By Claudia Puig, USA Today
NEW ORLEANS - When it comes to low-key art-house movies, professional wrestlers are hardly the first names on anyone's go-to casting list. But World Wrestling Entertainment wants to change that.
WWE Studios is producing nine low-budget PG movies starring such stalwarts as Patricia Clarkson, Danny Glover, Parker Posey and Ed Harris - and some of the most popular wrestling superstars on their roster. The wrestlers do not stomp or smack down. They act - in small, medium and large roles.
Legendary, the first of these movies, opens Friday, and WWE officials hope the 16 million weekly U.S. viewers of their various TV shows will head to the multiplex.
And they're banking on the reputations of Clarkson and Glover, who co-star in this family drama with wrestler John Cena (The Marine), to draw a whole new audience.
"These are good, character-driven stories," says WWE Studios president Mike Pavone. "We're not blowing up buildings."
"These movies allow us to entertain people in a different way," says Paul "Triple H" Levesque, who stars in a film planned for February release called The Chaperone. "Wrestling is big and over the top and dramatic. Movies are a different world. In a movie, you can squint your eyes, and it reads a million times bigger than a whole face reaction. You just really have to pull it back."
Adds Cena: "You really don't have to be as energetic because the camera is truly in your face, and it catches everything. Learning to kind of tone myself down a bit has been the most difficult part."
For the WWE, it's a win-win situation. It makes the movies for reasonable sums (about $5 million), hires well-respected actors, veteran directors and screenwriters and experienced crews, and shoots them in places such as New Orleans that offer the country's top tax incentives.
"It was a very smart, well-thought-out business move: expanding on the fan base that they have," says director Steven Herek (Mr. Holland's Opus), who directs The Chaperone, also starring Ariel Winter, Annabeth Gish and Kevin Corrigan. "It's turning out that the wrestlers are natural actors."
The wrestlers hope to defy expectations.
"The movies we do are not what people would stereotypically think," says Le vesque. "The stereotype goes 'WWE, the wrestling guys, they blow stuff up and beat up people and there's going to be a big car chase and 100 cars are going to get ruined.'
"People don't care about that," he says. "They care about good stories."