Ever since Dave Bautista joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Drax the Destroyer in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, the performer has become a formidable force onscreen. And with each new role, most notably in projects like Army of the Dead, Dune, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, he's proven himself as a scene-stealer. Now, by taking the lead as a zealot named Leonard in Knock at the Cabin, Bautista is showing that he's ready to take on more.
"It's just a different performance for me… I've been saying all these years that I wanted to be an actor and not a movie star, I could care less about that. And this was kind of my real chance to prove it, you know, in a leading role," Bautista tells ET's Ash Crossan about stepping it up onscreen in director M. Night Shyamalan's latest psychological thriller.
Normally seen playing bigger, louder or more menacing characters, here Bautista is able to channel a quieter, more vulnerable energy as one of four strangers who invades the cabin of two dads and their daughter while demanding that one of them sacrifices themselves in order to prevent the apocalypse.
"I have a lot of anxiety about it because I have to -- you know, now I'm about to be judged," Bautista says with a laugh. "But I've been saying it all these years, I just wanted to be respected as an actor."
Indeed, he has garnered respect from within the industry, with director Rian Johnson saying that he's the best professional wrestler-turned-actor working today. "I’ve been a very big fan of his dramatic chops as an actor," he told The Atlantic, adding that "somebody like [Paul Thomas Anderson] is going to give him a real part and is gonna look like a genius."
And Shyamalan is the first director to do what Johnson is suggesting. Known for taking risks with his casting, it's not too much of a surprise he'd take one with Bautista. But according to the director, there's no question he has what it takes -- something he saw in the actor when he appeared as Sapper Morton in the 2017 film Blade Runner 2049.
"I had no idea who he was. I was like, that dude is doing it the right way, to do something really, really special in the right place," Shyamalan recalls to ET about watching a specific nonverbal scene from the sci-fi sequel, before thinking of him as Leonard in Knock at the Cabin. "When this script came, and this opportunity came for a giant that can emote, I said, 'Who was that guy? Can we reach out to him?' And luckily, I got to talk to him and it worked out."
For Bautista, working with Shyamalan was an opportunity to push himself in a new way. "He's such a loving, giving, caring person that, you know, you kind of welcome these conversations and you want to have them because you know that he's going to bring out the best in you as a performer," he says of the director's penchant for lengthy discussions "about emotions, about what the character is thinking and what his background might have been."
He adds, "It's a lot to process and put into this performance." (Not only that, but he had to gain weight for this role, which is something that proved more difficult than not. "I put on weight for this particular role for Cabin and I just don't know if I could do it again. It took a toll.")
But it also worked, with Knock at the Cabin earning Bautista some of the best reviews of his career. One critic writes, "Bautista is the stand-out, granting Leonard a sense of calm that is at once friendly and deeply unsettling," and another simply puts, "Bautista is fantastic."
Though, the performer might not read them, revealing that he tries to stay away from them as a whole. "I've read a couple bad ones that really stuck with me and I took personally," he recalls. "I think it's always easier, you know, to absorb those negative things and they kind of stick with you."
Admittedly, he's "a little uncomfortable with praise as well," Bautista says, adding that when it comes to this film, "I hope people love it. But also at the same time, it's just, I really want to be respected as an actor. And so this, I just put a lot of stock into this performance."
Knock at the Cabin debuts in theaters Friday, Feb. 3.