In the opening pages of Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” Leonard is described as a towering man, “wide as a couple of tree trunks pushed together.”
When director M. Night Shyamalan began adapting the novel for his new psychological thriller “Knock at the Cabin” (in theaters now), he recalls thinking, “Nobody could play that part.” Even in Hollywood, actors that big don’t just grow on, well, trees. “This is a giant who does monologues. Who could do this?”
Enter Dave Bautista. The wrestler-turned-actor showed his action-comedy chops in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies as the fearsome space warrior Drax, but around the time Shyamalan needed a hulk, Bautista yearned to change up his career by smashing a heavily dramatic role.
For the Washington, D.C., native, seeking out different sorts of characters – a reclusive android in sci-fi film “Blade Runner 2049,” a lovable CIA agent in kid-friendly “My Spy” – means “filling in pieces of this puzzle,” and Bautista returns to two favorites this year with the third “Guardians” (out May 5) and sci-fi sequel “Dune: Part Two” (Nov. 3). Nabbing a major dramatic lead like Leonard, though, is what he’s been talking about since he left WWE for the big screen.
“I want to be a respected actor,” says Bautista, 54. “And this was my opportunity to kind of prove that statement, that it wasn't all just hype.”
In “Knock at the Cabin,” compelled by visions and a higher power, Leonard shepherds a mysterious group armed with makeshift weapons who invade the peaceful Pennsylvania cabin of dads Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their adopted 8-year-old daughter Wen (Kristin Cui). Leonard’s group of strangers poses an impossible choice to the family: pick one of their number to sacrifice, or risk a global apocalypse.
Leonard understands his mission, but is conflicted as a big-hearted soul, who in the opening scene catches grasshoppers with Wen and comes down to her level. In real life, the 6-foot-4 Bautista says, “I tend to always kind of kneel down when I'm meeting children, so I'm looking at them eye to eye and they're not looking up at me.”
Well aware of his considerable size, he figured Shyamalan would want him to slim down from his muscular Marvel shape. On the contrary, Bautista says the filmmaker wanted him to bulk up to fit the bill of “the biggest, most intimidating person” who's “tortured by the choices he's having to make.”
When Shyamalan first talked with Bautista, “he wanted to be vulnerable,” the director recalls. “I just felt like I met a good person at the right time in their life (who) was ready to reinvent.”
One "Cabin" closeup shows a single tear artfully falling down Leonard’s face. Bautista isn’t the type of dude who can cry on cue – “If you said, 'cry,' there'd probably be a nervous giggle before” – but he admits that "when I need those emotions, I draw from my past, and I have enough damage in my past to cry through a film easily.”
That's why Bautista can relate to the movie’s themes of sacrifice. “I grew up in a horrible environment, and I was constantly forced to be a person that I didn't want to be," says the actor, who grew up poor and worked as a nightclub bouncer before getting into bodybuilding and wrestling.
"I always considered myself a very gentle, very kind person. But I was fighting most of my life and well into my 30s.”
And while he was successful in the “cutthroat” and “hostile” world of WWE, it was “one of those places where you have two choices: You either become a victim, or you start becoming offensive instead of defensive,” he says. “I didn't like myself. I wasn't happy. I was actually miserable. When I left professional wrestling in 2010, I could breathe again. I had the weight of the world off my shoulders.”
In an interview, Bautista tears up when the right memory hits him, like when he recalls the last scene he filmed with co-stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña and Sean Gunn on the set of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” James Gunn’s trilogy “didn't change my career, it changed my life,” Bautista says.
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Bautista's also looking forward to Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” sequel and audiences seeing more of his villainous Rabban Harkonnen, who is “just a nightmare,” the actor reports. “There’s a lot more layers to Rabban, and none of them are good.” Oscar nominee Austin Butler, whom Bautista says is “just the sweetest guy you'll ever meet,” joins the sequel as his younger brother Feyd-Rautha: “I don't know who this guy was, but it's not Austin Butler. It's not Elvis. His voice is different, his look is different. Everything about his demeanor is terrifying.”
Following those potential blockbusters, Bautista hopes he’s moving into the next stage of his career. His fingers are crossed for a romantic comedy in there somewhere: He’s been searching, but it’s “the one thing that's been very elusive to me, and I think it's because I can't get people to see me in that light,” he says.
“It's just me. I want to do everything. I want all the pieces of the puzzle to fit together and make this beautiful picture. And there's just certain pieces that are escaping me.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Knock at the Cabin': Dave Bautista finds next piece of acting puzzle