It’s unlikely that Philip Seymour Hoffman could put you in a sleeper-hold. Judi Dench is probably not very good at lifting opponents into the air, helicopter-spinning them around and bodyslamming them to the ground.
What wrestlers know and what serious actors sometimes forget is that a body in motion on a screen is 90 percent of what it means to play a role. The other 10 percent involves being able to act like something other than a giant goon, which we forgive most wrestlers for when they decide to leave the ring and enter the movie business.
John Cena, a ripped, wall-sized, square-jawed WWE star, has a new movie out this week called “12 Rounds,” about a detective trying to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend. You don’t know who he is? That’s because you’re probably watching “Grey’s Anatomy” when he’s doing his thing on another channel.
Maybe you’ve also ignored his hip-hop career and his first action movie, 2006’s “The Marine.” Well, consider yourself warned that while “The Marine” may have proved that whole 90 percent/10 percent thing I was just talking about, you can bet he’s been working on making the words come out of his mouth a whole lot more convincingly since then. And if he never learns to act, who cares. It never stopped these guys:
Andre The Giant
Between playing Big Foot on “The Six Million Dollar Man” and becoming a pop culture phenomenon after artist Shepard Fairey began the “Andre The Giant Has a Posse” stickering campaign all across the country (think viral video before it existed), Andre secured his most lasting post-wrestling spot in the hearts of millions of fans by playing Fezzik in “The Princess Bride.” That he occasionally could have used subtitles while speaking English was part of his cuddly charm. Other notable distinction: He possessed what is perhaps the worst head of hair in recorded human history.
Goldberg is one of those affable former football jocks who’d probably prefer to spend his free time fishing, but who learned that his size and a fake scowl could earn him serious cash rewards. And so the bellowing “Goldberg” was born, a cartoon persona he’s taken from the ring to movies with actual cartoons like “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” and Adam Sandler-starring, cartoon-like films such as “The Longest Yard,” where all he had to do was be known as the prisoner with the largest penis. My personal favorite is the TV movie, “Santa’s Slay,” where he played yet another Bad Santa. A homicidal one. Comedy could be next. He just seems the type.
If they gave awards for upending the expectations of what it meant to star in your own film, then “No Holds Barred” would win a lot of them. Hulk Hogan’s 1989 movie is about a wrestler who lives to fight. The filmmakers played to Hogan’s strengths by allowing him to utter not much more than guttural growls throughout the film, wear the skimpiest of Lycra outfits and shredded tank tops that seem to make the very idea of wearing a shirt irrelevant, and present what may be the most extreme tan ever seen on film. He battles a giant opponent, gets the girl, electrocutes the buttocks of an evil TV executive and does charity work with children, but it’s his singular fashion choices you remember.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
The Rock has sort of ruined it for everyone else by setting the bar too high. When he’s speeding a taxi to “Witch Mountain” or battling mummies or busting heads with huge pieces of lumber, he’s not much. It’s almost like he does action movies because that’s what he thinks former wrestlers are supposed to do. But as “The Rock Obama” on “Saturday Night Live,” or the gay bodyguard in the otherwise uncool “Be Cool,” Johnson shows you what he’s best at: being ridiculous. Somebody, please, cast him against type on a good sitcom.
Most actors are content with a few great roles in their careers. They know that just working is privilege enough most of the time. But how much of a fluke is it that you wind up co-starring in what are widely considered to be three of the very worst movies ever made? Each worse than the next, 1955’s “Bride of the Monster,” 1961’s “The Beast of Yucca Flats” and 1959’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” have cemented this earlier wrestler named Johnson’s place in film history and helped write the rules of what it meant to be a big brute who’s cast simply for his bigness and bruteness. So where’s his star on the Walk of Fame? Huh? Where?
Tommy “Tiny” Lister
Lister starred opposite Hulk Hogan in the lunatic “No Holds Barred” as Zeus, a monster of epic proportions who seemingly throws his final match against the balding blond one. But it was in the script, so you do what it tells you, right? More importantly, this is the guy who terrorized Chris Tucker and Ice Cube in “Friday.” Now, scaring Chris Tucker doesn’t seem that hard. But if you can make Ice Cube hide his gold from you out of fear you’ll rip it off his neck, then you’re a badass. Standing inches away from 7-feet tall helps.
Rowdy Roddy Piper
Piper should be in some kind of hall of fame for showing other ’80s wrestlers-turned-actors how it’s done, especially in “They Live.” Piper utters the immortal line, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.” And the way he says it sounds like he doesn’t even know he’s in a movie, as though he just wakes up and demands breakfast that way. A natural.
The Mexican wrestling star and “man of a thousand masks” was in 1974’s insanely entertaining “Los Vampiros De Coyoacan” and a lot of other movies with mummies and monsters and lady-wrestlers — seriously, wrestling is way more fun in Mexico — and whatever else they decided to throw his way. He might be the purest of all actor-wrestlers because he was always there for one reason and one reason only. If you can find a copy of 1969’s “Mil mascaras,” there’s a great scene where he battles some go-go-dancing “toughs” in a discotheque.
Professor Toru Tanaka
Again, a guy hired for his bulk. He played a sumo on “Little House on the Prairie” and was brought in to add more coolness to “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” Tanaka was old-school in that he just came along for the ride because the casting director wanted a big hulking guy to intimidate the other people in the scene. You can make an entire career out of that, even now.
There had to be a 1980s for guys like Jesse Ventura (and Hogan) to exist and thrive in. No other decade could have cultivated their loud-mouthed, obnoxious, careerist flamboyance the way the Rambo-centric Reagan years did. It was like that era had a lunkhead-shaped hole that only they could fill. So it was right that Ventura appeared in stuff like “Running Man,” “Demolition Man” and “Predator.” Especially “Predator,” where he’s both an Alpha Male and a victim, starring alongside a fellow body-first, acting-second, future politician, and where Ventura gets killed in a really cool way. All actors want a good death scene and he got his. Even more fascinating today for his renegade political ideas, which proves that B-movies aren’t necessarily the last stop for a guy who used to wear tights.
Dave White is the film critic for Movies.com. Find him at www.imdavewhite.com.