WITH his gigantic physique and good looks, Dwayne Johnson, known until recently as the Rock, has always turned heads. But as he bulldozed his way down the red carpet at last year’s Grammy Awards, Johnson – an American football player turned professional wrestler turned movie star – got noticed for a less polite reason. What on earth was the Rock doing at the Grammys?
The answer is that it was part of a carefully calibrated strategy to transform 36-year-old Johnson from meathead action star into family-friendly leading man and a member of Hollywood’s top tier. Along with dropping his wrestling nickname, Johnson has moved beyond the he-man roles (The Scorpion King) that gave him his cinematic start, branching into comedies (Get Smart), family movies (The Game Plan) and art-house fare (Southland Tales). And he is working hard to sell himself to a wider audience, focusing in particular on children
Over the past couple of years Johnson has logged time at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, guest starred on Hannah Montana and served as the grand marshal of Hong Kong Disneyland’s Main Street Parade. And his latest film, out next week, sees him playing the Tooth Fairy.
The 6ft 4in (193cm) tall Johnson, born in California to Samoan and African-Canadian parents, sees families as his way into the most rarefied club in the movie business: leading men who can anchor big-budget, broad-audience blockbusters. Hollywood is littered with tough guys who tried to imitate Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is still considered the industry champ at switching between audiences. Vin Diesel’s career sputtered when he expanded too far beyond his action-hero roots – he later returned to the Fast and the Furious franchise. Even Sylvester Stallone, the 1997 indie drama Cop Land aside, failed to make the leap, flopping badly with Oscar in 1991.
A changing Hollywood makes Johnson’s quest even more difficult. Movie executives increasingly build pictures around prepackaged concepts – superheroes, remakes, talking animals – and less around stars. Big stars not only can be costly, but they also have a pesky habit of demanding creative input. And Johnson doesn’t have much in common with the ascending lead actors in Hollywood, who are either intense and brooding (Christian Bale) or pudgy and dorky (Seth Rogen).
Yet that hasn’t stopped Walt Disney Pictures and 20th Century Fox entrusting him with two of their most high-profile new films. Last year’s Race to Witch Mountain was a loose reboot of the 1970s-era Disney franchise about two alien children who become stranded on Earth. Fox also cast him in The Tooth Fairy, in which his hard-nosed hockey player character receives his karmic comeuppance, complete with tutu, wings and magic wand. (Yes, there is Spandex involved.)
“He’s larger than life and has endless charisma, but comes across as a regular guy on screen,” says Oren Aviv, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production. “That makes him a very unique talent.”
In person, the soft-spoken Johnson exudes calm. He looks you straight in the eye and has the confidence to be self-deprecating. He’s polished, peppering his responses with media-training totems like “that’s a really good question”. He calls me “buddy”.
While we were eating lunch, a bashful guy in his twenties shuffled up to him and stammered. “Um, I’m sorry to interrupt you while you have a knife in your hand,” the man said, “but I know you’re the Rock, and I would love your autograph. For my nephew.” A little hand holding a tattered cocktail napkin and a pen appeared in front of Johnson’s face.
Part of me expects this enormous man to slam down his knife, spit out some gristle and come spinning at the poor guy like teeth on a chainsaw. Instead Johnson gently patted him on the arm and said he was happy to comply. “Have a good day, and try to stay out of the rain,” Johnson said as the admirer floated away, beaming.
“Audiences, particularly kids, seem to love discovering that a guy this big and this good looking is actually very sweet and very funny,” says Andy Fickman, who directed Johnson in Race to Witch Mountain and The Game Plan. “Subverting that stereotype is very smart for him.”
Johnson, who is divorced and has a seven-year-old daughter, wasn’t always the nice guy. Growing up in Hawaii in a family of professional wrestlers, he was arrested multiple times for fighting and theft. He said his turnaround came at 17, when his mother bailed him out of jail. “My parents were dealing with evictions and repossessions and electricity getting shut off,” he says, “and I just realised that I had to get it together.”
Improving his attitude was one thing, but escaping poverty was another. After earning a criminology degree from the University of Miami in 1994, he became a defensive tackle for the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, living in a run-down apartment with no furniture. He remembers borrowing a friend’s truck and going to “the local sex motel” to pick up a mattress that the owner was throwing away. “A lot of disinfectant is how I got through that one,” he says, feigning a shudder.
The American football career quickly fizzled, so he pursued professional wrestling. After a difficult start, Johnson became one of World Wrestling Entertainment’s biggest (and perhaps oiliest) stars. But as WWE television ratings started to peak in 2000, he decided to move on or risk becoming a worn-out slab of meat, like Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler. “That film rang really true,” Johnson says. “It’s sad, but that’s exactly what happens to a lot of those guys.”
At a party in the late 1990s, Johnson, freshly showered from a wrestling performance, made contacts with agents that would lead him to his first movie role, a bit part in The Mummy Returns.
Hits (The Scorpion King) and misses (Doom) followed, but in 2007 came The Game Plan, a low-profile Disney film about an arrogant quarterback who turns into Mr Mom. Opening a surprise No 1 in the box office charts, the movie “proved Dwayne can carry a movie,” Aviv says. (Universal Pictures had discovered that his presence didn’t automatically result in success; casting him against a comedic foil – Seann William Scott – in The Rundown proved a disappointment in 2003.)
“Because of my wrestling background, nothing a director can throw at me on a set can faze me,” Johnson says. He added, “I learned a long time ago how to be coachable.”
Goofing up a bit on screen has also been a key part of Johnson’s career strategy. He took a bit part in the 2005 John Travolta movie Be Cool, playing a flamboyantly gay bodyguard. (In one scene he stares into a mirror, slaps his hindquarters and declares himself “scorchin’”.) In the recent Get Smart remake he played the suave mega-spy Agent 23, a role that required him to kiss Steve Carell on the mouth.
All along, his acting has improved. His early roles were more notable for grunting than speaking, but training with an acting coach (Larry Moss, who’s worked with Leonardo DiCaprio and Hilary Swank) has paid off. Southland Tales, a dark comedy set in an apocalyptic America from the director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), got booed at the Cannes Film Festival, but Johnson gained critical attention for his role as an amnesiac actor.
United Talent Agency, which counts Johnson as one of its most important clients, declined to comment about his career arc. Johnson himself plays down his career calculations, brushing such talk aside as if it weren’t polite. “I’m trying to be very smart and focused with my decisions,” he says, “but it isn’t like I sat down and thought, ‘OK, now I want to go and take over the family market.’”
Even if Johnson can’t make the leap into the top echelon of Hollywood stars, his life is pretty good. He gets paid millions for each movie. He has a farm in Virginia. Will Smith is a friend. He has a Louis Vuitton wallet with a American Express titanium card tucked inside. (“Want to hold it?” he asked an envious reporter. The answer was yes.)
Doesn’t he at least get some teasing from his pro-wrestling pals and macho fans for some of his roles? He is, after all, playing a tooth fairy. “There are definitely people who disagree with certain creative decisions you make,” he admits. “Pleasing everyone is pretty hard.”
• The Tooth Fairy is released on 28 May