The day after one of the biggest professional wrestling events of the year, Randy Orton, the heavily tattooed, frequently sneering, seven-time World Wrestling Entertainment champion, is standing in the bowels of the Staples Center confessing a lack of self-confidence. Not about his most recent performance in the ring, where he administered the requisite body slams, clotheslines and backbreakers to his rival, Irish wrestler Sheamus. This is about channeling his inner Humphrey Bogart more than his inner Hulk Hogan.
"I can't say I'm confident in my abilities as an actor," Orton says tentatively, describing his experience as a dramatic performer in the 2011 movie "That's What I Am," a period coming-of-age story with Amy Madigan and Ed Harris in which Orton plays a father caught up in a school controversy. "I thought doing this for 10 years would give me an edge, but it hasn't."
Many a wrestler has attempted the leap from the ring to the silver screen. Mike Mazurki moved to midcentury noir pictures, Jesse Ventura and Rowdy Roddy Piper popped up in action movies in the 1980s and '90s and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has starred in action movies such as "The Scorpion King" and broad comedies, including "The Tooth Fairy."
Orton's shift is different. It's part of a far larger transformation being orchestrated by WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon that may be either pure marketing genius or simple hubris. The wrestling impresario is taking the personalities from his weekly fight shows — where they can regularly be seen diving off ropes, drop-kicking mouthy opponents and goading a bloodthirsty crowd — and trying to mold them into subtle thespians.
Unlike the usual switch to big action vehicles or broad comedies, he's hoping the stars can pull off roles in gentle comedies, dramas and police procedurals. In other words, he's hoping they can act. "When you create global superstars and part of their skill is their acting skills, this is a natural extension," McMahon said.
McMahon has created a film division of WWE, with a slate of more than half a dozen pictures distributed through Samuel Goldwyn Films, that doesn't go for a big concept built around star power. Instead, the movies tell smaller stories with experienced actors such as Harris, Madigan, Patricia Clarkson and Danny Glover, and slot the wrestlers in as part of an ensemble, hoping their acting can carry the day.
Arriving in theaters Friday is "Knucklehead," starring 400-pound Big Show as a gentle giant who has gotten to his mid-30s without having lived outside of a Catholic orphanage. Big Show (real name: Paul Wight) is not new to the big screen; the 38-year-old with a smooth scalp and dark, thick goatee has had bit parts in comedies such as "The Waterboy" and "MacGruber," where he essentially riffed on his in-ring persona.
But this is his first full-fledged role as someone entirely fictional, and as he sits on his private tour bus in the Staples parking lot the night before SummerSlam, he finds himself in a place of gooey introspection that might make Mark Ruffalo proud. "Playing a character outside the ring allowed me to free some things inside me," Show said, clasping his oven-mitt-size hands together nervously. "When you express that much emotional nakedness or vulnerability, it unlocks a lot of change in you."
"Knucklehead" follows September's "Legendary," in which John Cena, the clean-living face of the WWE who previously acted in the blow-'em-up "The Marine," took on his first dramatic role, as an estranged son of a woman played by Oscar nominee Clarkson. (With largely weak reviews and a minuscule $200,000 in box office, it was an unquestionable disappointment, although it's expected to recoup some of its investment on DVD.)
And the long-haired WWE villain Edge (real name: Adam Copeland; claim to fame: the Edgecator, a move in which legs and ankles are twisted and held in painful positions), has been drafted to play a laid-back cop in the comedy-drama "Bending the Rules," a role more in keeping with his real-life surfer-boy personality than his manic in-ring one.
"One of the misconceptions when people meet wrestlers is that they think it's all big hair and underwear and rah-rah. I don't think that anyone believes we might read a book every two days, which I try to do," said Edge, a thoughtful Canadian with a gentle manner. "They don't think that we might possibly be intelligent."
The job of wrangling persuasive performances from men accustomed to spending extensive amounts of time drop-kicking people in spandex falls to Mike Pavone, head of WWE Studios and director of "That's What I Am."
"I know that some people might be skeptical. They say, 'You wouldn't take Brad Pitt and drop him in the middle of a wrestling ring and expect him to do a good job,'" he said. "But I'm not starting at ground zero here. These are natural performers. I'm taking people who are a six or a seven and just trying to get them up a couple of numbers."