In previous interviews for our Young Rock series, Slam Wrestling has heard from actors who received a crash course in wrestling as they prepared to step into the ring for the show. For Wayne Mattei, who will debut as Sgt. Slaughter in next week’s episode, no such lesson were necessary. Young Rock airs Tuesday nights at 8:00 EST on NBC.

As “The Maniac,” a multiple-time Australian champion, Mattei just needed someone to point him towards the ring. Mattei spoke with Slam Wrestling from Australia about his time in the ring, on film, running security detail, and how his auditioning for Young Rock ultimately came down to one question: to beard, or not to beard?

First, to track Mattei’s connection to the squared circle, you have to go way back to when his dad sat him down to watch the first WrestleMania. “It was on Channel 10 during the day in Australia because we didn’t have the closed circuit TV,” he begins. “I was a big Mr. T fan, so knowing he was going to be involved was a big thing for me.”

Yet, even at a young age, Mattei had a feeling that the life of a then-WWF wrestler was something to enjoy from far away, and not the kind of thing an Australian kid could aspire to. “Of course, every kid thinks, ‘I want to do that when I grow up,’ but the mindset was that those opportunities were not here,” he continues. “But I became a massive fan and collected everything I could. My dad actually took me to a wrestling event that was here in Australia — I think I was 11.”

At this show, Mattei remembers watching a battle between Corporal Kirchner and Nikolai Volkoff, but a once-in-a-lifetime moment with George “The Animal” Steele is what gave Mattei a taste of life in the ring.

“Me and my dad sat in the front row, and halfway through the match, George lost it, as he normally did,” Mattei recalls. “He jumped out and grabbed the guardrail, he grabbed a chair and threw it around. He got back in the ring, looked at me, pointed at me and said, ‘You!’, and signaled for me to get in the ring. An official came over and said, ‘George wants you in the ring.’ George made me tear up the turnbuckle in front of the whole crowd — it just blew my mind. The next day, I was the king at school.”

There is a touching conclusion. “I managed to get in touch with George prior to him passing away, which was really nice. He was a big influence.”

That experience propelled Mattei to get into bodybuilding, eventually landing him two Junior Mr. South Australian Body Building championships. It was all part of him still trying to connect to the world of wrestling any way he could. “I still wanted to look the part of a wrestler, but I didn’t have the opportunity to wrestle,” he explains.

Mattei in his competitive bodybuilding years. Photo courtesy of Wayne Mattei.

A chance opportunity, however, would soon land in his lap. Mattei had started a security company, and a local wrestling company contracted them to provide security for the show. “It was called ECW Adelaide, but it doesn’t exist anymore,” he explains. “I stood near the runway where the wrestlers would come out, and all these kids are coming up to me, taking pictures. When the promoter came out after the show and he said, ‘It was great, but there was one problem — it was you. You took all the attention away from the ring.'”

Mattei explains how he apologetically offered to switch up security details to have someone else by the ramp for future shows. The promoter countered with another option: training Mattei and getting him in the ring. “That’s how my wrestling career started,” Mattei says.

From there, Mattei adopted “The Maniac” persona, wrestling for 15 years until a retirement match against Scott Steiner in Australia. “That was, for me, a good way to step away,” Mattei explains. “I’m 47 years old — I’m not a spring chicken anymore. The body isn’t what it used to be, and there’s multiple, multiple injuries up and down my body, and some days you wake up feeling 60 instead of 47.”

Aiding Mattei’s decision to retire was also that he wasn’t stepping away into uncertain employment. He had already been acting for ten years, and had still been working in the security business as General Manager of Shadow Security Group.

Mattei had even worked security at WWE shows as the promotion toured South Australia, though he always drew a clear line between his security work and his wrestling aspirations. “I’ve never tried to push my wrestling on the guys with the WWE when I worked with them,” he says. “I did have one opportunity to possibly be signed with the WWE with a gentleman who was in charge of HR at the time. When I didn’t hear from him I rang back to see what was going on. That gentleman had been released from his position, and the new person didn’t have the same views as this gentleman did on my character.”

Still, Mattei continues to work with the WWE, having assisted on tours in Australia and New Zealand, as well as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore. “It’s been great fun,” he sums up. “I’ve got a lot of personal connections with a lot of the current talent and some that are no longer there.”

Mattei does his best to not make Sheamus look small. Photo courtesy of Wayne Mattei.

As to how close he may have come to working for WWE as a wrestler, Mattei seems to have no time for regretfully looking back. “You know, it didn’t matter,” he states. “I was more than happy doing what I was doing for the personal protection side of things. At the end of the day, I didn’t have to go in the ring and take any bumps whereas they did, so I was very happy.”

On the acting side, Mattei has found a niche for himself as a big man in small productions, including a film project starring James Cromwell called Never Too Late that released last year. When Young Rock relocated to Australia, Mattei’s agent made sure that his name was in the production team’s ear.

“It’s funny that when I was approached initially for Young Rock, they asked me to audition for Brutus Beefcake,” Mattei says, noting that he wasn’t sure how, being heavily tattooed, he could pull off that look. “I did the audition, and they came back with a couple other ideas, the last one being they wanted me to audition for was Sgt. Slaughter.”

The next step, then, was trying to embody the characteristics of The Sarge. Luckily for Mattei, he had long ago mastered an American accent for both wrestling and acting purposes. “When I wrestled, a lot of people expect me to be American because of my size,” he explains. “On some shows I’d have a bit of fun with it and put on an American accent, and people believed it. I’ve got so many friends that are American, so I picked it up quite well.”

Slaughter, of course, has a little more than just an American accent. To adopt his gravelly, drill-sergeant cadence, Mattei found a unique way to prepare his vocal chords. “I stood in a room and just yelled as hard as I could until my voice got so raspy I got that pure Sgt. Slaughter sound,” he says matter-of-factly.

Then came one more request from the production team to help them decide on the casting: they asked Mattei to shave off his beard and do another audition. “At the time I had this enormous, black pirate beard,” Mattei recalls, perhaps a holdover from his bit part in 2017’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. “You couldn’t see a lot of my face, to be honest. I was told that the producers loved what I was doing, but they needed to see my chin and my jaw.”

It was with no small amount of hesitancy that Mattei shaved it all off, on the advice of his agent. “I don’t think my chin had seen the light of day for 20 years,” he says with a chuckle. “My agent says, ‘You know, it’s either you (shave it) and you’ve got a chance to get the role, or you don’t and you’re possibly going to lose it.’ It was tough but I’m so glad that I did it!”

The Sarge’s get-up certainly hides tattoos better than Beefcake’s would have. Photo courtesy of Wayne Mattei.

With all his effort going into voice acting and letting go of his pirate beard, Mattei was comforted by the experience of getting in the ring for the wrestling scenes of Young Rock. “(Wrestling) came back like second nature,” he says of his first day on set in the ring. He arrived two weeks after many of the other wrestler characters in the show had been working with Chavo Guerrero to get their work up to snuff.

“I knew Chavo, because he was involved with the WWE, and we had met many years prior,” he begins, but he hadn’t met any of the other principal actors before. “It was a great time on set with the whole cast. I would assist Chavo with a little bit of the training with them, but it was amazing how they seemed like naturals. Matt (Willig) picked up the André mannerisms and how he operated in the ring so well; Kevin (Makely) as Macho Man and that elbow drop he did off the top rope was just ridiculous; Brett (Azar) really took on The Iron Sheik persona; (Fasitua Amosa and John Tui) as the Samoans, they were crazy just like the original Wild Samoans — the boys had done their homework.”

“It was just so cool being in the ring with them, it felt like you were back in the ’80s wrestling with those sorts of guys.”

Still, there’s one moment that, while not unexpected in the world of wrestling, isn’t something Mattei expected would happen as the seasoned veteran of the group. “At one point we were doing wrestling rehearsals, and we had a few extras in the ring with us,” Mattei explains. “They were local wrestlers from Queensland. Myself and Brett had to give this young man a low kick to the stomach. I’ve gone to throw the kick and (my foot) got caught in his T-shirt, and that’s when I went and tore my hamstring.”

Mattei continued the scene and, once the filming stopped and it became apparent that he was hurt, he recalls being approached by Brian Gewirtz (producer and former WWE writer), who complimented him as nobody could tell he was hurt at the time. All the same: so much, laughs Mattei, for being the professional wrestler on set.

While Mattei worked on healing as quickly as he could to continue the work (aided by a nearby cryotherapy treatment centre that Mattei believes helped immensely with its deep-cold healing), he also had to alter his approach in the ring more closely match Slaughter’s style. “My character as The Maniac was this big crazy monster who would do a lot of stuff that big guys would do, like Kane and The Undertaker,” Mattei says. “Now I’m changing to Sarge, and it was very rare for him to leave his feet. I had to be wary of those sorts of things.”

The final piece of the puzzle was something Mattei anxiously awaited: finding out what Sgt. Slaughter would think of his performance. “It was scary, because I knew that Sarge would see the show,” he admits. “I did my best, and thankfully, in the emails that we’ve shared, he said that one of the photos his wife saw of me reminded her of a young Sarge before they got married.”

So now, as Mattei watches the Young Rock episodes unfold along with everyone else, he is also moving on to the next step with more upcoming film projects and continued work in the security industry. Keep an eye out for him in next week’s episode, but don’t expect to see him without a beard again if he can help it.

At least, not until a possible season two.