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Thanks to ginormous hits like Peacemaker and the Fast & Furious franchise, the leap from the ring to the screen is getting shorter and shorter. And who can blame casting directors for tapping some of the biggest and baddest wrestling superstars ever to force the other guy to tap out?
Yep, star power has been the name of the big, bad game for the WWE for years, so it was little wonder in the late 1990s that Hollywood finally smelled what The Rock was cooking. Dwayne Johnson pioneered new paths for both WWE stardom and wrestler-turned-actor roles that blossomed into full-on acting careers, but he’s not the only wrestling superstar who’s shown they can suplex a memorable screen role or two.
From John Cena in The Suicide Squad to André the Giant in The Princess Bride, wrestling superstars have been pinning their acting parts to the mat for decades. We’re snagging ringside seats for a look at eight of the biggest, baddest TV and movie roles that left us gasping for breath. Call us crazy, but we’ve got a hunch that the wrestling-to-Hollywood pipeline is poised to get even bigger.
Let's take a look at some of the biggest stars who got their start in the ring.
You’ve got to start with the man of the hour, and no past WWE champ has the mojo flowing these days like John Cena. From his days as The Prototype to jump-started screen roles in Trainwreck and Transformers spinoff Bumblebee, Cena’s charisma was always on full display, just waiting for the right acting gig to come along and harness it. Enter James Gunn and The Suicide Squad, where Cena stepped behind the mask as Peacemaker and spun the man who’d kill for peace into one of the biggest stars in the DC Entertainment pantheon. Cena’s comedic chops through The Suicide Squad and Season 1 of spinoff series Peacemaker make HBO’s recent move to renew the raunchy series a complete no-brainer…but we still bear a grudge over that ultra-dirty finishing move he put on Rick Flag.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Okay, we cheated. There’s another ex-WWE man of the hour besides Cena, and he’s more than star enough to still be going by his old-school wrestling name. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson signaled his ace acting moves all the way back in the early 2000s, when he held his own opposite Christopher Walken in The Rundown. With that and a pair of genre films (The Scorpion King, The Mummy Returns) in his early post-wrestling repertoire, Johnson’s acting career put on gains, building toward what’s now one of the most robust filmographies to date. Lately, he’s brought loads of family-friendly fun to recent smashes in the Jumanji franchise and Disney’s Jungle Cruise. But the bad-boy side of Johnson’s showmanship is never far from the surface, which is why the July 29 premiere of DC’s Black Adam can’t come soon enough.
Let me tell you something, brother: Hulk Hogan’s gonna light up any ring he steps into — even if it’s just a brief walk-on to rip his tank top and steal the show playing himself (who else?) in a movie like Gremlins 2: The New Batch. But the high point of the Hulkster’s sporadic screen career came in 1982, when he went toe-to-toe with Sylvester Stallone in Rocky III as Thunderlips, a fictitious, over-the-top wrestling specimen who billed himself — even for a charity match against the Italian Stallion — as “the ultimate male.” Though Hogan’s moves on the mat will never be upstaged by his acting, it takes Hulk-sized chutzpah to pull off a stunt like that. Then again, we’re talking about the one and only superstar who fears no man, no beast, or evil…brother.
If The Rock has the longest list of movie credits to his name, then Dave Bautista might just have the most critically acclaimed. The amazingly versatile WWE champ-turned-actor has serious range, playing a quiet-storm rogue replicant in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 and an otherworldly Harkonen enforcer in Villeneuve’s Dune. Bautista’s inner animal escapes in Zack Snyder’s zombie spectacle Army of the Dead, though the real marvel — so to speak — is his hilariously literal-minded stoicism as Drax the Destroyer in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy MCU franchise. In his burgeoning screen career, Bautista’s already managed to work with some of the biggest directing names out there, and there’s more in store: He’s set to appear later this year in Rian Johnson’s hugely anticipated sequel to Knives Out.
The late Roddy Piper barely had an extracurricular acting career beyond his Caledonian wrestling persona, but one role is all it took for his screen time in John Carpenter’s They Live to become a pop culture touchstone. Piper’s sternly-delivered one-liner in Carpenter’s control allegory remains near the tip-top of the long list of greatest movie quotes ever: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum.” It took Piper and costar Keith David weeks to prepare for the film’s set piece, an epic two-man tussle that ate more than five minutes of screen time and sparked a tail-kicking human revolt against Earth’s sinister alien occupiers. But when you absolutely, positively have to have a knock-down, drag-out fight for the ages to persuade a guy to put on a pair of sunglasses, there’s only one wrestling legend for the job.
André the Giant
Towering well above 7 feet tall, André the Giant made a handful of TV and film walk-ons throughout the 1970s and 80s that always commanded attention. But it’s his utterly perfect performance as the lovable Fezzik in Rob Reiner’s fantasy-comedy classic The Princess Bride that’s guaranteed to put him on any short list of all-time great wrestling crossovers. The late old-school WWF champion delivered a patient, gentle-giant performance that served as the perfect foil opposite Wallace Shawn’s manically keyed-up Vizzini. It also gave the real-life wrestling great a chance to finally show the world that, underneath all the sized-up menace, a genuinely nice guy had been lurking all along.
As with her role as a bouncer in 2014’s Expendables 3 and as a fight instructor in 2019’s Charlie’s Angels, the big-screen moments for the SmackDown superstar Ronda Rousey have so far been mostly centered on her unbelievable athleticism. But she brings attitude to spare in 2015’s Furious 7, playing Kara, an all-business VIP bodyguard with neither the time nor the patience for small talk. There’s plenty of time to put her real-life fighting skills to use, though: Her Furious 7 fight scenes are some of the coolest action moments in a movie — and a franchise — that’s chock full of them.
Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s periodic acting appearances in movies like The Running Man and Demolition Man were usually typecast-typical to match his burly persona, and that’s just fine by us. The WWE hall-of-famer was right for his pugnacious part as a special ops squad member in 1987’s Predator, and holds the unique distinction of serving up one of the biggest one-liners in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Predator bequeathed generations of film fans a whole library of quotable comebacks, but it was Ventura’s tobacco-chewing conviction as gunner Blain Cooper that sold his “I ain’t got time to bleed” line. In a movie that gave us "Stick around," “Get to the choppa!” and “If it bleeds, we can kill it,” that’s a superstar feat indeed.