Stone Cold Steve’s Hol­ly­wood Toe­hold

The Washington Post Sunday - - Style - By William Booth

FORT WORTH — Through the in­field swarm at the Texas Mo­tor Speed­way, there strides a slab of man with go­rilla arms and a shaved head shaped like a bat­ter­ing ram. The crowds of NASCAR fans part and go “aaaaah” and then spring back, beg­ging for au­to­graphs, mewl­ing for pho­tos with the hon­orary grand mar­shal for the race. Fully grown adults are punch­ing num­bers into their cell­phones. “Honey, you’ll never be­lieve who I’m stand­ing right next to.” Giddy. “It’s Stone Cold Steve Austin!”

Don’t know who Stone Cold Steve Aus- tin is? Then hit your­self over the head with a fold­ing metal chair, be­cause dur­ing his long and wild reign, The Texas Rat­tlesnake (a.k.a. The Bionic Red­neck) was King of the Ring, and one of the most pop­u­lar, most dan­ger­ous, most re­bel­lious su­per­stars — as both hero and heel — in the world of pro­fes­sional wrestling.

Be­hold! Three-time win­ner of the Royal Rum­ble. (See him drink beer in the ring while fight­ing!) Four-time top­per of the World Tag Team Cham­pi­onship. (See him de­liver dou­ble whup­pings!) Six-time vic­tor of the World Wrestling En­ter­tain­ment Cham­pi­onship. Three times at Wrestlema­nia, which is the Os­cars for those who spe- cial­ize in the spine buster, the pile driver and — watch out! — the co­bra clutch.

And now, pre­pare your­selves, be­cause Hol­ly­wood wants to make Stone Cold Steve a movie star. It just may be his tough­est bout yet.

Sur­prised? The peo­ple who run WWE Films (a new di­vi­sion of WWE Inc.) have two words for you: The Rock — if Dwayne John­son can carry a movie, so can his for­mer ri­val Stone Cold. (They also men­tion a cer­tain mono­syl­labic Aus­trian body­builder who be­came a global box of­fice sen­sa­tion and Cal­i­for­nia gov­er­nor, so go fig­ure).

“The Con­demned” opened na­tion­wide Fri­day, and the $20 mil­lion movie was writ­ten, de­signed and fi­nanced by WWE Films as a ve­hi­cle for Austin. The premise: A re­al­ity TV pro­ducer pur­chases 10 of the worst mur­der­ous rapist ter­ror­ist scum con­victs on Earth, drops them onto a de­serted is­land, where the damned are or­dered to fight to the fin­ish, and the lone win­ner is promised his (or her) free­dom and some won­der­ful prizes, in­clud­ing a pass­port and cash. Of course, the is­land is rigged with cam­eras and the death match will stream live over the In­ter­net for the low, low payper-view price of $49.95. So . . . it’s a think piece.

The R-rated movie is in­cred­i­bly vi­o­lent, in­clud­ing the equal op­por­tu­nity ma­chine­gun­ning of at­trac­tive young women. Austin plays (rel­a­tive) good guy Jack Con­rad, a U.S. Spe­cial Forces black-ops type, who has been aban­doned by his own gov­ern­ment to rot as an in­no­cent man in a dun­geon in El Sal­vador. Jack is a man of few words. “Let’s dance, sweet­heart” would be a long speech. Austin’s thes­pian method is more rooted in Ooogg! Gur­gle! Neck snap!

“I think he’s go­ing to be a huge star,” says Scott Wiper, the writer and di­rec­tor of “The Con­demned,” who bases his opin­ion in part on the film’s re­cep­tion when it screened re­cently for 5,000 wrestling fans at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. “They went bal­lis­tic.”

The WWE has high hopes for Austin, whose act­ing ré­sumé out­side the ring in­cludes a turn as a prison guard along­side Adam San­dler in “The Long­est Yard” and the re­cur­ring char­ac­ter of De­tec­tive Jake Cage on the old TV show “Nash Bridges.”

“Where are the new ac­tion he­roes?” asks Joel Si­mon, pres­i­dent of WWE Films. “Where’s the new Sylvester Stal­lone, Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, Bruce Wil­lis?”

Austin re­minds Si­mon of “the young Steve McQueen, the young Clint East­wood, the young Lee Marvin and young Charles Bron­son,” though not all at once, of course. Austin is ac­tu­ally 42 and his body bears the in­sults and in­juries of 14 years of bron­co­busters and fly­ing clothes­lines. (Austin re­tired from the fight game in 2003, al­though he con­tin­ues to make ap­pear­ances at events tied to wrestling, which re­mains highly pop­u­lar with mil­lions of fans and view­ers).

Is the film any good? Nope, ac­cord­ing to crit­ics. “A real stinker,” writes the Chicago Tri­bune. “Off-putting and ridicu­lous,” says the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter. “Austin de­serves bet­ter ma­te­rial than this. So do we,” goes the Philadel­phia In­quirer.

But can he act? Well, act­ing here is a rel­a­tive term be­cause . . . .

WARN­ING!!!!!! The fol­low­ing para­graphs con­tain in­for­ma­tion that could be mind-al­ter­ing for some fans of pro­fes­sional wrestling, par­tic­u­larly the wee ones.

“Tom Cruise has 10 weeks with a script and he gets to do 10 takes,” Si­mon ex­plains, as op­posed to a pro­fes­sional wrestler in the ring. “Our guys get a story line, and that’s it. There is no script. And they do it live, im­pro­vised. And they do their own stunts. One take. In front of 20,000 peo­ple. And they do 52 fresh new shows a year.”

Si­mon says of Austin: “He’s got that magic, that look, that in­ten­sity. He’s not a bully, but here’s a man you don’t want to [ahem] with. And he’s as rec­og­niz­able as any movie star in the world to his core au­di­ence.”

Ah: The pro­fes­sional wrestling de­mo­graphic. Will they show up at the mul­ti­plex, the crit­ics be hanged? At the Texas Mo­tor Speed­way, Stone Cold — all 6-feet-2 and 252 pounds of him — is rec­og­nized wher­ever he goes, though he is dressed in his civil­ian clothes of jeans, polo shirt and sneak­ers (in the ring he fa­vored black bun hug­gers). When he does his grand mar­shal duty — “gen­tle­men, start your en­gines!” he booms — be­fore 200,000 peo­ple at the NASCAR Nex­tel Cup, Sam­sung 500, he gets a big­ger round of ap­plause than driver Dale Earn­hardt Jr. (rac­ing roy­alty who also drives the Bud­weiser car).

In the garages be­fore the race start, Austin meets with driver El­liott Sadler, who is im­pressed. “I’m just the big­gest wrestling fan,” Sadler tells Austin. “I’ve had beer poured on me a hun­dred mil­lion times.” They talk about the movie busi­ness. “All the records I’ve bro­ken. My box of­fice. My pay-per-view. All the cham­pi­onships and ti­tles. They don’t mean noth­ing in Hol­ly­wood,” Austin says. “It’s a tough racket to get into.”

But so is pro wrestling. Many of those unfamiliar with the story lines of char­ac­ters such as Mr. Per­fect, the Un­der­taker and Deuce & Domino are sur­prised by the pop­u­lar­ity of the en­ter­tain­ment. Ac­cord­ing to WWE, its five hours of prime time television (on USA, the CW and Sci-Fi chan­nels) reach al­most 16 mil­lion view­ers a week. Its shows are among the high­est rated on cable TV (only “The So­pra­nos” on HBO con­sis­tently ranks higher) and they are a dom­i­nant draw among men 18 to 34, who are cov­eted by ad­ver­tis­ers. The com­pany, which is the undis­puted leader in the wrest­ing sec­tor, stages 346 live events a year be­fore 2 mil­lion fans.

“Their au­di­ence is sur­pris­ingly larger and more di­verse than you might an­tic­i­pate,” says Alan Gould, se­nior me­dia an­a­lyst at Na­texis Ble­ichroeder in­vest­ment bank. Teenage boys are WWE’s nu­clear fuel, and the over­all de­mo­graphic skews bluecol­lar, but “I’ve gone to a few re­cently, and I was sur­prised to see that it’s more fam­i­ly­ori­ented than I would have an­tic­i­pated,” Gould says. “You see a cou­ple of peo­ple in suits, you see moth­ers, I mean I was shocked by who you see there.”

Says Gould: “This com­pany gen­er­ates a ton of cash. And one of their is­sues is, we do wrestling re­ally well, but how do we grow the busi­ness?”

The film off­shoot is the latest in WWE’s string of not-es­pe­cially-suc­cess­ful ef­forts to ex­pand the wrestling brand. Re­mem­ber the XFL, the “ex­treme” ver­sion of foot­ball? Any­one visit the wrestling-themed restau­rant in Times Square? Duds. Both ven­tures failed, but WWE Films be­lieves movies star­ring wrestlers have more po­ten­tial for two rea­sons: The movies them­selves can act as ad­ver­tis­ing for wrestling events, and the tal­ent is al­ready in the com­pany.

As Si­mon sees it, the com­pany pro­duces not only hours of TV but has 250,000 sub­scribers to its monthly mag­a­zines, plus 16 mil­lion unique hits a month on its Web sites, plus the live shows, in­clud­ing 61 over­seas. In ev­ery medium, there’s a plug for Steve Austin star­ring in “The Con­demned.” “That’s sat­u­ra­tion,” Si­mon says. “If a stu­dio wanted to buy that kind of ad­ver­tis­ing we es­ti­mate it would cost them $18 mil­lion.”

So there’s a lot rid­ing on the for­mer high school line­backer from Edna, Tex., who at­tended North Texas State on a foot­ball schol­ar­ship, but left school a se­mes­ter short of a de­gree. His real name is Steve Wil­liams and he was work­ing on a load­ing dock when he heard about a wrestling school run by “Gen­tle­man” Chris Adams at the fa­bled Spor­ta­to­rium in Dal­las back in 1988. He spent $1,500 to learn some of the tricks of the trade. In his first pro­fes­sional match against the Frog Man a pro­moter told Austin, “Okay, you two boys are go­ing to wres­tle and you’re go­ing to win,” point­ing at him. “So I was glad some­one told me how it works,” Austin says. He was paid $40.

In per­son, sit­ting over a cou­ple of draft beers at his mo­tel, Austin is friendly, ea­ger, and seems as gen­tle as a bowl of pud­ding (he lives with his girl­friend in Venice, Calif.). The hard case stuff — the taunts, the threats — it’s all an act in the ring. He de­scribes the wrestling cir­cuit as a bru­tal but beau­ti­ful life. The con­stant travel. “Get­ting dropped on my head night af­ter night.” Though wrestlers know the out­come of a bout, the story line, they do not re­hearse or chore­o­graph their fights. In­stead, they lead and fol­low, like a pair of dancers. Work­ing the crowds, they learn to play the psy­chol­ogy of the mob. The boos. Austin loved the boos. “I knew my ca­reer was tak­ing off be­cause I was re­ally get­ting hated,” he says. In pro­fes­sional wrestling, which adopted a se­cret lan­guage of the car­ni­val hus­tle, there are baby faces (good guys) and heels (the bad guys). And in his long ca­reer, Austin man­aged to pull off one of the great­est tricks of all: be­ing a heel who some­how won the fans over.

He says he is ap­proach­ing the movie busi­ness the same way he did the wrestling. “You learn. They pound you down. Then you learn some more,” he says. “I know I’m not the best ac­tor. . . . I have a three- pic­ture deal. I’ll get bet­ter. But you know some­thing? I have a lot of new re­spect for ac­tors. It’s not as easy as it looks.”

BY VINCE VALITUTTI — LION­S­GATE VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Steve Austin puts one of his old moves on Masa Ya­m­aguchi in “The Con­demned.”

UPN/TI­TAN SPORTS

WWE of­fi­cials hope Austin can fol­low his for­mer neme­sis The Rock (a.k.a. Dwayne John­son), left, into movie star­dom.

PHO­TOS BY MICHAEL MUL­VEY FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Stone Cold Steve Austin served as the grand mar­shal for a re­cent NASCAR race at Texas Mo­tor Speed­way in Fort Worth.

BY MICHAEL BUCK­NER — GETTY IMAGES

Scott Wiper, left, di­rected Austin in “The Con­demned,” which opened Fri­day with less-than-fa­vor­able re­views.

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