His Guardians of the Galaxy alter ego, Drax the Destroyer, may be zipping around the far reaches of space, but Dave Bautista is logging plenty of international miles back here on terra firma. When Yahoo Movies connected with the former WWE star to talk about his new movie, Bushwick — a gripping “you are there” combat movie set in present-day Brooklyn and pitting ordinary citizens like Brittany Snow‘s frantic Lucy and Bautista’s gruff neighborhood guy Stupe against a well-armed Texas militia — Bautista confessed to having a “fuzzy” brain thanks to having just stepped off a plane from China. He wasn’t playing tourist overseas, though. Instead, he was playing Owen Davidson, a mysterious character in the martial arts extravaganza, Ip Man Side Story: Cheung Tin Chi, an extension of the popular Ip Man franchise starring Donnie Yen.
What possessed Bautista to fly halfway around the world to play an English-speaking character in a Mandarin-language film? As it turns out, it only took two words: “Woo-Ping.” That would be Yuen Woo-Ping, the legendary Hong Kong action choreographer and director who memorably taught Keanu Reeves kung-fu for The Matrix. “I heard his name, and I didn’t ask any more questions,” Bautista says. “I didn’t even know what the movie was. I just wanted to work with him!” Whatever fuzziness was still lurking in the actor’s jet-lagged brain quickly cleared out as we discussed the rigorous process of shooting Bushwick (which opens in limited theatrical release and on VOD on Friday after premiering at Sundance in January) and how his newfound talent for improvisation will play a big role in that film…and Avengers: Infinity War.
Yahoo Movies: You’ve got several Hollywood blockbusters under your belt. What was it like leaping into the Chinese action movie industry with Ip Man Side Story?
Dave Bautista: It was like guerrilla warfare, man! [Laughs] It’s terrifying, because they don’t rehearse a lot. I’ve had the luxury of being on bigger films here and getting plenty of rehearsal time. There, it’s like, “Set the cameras up, and let’s go.” I had to speak a little bit of Mandarin, and I’m sure it’s like a three year old speaking Mandarin! It was a crash course and great learning experience.
The experience of shooting Bushwick must have been like guerrilla warfare as well. It’s all choreographed to almost resemble one tracking shot, which just adds to the intensity of the action.
That was one of the huge appeals of the film to me. I’m still trying to find myself as an actor, and I knew with those long takes that I wouldn’t have the luxury of editing. We rehearsed quite a bit, but once you get into it, there’s not a whole lot of room for error. The camera is constantly moving and you’re trying to perform, often in very tight spaces.
How would you approach an actual survival situation like the one Stupe faces in the film?
We have our own little compound with a huge generator down here in Florida that’s right next to an Air Force base. So I hope we would be OK. My first priority would be to take care of my wife and our dogs, so I don’t know that I’d venture outside. But it was cool being out there in Brooklyn and roughing it a bit for this film. At the same time, there were a few occasions where we’d be five or six minutes into a take and somebody would waltz through eating a bag of Cheetos! I came out of character so fast the first time that happened. My fear going into the film’s premiere at Sundance was that I knew I would be judged on my performance. You’re baring your soul, and hope that people don’t shred you apart.
You certainly bare your soul in a long monologue you deliver towards the end of the film outlining your character’s emotional backstory.
That scene wasn’t in the script. When I first read it, I didn’t like Stupe at all, and the filmmakers told me that I could reinvent him. So I started putting some thought into it, and I came up with this backstory for him. I had the story in my head for weeks, and [before that scene] I said to them, “Do you trust me?” They said, “Yes” and let me do the monologue. I sat down and just told the story out of my head so it would be honest. After I did it, everyone was really quiet, and I thought: “Man, that was way too long. I guess they though it sucked!” But they were really kind of in shock and heartbroken over the story. They asked if I could do it again, so we did it one more time and that was it. That was my one opportunity to tell the backstory of Stupe, and to get people to root for him. I just went for it.
You improvised Stupe’s big moment in Bushwick: should we be on the lookout for any Drax improv in Avengers: Infinity War?
I have a lot of interaction with Chris [Pratt] and Pom [Klementieff, who plays Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2‘s breakout character Mantis], and it’s always great when they let me play the straight man to Chris’s humor. When we said something funny, [the Russo brothers, who are directing Infinity War and the next Avengers film back-to-back] would come in after the take and go, “What was that you said? Say that again!” They were really excited about it.
Robert Downey Jr., of course, is noted for improvising many of Tony Stark’s funniest moments as well. Did you get to riff with him?
We do. I’m excited about some of the stuff we did, but I don’t know what’s going to make it in the film. I always thought there would be a lot of good interaction between Tony Stark and Drax, and there was. And Star-Lord and Tony Stark as well. When you put those two guys in a room together, it’s like a spontaneous combustion. Talk about two talented guys who are so witty and smart and honed-in on their craft. It was a spectacle, and I’m so excited I got to witness it firsthand.
When we spoke with James Gunn recently, he confirmed that he had a lot of involvement in crafting the Guardians scenes in Infinity War. Were you happy about that?
Completely. I think one of the reasons we were so successful to begin with is because of James’s creativity. We had the luxury of him writing for us on Infinity War, and the Russos didn’t at all try to make us into something we weren’t. They encouraged us to own our characters and be the Guardians of the Galaxy, not their Guardians of the Galaxy.
You didn’t share any scenes with him in Vol. 2, but you do star opposite Sylvester Stallone in Escape Plan 2. What’s your best Sly story?
I took that job because I wanted to work with Stallone so badly! And it was the easiest job I ever had in my life, because I spent most of my time hanging out bulls—-ing with Stallone. Our first scene together was in a car, and I told him, “Look man, it’s our first day, so I’m not going to bug you with all the fanboy questions. But tomorrow you’re probably going to get them!” We shot the scene for ten to fifteen minutes, and before we got out of the car I was asking him about Rocky and Rambo. I couldn’t contain myself! He was telling me all about an injury he had on one of the Rocky movies that changed the storyline of the whole film. What I love about him is that he doesn’t take anything too seriously. He just likes to riff and do his thing.