In a Metairie middle-school gym, worlds away from Hollywood glitz, Luke Hawx is sweaty, grimy and bruised, held back by a dozen men nearly as big as he is. He struggles against the dense human embankment preventing him from crossing the 10 feet between him and his sneering antagonist — the creepily ageless hardcore-wrestling icon Stevie Richards, who's just called Hawx a coward in front of Hawx's hometown crowd.
The audience is booing and stomping, urging their folk hero to defend his honor — the city's honor — against this trash-talking interloper. Hawx's jaw and eyes protrude as he exerts himself and then, in a leap, he is free of his captors. He vaults onto their heads and backs, crowd-surfing angrily over them toward a suddenly terrified Richards. When Hawx jumps free, the audience also jumps, coming to its feet with a roar of approval. Hawx has him! The two trade blows for a moment before being pulled apart.
"You want this?" Richards bellows as he retreats, triumphantly holding a glittering belt in the air. "You'll have to come get it in my house. I'll see you in Philadelphia!"
Hawx yells back. The crowd yells at both. It's pandemonium.
This is Luke Hawx in his element: a massively muscled, living emblem of hometown pride, a brute capable of superheroics, through whom audience members can live vicariously for a $10 ticket.
An increasing number of audiences all over the world are seeing Luke Hawx — and not just as a pro wrestler. He landed key roles in two recent record-breaking Hollywood films: He died an iconically gruesome death in Logan and brawled with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in The Fate of the Furious. Despite tasting global success, Hawx is firmly rooted in New Orleans, where he started life with the deck stacked high against him. He was desperately poor and underparented as a child, and grew to be a truant and troublemaker. As an adult, he spent over a decade roaming the country as a journeyman wrestler, finding work wherever he could, paying his bills with construction and plumbing gigs while wrestling at night.
He's equally busy these days. In addition to acting jobs, he is the founder and CEO of WildKat Sports pro wrestling. He trains wrestlers, puts on live shows and has a weekly TV program, Wildkat Wrestling, the highest-rated local show on WUPL-TV, WWL's sibling channel. The same work ethic that carried him out of poverty blazes on, undiminished.
I met with Hawx in his understated apartment, where he was preparing for both an upcoming trip to wrestle in England and a local photo shoot to promote iSatori, a line of fitness supplements that's signed him to a personal sponsorship deal. In person, Hawx is warm and genuine, projecting calm, businesslike confidence. You'd know he was pure New Orleans even if he didn't have a bunch of tattoos saying so. We spoke about his film career, wrestling and his hard-knock background.
GAMBIT: This has been a breakout few months for you.
Hawx: I definitely didn't know I was going to be in the two biggest blockbusters of 2017.
GAMBIT: How'd you do it?
H: I was hustling sets and hustling movies for years, going on auditions, getting something here and there. You work with someone, he likes you because you do a good job, and then something comes his way that fits you. In this case it was J.J. Perry, who's a phenomenal stunt coordinator. I'd worked with J.J. a few times, and my description fit for Fate of the Furious, so he recommended they call me for an audition. The same day, I got a call for an audition on Logan.
I didn't think I'd get either one. Even when I got the roles, I didn't know how many doors it would open up for me. I knew they were big films, but they could flop; you never know. Then here it is 2017, and within a month's time I'm going to the movie theater with all my friends to see me on the big screen, which is crazy, and my name's in the credits right underneath Kurt Russell['s]. It's awesome.
GAMBIT: People in our area know you from WildKat Sports, the pro wrestling promotion and school you founded.
H: I love pro wrestling first and foremost, more than anything in life except my kids. For a while we didn't have pro wrestling here in Louisiana. My goal was to bring it back, have a great product and open up a school so younger wrestlers don't have to move like I did, to go chase it in California and Philadelphia. Now they can train here and get opportunities with other companies, because people know they come from WildKat Sports and they're trained correctly.
GAMBIT: WildKat not only has outlived a lot of regional promotions, but keeps getting bigger. What's the key?
H: There's no shortcut. Like [body builder] C.T. Fletcher says, everybody wants the 60-second abs ... but there ain't no such thing as 60-second abs. I wrestled for 13 years before I made a living at it and before I started WildKat. ... I always had a vision. I'm not afraid of growth, but I also knew I didn't want to grow too fast. So it's been long-term, to build from 200 peo-ple [at our shows] to 1,500, and from there to producing our own weekly prime-time television show.
GAMBIT: Where'd you learn how to produce TV?
H: We're still learning; there's plenty of trial and error. I didn't have somebody taking me under their wing and showing me how. You survive by adapting to your environment, same as anything in life. As a little kid it was hey, either I somehow get a couple dollars for a combo meal or I'm not gonna eat tonight. So guess what? I'd go dig coins out of the fountain at Esplanade Mall. You find a way.
GAMBIT: It was clear to me as soon as we met that you had the streets in you. Are you willing to talk about that part of your past?
H: Yeah, I'm not ashamed of it. My mom was a drug addict and my dad didn't want anything to do with me. I was on the streets since 8, 9 years old, doing what I wanted to, not coming home for days, sleeping out and hustling to get money. I had no clothes; I legit wore my mom's clothes to school. I got made fun of because I'd be wearing girl jeans and girl shoes and had holes in my clothes. I hated school. After failing two years of middle school for not going, the courts took me away from my mom and I went into Boys Town.
It was a culture shock. In the boys' home I at least had clothes and food, but I also had structure I wasn't used to. I couldn't leave. I had to go to bed at 8 at night. I had to wash clothes. At the time I hated it, but it was the best thing that happened to me. It put stability in my life. Then, at 15 years old, the courts told me, "You can stay in the home until you're 18, or we can force your dad to take you." I'd never lived a day with him. We didn't get along. For some reason back then, he just didn't want nothing to do with me. It lasted maybe a month, and then I got in a fight with my dad at school — a fistfight.
The school disciplinarian was like, "We can't send this kid home, and he's got no other family." They didn't know where the hell my mom was at the time. The disciplinarian said, "I'll probably get in trouble, but I'll take you home with me for the night." A night turned into two nights, then it turned into three nights because I still didn't have anywhere to go. And then he said, "Well look, if you listen to me and abide by my rules, I'll take care of you. You stay here and I'll adopt you."
GAMBIT: A disciplinarian sounds ... strict.
H: He did so much for me. Being adopted was awesome, but it was a struggle, because again, I wanted to go out and hang with my friends all night. I wanted to run the streets. I didn't want to do homework. You couldn't tell me anything. I wanted to be independent; that's all I knew. I fought with him a lot. I wasn't used to somebody showing me that they cared about me, but he stuck with me through my stubbornness.
GAMBIT: So he was a good mentor?
H: More than I can say. He taught me how to be a man. And I knew with my kids, I didn't want them having the same life I had. I was going to do whatever it took, physically, mentally, to chase my dreams at all costs. My dream was pro wrestling, and I never gave up. When I was growing up, pro wrestling was something that always took me away from negativity. Whenever I watched pro wrestling, I didn't think about anything else, it was just happy thoughts. So that's what I pursued.
GAMBIT: How did you get from pro wrestling into stunts and film?
H: I was wrestling in 2006 for a show on MTV. We were on set in L.A., and [the wrestler] Vampiro says "Hey, I want you to be in this movie I'm doing in Mexico. The producers are here and they like your look." So I give these guys my contact (information), thinking I'll never hear from them again. I mean, it's Hollywood. A couple months go by and I get a phone call: "Hi, we're going to be shooting in Guadalajara on these dates, are you available? We're going to fly you down and pay you $1,000 a day. Are you cool with that?"
I'm thinking, I've got to work three 40-hour weeks to make $1,000. "Yeah," I say, "I can do that."
I flew down to Mexico; it was all good. I learned that I didn't know a goddamn thing about the movie business. After that, I started training with a stunt coordinator named Phil O'Dell. Phil lived in Covington, so I would [work as a bouncer], get off at 5 a.m., go to IHOP for breakfast and then drive straight to the Northshore on no sleep and train. Eight hours a day with Phil, learning how to fight, learning how to shoot guns, learning how to do all of these different things involving camera angles. I did that for two years before I got my first opportunity. Phil would always say "Yeah, I've got this film coming up or this project coming up, I'm going to try to get you in."
I would get my hopes up and then, "Oh, the budget got cut, that scene got cut." It was always something. He was trying, but it was brutal.
Finally the first movie came, Wrong Side of Town with [wrestlers] Batista and Rob Van Dam. Phil was like, "It isn't a wrestling film, but they've got wrestlers in it, so I'm getting you in." So I got [Screen Actors Guild membership] in 2009 on that film. You can't get a role unless you're [a member of] SAG, and you can't get SAG unless you get a role. Once I had SAG, I started gradually picking up more work from there.
GAMBIT: In Fate of the Furious and Logan you had speaking roles. Is that a big step up? It seems higher-profile than doing stunt work.
H: It is and it's not. A lot of stunt guys play small acting roles. Stunt guys actually get paid more by normal SAG rates. The big difference between a stunt and an acting role is stunt guys don't get the credit actors do. There's no Oscars for stunts, but without stunts there'd be no movies. Stunt guys put their bodies through hell. In Homefront, I got blasted down a set of stairs. You know how hard it is to get yanked downstairs backwards? Those are wood stairs, no protection. You've got to be a bad motherfucker.
GAMBIT: That's what you get cast as a lot.
H: Yeah, because of my size and how fit I am, I get a lot of bad guy roles, which I'm fine with. I've got the tattoos, I've got that look like I'm going to kick someone's ass. Somebody's got to make the good guy look good, right? Pin me, pay me.
GAMBIT: What's ahead for you?
H: I'm in the first episode of the new season of Preacher on AMC. I play Doug the Bouncer; I get into a good little tussle with the main character and we have an interesting turn. There's the WildKat TV series, Saturday and Sunday nights on WUPL. WildKat's doing a more adult-oriented show at Shamrock on North Carrollton on June 24, and then we're working on a big project. We're filming something over the summer that I think is going to be groundbreaking.
GAMBIT: It's been quite a journey.
H: It wasn't easy. I got passed over for so many things because I'm not this guy's son or I didn't go to this school. If I didn't bust my ass on everything I do, I wouldn't have any of these opportunities. I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm willing to learn and I'm willing to work as hard as I have to to make progress toward my goals. Once I reach those goals, I make new goals. I'm not afraid to fail. I grew up a failure. Both of my brothers are heroin addicts; I'm the only person in my family that graduated high school. Now I've got a kid going to college, who won the top awards at Grace King [High School] — all honors and he was homecoming king. He's got scholarships.
I'm so proud of my kids. It means I broke the cycle. I tweeted that today: My biggest accomplishment is breaking the cycle. I'm just a regular dude who worked hard. I'm in a bunch of movies because of it, and I'm still working hard, and I'm producing my own television show. And who knows what the future holds for me.
I can tell you this — I ain't going back.