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Army of the Dead’s Dave Bautista Wants to Be a Less ‘Alpha’ Action Hero

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Dave Bautista isn’t a Vegas guy. The actor, best known for his role as Drax the Destroyer in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies, says that although he can appreciate the casino-stuffed city “in very small doses,” he’s wary of how easy it is to get sucked into “the city of excess.”

Yet, Scott Ward, his character in the new Army of the Dead, can’t help but head back to the Sin City desert to gamble with his life. The Netflix movie, which marks director Zack Snyder’s first return to the zombie genre since his 2004 directorial debut, Dawn of the Dead, opens with a classic Snyder montage of Vegas falling to the walking dead. Bautista plays a mercenary who is part of a team of heroes that helps evacuate the city while the military creates a shipping wall around the undead. After that, though, there’s no real use for a guy of his talents and Scott ends up working as a fry cook … until he’s approached with an offer to steal $2 million from a safe in the heart of the zombie-run city before the U.S. government blows the thing to smithereens (joined on the mission, against his wishes, by his estranged daughter).

It’s a zombie casino heist, a wonderfully absurd premise — but Bautista, as he so often does, adds a surprisingly subtle warmth to what could be unbridled, skull-bashing craziness. Vulture caught up with the actor to talk about being a different sort of action hero, a digitally replaced co-star, and his role in Netflix’s upcoming Knives Out sequel.

There are plenty of action heroes who have kids, but they don’t always have authentic dad energy the way Scott does. Is there a trick to playing badass and warmth in equal measure?

[Laughs.] It’s weird, I think a lot of guys who would be playing action stars are looking for ways to make themselves more alpha, more masculine, more heroic. I’m always looking for the opposite. I’m looking for ways to kind of take away from my stature and physicality, to make me more vulnerable. It was something that I learned about myself in professional wrestling, and it’s been the same in film. So, I do little things. When I carry myself, I don’t always have my chest out or have pumped-out arms. I don’t want to look like an action figure. I want to humanize myself and make myself more relatable — which is not easy to do when you’re built like a gorilla. Anything I can do to take away from my physicality helps, and glasses seem to go a long way.

You’ve become Hollywood’s go-to guy when studios need a character to help anchor their action movie. Why do you think you’re so in-demand?

I think it has a lot to do with the way I’ve been building my career. It has a lot to do with the way I’ve built relationships and proven myself. I have proven that I can deliver. It also has a lot to do with me being very open-minded and willing to play any character that’s interesting. I don’t need to be a lead, I don’t need to have a big part in a film. I will literally play any part as long as the character’s interesting or I’m working with interesting people.

Do you think there’s also something to what you were talking about earlier, that there are more characters who are action heroes but maybe not in that alpha way we used to see in the ’80s, ’90s, or even early aughts. I feel like there’s definitely a Dave Bautista–type character now. I see that archetype in modern movies.

I guess the argument could be made either way. You could look at people who are playing the action hero roles who wouldn’t typically be in those roles. Maybe that’s simply because they’re big names and are being cast in those roles. But the other argument is: Look at “The Rock.” He looks the part, he is That Guy, and he’s the biggest movie star in the world.

I think it’s all about what people want, and what I want to give them is kind of a combination of both. A person who can be That Guy, at moments, but who can also be the other guy — a very vulnerable, unpredictable action hero. So, I think I fit right in that mold, or right in between those molds.

We just did a whole story on how Zack Snyder put Tig Notaro into the movie in post-production. You’ve been in Marvel movies, so you’re no stranger to green screens, but was it wild for you to watch the finished film and suddenly there’s an entirely different actor in the helicopter cockpit? 

It was weird, because, you know, I wasn’t there. [Laughs.] And when I watch it, I feel like I was there. There’s a connection that’s missing there. But I don’t feel like the movie misses a beat. Anybody who doesn’t know that that’s the case won’t pick up on it at all. Tig fits right in, and her chemistry fits right in.

What really bothers me, when I watch this film — it bothers me that I don’t know Tig. I feel like I should know her. I want to meet her, and I want to hug her and tell her how amazing she was in the film. I’ve been able to do that with all my other co-stars, and I haven’t been able to do it with Tig because I haven’t met her yet. I think she’s amazing and is incredible in the film.

You’ve worked with Zack Snyder and James Gunn, who are two prominent directors who have really distinct styles that stand out even when they’re tasked with doing a big tentpole franchise movie. Audiences recognize and get excited about a Snyder or a Gunn movie. As an actor, do you feel that when you’re on the set? 

Definitely, without a doubt. It’s almost hard for me to speak about Zack’s style. I can only speak about him on this film, but I had so much flexibility with Zack, and it was a big-budget film.

With a lot of stuff when I do Marvel, it’s just very structured. And James Gunn is a very different director. For me, he’s much more involved in my performance, especially because he has so much invested in Drax and with the characters overall. We typically are very directed by James. He makes sure that he gets what he wants, and then he always gives us a couple of takes to do whatever the hell we want. We are very structured, but also at the same time, he gives us freedom. Whereas Zack — he gave me more freedom than any director I’ve ever worked with.

And then it’s possible that Rian Johnson might be on his way to being another of those directors. Is there anything you can tell us about the Knives Out sequel?

It’s way too early, but, I have to say, I talk to Rian and I’m very familiar with his film career and the big films that he’s done. But what I was so excited to talk to him about was his episodes of Breaking Bad, because I’m a huge Breaking Bad fan. Watching the stuff that he did with Breaking Bad, those are the kinds of really interesting directorial performances that I’m excited about. I want to get some of that direction.

You made some headlines recently when you said you’d probably retire from playing Drax after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what you think is going to happen as the MCU continues and crucial actors age out or step back from roles.

I don’t think it’s a problem, because the Marvel library is so extensive. They’re gonna have material to draw from for well after I’m dead and gone. I know Disney has purchased Fox, and the X-Men have a whole extensive life ahead of them. That’s going to be a whole new universe. Their library is just too extensive. There’s so much there that they’ll never run out of material or actors or superheroes. When they’re past that, people will look back and just reboot stuff.

Last question: What’s your strategy if the zombie apocalypse starts?

I think I’d be okay. I’m unintentionally prepared. I’m not a prepper or anything, but my home is like a fortress and a lot of my life is really geared toward protecting myself from bad weather. But that stuff also works for zombie apocalypses. [Laughs.] I have a hurricane shelter, I have a big gate and trucks and jeeps with four-wheel drive. I have a thousand-gallon generator, which would last me a long time. I have some food stored away. I think I’d be okay initially … it’s long-term that I’d have a few concerns.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Dave Bautista on Raising Hell in Netflix’s Army of the Dead