Meet Me There Meets Horror Halfway
Dustin Runnels leaps from the wrestling ring to the movie set
By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 16, 2015
In wrestling rings around the world, he's famous as the mysterious, malevolent, androgynous, and anarchistic WWE superstar Goldust. Beneath the makeup, he's Austin's own Dustin Runnels, and now he's making his first ventures into cinema. "I've had my day in the sunshine with wrestling," he says, "but I'm still young enough that I can walk away when I want and branch off into something a little less physical."
Preacher Woodward, Runnels' character in Lex Lybrand's locally produced horror film Meet Me There, is far removed from his in-ring antics as the Bizarre One: In the redneck-nightmare town of Sheol, Okla., Woodward is the quiet voice of sympathy for the road-tripping couple Ada and Calvin (local comedy stalwarts Lisa Friedrich and Michael Foulk). In some ways, it's close to his roots as a self-described "country boy," channeling simmering Southern Gothic sensibilities into the doom-foretelling holy man. Runnels says, "That's what makes him creepy, that he's more subtle and quiet and reserved."
The role relies on eerie intimacy, and while the WWE has him performing to the rafters in arenas and stadiums, it also made him a TV star. "For the last 20-odd years, there's been a camera in my face," Runnels says. It started with backstage vignettes and promos, but with the increase in social media, and the wrestling organization now running its own films division, the company brings acting coaches to TV tapings to work with the roster. Runnels has embraced every opportunity they provide to hone his skills. "Without it," he remarks, "there's no telling what kind of performance I would have given."
Famous as Goldust has made Runnels, he grew up in the shadow of his father: wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes. Yet he was determined to be more than just a legacy. "You can't live in someone else's shoes; you've got to branch out and fill your own shoes." As for naysayers who doubt a professional wrestler can act, Runnels is used to changing minds. At every live event, he says, "There's always one person that does not believe in wrestling. They're there because of their children, and they're just miserable. I will work that person. The entire match, I go back to that person, just to see their responses. As the match progresses, and I'm showing him the happiness on my face or the anger or the pain, you start to make somebody a believer."
That's something Friedrich can associate with, from her time teaching improv with the New Movement Theater. "I teach very heavily to have real and grounded themes, not just the goofy things, because the idea is to illicit a response from the audience, not necessarily a laugh."
Due in part to his insanely demanding touring schedule, Runnels was only on set for a couple of days. Yet his quiet, thoughtful moments are among the most pivotal scenes, and in stark contrast to the flurry of violence as he forcibly baptizes Ada. Foulk remembers, "Right beforehand, Lisa specifically told Dustin, 'Hey, I want you to scare me.'"
Bad idea, says Friedrich. "Never tell a wrestler to scare you."
This was the real change for Runnels. "I'm used to big guys and throwing them down and hitting them in the face and being very, very rough. But this little, timid girl's life in my hands ... it was just very eerie. Every time she'd come up, I would check to see if she was OK. She was a trouper."
Foulk even had his own grappling moment with Runnels, along with a quick reminder of whom he was dealing with. "It's a bucket-list thing to get thrown by a professional wrestler," he comments, "and it was shocking how easily he threw me. I'm about 220, and he tossed me like I was nothing."
Meet Me There screens at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, Jan. 21, 7pm, with cast and crew in attendance. The film will soon be available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD.