Tough times made him The Rock
THE Rock is crumbling.
Dwayne Johnson, the burly wrestler-turned-actor whom WWE fans know as The Rock, is, yes, shedding a tear during an interview at a Las Vegas Hotel. All 6-feet- 5-inches and 260 pounds of him are clearly on the brink of being emotionally overcome.
“I’m the type who likes to look back on my life,” Johnson says. “I’ll never forget being a 14-year-old freshman in high school in Hawaii. I’d cut classes in the morning, sneak away and see Rocky III (1982) over and over again.
My buddies and I would leave and not go back to school for a good month and a half, which wasn’t the smartest thing in the world.” And there’s that tear, glistening in his eye at the memory of a movie not on most people’s lists of immortal classics.
“I did learn about life in the movie theatre,” Johnson continues.
“I was enamoured with Rocky because he was a guy like me, who started with nothing, but he was a fighter, which meant that you could have it all. He just kept taking life’s punches, but he wouldn’t stay down. That was my life story.
“Cut to today,” he says. “I never thought that the kid who cut school would be in the movie industry. It really is a dream come true.” At 40 Johnson isn’t merely “in the industry.” He’s one of the busiest stars in the business, with three action movies ready for release, including Snitch, which will open nationwide on February 22, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Pain & Gain, in which he co-stars with Mark Wahlberg.
Snitch casts him as a father who goes undercover for the Drug Enforcement Administration to help free his son, who has landed in jail after being set up in a drug deal that went wrong.
“It’s a story about family,” Johnson says. “As a father, I identified with that feeling that you would do anything to help your child. I can’t imagine having a child who was in trouble. I know I would go to the end of the earth to help my daughter.
“The idea of someone trying to hurt your child ... I can’t even go there,” says the actor, who has an 11-yearold daughter named Simone.
Part of the film’s appeal, he adds, was its combination of action and drama, with the dramatic scenes providing motivation for the fights.
“I want to show audiences that I can grow in films,” says Johnson, who launched his movie career with The Mummy Returns (2001). “It’s great to do action scenes, but I also love the dramatic moments. I want to tell complete stories.” There’s less dramatic meat on the bones of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which costars Channing Tatum and Bruce Willis.
A sequel to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), it’s set to open on March 29. Fans will find it a step up from the original, Johnson promises.
“The first movie was very successful, but we all knew that there was room for improvement,” he admits. “We wanted to grab that opportunity by the throat.” He calls the new film, for which he went through a rigorous training programme, “grittier in many ways.” “It pays homage to our military in a real way,” Johnson says. “I trained my butt off for this film, because it is a big franchise.
It’s a big title and fans are passionate about it, so I had to take it up a notch with the training. I put that pressure on myself because I grew up playing with G.I. Joes.
“This was another opportunity to represent the military, so it mattered even more to me.” The notable newcomer to this installment is Willis, an action icon also in theatres with A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth installment in his most memorable series.
“Bruce was nice to me 12 years ago, when I was breaking in,” Johnson says.
“Everyone was nice to me, even the (jerks) in our business. But Bruce wasn’t just nice, he was honestly warm and supportive.” Another major star on Johnson’s buddy list is Wahlberg. Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, opening on April 26, casts them as a pair of Florida bodybuilders who get caught up in an extortion ring and a kidnapping scheme. Both men went through extensive workouts and followed a strict dietary regimen to pack on muscle – leading the 5-foot-8-inch Wahlberg to joke with the press that he’s now bigger and tougher than Johnson.
“That’s what happens when insecure men speak,” Johnson says with a wicked laugh. “Here’s the truth: If I hit Mark, I’d kill him. If I missed, the wind before my punch would give him pneumonia and he would die anyway.” More seriously, Johnson speaks highly of both Wahlberg and Pain & Gain.
“It was a blast working with Mark in Miami on what was Michael Bay’s passion project for years,” the actor says. “He gave it to me to read eight years ago, and I wanted to do that movie back then – but then Michael went off and did some little movie called Transformers (2007).
“It’s an incredibly intriguing story,” he continues. “It’s actually an absurd story that really happened. It’s also a brutal story, which makes it interesting.” Johnson grew up in Honolulu, where he cut school, hung out with the wrong people and, predictably, ended up in trouble.
“I got myself arrested,” Johnson admits. “I was really fortunate that I had great parents who were patient and a couple of coaches who believed in my potential even when no one else did. Even when they took the handcuffs off me, my parents told me, ‘You’re still a great kid with great potential.”’ Initially he thought the road to success lay through the gridiron. He played defensive tackle for the University of Miami, dreaming of glory in the National Football League. No NFL offers were forthcoming, however, and instead he found himself playing in the Canadian Football League – and being cut midway through the 1995 season.
Professional wrestling is an unusual choice for failed football players, but for Johnson it represented a return to the family business: His grandfather, Peter Maivia, and his father, Rocky Johnson, both had wrestled professionally.
Joining the World Wrestling Federation, Johnson acquired the sobriquet The Rock and found the stardom which had eluded him on the football field. He became one of wrestling’s biggest names, segued smoothly to film with The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King (2002), and for the past decade has been a reliable action presence in such films as The Rundown (2003), Walking Tall, (2004), Gridiron Gang (2006), Fast Five (2011) and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012).