Dubai: Some of the World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) biggest faces have become Hollywood stars. And now, acting opportunities for wrestlers have started to go beyond the stereotype of loud, hostile and impenetrable into something more substantial.
Fighters are asking to be taken seriously on the big screen and studios are starting to listen.
WWE is all about the 'persona'
The WWE itself, an integrated media and entertainment company, thrives off of the development of compelling characters who live out personas, rivalries and full-on plot lines (referred to as ‘angles’) like a punch-heavy soap opera.
There’s a whole host of WWE terminology that would totally confuse the uninitiated. For example, ‘Babyface’ — or Face for short — is the good guy/protagonist, while ‘Heel’ is the bad guy/antagonist. ‘Gimmicks’ are the character traits (fictional or actual) that are given to a wrestler, dictating everything from their style of dress to their wrestling techniques and how they behave.
One of the most important keywords, perhaps, is ‘kayfabe’. It’s a suspension of disbelief — a total commitment to portraying these feuds, story arcs and character dynamics as if they were true and unscripted. Breaking kayfabe would be similar to Deadpool breaking the fourth wall.
In a way, the WWE is a TV and movie industry unto itself. In 1989, the federation produced its first major feature film — ‘No Holds Barred’ starring Hulk Hogan — a film that was critically panned and barely broke even at the box office.
But by 2002, the WWE Studios Inc (WWE films at the time) was launched to more frequently bring big-name actors and wrestlers together on the big screen. They released films like ‘The Scorpion King’ starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, ‘12 Rounds’ starring John Cena and ‘The Call’ starring David Otunga.
The titles would then be distributed by heavyweights such as Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate, creating a formidable bridge between professional wrestlers and action films.
But what began as a transaction that was limited in scope has slowly been morphing into something more versatile.
Johnson is a prime example. Arguably today’s biggest action star, his films — from the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise to the box office smash ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ — have collectively grossed more than $10 billion (Dh36.7 billion) worldwide. His bread and butter comes in the form of the high-octane and the humorous.
One of his future roles, however, is far from typical. He’s set to play the 18th century Hawaiian king Kamehameha, in director Robert Zemickis’ (‘Forrest Gump’) upcoming historical drama ‘The King’. The movie, which will follow the leader who united the Hawaiian Islands, is Johnson’s ‘dream’ role.
“Humbled & grateful to begin this once in a lifetime journey,” wrote Johnson, who is of Polynesian descent. “From the day I began my Hollywood career (2001), my dream was to bring this legacy to life.”
Nine years ago, Barney Ronay published a story in ‘The Guardian’ titled ‘How wrestling is taking over the movies’. At the time, Johnson’s star was already on the rise — as was Cena’s. In his piece, Ronay wrote that what wrestling had to offer was “camera-ready, six-packed, violently extroverted talent.”
That hardly seems to be the case with a movie like ‘The King’.
Ring to film: Physical prowess and on-screen drama
It would be foolish to say that the physical prowess of these wrestling superstars — and their natural knack for on-screen drama — didn’t prime them nicely for films, particularly of the action-adventure persuasion. Those are the films that will continue to rake in millions, if not billions of dollars, for years to come.
Back in 1987, before CGI became the backbone of magical storytelling, French professional wrestler Andre Rene Roussimoff (better known as Andre the Giant) played the physically huge Fezzik in the fantasy adventure comedy ‘The Princess Bride’.
He was 2.24 metres tall and had beat out the similarly towering ‘Twin Peaks’ actor Carel Struycken for the role. Beyond the physical, however, Roussimoff brought a sensitivity to the role that reinforced the ‘gentle giant’ trope.
Fighters like Roussimoff — and more recently Johnson, Cena and the Hollywood newcomer Dave Bautista — may be genetically predisposed to succeed as action stars, but it’s their unlikely humour and warmth that has the power to set them apart.
Six-time world champion Bautista — who is on big screens now in ‘Master Z: Ip Man Legacy’ — was both hilarious and heart-warming as Drax the Destroyer in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’. The gently-spoken Bautista off-screen is a far-cry from his retired over-the-top WWE persona.
After holding the record for longest reign as World Heavyweight Champion (282 days), he had to battle the stigma attached to him when he “wanted to become a real actor.”
“There was a point in my career where none of my social media contained anything that said WWE. I just wanted to completely remove myself from that world. Not because I was embarrassed or ashamed to have come from that world, but I needed people to lose that stereotype … Open their eyes, broaden their minds a little bit of who I could be,” Bautista told GQ Magazine.
He took pride in being subtle on film and liked to take “someone with my stature and turn it way down.”
Cena also went completely out of the box in the 2017 children’s animation ‘Ferdinand’, wherein he voiced a big-hearted fighting bull who preferred to stop and smell the roses than enter a ring.
Much like the bull, Cena had to rid himself of the misconception that being a fighter was all that he was.
“Oftentimes, we are so good at what we do that people think that’s all that defines us,” Cena told Gulf News tabloid!.
“I love my experience at the WWE — it’s my home, they’re my family. The character who I am in WWE directly correlates to a lot of what I am in real life. But there’s a lot more to me than what you see.”
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‘Master Z: Ip Man Legazy’ and ‘Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw’ are currently in UAE cinemas.