Hollywood has done what the biggest and baddest professional wrestlers never could. It got a hold on "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and wouldn't let go until he gave in. The former World Wrestling Entertainment competitor, who said in a 2003 interview that if a good acting role "got dumped in my lap, I'm cool with that, but it's not something I care to pursue," now hopes to pin down a career as an action star.

Austin, who was at the forefront of the wrestling boom in the late 1990s before neck injuries forced him out of the ring four years ago, makes his debut as a lead actor in the action thriller The Condemned, which opens today. The movie is the first in Austin's three-picture deal with WWE Films.

"My dream was to be a professional wrestler, and I was lucky enough to do that and take it to the highest level that it's ever been," says Austin, 42. "Now that that's over, I'd like to make 50 more action movies. That's what I have my sights set on now."

In The Condemned, Austin plays a death-row prisoner in a corrupt Central American prison who is forced to take part in an illegal reality-game show in which he and nine other condemned killers fight to the death.

Portraying an anti-hero who battles an unjust system certainly isn't a stretch for Austin, who became a multi-millionaire doing just that in WWE story lines. Still, Austin says there are differences between his character in The Condemned and his redneck "Texas Rattlesnake" wrestling persona.

"I'm excited that people will get a chance to see a 180 from [the] `Stone Cold' Steve Austin that you see on Monday Night Raw to a guy named Steve Austin who plays Jack Conrad in The Condemned," he says. "You'll be able to see a side of me that doesn't involve middle fingers, four-letter words, beer-drinking and stuff like that."

Austin had been slated to star in The Marine (2006), but he decided to pass after reading the script, and the role instead went to WWE star John Cena. Austin was more intrigued by the script for The Condemned.

"The Marine was just basically your A-B-C action movie, but I think John Cena did a really good job, and they have sold a ton of those DVDs, so I believe it is a success," Austin says. "With the reality TV thing going on today, I just think this is a more interesting story with different layers. There's a little bit more going on in this movie than it just being a mindless action flick."

When the script for The Condemned originally was presented to Austin, however, it was with the intention of his playing the lead villain.

"[Jack Conrad] was initially going to be played by a name-brand actor," Austin says. "When I took the script to Vince [McMahon, WWE chairman], he said, `I like it. But if I'm going to finance it and get behind it, you're going to be this guy right here.' That's how I ended up with the part."

In contrast to his previous indifference toward acting, Austin says he now is extremely serious about his new endeavor. He worked extensively with an acting coach to prepare for The Condemned.

"I think being in front of the camera [in wrestling] was some form of training. I think wrestling can be considered a violent form of Broadway," says Austin, whose prior acting experience includes six episodes of television's Nash Bridges in 1999-2000 and a role as a prison guard in The Longest Yard (2005). "But certainly for the more technical aspects of acting, there's a lot more to it.

"My acting coach taught me that there's a lot more to a script than just words on a page -- there's stuff going on between those lines. When I rolled into Australia [where the film was shot] for my dialogue in the movie, I was very prepared, and I'm very proud of my performance. This is all new to me, so I'm going to just keep learning and working hard."

Unlike fellow actor and former in-ring adversary Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Austin says he wants to work exclusively in the action genre and isn't worried about being typecast.

"As far as trying to show my range to impress somebody -- no," he says. "People say, `We don't want to get you typecast or stereotyped,' and I'm like, `If I get the chance to make 40 action movies that I had fun making and people enjoyed watching, go ahead and typecast me.' Maybe I will try some other things later on down the line. If I get the chance to make movies like Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood, well then that would be cool, too."

kevin.eck@baltsun.com