Last December, during his final match in World Wrestling Entertainment, Kevin Nash, one of the most successful and recognizable professional wrestlers of his generation, fell off a ladder and through a table. He thought the table would cushion the blow. Instead, it caused his second concussion of the night. Minutes later, Paul "Triple H" Levesque pinned Nash. It was a worthy swan song. Backstage, Nash ran into Vince McMahon. "I think we saved your best for last," the WWE chairman and CEO told him.
Once he returned home to Daytona Beach, Nash, 53, buzzed his long black mane, allowing it to grow in gray. He first wore the gray hair and beard a few years back in TNA Impact Wrestling to resemble one of his favorite movie tough guys, Wade Garrett, Sam Elliott's character in Road House. Now it keeps him grounded. "When my hair is dyed, I feel like I'm 35 again," he says. "Our business feeds that Peter Pan mentality."
During his wrestling career, the sarcastically charismatic Nash was the smartest guy in the room. The center of attention. Big Sexy. Big Daddy Cool. Here, sitting in a restaurant in Daytona, cupping a glass of unsweetened iced tea, the veneer's gone; he's introspective. His face is smooth, unwrinkled. (He denies having undergone plastic surgery.) His Native American features are more pronounced in person than on television. He is, of course, still massive — 6-foot-10, 295 pounds, thick chest, round biceps, and forearms the size of a normal man's quadriceps. And he is now in the midst of a career change. Kevin Nash, like so many wrestlers before him, is trying to make it as an actor. The results, so far, have been encouraging.
He didn't do much other than look tough as Tom Cruise's bodyguard in the musical Rock of Ages, released in June. But his work as Tarzan, a broken-down stripper, in the sleeper hit Magic Mike impressed and hints at a future. Still, he's not ready to give up wrestling.
Nash still works on the independent scene. He likes the weekend schedule — it allows him time to bond with his 16-year-old son, Tristen, but it's a hustle compared to WWE's global monolith. He peddles 8x10s at autograph sessions before events where the crowds rarely top 1,000. Still, it's hard for Kevin Nash to turn down a paycheck. "I'm a Detroit kid who grew up with that assembly line mentality: You go to work to make money," he says. "My wife is like, 'Why do you still wrestle?' If you go to an ATM for a hundred dollars and it keeps spitting twenties, when would you walk away? When it wasn't spitting twenties no more. As long as you can take the money out, you'd stay there. That's what the wrestling business is like."
Nearly every conversation with Kevin Nash leads back to money. He grew up in a working-class family in southwest Detroit in an 800-square-foot house. His parents met while working at Ford. Dad was in the graphics department; mom was a secretary. From his first job delivering newspapers, Nash has adhered to what he calls a "blue-collar, dollar-is-a-dollar outlook."
Then there came a point in his life when he realized that a million dollars wasn't a whole lot of money, especially for an athlete with bad wheels. He's haunted by the memory of Tony Conigliaro, a gifted outfielder for the Boston Red Sox in the 1960s whose career was derailed following a horrific beaning. "So many people buy the ideal that this money is always going to be there," Nash says. "I bought the ideal that this could be over tomorrow." It's what keeps him up nights.
He's struggled with insomnia since he was a child. It's intensified in recent years. Every night, after a few hours gorging on cable news, Nash lies in bed replaying the day's events. His mind races. He starts sweating. Sleep drifts further out of reach. Deep-breathing exercises are no help. Counting sheep is useless. He'll get to 17 or 18 and fall deeper down the wormhole. What kind of sheep? What are they hurdling? Is it a barbed-wire fence? Why are they even jumping? His brain won't shut down. Sometimes, he kicks around ideas for a screenplay in which he'll play a good Samaritan shot for his troubles and bound to a wheelchair. Sometimes, thoughts of China and the EU crisis creep in. That gets him thinking about his personal finances, which then triggers an anxiety attack.
"In '08 when, basically, we were going into a Depression, I was beyond hyperventilating," he says. "I had to go to the doctor and get Xanax. I almost couldn't breathe. My guy from Merrill Lynch, my guy from Edward Jones is telling me, 'It's just on paper.' 'So, it's just on paper but if I want to live on that tomorrow, where's it at?' 'It's 3.7 [million].' 'Dude, it's not on paper, it's fucking real.'"
Everywhere he looks around Daytona Beach, Nash is reminded of the recession. He points out of his black 2005 Mustang GT convertible toward a stock, one-story home that, he says, was once on the market for $599,000. Now, he bets it's available for $199,000. We pass a condominium built before the bubble burst. Nash doesn't think any of the lofts were sold. His own place, a duplex with pristine views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Halifax River, was recently appraised. It has depreciated $480,000 in value over the past three years.
It's tough for a colossus to get acting gigs. But 2012 isn't Nash's first Hollywood moment. He broke into the business in 1991, portraying Super Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. He waited 13 years before appearing as The Russian in The Punisher. He says he paused his acting career because of money. "It's hard," he says. "When you're in that upper echelon in wrestling, any movie you take is gonna be a pay cut. If you're gone for three months and they pay you 150 grand, you're getting killed."
Professional wrestling has always had a covetous relationship with cinema — wrestlers want to be actors. Dozens have attempted the leap. All, with the exception of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, have failed. Nash, however, has a plan: After dipping his toe into the genre,1 he's eschewing the D-grade action movies favored by his peers. He wants to be the next Paul Giamatti, not the next Schwarzenegger.
Last year, Nash auditioned for Magic Mike casting director Carmen Cuba over Skype for the role of Tarzan, the towering elder statesman of a male strip club revue. He met all of Cuba's requirements: He was older and had his own fan base; he was taller than Joe Manganiello, the 6-foot-5 True Blood actor who plays Big Dick Richie in the movie; fit enough to wear a thong; and he was accustomed to juggling a public and private guise.
"Who Kevin is as a person was very attractive to us," Cuba says. "In his personal life, he's an art lover and very sensitive. He's a family man and gets sentimental when he talks about his son. For us, the contrast between that and his larger-than-life persona, combined with his physique, was [appealing]."
Tarzan wasn't much of a stretch for Nash. "It mimics where I am in the other world," he says. "I'm beat-down." On set, he told Academy Award–winning director Steven Soderbergh that he wouldn't dance without his knee brace. Soderbergh thought it was funny. The knee brace stayed.
It's jarring to watch Nash strip to "It's Raining Men," but he found humor and sadness in the part, holding his own onscreen against Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, and flourishing in the largely improvised scenes. "It was very Altman-esque," says co-star Matt Bomer. "There were times when we would just be sitting around, shooting the shit, and Steven would say, 'I like that conversation. Talk about that when we're rolling.' There were certain times when everything was improvised. The whole conversation about Kevin being ashy and asking The Kid to rub cocoa butter on his legs and then me saying, 'We all had to do it.' That was all improvised. Kevin was an amazing improviser. He brought so much in rounding out the ensemble and giving it depth and character."
It was a richer experience than Rock of Ages. Nash sang backup for Tom Cruise on "Wanted Dead or Alive," but he had no dialogue. He also cursed out Cruise's makeup artist toward the end of shooting.2
He'd like to pick up more character-actor work like Magic Mike, maybe a romantic comedy or even a film set in the wrestling world; Nash pitched Tatum an idea for a film called King of the Road. "The Wrestler was a good movie, but The Wrestler is the end of the run," Nash says. "There's never been a movie about the run. That's what people want to see."
Nash isn't as garrulous about a potential appearance in the Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire. Earlier this year, rumors floated him for the part of Brutus, but casting wasn't finalized when Nash mentioned the film while on the red carpet at the Magic Mike premiere. Now, Nash refuses to address the project.
Nash was a top basketball recruit, and after his junior year at Aquinas High School he says he attended a basketball camp with Magic Johnson. The following year, they teamed on a Midwestern All-Star squad and defeated the Russian Junior National team in an exhibition. Every time they played together, Johnson told Nash to keep his hands up. "Early in the game, Magic came down the lane, I had my hands by my chin and all of a sudden, I had the ball in my hands," Nash remembers. "If Magic Johnson was my point guard, I probably could have had a couple of scrub years in the NBA."
But Nash was a step slow and clashed with head coach Don DeVoe during three years at the University of Tennessee. The relationship detonated following a loss at Kentucky during which Nash was tossed for throwing a punch. "We go back to the locker room and DeVoe kept saying, 'Hey, hothead, you cost us the game,'" Nash says. "He grabbed my jersey and tried to spin me around. He kept running his mouth so I bitch-smacked him. I bear-pawed him." He washed out of Tennessee, spent two years in the Army, played professionally in Germany, and then, after tearing up his knee, returned to the assembly line in Detroit.
He worked as a floor manager in an Atlanta area strip club when he broke into wrestling, attending the Georgia Academy of Wrestling in a little town called Lovejoy. His trainer Jody "The Assassin" Hamilton says Nash was "destined for success." He made his big television debut in September 1990 as part of a tag team, the Master Blasters, a Road Warriors knockoff that flopped immediately.3 World Championship Wrestling officials were high on Nash, however, and quickly repackaged him as Oz. Not the Wizard of Oz, just Oz, as in the fictional geographical region.4 Nash wore a rubber mask to the ring, an emerald-green cape, and was accompanied by the wrestler Kevin Sullivan, who also wore a rubber mask and, for some reason, handled a pet monkey. Oz's introduction at a May 1991 pay-per-view remains one of the goofiest moments in wrestling history. The gimmick didn't last.
Soon after, Nash crafted a character inspired by Steve Martin in My Blue Heaven. The crowd remained apathetic to the newly christened Vinnie Vegas, but he had one fan.
"I thought it was the funniest thing I'd ever laid eyes on. I saw a guy that was incredibly talented and thought he should be on a much bigger stage," says Michael "Shawn Michaels" Hickenbottom. "What sealed the deal for me was that he was humble and appreciative. And then the fact that he was so darn funny."
Nash jumped to the World Wrestling Federation in 1993 and became Diesel, a belligerent trucker moonlighting as Michaels's onscreen bodyguard. He didn't wrestle much but learned from being ringside, taking in Michaels's high-flying series of matches with Scott "Razor Ramon" Hall, an underrated mat-based powerhouse. That's when he fell in love with the business. Nash quickly blossomed into a main-eventer, and in November 1994, won the WWF Championship in an eight-second match.
Nash believes he was awarded the title because Vince McMahon wanted a "clean" big man as champion following his acquittal on steroids charges.5 His ascent wasn't greeted warmly by the locker room. Rivals like Scott "Bam Bam" Bigelow complained of his push; wrestling manager/booker Jim Cornette once famously declared that Nash only had six wrestling maneuvers. Nash was green, especially compared to Michaels, who is now considered one of the greatest performers ever, but his size, charm on the microphone, and imposing finisher, the "Jackknife Powerbomb," won fans over. His greatest attribute, however, was his appetite for backstage politics.
Along with close friends Michaels, Hall, and Sean "The 1-2-3 Kid" Waltman (later known as X-Pac), Nash formed The Kliq, a collective that dominated the main-event scene and conspired for higher paychecks. (Triple H joined later.) "We were like the Five Musketeers," Nash says. "You have five guys telling each other what we're getting paid, so they know they couldn't fuck us. We broke the system. It's like those fuckers that go to Vegas and count cards. We cared more about each other than about the individual because we knew as a pack, we'd all prosper from it."
It wasn't enough to stick around. Even as WWF champion, Nash says his contract was limited, for just 10 matches and $1,500. Merchandising and payouts6 could push earnings into the millions, but that money wasn't guaranteed.7 In spring 1996, he, along with Hall, signed with WCW to what he says was a five-year deal worth approximately $9 million, guaranteed. (Tristen was born six days into his WCW run.) He also shrewdly negotiated a "favored nation clause" into the contract — if another wrestler received a fatter deal from WCW, Nash's salary was adjusted to reflect the increase.
"He's smart as hell," says "Diamond" Dallas Page. "I used to call him 'The Locker Room Lawyer.' If I let Kevin Nash totally control my career, I would have made at least another 2 million dollars."
As we pull into the driveway at Nash's modest home, he gestures toward the residence across the street. "How much do you think he pays in property taxes? $36,000. I pay $7,200," he says, cackling. We walk through his garage, past a Bronco — "This is what I drive to my tea party meetings"8 — and into the house. Peja, a brown Yorkie named after Peja Stojakovic, greets him. We walk through his wife's home gym, past framed photographs from Nash's wrestling and basketball career, up a spiral staircase, and onto his rooftop deck. "I come up here and just take a breath," he says, looking past the ocean banks.
Daytona Beach is special for another reason: It's home to the biggest moment in Nash's wrestling career. On July 7, 1996, at WCW's Bash at the Beach pay-per-view, Nash, Hall, and Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea formed the New World Order, a stable aimed at destroying the WCW. Turning the beloved Hogan heel was shocking. The Ocean Center crowd pelted the trio with garbage. One fan even charged the ring. It inspired a parody video after LeBron James's "Decision."
The resulting nWo angle catapulted WCW past the WWF in the ratings for more than two years, until the emergence of the WWF's Attitude Era in spring 1998. By then, WCW was beset by creative problems. The nWo became diluted — black-and-white nWo shirts were slapped on generic mid-carders (Marcus "Buff" Bagwell), Hulk Hogan lackeys (Ed Leslie), and jobbers like Mike "Virgil"/"Vincent" Jones — and there was never any conclusion to the angle. Older stars like Nash and Hogan were also perceived to hold too much backstage power.
"As far as politics goes, Kevin and I worked pretty good together as good-cop, bad-cop when we really needed to get things done in the back," Hogan says. "If we needed something done from Ted Turner or [former WCW president] Eric Bischoff or Vince McMahon or [TNA president] Dixie Carter, we'd be like, 'Kevin won't be happy if he doesn't get this. Or, 'Hogan might flip out if he doesn't get this.' We were good at double-teaming the 'enemy' in a political situation. We were ruthless."
Along with Hogan, Kevin Nash might be the most despised man in the Internet wrestling community, a hive of hard-core wrestling nerds and snobs once known in the business as "smart marks," or "smarks." He's mocked in the comments section of wrestling websites and YouTube for, among other things, no-showing the Starrcade '97 pay-per-view because of a heart attack (he'd eaten a pan of pot brownies9), nearly killing Paul "The Big Show" Wight with a botched Powerbomb,10 allegedly booking himself to end Bill Goldberg's undefeated streak at Starrcade '98,11 and tearing his quad muscle during a match in 2002.
"I'm never going to be an Internet darling. I could hit an 890 hurricanrana tomorrow and they'll say, 'Oh, his left knee hit before his right knee,'" he says. "You're not supposed to be 7 feet tall, handsome, smart. You're a giant, you should look like a giant and fee-fi-fo-fum around. You shouldn't know anything about art. You shouldn't be well-rounded. Look at the core of the hard-core wrestling fans. What do we have in common? When they go to New York City, do they go to the modern art museum and can't believe that Picasso's early work is not cubism? Do they know that? Do they care? Have they ever spent a day at an art museum ever in their life? Do they go to Amsterdam to see Van Goghs, then go to a coffeehouse and then go see Van Goghs again?" He laughs. "They don't. Sorry, man." It sounds like a great Kevin Nash promo.
Here's one reason Nash will never be an Internet darling: He called Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero — small-statured, gifted technical wrestlers that lacked big in-ring personalities but were beloved by fans — "Vanilla Midgets." He now claims the comments were a double work. It drew heat from the marks that cheered for Benoit and Guerrero because they were baby faces. It drew heat from the smart marks that cheered for Benoit and Guerrero because they were great wrestlers. Even though both are gone now,12 he still thinks they never belonged in the main event.
"When Benoit and Guerrero hugged [at the end of WrestleMania XX], that was the end of the business," he says. "Has business been the same since that WrestleMania? Has it come close to the Austin era? Has it come close to the nWo or the Hogan era? You put two fucking guys that were great workers that were the same height as the fucking referees, and I'm sorry, man. Are you going to watch a porno movie with a guy with a three-inch dick? Even if you're not gay, you will not watch a porno movie with a guy with a three-inch dick. That's not the standard in porno films. So you put a 5-foot-7 guy as your world champion."
He has the same problem with today's Internet heroes, Phil "CM Punk" Brooks and Bryan "Daniel Bryan" Danielson.
"They are not bigger than life," he says. "I bet they could both walk through airports and not be noticed unless they have a gimmick shirt on and the belt."
We walk downstairs and wait for Nash's wife Tamara; they're going out to buy Tristen's first car, a steel-blue Jeep Wrangler Sport. John Lennon and Elvis Presley portraits hang in the foyer. Two more paintings hang in the living room. One has tepees and a '59 Cadillac. Its counterpart features more cars and pink dinosaurs. "Acid trips and cars," Nash says. And then, suddenly, without warning, he pulls out a .50-caliber Desert Eagle semiautomatic pistol. "Of course you have this for home protection. I love it." I don't know how to respond.
A lot of people have guns down here.
That's why I have one.
Are you an NRA guy?
No, I'm a stay-away-from-my-fucking-shit guy.
He disassembles the gun. It's not loaded.
Later that night, after dinner and two bottles of wine with his family at a riverfront seafood joint, Nash sits in his living room with another bottle. Talk soon turns to his lengthy reign as WWE champion, which was plagued by weak challengers (the rotund, immobile Nelson "Mabel" Frazier Jr.) and his babyface turn. After losing the title to Bret Hart in late 1995, Nash met with McMahon to discuss the direction of the business. "Did you see Heat? Did you root for Pacino or De Niro?," Nash asked his boss. McMahon admitted to cheering for the villain. "Don't you understand that the antihero is the new hero?" He thinks it inspired the Attitude Era and the subsequent ascent of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.13
He uncorks another bottle of wine. The booze makes him reflective. He talks about specific memories from the road: Watching Waltman and Levesque lay out a match together before Summer Slam '95; jobbing to local wrestler Mark Vandy at a recent independent show in Indianapolis; a brilliant promo he taped leading up to the Starrcade '98 collision with Goldberg. He'll occasionally watch that match on YouTube. "It had the electricity of a prizefight," he says.
Around 1 a.m. Nash offers me a ride, and 15 minutes later we pull up to valet. We decide to grab another drink, but the hotel bar is closed. So is room service. Somehow, he convinces the night manager to send a bottle of Cabernet to my room. It's rare seeing a giant win an argument without intimidation.
Once upstairs, Nash goes on for another hour on a variety of subjects. He talks about visiting a friend struggling with alcoholism (not Scott Hall14), extols Keith Richards's autobiography, his memories as a 4-year-old of President Kennedy's assassination, his property in St. John, his 161 IQ, and, again, money. He estimates he'll bank $525,000 yearly in retirement. "If I can't live on 525," he says, "I'm in trouble." He credits a handful of business decisions — buying early in silver and gold commodities and taking a chance on Ford when its stock was in the tank. Still, he's stressed. "The fucking peaks and valleys are so … jeez, man."
Workers will arrive early the next morning to install hurricane shutters on his home. By the weekend, Kevin Nash will be in the Caribbean vacationing with his wife and son. His wrestling career made him a multimillionaire. His acting career is taking off. It's 2:40 a.m., another sleepless night in Daytona Beach.
Thomas Golianopoulos (@golianopoulos) is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to the New York Times, Wired, the New York Observer, and Spin.