanting to work with him, but if his attitude closes doors, he’ll just look for different collaborators who share his beliefs. “I don’t think I say or do anything in mean spirit. I don’t do it to hurt people. I just feel the way I feel. As long as you can have a discussion, have a debate about your opinion, then I don’t see what the fault in being honest is.”
“And also, I will never have a problem with sticking up for someone I love, or someone who’s a real friend. You know, if you don’t defend them if they’re in need, what kind of friend are you? It’s not a real friendship. I understand that there are a lot of false friendships. There are more acquaintances than friendships in the entertainment industry. But I don’t want to be one of those guys. Which has made me a bit of an outcast. But at the same time, I can live with myself. I have everything I want, and everything I need.”