In Hollywood, they say, nice guys finish last. Then there’s The Rock, the wrestler-turned-movie star whose presence on and off the screen is one of the bigger surprises of recent years.
Promoting his latest movie, a more dramatic actioner called Walking Tall, Rock, or Dwayne Johnson, is genuinely charismatic, charming and, dare one say it, yes nice. When one talks about The Rock to his co-stars or other directors, you hear typical comments, from him being committed to his acting as well as his family.
The latter still remains a top priority, while admitting the challenges he faces in juggling a family life with an increasingly frenetic work schedule. “I mean it’s not easy, that’s for sure, which is why I love the fact that all live in a very small town in Florida, a country town, in which they ride their horses to Burger King, for instance. I got a place out here in LA when I’m working, but other than that it’s a sacrifice and it’s those checks and balances that you try and find,” Johnson explains, adding that he tries to always take his family with him on location. “And that’s a luxury of being in film because you’re on location in one spot. Back in the days when I was wrestling on the grind and in different cities every night, it was just impossibility.”
Dwayne’s persona of The Rock has enabled him to carve a strong niche as one of the world’s premiere wrestlers, and slowly, Hollywood began noticing. Not one to jump at his new found career, he likes to think of himself immersed “in my small world of trying to take little steps as an actor, trying to get better”, and as exemplified by his role as an ex-soldier trying to right the wrongs in his boyhood home in Walking Tall. Dwayne, whose film career began in fantasy action roles, admits that his Chris Vaughn is his first real character. “What actor wouldn’t want to play such a great, inspiring role, in a simple, great true story?”
Loosely based on the cult classic of the early seventies, Johnson says that he was a fan of the original. “I first saw it when I was 8 years old so yes, I was a very big fan then, but then when I was 8 I didn’t really appreciate what it really meant to walk tall and what that guy had gone through. I was just a big fan of this guy, the hero of the movie who was kicking ass with a 2 by 4 and for me that was great, as a kid.” Now, this tanned and muscular 32-year old says that he had no difficulty relating to his latest character. “I think all of us can in a way where you’re forced into a position where you should stand up for yourself. On a lot of levels there are moments in life where first of all I could walk tall and didn’t, didn’t take that step and I hate living in regret. Then there were moments in my life where I stood up for myself regardless of the circumstances or the consequences.”
Yet this version of Walking Tall is unapologetically violent, a film that often explores the nature of vigilantism in an amoral world. Johnson doesn’t feel that the film really sets out to glorify vigilante violence. “Honestly I wasn’t concerned because the violence in this is justified violence. We go back to what really took place 40 years ago when he was cheated out of his money, kicked and stomped, his face mangled, and left for dead. I also think there is still a nice non-politically correct way I think that’s attractive to the audience today about this movie that the bad guys are getting their comeuppance through just old fashioned justice, which is a good thing.”
Johnson has been acknowledged as the successor of Schwarzenegger, who literally passed the baton to the actor in his previous action comedy The Rundown. Yet Johnson has chosen to pick projects carefully, preferring to take the action genre to a new, smarter level. “I always just look for a good story and not only that but I like movies of that old fashioned era from the 70’s as well as the early 80’s, like a walking tall, like a Billy Jack. Clint Eastwood is my favorite actor, some Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, movies where they take time in telling the story. So for me, I can only say those are the roles that I’m attracted to and it was great to have to opportunity to.”
Those opportunities are continuing for the actor who will don a goatee and an afro wig in order to play a gay bouncer with singing aspirations in Be Cool, the sequel to Get Shorty. “It was so funny because Elmore Leonard wrote it and when he wrote the original draft, Chili Palmer (John Travolta) looks across the room and he sees Elliot Wilhem, Samoan, 30, can raise one eyebrow, trying to act, wants to be – can sing – and gay, and I was like “Wow, that’s interesting” and I didn’t actually speak to Elmore but according to those who have already talked to him it was like “No, no, I wrote that, based on The Rock, not necessarily the gay part but based on him, never ever thinking that he would ever play the role. Before you know it, here I am, playing the role.” He is clearly having a blast shooting this one. “It’s been fantastic. I get a chance to work with John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Vince Vaughn, great for me.” Dwayne says that certain types of comedy come natural to him. “I know that self-deprecating comedy comes easy to me. I don’t think I can go out and do stand-up or anything like that. I can tell bad jokes but that’s about it,” he says, laughingly.
From Be Cool, Johnson returns to full-on action mode in Spy Hunter, based on a video game. Hearing him talk about this film reminds one of an excited kid eager to open his cool new present. “I was just up in the room and there was this awesome secretive meeting. We took out all of the concepts and what the car looks like. It’s a movie based off a video game and revolves around this awesome car. GM is making this amazing car that breaks off into a boat, a 3 wheeler, into a motor cycle – it’s really incredible,” says Johnson, excitingly.
As for The Rock, wrestler, he is not about to completely abandon the profession that moulded his very real persona. “Because of the responsibility you have when you take a role like Spy Hunter or this movie, we have a responsibility to the studio, to the actors, to the crew, to production to be 100% focused, but I love wrestling, I’ve always said that and that’s why I went back to Westlemania, where we had a big show like a couple of weeks and it was awesome. A lot of my buddies go back to theatre which I understand, because they go back to get that live interaction. For me wrestling is my theatre, the ring is my stage and I was having a lot fun.”