Kurt Angle on Warrior, His Longtime Acting Ambition and Following The Rock Out of the WWE
It's a curious version of the real pro wrestler Kurt Angle that you get from the ring persona he's projected over the years as a star of the WWE (née WWF) and now TNA Wrestling, where he's currently the reigning World Heavyweight Champion. The real-life former Olympic wrestler has played off his 1996 gold medal win as wrestling's bona fide "American Hero" since his 1998 WWF debut, juggling multiple wrestling companies and countless ring titles while a version of his own personal life, warped through the wrestling world's faux-realist backstage lens, is broadcast every week to millions of fans. But what Angle really wants to do -- what he wanted to do even before pro wrestling came calling -- is act. Seriously act.
That's just one revelation the burgeoning thespian Angle shared when he rang Movieline to discuss Warrior, his latest film, one in which he has nary a line but commands the world's attention as Koba, the fearsome Russian champ standing between dueling brothers Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton in an all-important MMA tournament. For Angle, multiple roads led to his joining the cast of Gavin O'Connor's sports drama: His intimidating physical presence, for sure, but also the fact that he's long wanted to stretch his acting muscles and acknowledges that he may not be quite ready to launch into bigger roles.
Read on as Movieline speaks with Kurt Angle about his circuitous route from the Olympics to the WWF to acting, how the WWE may have stifled his film career in the wake of fellow wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's own career transition, how mulling a switch to UFC helped him train for Warrior, and where to find the Internet's best real-life example of high emotions and tears that the masculine world of ring sports has ever seen.
I first knew you from wrestling of course, so it's been interesting to follow your acting career as it's developed. What was the impetus for you wanting to make that transition into acting?
Believe it or not, I kind of went into professional wrestling so I could get an avenue into acting.
You're kidding -- that sounds like the most brutal way to break into this business.
[Laughs] It certainly is! You know, the hard part for me was being an Olympic gold medalist and having that persona, you don't see too many Olympic gold medalists go into acting. It's actually even more difficult. You're not taken very seriously and you're looked at in a different light, so it was kind of hard for me to go straight from Olympics into acting. I tried, it just didn't work out. Pro wrestling was there and I was good at it, thank God. I started getting a lot of offers but unfortunately at WWE I was under a tight leash. I think it had a lot to do with The Rock making the transition, and me possibly being the next guy -- you know, the company didn't want to lose another top performer. So I believe that had a lot to do with me not having the opportunity. So when I went to TNA, I started getting the opportunity to do some of those things.
So while pro wrestling offered you a career, it was also limiting.
Yeah. Without a doubt.
How much were you acting before beginning your wrestling career with the WWE?
I was taking classes and I was getting very serious about it. I was also sportscasting -- I was a sportscaster in Pittsburgh for Fox, just trying to get in front of the camera a little bit. Then pro wrestling came around and I took a shot at that, and I didn't realize I was going to become that good. I made a lot of money, thank God, and I stuck with it, but every time I had a movie where my name would come up for some reason, I wasn't allowed to do it due to scheduling reasons in the WWE. So with TNA, they give me the opportunity to go ahead and do movies and if it conflicts with the schedule they work around it. It's a much better situation for me. So I actually signed a new three-year deal today with TNA. I'm going to stick with TNA.
It certainly sounds like a better situation for what you want to do. But what I also think is interesting about you transitioning to acting from wrestling is that your pro wrestling career borrowed so much from your personal life -- it theatricalized it into a persona that was distinctly a persona yet to close to your own life.
Yeah, I especially did this year. You know, with me I'm just in a better place in my life now, so when I did the whole thing this year with my ex and her new husband and all that, it wasn't that hard. They asked me if I'd do it and I said, "Yeah, that's fine. I'll go ahead and do it, it's no problem as long as the kids don't watch it, I'm fine with it." So that's what we did. It really wasn't that hard. A lot of people respected me, a lot of the wrestlers were like, "I don't know if I could do it!" But I really didn't have a problem with it. I don't know why, but I didn't.
Considering your attempts to break into acting before and during your wrestling career, what kinds of roles were you looking for when Warrior came along?
I did three movies that are in theaters this year -- Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, Warrior, and a movie called Beyond the Mat. Actually, I literally got these movies on my own. I do have an agency and they have gotten me a lot of leads, but unfortunately with what's going on with movies today, you have the money upfront, you're ready to do it, and all of a sudden investors pull out. So I had at least seven or eight movies do that, and unfortunately I'd be a lot further in my career, but a lot of these movies that were, you know, $4 million to $20 million-budgeted movies didn't pan out. And they've been put on hold. So I was fortunate enough to get three of them this year. I actually filmed two of them two years ago and one last year. And then I did three independent movies just for practice that had worldwide distribution. It was just mainly so I could get in front of the camera and have a little more practice.
You play an MMA champion in Warrior who's sort of like the Ivan Drago to Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy's dual Rockys.
Without a doubt, you're right. You know, the difference with my character in the movie which was pretty cool was that all of the movie is about these brothers and their father, who is Nick Nolte, but the tournament in the movie was really built around one fighter named Koba from Russia. He was undefeated, no one's ever beat him, no one's ever gotten along with him, and so even though my character isn't seen a lot in the movie -- maybe in ten, fifteen scenes -- the character's very strong in terms of promoting the tournament around this one man. Koba has never left Russia, is an Olympic gold medalist -- which believe it or not, I am -- and it was pretty cool because you're right, it was a lot like Ivan Drago. But thing about the movie is that [Koba] is a fan favorite; everybody paid to see Koba, that was the whole point, to see this guy from Russia that no one's ever seen before. The day we were filming my entrance they brought in more extras than for anybody else because they wanted the Koba entrance to be the best, the biggest, the most exciting.
What I like about that is that it means there's not necessarily an evil villain in Warrior.
No! No, the Cold War is over, now it's about, "I want to see the best fighters in the world fight," and I think that's very real in MMA today. You've got a guy like Fedor Emelianenko, who's considered the best heavyweight fighter and everybody wants to see him fight. I believe that this character, Koba, was built around him.
Why do you think MMA is having its turn in the spotlight now?
I believe it's been marketed right by Dana White at UFC, thank God. There are so many intriguing things about it because now you have all these disciplines that come together and it's like, what is the best discipline? It used to be you had to have one discipline and you went in and you fought somebody from another discipline. In other words, I'm a wrestler and I would fight a boxer, and a karate guy would fight a jujitsu guy. Now, everybody's so well versed they can do it all, so now it's a lot more competitive than it was back when it started. But when it first started it was about, which is the best discipline? It was either wrestling or jujitsu.
Did you have to train a lot more than usual and in different ways to play Koba?
I actually was training before the fight because I was talking with Dana White about going to UFC. So I trained for quite a bit. I was ready to go by the time I went to the casting call; I had the right look. I had what they were looking for. They told me they went through about 50 different fighters and I was the one that stuck out the most. I was really taken back.
Considering your more serious acting pursuits, did you ever think, 'Maybe I should play an office worker,' or something like that -- characters who aren't action-oriented, who are unrelated to this realm of fighting?
Yes, without a doubt. I really have been trying to get in movies with smaller parts, just to get myself in there and get more practice, and not have to take the big lead. In Dylan Dog I was one of the co-stars, and I had a pretty good part in that movie. But I'm looking for smaller parts in bigger movies. I think that's the best way to get in there and show people what you can do. But me right now, taking on a lead role in a huge budgeted movie -- I don't think I'm really ready for that right now. What I think I need to do is take the smaller parts and make my craft a little bit better.
I really respect that. Speaking of craft, in Warrior you acted opposite two great up-and-coming dramatic actors, Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy.
Joel and Tom -- tremendous.
Were you able to give them advice on the physicality of their performances?
Well, I could tell you this: I was really taken aback by their acting, but even moreso, I couldn't believe that they got knocked on -- they really did the real fighting. I really respect the fact that they trained with us, three months of training at MMA training camp. They did everything they were told to do. They got their weight to where they had to go. They had to build up muscle, they had to gain weight. I had to lose 30 lbs. So I was really blown away that they performed as well as they did in the octagon, for being actors. They weren't fighters, and they were tremendous. For me, I'm in there every day whether it's a wrestling ring or an octagon. I've gone and I've been there, I know what it's like -- these guys, they were hopping around, they'd never done it before. They really stepped up.
Do you feel like you learned anything from them, acting-wise?
Yeah, I really thought that Tom and Joel did -- because Tom played a Marine who went AWOL, and Joel played a schoolteacher -- I really bought into what they did. And having to change their accents to the American accent... I'm good friends with them and it's so funny because now they're talking to me with their Australian and British accents and I'm like, "Where in the hell did that come from?" They worked hard at it. They showed how well-versed they were.
In the film, Joel and Tom's characters go through intensely personal stuff while in the ring, which we see only because we're the audience of the film. Have you seen similarly emotional moments happen yourself in the ring with other fighters dealing with such intense emotional things?
You know what? You need to go on YouTube and watch my Olympic gold medal match and you'll see exactly what it feels like. You want to see somebody break down and cry? Look up "Kurt Angle Olympic finals" and you'll know exactly what it's like in real life. [Laughs] But you know what, they did -- they showed a lot of real emotion, and that's what made the movie so good. You can put all the fighting in the world in that movie, but if they didn't play their roles right and do exactly what they did... They carry their own personalities in their own way into this film -- Gavin O'Connor obviously directed it but these guys brought their own flavor to it. Even Nick Nolte, gosh. Even the character. I'll tell you what, on the set he cracked me up. He's out of his frickin' mind, but he's such a great actor.
[Watch Kurt Angle get overcome with emotion after his 1996 Olympic gold medal win]
Warrior is in theaters Friday.