Dwayne Johnson: Smell What the Action Star Is Cookin' (INTERVIEW)

With one runaway blockbuster in theaters — "Furious 7" — and another about to open — "San Andreas" — Dwayne Johnson is seeing a lot of action these days. Here he talks about his remarkable hero's journey.
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Dwayne Johnson, pro wrestler turned action star, wants to entertain his fans, first and foremost. "Whether I’m acting in movies or wrestling, for me, it’s the same work ethic," he says. "People work very hard for their money and I want to give them a great show."

When you’re talking to The Rock, aka Dwayne Johnson, you must beware the Corporate Elbow. It’s a signature move for the 43-year-old Johnson, a swift and murderous flex that flattens muscle-bound foes as if they had just jet-propelled into a very, very large brick, and he’s not afraid to use it. In 2015, the three-time World Wrestling Federation (WWF) Champion, is a bona fide movie star, whose films have grossed nearly $2 billion worldwide. He’s learned through the years – Hercules, cough-cough – that Hollywood has a Corporate Elbow of its own – a deadly chop-socky that can smackdown a superstar faster than you can say Van Damme. But Johnson, enjoying the stratospheric box office success of Furious 7, remains undaunted by the perils of stardom. If WWF taught Johnson anything, it’s how to please a crowd. Combining biceps and swagger, pratfalls and daredevilry, heroism and tomfoolery, Johnson’s onscreen persona is downright irresistible. 

Years ago, when we first spoke and Johnson’s star was just beginning to rise, the superstar flashed a radiant smile, issued a hearty handshake and a spine-snapping backslap, then quipped, “Finally! You’re gonna smell what The Rock is cooking!” Johnson’s surrendered his wrestling moniker, but he greets one and all in virtually the same fashion today, his enthusiasm making every person he meets feel like they, too, are world famous. Later this month, Johnson reteams with Carla Gugino in San Andreas, trying to save their onscreen daughter from the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in Los Angeles. If any man can best an earthquake, it’s Dwayne Johnson.

From day one in Hollywood, it seemed studios warmed to you. Everyone loved The Rock. You were sort of like Lana Turner, but instead of being picked out at Schwab’s, you were discovered in the wrestling ring. 

Lucky. I am lucky. Very blessed. I tell you what was great, I snuck in to see previews of The Scorpion King, which was my first leading role, and I had such a good time. It was really gratifying, and it showed me exactly why we do what we do in moviemaking. At the end of the day, you just want the audience to be thoroughly entertained. That’s what you shoot for. 

Conversely, your wrestling fans were very kind about your migration to film work.

Whether I’m acting in movies or wrestling, for me, it’s the same work ethic. People work very hard for their money and I want to give them a great show. That’s it. Bottom line. They can boo or cheer for whoever they want, but they’re going to get a show. If audiences trust me at all, it’s probably because I take that very seriously. 

A decade or so ago, you did a film called The Rundown. Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up in an uncredited cameo, almost as if to pass you the torch as this generation’s action hero. Does that make sense to you? 

Very much so, though there is only one Arnold, for sure. It’s funny how things happen from having a little lunch sometimes, like his cameo in that movie. I asked him at the time if he had any advice for me. I still felt like I was just getting started, and I was always asking the veterans for good advice. Arnold told me, “Have fun.” Interestingly enough, I asked him years later why he gave me that advice, and he said, “Well, ‘cause you were going where I’d already been.” I thought that was really cool of him. 

Does that mean you’ll run for public office one day, too?

No. No. No! Not at all. (Laughs) I was invited to speak at Republican Conventions years ago, but it was only for voter registration. That’s all it was. I did get a chance to sit in the box with the President and his mother. That was wild. But, no, no, no. Politics? That would not be me. Could never be me. Never.

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Johnson plays Luke Hobbs, a lethal government agent, in "The Fast and the Furious" franchise. 

Today, you’re one of the biggest stars in the world, and the The Fast and the Furious films just keep getting more enjoyable somehow. 

I love the Fast movies, man. The character I play, Hobbs, he continues to be one of the most fun challenges and most rewarding characters that I've ever played. We continue to add these little layers to Hobbs. It’s so much fun keeping him bad-ass, but allowing him to show these tiny little bits of vulnerability every once in a while, then going back to the tough guy thing, being able to throw a wink or two at my longtime fans. It's been the best. 

If I’m not mistaken, Furious 7 audiences got one of those “winks” in your big fight scene with Jason Statham. You used the old “Rock Bottom” move, right?

Fans had always said, "You should inject your wrestling moves into the movies.” I didn't want to blur the lines, so I never did. But in this case, it was appropriate somehow. We were working on choreographing the fight, Jason and me, and we knew where the fight had to end, and I just had this crazy idea: “Hey, Jason, what if at the end of the fight we punctuate it with this move, with the Rock Bottom. It's never been seen before in cinema. Fans are going to go bananas over this thing." You never know how that kind of thing is going to land with another actor. Sometimes ego kills a good idea, but that is not Jason Statham. He was, like, “Oh, yeah, man! Give it to me! Put me through the glass table and cut me up!” That’s how magic happens. I think we gave people what they wanted. 

Miraculously, there were no reported injuries in a film so stuffed with breathtaking action and stunt work as Furious 7. But they do happen sometimes, right? I recall you telling me about how your sword snapped in half during the shooting of one of your first big studio films. 

(Laughs) Yes! Scorpion King, and the sword just snapped, man. Accidents happen. Here’s the thing: anytime something happens on the set with me, if I accidentally hurt someone, I’ve gotta buy the guy something. I bought a stunt guy a watch once when my hand slipped and I really punched him. A Rolex. I was doing a fight scene years ago with the great Michael Clarke Duncan, and I accidentally laid one on him. He would’ve gotten a Rolex, but Michael just got right back up and first thing out of his mouth was, “Where’s my watch, bitch?” Now you don’t get a watch. You can just wear your little Timex and be happy about your day. 

Are you looking ahead to the next installment in the Fast franchise?

Oh, definitely. I have no idea where we’re going. But somehow we always get there. We get to better than there. But I've been saying this for a while now, but in Fast 8 I'm calling Santa Claus for backup. That's it. There's no other way to go. Just me and Hobbs and Santa Claus. Maybe I'll put Vin on Rudolph. 

For as long as many of your fans can remember, you’ve been a gigantic movie star. It wasn’t always like that, though, was it?

Look, I’m a very, very blessed man. Very blessed. But I never had much growing up. Things were always a struggle. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was sleeping on a urine-strained mattress up in Calgary with seven bucks stuffed in my shoe. I’ll never forget that. I’ll always give back in every way that I can. I don’t take any of this for granted.

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Johnson explains his approach to being an action hero: "I want to be sure that my characters are flawed, in jeopardy, reluctant to fight, not wanting to be the cool cat, but are almost forced into action. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to not take yourself too seriously onscreen. You’ve got to be willing to poke a little fun at yourself. . ."

Is there a single event in your history that made you think you’d ever in a million years come to where you are today? 

Growing up, when I was a kid, I always thought that one day I would like to act. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how I was going to get there. I always thought, as well, that I’d like to entertain people. But I didn’t know how. The convenient route at that time, especially since I played football in school, was to go into wrestling. I never, ever anticipated this. Never. I never anticipated making a lot of money. I never anticipated being in big, fun, energetic movies. I just wanted to make more than $300 a week, which is what I made for a long time. I wanted to do better than that. I knew that much. I also knew that whatever I did, I’d always swing for the fences, that I would always try to outwork my contemporaries, to best them with my energy and motivation. 

Everyone in the world knows what an action movie is. What is it you bring to the party that the other guys don’t or can’t?

I don’t know if I bring to it things the other guys couldn’t. But number one, I always try to do something special. I want to be sure that my characters are flawed, in jeopardy, reluctant to fight, not wanting to be the cool cat, but are almost forced into action. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to not take yourself too seriously onscreen. You’ve got to be willing to poke a little fun at yourself, to let that monkey hump you, like in Rundown. Which was very fun by the way. You don’t always have to be big, bad, and dangerous.