Thursday 27 October 2016

Between a Rock and a hard place

He's battled countless baddies, but in his latest movie, Dwayne Johnson faces his scariest opponent yet - Mother Nature. Susan Griffin meets the Hollywood heavyweight

While most Hollywood actors are shadows of their on-screen selves, Dwayne Johnson is a hulking mass of muscle when he walks into the room.

The former wrestling superstar, also known as The Rock, is now one of the world's highest paid actors, with a recent hand and footprint ceremony at Hollywood's iconic TCL Chinese Theatre to cement his status among the elite.

But while he's known for playing tough guys, like Federal Agent Hobbs in the Fast & Furious franchise ("Where I can have a plaster cast and just break it, awesome!"), Johnson's the first to admit he's a little less gallant away from the big screen.

"In real life, I'm as cool and as heroic... No, that's just on screen," says the 6ft 4in star, grinning.

A Los Angeles resident for many years, he recalls how once, when a small earthquake hit the city, he "ran around in circles for about three seconds thinking, 'What's happening?'".

"It was strong at first and then it just subsided," he explains, "but everything gets heightened and you immediately start to think, 'Where do I need to go, where am I at?'"

In his latest movie San Andreas, there's little time for the characters to contemplate their next move when a massive earthquake hits California and sets off a catastrophic chain of events.


"I've had the opportunity to play some good men, some cool guys, and some guys who have some issues that require a stern look," he says. "But in this, it's not an entity, an alien, or a bad guy shooting a gun, it's an earthquake and tsunami. It's the scared face, the holy sh*t face!

"It's much like when I get in trouble with my girlfriend [Lauren Hashian], it's the same look," he teases.

For the last two decades, disaster movies have been dominated by Roland Emmerich, who's helmed the likes of Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.

"I love his movies and he's a great guy, but this was an opportunity to get into a space that has been his for such a long time, and do our version," says Johnson (43), who plays rescue helicopter pilot Ray in the film.

Although set in the US, it was shot in Australia, and even boasts a cameo from Aussie pop princess Kylie.

"I'm a fan of her songs. The parties I've had to Locomotion!" reveals Johnson, who has a 13-year-old daughter with ex-wife Dany Garcia.

Multiple consultants, seismologists and scientists were sought out ahead of production, "to not only give their advice but to challenge us and the script - because we weren't interested in making anything that felt like it was blown out of proportion".

"Our goal was to make a movie that felt authentic," Johnson insists.

"You're dealing with Mother Nature, where the calamity of it is so big and millions of lives are affected, so we respect it. You don't beat Mother Nature, just manage it, which is why it's scary and you've got to root it [the film] in reality."

Born in Hayward, California, Johnson's father was a professional wrestler and he spent much of his childhood on the move.

"My dad was very strict, he was an athlete too and even as a little kid, he would say, 'You have to eat to nourish the body, don't eat to please the tongue'. I was like six! So that's why my taste buds are boring."

At 18, he earned a football scholarship to the University of Miami and moved to Florida, but when an injury ended any hopes of a professional NFL career he decided to follow his father, and other members of his family, into wrestling.

Following his debut in 1996, he became one of the industry's biggest names.

TV appearances led to acting roles, and his €5.5m pay packet for 2002's The Scorpion King set a record for an actor in their first starring role. Despite this, he insists it was a tough start.

"I'm in a good position now, were the scripts I get are quality. It wasn't always like that in the past. When I first came to Hollywood, I had to earn my stripes. I didn't come from an acting background, or performing arts school."

He's since appeared in the likes of Get Smart, Tooth Fairy, The Other Guys, Pain & Gain and, of course, the Fast & Furious movies.

The seventh instalment was released in April, starring Paul Walker in his last appearance (the actor died in a car crash during production).

"For all of us, when you lose a loved one, a family member, it's tough, you want to try and create a bit of space, you stop shooting," says Johnson.

After a hiatus, Walker's brothers stepped in to help finish the shoot and the film went on to gross over $1bn at the box office.

An eighth outing has already been pencilled in for 2017.

Before then, Johnson will appear as a CIA operative in the action-comedy Central Intelligence, and voice the demigod Maui in Disney's animated Moana.

His current project is Ballers, a TV series from the creators of Entourage that's centred on a group of American football players.

"It's a very well-written, cool show that audiences are going to like a lot," says Johnson, a man who likes to get up early and "beat the sun".

Ballers is shot in Miami, and fits perfectly with Johnson's new life in Florida.

"I sold my home in LA because I was out there for about 10 years, and then realised I'd got to a point in my business that, not only could it continue to run, but foster and grow by being down there [in Florida]. So now every meeting I take, people fly in. I've got to that place now."

And he enjoys living in the Sunshine State. "It's where my ranch is, and I have land and a pick-up truck.

"Life is easier and normal," Johnson adds. "Well, about as normal as it can be".

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