Randy Orton's character in the WWE isn't so much a character but a real-life extension of himself.
He is one of the few performers on the company's colorful roster who doesn't have a different name than the one that appears on his driver's license. Randall Keith Orton is Randy Orton at home and in the ring. His initials, RKO, as simple as they may be, forms the name of one of the most popular finishing moves in professional wrestling.
The backstories of most characters need to be cultivated in the minds of writers, but Orton's story on television of being a third-generation wrestler, following in the footsteps of his father "Cowboy" Bob Orton and his grandfather Bob Orton Sr., is based in reality, as well. As far as wrestling characters go, Randy Orton is as real as it gets.
"It's funny, I've wrestled as Randy Orton for 16 years," Orton told ESPN.com. "I'm a third-generation wrestler. It's pretty cut-and-dry. My hat actually goes off to the Fandangos out there or The Undertaker, guys who have these gimmicks where they have to become someone else. It's just an extension of their personalities most times, but in my case it was very much who I was with the dial turned up a little. Sometimes these guys have to go all the way to left or right field to come up with these characters and it's on them to bring it to life. They come up with the nuances and mannerisms.
"Look at a guy like Chris Jericho, who reinvents what's cool every six months to a year. He has got 'The List' and this clipboard and it's more over than half the boys. It's an awesome business to be a part of because creatively you're not limited, but I couldn't imagine playing a doctor performing surgery. That's obviously a role they would never ask me to play, but I respect those wrestlers that are able to really become something else."
Orton, 36, doesn't have to veer too far from his comfort zone in the ring, but he has dabbled in acting in the past. He'll have a cameo in Tuesday's episode of "Shooter" on the USA Network where he will play James Richards, a former Navy SEAL-turned-vocal Second Amendment advocate. Orton's first foray into the world of acting or at least improvisation actually came in 2001 when he was signed by the WWE and sent to their developmental promotion Ohio Valley Wrestling in Louisville where he, along with the likes of John Cena, Brock Lesnar and Dave Bautista, were forced to riff on any topic given to them.
"Years ago in developmental we had promo classes where you get up in front of the class and get on the microphone and it was definitely improv," Orton said. "About 10 seconds before they say go, they'll give you the hardest topics to cut a promo on and that's got to be a lot like one of these acting classes or improv classes. I've had a lot of one-on-one stuff with acting coaches when these movies came up. The first time was in 2011 when I did 'That's What I Am' with Ed Harris. That was a huge deal for me. I remember being so nervous."
But there's a big difference between cutting a promo in the ring in front of a live audience and working with Ryan Phillipe or Omar Epps on the set of "Shooter." While it, like Smackdown, is a scripted show on the USA Network, the similarities end there.
"Being with acting coaches one-on-one helped out a lot because being in the ring, it's different, your mannerisms and facial expressions are bigger than life," Orton said. "Even though you have the TV audience that's watching at home, the people in the arena are all around you 360 degrees, so you have to project. You want everyone to see what you're feeling and hear what you're saying. On a movie or TV set, it's so much more dialed down. That's the biggest difference, but the butterflies are still the same, the stage fright is still there. The same butterflies I get when my entrance music hits and I'm about to walk through the curtains at a WWE show is similar to when the director is about to say 'action' on the set."
Sometimes, however, the line between scripted and reality can get muddled, as was the case when Orton faced Lesnar, who was just coming off a return to the UFC, in the main event of SummerSlam at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, in August. The match ended in less than 12 minutes with Orton lying in a pool of his own blood. When it was over, stunned fans exiting the arena weren't quite sure if what they saw was real or scripted.
"Even now, four months later, I don't even know what happened," Orton said. "If it was supposed to happen, I wasn't aware of it. Basically s--- happens in that ring and he's a big old dude and he has some bony-ass elbows and that's all I can say. But there's an art to what we do. We're not trying to kill each other. We got 200 shows a year so taking a blow like that to the head definitely pisses me off because I'm on the shelf for three weeks with a concussion, and I had just gotten my boots back on a month before SummerSlam after being out nine to 10 months with a shoulder injury. So all those facts pissed me off, but when you do this for a living, s--- happens.
"I was in a ladder match a few years ago and knocked a guy off a ladder. I turned around and the ladder bounced back right on the top of my head and I got 12 staples. The high-risk stuff can hurt but sometimes those little things that you're not looking for can leave you with 12 staples in your head. It's not ballet, as the popular saying goes backstage. We signed up for this and we knew what we were signing up for and at SummerSlam, that's what I chopped it up to. There was a lot of blood and hell yeah that pissed me off, but I signed up for that main event and I knew it wasn't going to be pretty. I knew it wasn't going to be me and Shawn Michaels. I knew that."
"I'm really enjoying the current storyline I'm in with The Wyatt Family. It has kind of allowed me to remember that I have more creative liberty here than I'm used to. I can change my gear now." Randy Orton
Orton returned to the ring a month later, but every performer needs a new challenge or a breath of fresh air. For Orton, that has been teaming up with Windham Rotunda, another third-generation wrestler, who is the son of Mike Rotunda, grandson of Blackjack Mulligan and the nephew of Barry and Kendall Windham. He performs under the ring name Bray Wyatt and is the leader of The Wyatt Family. The gimmick is loosely based on a backwoods cult, which doesn't really fit the character Orton has portrayed over the past 16 years, so in many ways it is what makes it a perfect fit for him right now.
"I'm really enjoying the current storyline I'm in with the Wyatt Family," Orton said. "It's kind of allowed me to remember that I have more creative liberty here than I'm used to. I can change my gear now. I had an idea the other day where I told Kevin Dunn [WWE executive vice president of television production] on the day of the pay-per-view, 'Can we splice some of my old music into our entrance music just to make it a little different and make me more a part of being a Wyatt?' He thought it was a great idea and they did it for me that night. Little tweaks like that always help."
While Orton is looking forward to tweaking his character in this new storyline with the Wyatt Family, one of his favorite parts of the on-screen partnership is working with Bray Wyatt, who understands Orton as a third generation wrestler in a way many others on the roster can't.
"It's just like back when I was in The Legacy with Ted DiBiase and Cody Rhodes, who grew up in the business and were in locker rooms growing up," Orton said. "You can't beat that when you want to be a WWE superstar. Growing up in that environment definitely gives you a step up. With Bray it's the same kind of thing. Some people joke that the way I carry myself at work is a little old-school, especially in the ring. I see these guys bouncing around and killing themselves and they don't necessarily need to. I want to be around another 10 years. I would think they do to. The thing I like so much about working with Bray is that he understands that.
"It's not being lazy. It's smarter, not harder. I don't want to try to make the fans react to something that I came up with six hours earlier. I want to feel their emotions as I'm in the ring and then decide when I do that top rope superplex or when I throw the guy into the stairs because it calls for it in that moment. I think a lot of guys that are capable of doing such amazing physical things, when they go out there, you can just tell it's a choreographed dance that doesn't stop moving and nothing is hurting these two guys. It doesn't do any good for them. It's telling a story. It's not displaying your athletic skills and showing off how many flips you can do. Understanding that is very common among these second and third-generation wrestlers that I've been fortunate enough to work with and call friends. It's second nature to them. They just get it."
While Orton is looking to change up his attire and entrance music and perhaps other aspects of his look next year, the one part of his character that he isn't looking to change anytime soon is his RKO finisher, which has become a viral sensation anytime anyone falls down on a football field, street corner or front yard. Everyone is seemingly susceptible to the "RKO outta nowhere."
"It's an honor to know that so many people know what it is," Orton said. "Those memes and GIFs are so funny. I don't have anything to do with them, but I laugh whenever I see them. A lot of people will send them to me. Usually something like that lasts a couple of weeks and then they move on to something else, but it seems like people are still coming up with new ones. There's always somebody falling down. Unfortunately some of those falls are pretty ghastly, but when someone is getting married and the bride falls over and there I am RKOing her on the altar, that's pretty funny. People ask me if I get tired of it, but I love it. S---, I'm lucky, man. What I get to do is pretty cool."