This job throws up some pinch-me moments that stay with you a lifetime. Sitting down with Dave Bautista, in a sporting goods store just off the highway in Atlanta, Georgia in the middle of the summer, was certainly one of them. This experience was all thanks to 20th Century Fox, as we were fortunate enough to fly to America to visit the set of action/comedy Stuber, released in the UK on July 12th.
Directed by Michael Dowse (Goon), and from the production team behind Game Night, in producers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, Stuber tells the tale of an Uber driver called Stu (geddit?), played by Kumail Nanjiani, who picks up more than just a passenger in the form of the poor-sighted, grizzled detective Vic (Dave Bautista) who is on the tail of a terrorist, played by The Raid’s Iko Uwais. Stu has unwittingly become embroiled in a cat and mouse chase that not only threatens his life – but his five star rating.
We were lucky to witness a big action sequence on the day of our visit, in the sports store that Stu works in, watching on as he gets into a fight with Vic, using pretty much anything they can find on the aisles as weaponry. In a brief moment off-camera, Bautista sat down with us, in a white vest and a basketball under his arm, to discuss what compelled him to get involved in the project, and to try something a little different, admitting that he was learning from Nanjiani as he went along.
“I really wanted to work with Kumail,” he said. “We crushed the chemistry test and we were laughing out loud. I’m not ashamed to take a student role, I really am a student of this game, and this is a whole new venture for me. I’ve tried to pay attention to Kumail because this is his strength, and I’m here to learn. It’s a different style or performance with comedic timing and everything that goes on, it’s really different. I’ve been learning from Kumail and watching him. He’s a smart guy.”
“Another reason I wanted to do a comedy is because I went to an audition recently and they spoke about an actor called Lee Pace, they said he can do anything and I got jealous. I want people to say ‘Dave can do anything’. I wanna do drama or comedy or action or whatever anybody would want me to do.”
Such feelings were reciprocated too, as Nanjiani explained to us during a brief chat – which, thankfully, took place outdoors to allow us all some fresh air. He still had elbow pads on though, after all, he was getting into a fist fight with Dave Bautista.
“He’s a big teddy bear, and he’s got a great smile. Please don’t mention that to him,” Nanjiani laughed. “But no, he’s really sweet, and we have physical stuff together, like we have a fight together, but he’s done so much wrestling stuff he really knows how to do it in a careful way that still looks good, so I feel very safe doing it with him. I’m learning every day. He’s done this a lot more than I have.”
“I also wanted to do something different, and I’d never done an action movie and so that was exciting to me. These opportunities don’t come around, especially not for people like me, I get to do movies where I sit at the computer and talk. So it was exciting to do action and run around and stuff.”
It’s inspired casting in many respects, no less when taking advantage of both actors current success, with Bautista coming off the back of Guardians of the Galaxy, and Nanjiani off his Oscar nominated The Big Sick. Screenwriter Tripper Clancy admitted to us it was a dream come true seeing such wonderful actors bring his characters to life.
“Dave and Kumail? I could not have dreamed of a cast like this,” he said. “They aren’t the people you’d expect in these roles, this is new territory for them. It’s both of their first leading roles in a studio picture, but everyone knows their faces, and there are so many Guardians fans around the world that Dave is already in that international stratosphere. For a screenwriter it’s the best case scenario you could wish for.”
Producer John Francis Daley also stopped by for a chat, and this is a man who knows the right formula for an action comedy, having directed Game Night last year. He too was thrilled they were able to secure the two leads for this production.
“Kumail is a very likeable guy who can play meek and introverted but also have these moments of coming into his own and finding his confidence, he just feels so much like an everyman who has been meandering through what he wants to do with his life, and isn’t quite sure what that is. He’s a really honest, sweet guy that I think is relatable to many people,” Daley explained.
“Then Dave is the funniest part of Guardians of the Galaxy, and he’s a truly gifted actor. A lot of the time when you get someone who is so menacing and large as he is, that’s basically all they have, but what Dave brings is this whole other level of gentleness to his character. He’s a gentle giant, and he’s got heart and he’s very soulful and it’s fun to peel away the layers of the onion as we go along in this movie, and see that soft side of him. It felt like finding extremes on surface level before realising they have more in common.”
“They’re delightful guys and it absolutely sets the tone for this set. When I first came to set I was struck by how easy-going and relaxed it was, and that is all set by your director and your cast, so it’s a real testament to Dowse and to our principal players.”
For director Michael Dowse – who we were very lucky to have a quick chat with given how busy he was on the day, he admitted he just knew right away that the casting was going to be perfect.
“I knew within a couple of minutes of working with them they were good together, they compliment each other very well,” he said. “They’re both very good actors and it’s great to have that baseline of people who are good at their craft. Dave obviously lends himself to more action stuff, and Kumail is more the traditional comic, but Dave has proven himself to be very funny and Kumail is good at the action as well. It’s worked out really well.”
It wasn’t just the two leads that represents inspired casting either – for Iko Uwais playing the villain is a fresh and unique take on the archetypal Hollywood adversary.
“This was all the brainchild of Michael Dowse who thought of him as the villain,” said Daley. “Iko is not your typical villain to counter someone as large and intimidating as Dave Bautista but that’s kind of what makes it an interesting match. He’s also our fight coordinator and has been working with our stunt people, to help our stunts be large than life and more exciting than you generally see in an action-comedy.”
Dowse explained to us why he was so keen to get the Indonesian on board. “Iko is 5’5 and Dave is 6’5 and as soon as I saw that dynamic I knew it could be interesting. For Iko it was interesting to play a villain because he’s always the hero in his films, but he’s very good as a villain. It’s style and speed versus brute force, and it makes it unique.”
As with any great action comedy, comes a degree of heart and pathos, and an underlying theme that enriches the narrative at hand. In the case of Stuber it’s the notion of masculinity, as two men with very different perceptions on what it means to be a man, scrutinising over the flaws, particularly in Vic’s approach to life. For Bautista, this was fascinating territory to explore, and something he feels ie extremely relatable to himself.
“You’ve seen big tough guys find their heart before, but I’m just better at portraying it because it’s really who I am,” he explained. “My exterior doesn’t really match my interior. People really see my true personality come through. So when I start off playing this character, I’m playing somebody I’m not. I’m very surly and mean and tough and gritty, and I turn into this teddy bear with a big heart and that’s more of who I actually am.”
“We’re two very different types of male,” Nanjiani added. “In real life we’re not, we’re very similar, he’s a very sincere, emotional guy, but in the movie he’s a gruff angry guy, and I’m the more sensitive guy. We have to learn from each other and I think we’re sort of in a time where we’re talking a lot about toxic masculinity and what are the causes of that, so I felt like it was the right time to talk about that stuff.”
“I try to be more emotional and open with my feelings and more vulnerable, and I think that in a man in pop culture that is not something that has been traditionally valued, that is hopefully now being valued more and more, so I do want to portray characters like that, and have them not be lame, loser nerds, I want to portray characters who are emotional and vulnerable and yet still powerful. Because we’re in a culture where vulnerability is equated with weakness, but I don’t think that’s true. I think vulnerability can be a source of strength.”
In regards to opening up and showing signs of vulnerability, Bautista had a very frank and honest discussion with us about therapy, and what acting does for him on an emotional level.
“I was always very shy and introverted,” he begun. “It’s not one of those Charles Atlas stories, where people kicked sand in my face and then all of a sudden I turned into a big tough guy. It wasn’t that at all, I was always a tough kid, never afraid to go out there and fight and defend my little sister, but I was always very shy. When I found out that I was actually an athlete, I just felt normal, I didn’t feel so socially awkward. It felt like a duck put back into the water. I’ve spent so much time in the gym because I think it’s therapy for me, and because I needed all that therapy, that’s the reason I look like this, because of who I am on the inside.”
“I can’t live without therapy, he continued. “If you talk to me for one minute you’d figure out who I am. I don’t like to intimidate people, I don’t want to be an intimidating person. I often go out of my way to show people I’m not that guy. I grew up in the ghetto, I grew up fighting, so I have that side to me, there’s definitely that side to me. There’s also a very competitive side to me too. But I don’t like to intimidate people, I don’t get anything out of it, it doesn’t make me feel good or tough. If I get into an argument or altercation with somebody where I end up being that person, I feel ashamed of it later, it stays with me longer. It doesn’t make me proud.”
“Acting is my creative outlet. When I was in high school I was really shy and I remember seeing kids in a drama class and I remember they were very outgoing and I was really envious of them, and I wished I could do that. It’s been a weird journey for me, I think wrestling brought it out of me a lot, but that was much more of physical performance, so it was easier for me. Acting is such an intimate thing. It’s another type of therapy. I am a creative, artistic person and I like expressing this side of me, and this is the way I do it,” he finished.
In all this talk of therapy, we asked Bautista what makes him laugh. His answer, naturally, was as excellent as we anticipated.
“My dogs. I think every actor has a happy thought when they need to have that happy moment, and I think of my dogs. I miss them terribly. They’re our children. But I have one that is just way too big for his body, he has these tiny little legs and he’s 90 pounds, and one ear that sticks up and one that goes down. He’s a pitbull. He’s just this big, odd, goofy dog. He’s the sweetest guy ever. He’s kinda like me. Whenever I wanna laugh I think of him.”
It wasn’t just Bautista who was opening up, as Nanjiani too discussed his career with us, and specifically his choices post-The Big Sick.
“I have more opportunities available to me now and it’s very exciting and I’m very grateful. Right now I’m just enjoying it,” he said. “In the past you don’t really get to choose your jobs, whoever wants you, you’re excited for. Now I have more choices, and I’ve tried to be very thoughtful. The Big Sick was such a personal story for Emily and I to tell, and we were very proud of the movie. So for a little bit I was scared about what was going to be the next thing, but I was pretty sure that I wanted it to be very different from The Big Sick, just a completely different kind of thing. While still playing an Uber driver, I didn’t want to challenge myself too much,” he joked.
“The industry has become a lot more open to brown people in the last few years. When I first started auditioning for parts in around 2007, the parts were very stereotypical and they were defined by their ethnicity, there was nothing to them beyond their race. We have a long way to go.”
Though while he was looking forward, when speaking to the producer Daley, he was looking back – at some of the influences on Stuber, as a film that harks back to classic buddy movies of the 80s.
“It feels like a throwback to those films you see in the 80s, with two very unlikely guys together in a crazy circumstance. But it also felt contemporary, with Uber and how technology has brought people together who wouldn’t necessarily be together otherwise.”
We had to ask though – surely if using such a modern piece of technology, doesn’t this threaten the film’s timeless appeal? Daley was confident this wouldn’t be an issue.
“The core idea is universal and timeless. I don’t anticipate that the same version of Uber that we know will be, we’ll probably have robot cars, which would also be a very interesting two-hander. But the message is the thing that is trident and true.”
Dowse echoed the sentiments of his producer. “If you make it great, it becomes timeless, that’s my goal. I’m not thinking about much more than just trying to make it as funny and as honest as possible.”
One main hurdle for him to overcome, is the tricky genre Stuber sits within – though Dowse believes he knows how to crack the action-comedy code. After all, he did make Goon.
“My problem with most action comedies is that they’re either funny and the action isn’t great, or the action is great and they’re not funny. It’s a matter of balancing that, giving yourself enough time to get the comedy right and to get the action right. To make sure the feel of the film feels real, so it’s based in realism. For me it was looking at films like 48 Hours, or Midnight Run and Lethal Weapon, great examples of those movies, and to study how they did it,” he explained.
But as the title and storyline does prove, Uber is a very vital factor in this film, and it’s not the first time Nanjiani has had to drive one on film, either.
“I’ve pretended to be an Uber driver in New York when we filming in Chicago and now I’m pretending to be an Uber driver in LA while we’re shooting in Atlanta,” he said. “In this I’m a very safe and careful Uber driver, and I care too much about ratings. He’s got all the gum, and the wipes, he’s over-prepared. He’s the Uber driver you don’t want because they want to talk.”
We asked Daley about Uber’s involvement in the film, he said, “They’re involved in a sense that they’ve allowed us to use their name and their actual app for the movie. It was important for us to have the legitimate app that they’re using. Why not Lyft? That’s a question you can ask Tripper! I think it was just for the title.”
So, we did. And writer Tripper Clancy told us that when penning the screenplay, he actually became an Uber driver himself, An experience it sounds like he rather enjoyed.
“I just wanted to be accurate,” he started. “I’ve been in a lot of Ubers but it’s one thing riding and a unique experience when you actually drive it. Most of my riders were super nice, cordial, but a couple were assholes and that happens I guess. But I’m much friendlier now when I ride an Uber because I appreciate what goes into the job. A lot of people poured their heart and soul out to me, within like 30 seconds of getting in the car. That was fascinating. I have a perfect five star rating and I still have the app on my phone, so I can pull out the five stars whenever I’m feeling down.”
“I still got the app,” he finished. “I can drive around Atlanta right now if I wanted to. I almost threw it on the other day before production.” He didn’t give us a lift back to the hotel though sadly, but we did ask.
Stuber is released in the UK in cinemas on July 12th.