In the wrestling ring, Stone Cold Steve Austin never displayed fear of any kind, nor did he ever back down from a challenge. But over lunch at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, he has encountered something he thinks twice about attacking—a green puree in a side dish accompanying his fish 'n' chips. Is it wasabi? Mashed potatoes, maybe?
"I don't have any idea, but I'm not goin' anywhere near it!" he declares, until the spirit of challenge gets the better of him. "Well, I'll tell you what: I will, to find out." Gingerly poking at it with a fork, he puts a tiny sample to his tongue. "It's peas! I never seen anything like it." Mushy peas, a staple in England and nowhere else . . . but wasn't Austin married to an Englishwoman back in the day? "We never ate nothin' that looked like puke," he says.
One can't help but notice that the man who built a larger-than-life image as a beer-drinking hell-raiser is enjoying a decidedly genteel beverage: iced tea. It's not entirely by choice. "I've been on the road for about two weeks talkin' about this movie, and believe me, after every long day, I have a few cocktails. And I'd love to right now, but I've got to maintain my professionalism for the rest of the crew." Perhaps it's for the best—an Austin beer bash usually ends with his interviewer getting a Stone Cold Stunner, the trademark move that begins with a kick to the stomach and ends with the victim's head being violently dragged downward to the ground.
But Austin says he's never felt the desire to finish off Hollywood reporters that way while promoting his new movie, The Condemned [see our review this week, "Austin's Powers"]. Though in real life he's still every bit the no-nonsense Texan, with an affinity for black shirts and skulls, he's also a tad more gregarious.
"I enjoy talking to people about the movie, and I'm gonna do it every chance I've got. I've got several more stops to go. I'm mostly trying to make this movie as big of a success as we can. We had so much fun making this movie, and I'm so proud of it. . . . I get a chance to talk to them as a human being, [and] they get the chance to see that there's a lot more to me and other people in professional wrestling than that wild, over-the-top person they see on the TV screen."
He still faces misperceptions about his former profession, though. "They think that I would be a natural [for action movies] because of my 'choreographed fight experience.' I don't have any choreographed fight experience, but I do have 15 years of pro-wrestling experience. That's why I met with a lot with a lot of frustration on a movie set, where I didn't know how to do choreographed fighting." Improvising moves in a "loose, brawling style" works for the main event, but not for the movie camera.
Wrestlers and cinema weren't always a good mix—one can't help but recall Hulk Hogan's turn in No Holds Barred, which, much like The Condemned, pitted its wrestling hero against an evil entertainment promoter not unlike WWE head honcho Vince McMahon. And just as McMahon trotted out No Holds Barred heavy Tiny "Zeus" Lister on WWE programming to claim he was the "real" star of that film, so too has he had The Condemned's Vinnie Jones appear at a wrestling show to claim he is the true lead in the new movie. Austin promises it won't end the same way, though. "There's never gonna be an Austin-Jones match, if that's what you're saying. I wouldn't insult anybody's intelligence with that, and I don't think Vinnie would either. Vinnie's an actor, and I'm a wrestler in transition to acting. I don't think you cross those lines."
As to why The Condemned works in a way that No Holds Barred didn't, Austin has a few theories. "I just think that Terry Bollea [Hulk Hogan] chose some interesting projects, obviously the wrong projects. I think Hulk Hogan is more of a character-type wrestler. All due respect to his career, but he's a character . . . and I think what Rock's done, people kind of accept him as a person more. As far as myself goes, hey, we're gonna see down the road. I don't think it's a natural thing. I just think that when you come from a large fan base, if you can carry that fan base with you, it's your first step. Certainly, you've gotta keep steppin', but it gives you an opportunity."
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But don't expect Stone Cold to emulate his old archrival Dwayne Johnson when it comes to choosing new roles. Asked if he'd ever portray a gay country singer, as The Rock did in Be Cool, his response is simple.
"I think not. He's gotta make his decisions, and I've got my decisions to make. I wanna do things that I enjoy doing, and I want to do things that I think my fan base would really enjoy seeing me in and try to create a larger fan base. I wanna stick with what I'm comfortable with doing for a pretty good while, so I continue to get more comfortable as 'the actor.'"
So no romantic comedies for this bald-headed S.O.B.? "I could see a romantic comedy, but I don't know if that's gonna be 10, 15 or 20 more pictures from now, you know? I think timing is everything, and if there's ever time to do one, I would consider doing one. But right now, coming out of the gate, we've got The Condemned. It's a heavy-duty R-rated action movie with a lot of violence and some humor, and it's a fun movie to watch, with a little bit of a statement there. We're gonna follow that up with probably another action movie. I think we should stay with the bread and butter right now and kind of do things along the lines of what brought me to the dance."
One wonders why it's taken Stone Cold so long to star in a movie—after all, Hogan and Rock went Hollywood at the peak of their wrestling careers, and even newer stars such as Kane and John Cena have headlined films while continuing to main event. Austin is all but retired from the ring now, but that isn't why he waited. "[John Cena's movie] The Marine was brought to me three years ago. I turned it down. It took a long time to find The Condemned, and it took more than 12 total rewrites. Here we are, and April 27 is right around the corner. That's what happens. You pick projects; I turned that one down. And this is not an easy town. As an unknown, as an actor, you don't just have people chasing you around with scripts in their hands. Now, any wrestling promoter in the world would love to have me, you know? But in the acting deal? Nah, you need proof; you need a reel. I could take all the records that I hold from the wrestling background, but it doesn't mean nothin' out here. I got lucky when The Condemned found me, and lucky that Vince got behind it. So if I would have done The Marine back in the day and had it out there, I could already be in my second or third movie, but timing was everything, and I think 2007 is a good time for The Condemned."