The Rock Before He Was Dwayne Johnson — and after

September 2003 By Philip Berk

In The Rock’s new movie The Rundown, there’s a defining moment when he enters a nightclub and brushes past a departing Arnold Schwarzenegger, as if to signal the end of one movie era and the beginning of another.

At his press conference in Beverly Hills, I ask him how he saw that scene.

“He’s a friend of mine.” he tells me.”I’ve known him for three or four years. He’s been very supportive of my career which I appreciate. He’s a smart guy who’s done very well for himself. But I have to say I didn’t anticipate what this moment in the movie has become. I invited him to come and have lunch with me on the set. We were talking and then all of a sudden Peter Berg (the director) said, ‘Hey, we should ask him to be in the movie.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, ask him.’ And then Peter was, “Hey, do you want to be in the movie?’ (and doing a passably funny Arnold impression)  ‘Yes I shoot it right now. Let’s go. Let’s shoot.’ And he got up and we shot the scene just like that. And Peter said, ‘What do you want to say?’, and he said, ‘I want to tell The Rock to have fun.’

“And I thought it was really cool of him. Metaphorically it was a big moment; it was like him telling me, ‘I like you to have fun because you’re going where I’ve been,’ which was really cool.“

So is he supporting him for governor of California? 

“I do support him, and I wish him luck.”

Just in case you’re thinking that success has gone to his head, far from him. 

The Rock is rock solid and surprisingly modest.

He tries to affect a Schwarzenegger sense of humor, but unlike Arnold he’s not so full of himself.

In The Rundown he gives a knockout performance, delivering lines with panache  and authority.

He’s also dashingly handsome with a winning smile, but above all he’s surprisingly appealing.

The one thing you have to give credit for is he’s never shied away from the fact that he has an African American father; in fact in many of his scenes in The Rundown he’s darker than even Will Smith, and yet for some strange reason he seems to transcend color. 

Should he not enjoy a lasting career in Hollywood it will not be because of the color of his skin.

Politely I ask him, what is his relationship to his African American audience? 

“I’ve always been proud of what I am. My dad is black and my mother is Samoan. I was raised in Hawaii. But in a funny way people don’t see color in me, and that’s fine with me. But I’ve always been open about it. I’m very proud of both sides of my heritage. I have my black audience and my Samoan audience. I’ve run into a few people who downplay their heritage and when I ask them if you have any black in you? and they’re like, No, I say, ‘Come here. I’m going to stick my foot in your ass and then you’ll have black in you.”

Recognizing the inappropriateness of that comment, he quickly apologizes.

“I didn’t mean to cuss that way.” 

Obviously that type of humor rubbed off from the years he spent with the World Wrestling Federation, for which he makes no apologies.

Is it true that he won’t allow bad language in his films?

“I make sure that bad words are not used unnecessarily. There are some cuss words in The Rundown, because the reality is, kids hear those words everywhere.  And sometimes cuss words can be funny. But we don’t use them gratuitously.”

Obviously a lesson he learned from his mother.

When asked what scares him, he volunteers.

“My mom — when I was younger. She was the disciplinarian in the family. She would always make sure I wouldn’t talk back, that I did my homework, things like that. She’s Samoan and Samoan people are very physical.”

Did she beat him?

“She beat the hell out of me,”  he laughs.

Is she the one who encouraged his wrestling?

“Actually it’s a family thing. My grandfather who was a Samoan chief — he passed away in ‘82 —  was the first Samoan professional wrestler. He trained in England and then went to Australia and New Zealand, finally coming to the United States. So there’s a long lineage there. My dad was also a professional wrestler; so I grew up in the business. At the time it wasn’t as glorified as it is today. The arenas were very small, smoke filled, and the money was cash. It was more like a carnival.” 

But wasn’t his grandmother a wrestling promoter?

“It was my grandfather, he purchased the promotion rights to the territory of the state of Hawaii. In the 70’s and the 80’s the industry had different territories, but he never made any money out if it. Matter of fact he ran the business in his apartment. It was only after my grandmother took it over that the business started to flourish. She did a fantastic job and in fact she was the first female promoter in wrestling. She even had me selling programs, 10 cents a program, and she never gave me a raise.”

With the success of The Rundown — the film opened huge in its first week — is he ever likely to go back to the WWF?

“Oh sure. I plan to go back even if it’s just for one night or one show that’s not even televised. For me wrestling is fun. It’s a live audience, and it gives you a  feedback that’s immediate. It’s not unlike Hugh Jackman wanting to do theatre on Broadway.” 

Is there a risk that he might get hurt?

“There is because unfortunately in wrestling there are no high wires, no stunt doubles, no movie props.”

But for the time being he’s concentrating on acting, supposedly getting $12 million to do the remake of Walking Tall for MGM.

Could his physical bearing stand in the way of a long term acting career?

“You mean because I’m a big man, but I’m not Arnold Schwarzenegger big. I am a tall guy, but I lost 20 pounds for this role. I thought if he was going to be a bounty hunter he ought to be light on his feet. So I lost the weight, although I’m never going to be Tom Cruise physically.” 

He has a wonderful flair for comedy in the film. Where did that come from?

“A lot of it had to do with Peter Berg and because we had really good writers on the script. But my goal as an actor has always been to challenge myself, this time in a contemporary movie.” 

Does he intend to follow it up with other comedies?

“As a matter of fact I have one project in development that’s a broad comedy with no action. I’d love that. I’d like to grow comedically.”

Thus far he has played opposite actresses of dark complexion.

When will he cross the color barrier?

“In my next movie. When they were casting Walking Tall, they asked that question, ‘Should we get someone of color to play my girlfriend?’ And it was the president of MGM Michael Nathanson who said, ‘Why should we do that. We don’t see color in Rock. So they cast Ashley Scott, who’s blonde and beautiful, and blue eyed. It only becomes an issue if you make it an issue.”   

And in real life, does he have preferences?

“My girl friends have been white, black, and every other color.”

The two women in his life are his wife (Dany Garcia) and his baby daughter.

How is he adjusting to being a father?

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world. It’s amazing to see her grow. And it’s great for my ego. I was outside getting some sun, I just had my shorts on. My wife was in the kitchen and my daughter in the house in her little seat. I hear her trying to get attention, and I’m thinking, ‘Okay daddy will be there in a second.’ So I go in and I’m fairly dark from getting sun. She sees me and she starts screaming. I mean like balling loud, and my wife runs in,’ What did you do?’ and I was like, ‘I didn’t do anything. Are you sure she’s mine?’ As I said, she’s great for my ego.”

Where do they live?

“In Miami. We bought a house there.”

And does his wife still manage his business affairs?

“Of course, are you kidding? I barely escaped college with my degree. She was an associate vice president of Merrill Lynch. Now she has her own financial company. I always say she never married me for my money.”

How did they meet?

“We met in college. I was a freshman. She was graduating.”

How did he propose?

“Not very romantically. We were together for a long time and I was like, ‘You want to get married?’ She’s like, ‘Yes, okay.’ And that was it.”

Is he ever besieged by female fans?

Reluctantly he replies, “It does happen.”

Has he ever been stalked?

“I remember one time this girl was crying hysterically. She grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. It was at an airport. I couldn’t get her off me; so finally I took her with me. We went to go eat. Every once in a while that happens.”

Is he the romantic type?

“I’m fairly romantic. My boyfriend says so.”

Then seriously he adds, “I think I’m romantic”

Is it true he lost his virginity when he was fourteen?

“I chased women earlier than fourteen; it’s just that I scored at fourteen.”

Remembering his teenage audience he quickly adds, “For the record, I had no business doing what I was doing at fourteen.”

Was she an older woman?

“She was yeah. She was forty two. I’m only kidding. She was eighteen and I was fourteen. That was the best 28 seconds she ever had, I tell ya.”

What can he tell us about his tattoos?

“It took two hours every day to cover them over for the movie. They run all around my arm and my shoulder, my chest, my back. It’s customary in the Samoan tradition . My grandfather was fully tattooed from his knees all the way up his waist, front and back everywhere.”

Do they have any meaning?

“In my case it’s the story of my life. It took thirty-five hours to do. I got it done in Hawaii. Symbolically it’s the story of my life in Samoan, Tahitian and Polynesian art. The guy who did it was a spiritual artist. I sat with him for four or five hours. I talked to him about my life and what I love, what I want to do, what I want to be, my struggles, my passions, and from there we said a prayer, and he just went freehand and did it.” 

The director praised his work ethic and his modesty.

Where did that come from?

“I guess from my upbringing. I never had much growing up, and in fact seven years ago I was starving in college. I’ve known what it’s like to be really, really hungry.”

What has that taught him?

“There’s no success without struggle.”

And does he think Arnold will make a good governor?

“He’s a smart guy. He’s been in politics a long time. When you’re in Hollywood you’re in the thick of politics. He has political ties through his wife so I think he’ll be fine. But I’m the wrong guy to ask because I don’t know much about politics, I wouldn’t know what it takes to run a state. But I know him and I know he’s smart enough to know that if he’s elected he has no intention of wrecking things. He’ll do right by the people of California.”

Thirteen years later he’s Dwayne Johnson. and he’s become a superstar. Sight and Sound even compares him to Cary Grant! 

Replicating Arnold’s success..not only has he displaced Jennifer Lawrence as Hollywood’s highest paid star but he’s just been anointed The Sexiest Man Alive by People Magazine.

At his press conference for his latest Moana he’s big, bold, yet modest and unassuming.

In his own words “a decent man who smells good.”

So when you were still The Rock, did you ever think this could happen to you?

Never. Nor was it my goal.  But when I was 14, and we were evicted, that was my motivation to make something of myself.

Who evicted you?

Our landlord. We lived in Hawaii in a little efficiency building. After we were kicked out, we were forced to leave the island. But believe me, I never thought that I would ever be sitting here discussing highest paid or anything like that. Right now I am very grateful and happy. Ant while the money is great, my motivation comes from trying to create and develop really good content for people in a variety of different genres, whether it’s in action, comedy or animation.

Speaking of which, you prove yourself an accomplished singer in the movie. Where did that come from?

I grew up in a singing family. So I was always playing musical instruments, ukuleles, guitars and things like that. But not to this degree. I didn’t start off as a singer, I am an actor, but I was excited knowing the bar is set very high when you are asked to sing in a Disney movie. But I felt confident when I finally got in the studio for the song, knowing that I had Lin Manuel (Miranda, the genius behind Broadway’s Hamilton) conducting me in the session. In the past I had just sung for fun, so he created this song in a nice comfortable range for me to sing,and  he also created places in the song where it would push me and challenge me in terms of my vocals. So I was very happy that the song came out so well and it sounded pretty good. 

Making the movie did you learn anything about your culture that you didn’t know before?

The one thing that I found surprising was that so little has been shown on the big screen about Polynesian culture. So I was excited that for the first time Polynesian culture was being told in a Disney animated film. And the animators did their homework. These guys went to every island and met with every high chief to understand the culture. They really embedded themselves in the culture. So whether we come from French Polynesia or the Polynesian Islands we are so proud.

“What the Mahna and its spirituality allows is space. It allows space for my daughters, it allows space for my fifteen year old to be herself and for me to be comfortable with knowing that I have given her pretty good lessons which I have learned throughout my life. And it also gives me space too. It allows space for failure. For a long time when I was younger, failure wasn’t okay. So it has created this energy, this space that tells me failure is okay. There is quiet confidence in knowing that whatever comes our way, hard times, a death in the family, things that we didn’t expect, the unpredictability of life, it’s going to be okay, everything is going to be okay. I am often reminded of this by my daughter and by my partner and by my mom and by the women in my life, “Remember the Mahna. It will be okay.’” 

You’re so much in demand. Obviously you have to set boundaries; how do you protect yourself?

The boundaries part is an interesting thing. It takes time and effort to say, ‘I have had enough of this. and I am going to set boundaries. and here is my directive.’ That is kind of tough. What has really benefitted me is having really good people, solid people around me, people who help me remember Mahna. “Too much that is happening right now; let’s dial this back and put up this wall so I can have my own private time.”  

Where would that be? 

On a farm in Virginia that I like to go to, where there is a lot of land, and it’s very private, and it’s my getaway. But anywhere is home, as long as I can have my family around me, the dog, the babies, it’s like wonderful noise, wonderful noise that I hear. But on my farm I have a pond and I raise fish in the pond. And I have a big gym that is a separate building where I can do whatever I need to do. And there is a little screening room in the house, there is a little bit of a porch with chairs, and If I never wanted to leave, I would never have to leave. And I always have my pickup truck, that is a big thing with me. I never have a driver to drive me around in this crazy world.  I got to drive myself.

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