When you’re already world-famous for something, where do you go next? For these athletes, the siren song of Hollywood was too powerful to ignore. All of them tried their hands at acting—with mixed success. Who’s your favorite sports star turned actor… and which of them should have stuck to their day jobs?
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Shaquille O’Neal was one of the biggest basketball stars of the 90s—literally. The genial giant seemed like a natural fit for the big screen, given his megawatt charisma. But charisma isn’t everything. Don’t believe me? Just watch Kazaam, a truly, deeply terrible kids’ movie from 1996 that stars Shaq as a genie. Even though the movie bombed at the box office, Shaq continued to pop up in cameos every now and then, as well as voicing himself in a number of animated projects.
In addition to his forays into acting, Shaw also released five rap albums, trained to be a reserve officer for the LAPD, gotten involved in MMA and WWE events, and owns a string of Pap John’s locations and a Krispy Kreme in Atlanta.
Look, Tom Brady might be the QB GOAT, but he has all the screen presence of a paper bag with googly eyes stuck to it. To be fair, he hasn’t made much of an effort to act since the 2003 dud Stuck on You with Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear. He popped up in the Funny or Die video above ten years ago, where he has zero energy for most of the clip until he starts shouting and pushing people at the end.
It seems like Tom Brady could be a movie star, given his chiseled good looks, but for me, watching him is like staring at a pile of damp laundry.
Okay, yes, I’m being really harsh. Maybe I just never liked the Patriots.
You could argue that the reason so many professional wrestlers successfully make the transition to an acting career is that they were always performers. Regardless, John Cena has become a household name thanks to his work in comedies like Trainwreck and Blockers, as well as his long-running role as Peacemaker in the DC Universe.
At the time of this writing, Cena has eight different projects in production, so it doesn’t appear that he’ll be slowing down anytime soon. Of course, we can’t talk about John Cena without mentioning one of his greatest achievements: the world record for the most wishes granted with Make-a-Wish. Cena has visited 650 kids and counting. According to the foundation, he has more than tripled the number of wishes granted by any other single celebrity.
Cena is genuinely funny, and along with Dave Bautista—don’t worry, he’s coming up on this list—he’s one of the best wrestlers-turned-actors. His unique blend of action-figure handsomeness with a self-deprecating sense of humor makes him so much fun to watch onscreen.
First, let’s just agree that bodybuilding counts as a sport, okay? With that out of the way, let’s talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger as an actor. Like Sean Connery, he was never able to lose his natural accent, but audiences just shrugged and went with it. His imposing physique, craggy good looks and massive muscles, and his surprising knack for comedic timing made him one of the biggest movie stars in the world for two decades running.
He’ll always be best known as the Terminator, and even if he’d never made any other films, Schwarzenegger would probably still make this list. After struggling to find proles that were more challenging than Conan the Barbarian, Schwarzenegger found a way to balance hard-hitting action moves like Predator with more family-friend fare like Kindergarten Cop. He established the path to success that many other athletes-turned-actors have followed, then kicked things up another notch by getting himself elected as the governor of California.
While Arnold’s legacy took a hit when his messy personal life became public, he remains one of the all-time action-hero greats. His journey is coming full circle with The Legend of Conan, which will see him step back into his first big Hollywood role. Honestly, I’d rather see a sequel to True Lies!
Cynthia Rothrock started taking martial arts lessons when she was just 13 years old, sparking a lifelong passion. In the early 80s, she racked up dozens of World Champion wins in a variety of martial arts, and she holds a total of seven black belts in different disciplines.
The movie industry came calling in 1985 when she starred in the first of many Hong Kong martial arts pictures. Fun fact: her costar in that first movie was none other than Michelle Yeoh. After making a name for herself in Asia, Rothrock eventually returned to her native US, where she appeared in more than 30 films. I can’t say that any of them were particularly great, though she was the inspiration for Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat, so that’s cool.
John Cena wasn’t the only athlete to make an appearance in Trainwreck. The Amy Schumer comedy also featured LeBron James in a small but memorable role. He seems totally natural opposite Bill Hader, coming across as believable and funny.
Unfortunately, his other entertainment projects have been hit or miss. The LeBrons, an animated, semi-autobiographical series, wasn’t great. And his reboot of Space Jam failed to recapture the nostalgia-fueled magic of the original (even though you could make the case that James is a better actor than Michael Jordan). The movie barely made back its production budget at the box office—which, in industry terms, means it was a flop for Warner Bros.
In addition to his appearances in front of the camera, James has taken on the role of producer for a wide range of TV shows, documentaries, and movies, including the upcoming Friday the 13th reboot.
MMA fighter Gina Carano seemed poised to become Hollywood’s new favorite female action star. She starred in the Steven Soderbergh action thriller Haywire in 2011 alongside some real heavy hitters. She was… I mean, the role didn’t require a great deal of acting range. Despite a brief fan campaign for Carano to be cast as Wonder Woman, she only made one superhero movie: Deadpool.
Carano was cast in several action flicks during the last decade, but her somewhat wooden screen presence meant that her career as an actress never fully took off. Then she landed a major role on The Mandalorian, the prestige Disney+ series that could have seen her character get her own spinoff. Instead, she ended up getting fired over a string of incendiary political tweets. After being dropped by her agency, Carano made the rounds on conservative podcasts before agreeing to star in a right-wing news site’s first foray into filmmaking, My Son Hunter.
I promised Dave Bautista, and I deliver. Audiences were bowled over by Bautista as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy. He stood out even in a cast of other really funny, talented people. Joining the MCU proved to be a very smart career move for him, as he’s managed to pop up as Drax in multiple moves and the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.
But Bautista is more than just a one-note character. He’s appeared in Army of the Dead and will reprise his role in the upcoming sequel TV series. He’s Edo Voss in the Apple TV show See, appeared as one of the Harkonnens in Dune, and—in the role I’m most excited about—he’s part of the ensemble cast for Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Last but in no way least, we have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Who would have thought, after seeing his non-verbal big-screen debut in The Mummy Returns, that this guy would end up being one of the biggest movie stars in history?
Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Rock has balanced action movies with family fare, alternating between the Fast and the Furious franchise and flicks like Jumanji and Jungle Cruise. But Johnson is also gifted at voice acting, as seen by his work as Maui in Moana. He can even sing!
As a 21st-century movie star, Johnson has also been very savvy about working with both Disney and Netflix. The Rock has plenty of projects on his schedule, including a reboot of Big Trouble in Little China and a biopic of King Kamehameha of Hawaii directed by Robert Zemeckis. I smell what he’s cooking—and it’s a future Oscar campaign.
Thankfully, Johnson has decided not to follow in the Governator’s footsteps by pursuing a career in politics. He had flirted with the idea of running for president someday, but at least for now, he’s happy to focus on being a dad.