Back in Action

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Published August 25, 2010

ERIC ROBERTS AND STEVE AUSTIN IN THE EXPENDABLES

“Working with [director] Sly Stallone was one of the best experiences of my life,” says Steve Austin, one of the starts of The Expendables, and who most will remember for his sneering caricature as a celebrity of the professional wrestling ring. When he’s not mocking you, you know something significant has happened “It was very competitive among the guys; really brutal and really realistic.”

At the movie’s meaty center is Steve Austin as the down and dirty bodyguard appropriately dubbed Paine. Austin clinches the climax of the movie with two sequences with Stallone and his UFC counterpart Randy Couture. “The first time around [with Stallone], there was too much finesse, so we just decided to make it brutal.” But brutality has its costs, and when butting heads with this particular director, the cost can be high: “I must have had a goose egg on my forehead and ended up giving Sly a few stitches. He was cool about it and only told me to bring it even harder!”  For the rest of film, Austin gets certifiably ruthless with Stallone and his crew of mercenaries (including Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, and Randy Couture). But there is more to the 6’2, 250-lb former WWE superstar than meets the eye.

For instance, few would imagine that the teenager who would become one of the most recognizable faces in entertainment planned on becoming… an insurance salesman. “Well, my father was an in-surance man,” Austin emphasizes with a South Texan drawl. “So I went to junior college on my football scholarship and studied accounting—although I grew tired of that pretty quick and switched my major to P.E.” Austin burned out and left college with just 17 hours left on his degree, and wound up working his way to a top-pay forklift job as a dock worker. “The bosses at the company I was working for wanted me to become a terminal manager, but I knew it wasn’t really for me. And then one night, this commercial came across the TV for a professional wrestling school, so I enrolled and got the shit kicked out of me , day one.” Though he wasn’t exactly following in his father’s footsteps, Austin’s parents supported him through the early days.

The way to the top was (unsurprisingly) tough: “Monday night was Memphis,” Austin rattles off matter-of-factly about his early days on the local Tennessee circuit. “Tuesday was Louisville, Wednesday was Indiana, spot show on Thursday, and then we’d drive through the night to Dallas for Friday just to come back Saturday to film Memphis TV and do Nashville that same night.” After years of working the same rooms, week-in and week-out, and living off uncooked potatoes, Austin eventually became a national superstar in the WWE. Still then, there was more to fight: “At one of the few matches my mom came to see, I was wrestling with a Staph infection that had taken hold in my right elbow, and I had to do a Pay-Per-View event later that week. Seeing me so sick wasn’t a great memory for her.” The cumulative effects of a long, injury-filled career eventually brought Austin out of the ring and into acting, where he’s been happy to tap into his slightly less brutal side.

So what exactly makes Steve Austin tick? He’s still an animal in peak physical condition, but his favorite days now are spent motoring around his Texas ranch with his chocolate lab Hershey. Bud Light is still his favorite beer (Austin was renown for his tendencies to drench himself and his vanquished opponents in the suds after a match), but now he favors the subtle complexities of a Cliff Lede cabernet.  “I guess I was born with the drive,” he says. “I just always wanted to be successful at what I did, and at whatever you want to do, you have to bust your ass and do it a hundred percent.” Even if you think pro wrestling is fake, his success is pretty real.