The email landed in St. Louis filmmaker Johnny Xeno's inbox in late July 2015.
The message, accompanied by photos, was from Bishop Stevens, a former pro wrestler who the year before had embarked on a new career as a screen actor. In the email, Stevens listed the roles he'd already won — recurring featured parts on the TV shows Empire and Chicago P.D., plus parts in several independent films.
"I am looking to advance into those types of roles for major film, television and commercials," Stevens wrote. "As you can tell by my size and look I'm truly a type casted tough or bad guy (and I love it)."
It was a good sales pitch. The indie filmmaker cast Stevens in his directorial debut, a science fiction movie called No Good Heroes, whose plot revolves around space aliens who cross paths in some unpleasant ways with the humans they meet.
Stevens played Clint, a reclusive, battle-scarred Marine who, alone in the woods, goes hunting during a night of drinking. Suffice it to say, strange things happen and all hell breaks loose.
The role had originally been written for a white actor, but as soon as he met Stevens, Xeno knew he would have to rewrite the part.
"This big, muscular black guy in this small town," Xeno recalls. "I wanted just something different. Not some redneck, good ol' boy out there. I wanted him to have some kind of different something."
Stevens' part was small, involving only two scenes and a short bit of dialogue.
"But he brought it," Xeno says. "Probably one of the most professional actors I worked with."
Before they could begin filming his scene, a night shoot in West Tyson Park just east of Eureka, Stevens spent half an hour picking up broken glass and trash along the road. Stevens had declined the mat the crew offered to cushion his falls during a scene in which he trips over a log. To keep the action as realistic possible, Stevens used his wrestler's training to hit the ground sans mat.
On the final take, Stevens recalls, "I literally slammed the back of my head on the ground. I fell over this big log and ... bam!"
But he wasn't done. That wrestler training isn't just good for stunts; it's also good for picking yourself up when they don't go exactly as planned. "Let me try one more," Stevens pleaded.
He says today, "I got one more good one. And, boy, I went back and, bam, I hit my head. And they're like, 'That's it.'"
No Good Heroes, which is set to drop on iTunes on July 24, represents Stevens' latest credit in his quest to transform himself from an over-the-top pro wrestler to a bona fide action star.
If the showbiz gods continue to smile on him, you could be seeing a lot more of Stevens. He's been picked to play the titular character in a TV series under development as The Steam Punk Adventures of Salem Tusk. He hopes to begin shooting a concept trailer soon.
Stevens describes Tusk as a cross between Doc Strange and Indiana Jones. He leads a multicultural team of a covert operatives who, in the words of series creator Tom Rasch, "battle megalomaniacal mad men, steam powered robots, voodoo kings, Arabian sorcerers and time-traveling dinosaurs ..."
Rasch is a Marvel comic-book artist. And for Stevens, a self-described comic-book nerd, this latest opportunity is a dream come true.
"We're going to be steam punk's first live-action superheroes," he enthuses.
Since an injury forced Stevens' retirement from the ring four years ago, he has steadily carved out a niche for himself as the musclebound tough guy who kicks ass and takes names, no matter who the adversary — lethal space aliens, rioting jail inmates, even (in a role he's shooting later this summer) a plastic pumpkin possessed by a demon.
Stevens checks off all the major action-hero boxes. With his shaved head, baritone voice, massive arms and a game face that could drill holes through Kevlar, Stevens looks born to play the role of the super-badass master of arms of an outlaw biker gang — which, not coincidentally, is the role he's signed to play in an upcoming horror flick shooting outside central Illinois under the title Trick and Treats.
He's also mastered the art of toggling easily between a fierce glare and a quick smile, all the while radiating bucketloads of upbeat energy.
Several things make Stevens stand out — his size, his work ethic, his pro-wrestling background. But as far as would-be Hollywood stars go, one of the most unusual may be this: He has no intention of leaving St. Louis.
Stevens lives in the same north-county neighborhood where he grew up, and he has intentionally based his career right here in the Gateway City. That might strike some folks as counterintuitive. If you want to make it in Hollywood, don't you have to move there?
Stevens is convinced the answer is no. The former wrestler points out the filmmaking industry has become so de-centralized that it's a big advantage to live in the center of the country, since so many film and TV projects are shot in Chicago, South Carolina, Kentucky and elsewhere owing to the tax-credits system vital to entertainment-industry financing.
"People always say 'the Midwest, the Midwest, you can't make a career there,'" Stevens says. "But it's the same thing I did when I was wrestling. Being that big fish in the pond that everyone knows, that everyone wants to work with. Less competition."