Once known for catchphrases "jabroni" and "smackdown", former pro wrestler Dwayne Johnson has left the ring behind in favor of Hollywood?and has shown that he's more than just an action hero.
Former pro wrestler DWANE JOHNSON has climbed the Hollywood ladder one step at a time. His current rung: family-friendly films.
EMILY SHUR/CORBIS OUTLINE
He may be well known as "The Rock" but if you expect Dwayne Johnson to stand up, rip off his form-fitting shirt, raise his trademark eyebrow and bellow his once-signature line, ?Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?? you clearly haven't been paying attention to his career over the last few years.
Now, the super-suave Johnson is a burgeoning film star who, having made the gradual transition from athlete to action hero, is intent on becoming a bona fide thespian. He initially spread his wings by delving into adventure films like The Mummy Returns (2001), its prequel The Scorpion King (2002) and Walking Tall (2004). He then tried out comedy, most notably on two episodes of ?Saturday Night Live,? in Be Cool (2005) and Get Smart (2008). He also strutted his dramatic stuff in Gridiron Gang (2006).
But recently, Johnson has moved on to family films like the box office hit The Game Plan (2007) and this month's Disney remake of Escape to Witch Mountain, portending a career of greater depth than you might expect from a man once known for spouting catchphrases like ?jabroni? and ?smackdown.?
But it's been a long and winding road to success for the half African-Canadian, half Samoan. The son of pro wrestler Rocky Johnson and Ata Maivia (daughter of pro wrestler ?High Chief? Peter Maivia), he spent his youth traveling the North American wrestling circuit watching his father perform. By the time he was a teenager, Johnson had fallen in with a bad crowd.
?That was a time when I was making the wrong decisions, running the streets, doing a lot of things that I should not have been doing,? he says. ?It was my arresting officer, when I was 14 years old, who said, ?I want you to stop screwing up and play football for the freshman team.' I was very fortunate that I had someone who cared about me and invested time in me. I didn't learn overnight; I continued to get in trouble because I thought I had all the answers. I continued to get arrested until I was 17, when my high school football coach invested even more time in me.?
Johnson says playing sports saved his life by giving him an outlet for his teenage rebellion. It also taught him a focus that later served him well, first as the self-proclaimed ?most electrifying man in sports entertainment,? then as an actor averaging more than $10 million a movie.
?It wasn't until I got older that I understood the value of not only having someone who cares,? he says, ?but the value of sports and what they can do for you. The values of commitment and hard work and sacrificing your time after school to go to practice [are] things that you carry with you for the rest of your life.?
Johnson's commitment to sports ultimately led to a football scholarship at the University of Miami, where he played defensive tackle for the Hurricanes' NCAA Championship-winning team in 1991. After graduating in 1995, he signed a contract with the Canadian Football League's Calgary Stampeders, but was cut two months into the season. So, he decided to enter the family business: professional wrestling.
Debuting in the World Wrestling Federation's minor leagues as Rocky Maivia in 1996, Johnson worked his way up through the ranks, winning his first Intercontinental Belt against Triple H six months later and winning the Slammy award for "Best Sensation." After being sidelined with an injury, he returned with a new name, "The Rock" (aka the "People's Champion"); a new finishing move called "The People's Elbow"; and a new, more arrogant attitude. Crowds ate it up, and Johnson emerged as the world's most popular wrestler, winning six individual and three tag team championships before his 29th birthday.
JOHNSON'S SUCCESS in the ring made crossing over into mainstream popularity-in other words, Hollywood-relatively easy. So he began to make the transition to acting, with guest appearances on "That '70s Show" in 1999 and "Star Trek: Voyager" the following year. During this time, Johnson looked to his mentor and veteran wrestler Pat Patterson for support.
"He's been like a father figure to me," he says. "Creatively, he was the guy who made sure I understood the value of simply wanting to entertain and taking your ego out of it. I think it's best when you approach things in that way-ego is the great inhibitor of success a lot of times-and do what's best for the audience so you can take them through a myriad of emotions."
Johnson smartly chose a supporting role for his first film, The Mummy Returns. And despite being given a hefty $5 million paycheck to star in the follow-up prequel, The Scorpion King, he continued to take smaller roles opposite more accomplished actors in films like Be Cool (where he played a drag queen opposite John Travolta and Uma Thurman) and Get Smart (starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway), knowing all along that he wanted to evolve into something more than the next all-brawn-no-brains action hero.
"It's important to choose roles carefully," he says. "And I had to be as prepared as I could possibly be. Not that I was gonna deliver an Oscar-winning performance, but as long as I gave the best performance I could give, I knew I had a shot at being decent. Be Cool was a defining moment, because after that, Hollywood was like, 'Who knew?'"
Of course it didn't hurt that the macho Johnson was willing to do just about anything in his efforts to entertain audiences, like dressing in drag in Be Cool.
"I love self-deprecating humor. It's my favorite type of comedy," he says, "There's a lot of that in Race to Witch Mountain as well. I love that I was able to combine some of the grittiness and intensity of the action movies I've done with other elements I appreciate, such as heart, humor, family and a little bit of fantasy."
Set in Vegas, the film follows a cab driver (Johnson) and two kids with magical powers who take him on the adventure of a lifetime. "We really treated the movie like a Disney ride, so the title is very fitting because there's a very relentless drive to it," he says. "I really loved the idea of this guy who doesn't have much and has made a lot of mistakes along the way, but gets the opportunity to make a defining decision that allows him to save the world."
If all goes well, Race to Witch Mountain will revive a classic Disney franchise, and the artist formerly known as The Rock will continue his ascent to stardom. And with more family films such as Tooth Fairy (in which Johnson plays the title role) and the animated Planet 51 later this year, one might be compelled to think that every step of his career arc has all been part of his master plan. While he may not admit it, he certainly doesn't deny it.
"When I started acting,' he says, "I didn't have a background in theater, and my parents weren't movie executives, so I didn't have that connection. But I thought I had good instincts, and I loved the entertainment world. The [wrestling] world benefited me greatly; four hours on television every week was my theater, performing in front of 20,000 to 30,000 people. But growth was always the goal.
I really admire actors like Tom Hanks, Will Smith and George Clooney, who are able to go from genre to genre and do a variety of movies. I love having the ability to go from action to drama to comedy and will hopefully find a little bit of success in all of them."
If the past is any indication, victory will be his. And although the old wrestling costume is shoved deep into his closet, there's still no smelling what The Rock is cooking.
DWAYNE JOHNSON STATS
BORN: May 2, 1972, in Hayward, CA
FATHER: Rocky Johnson, professional wrestler
MOTHER: Ata Maivia
CHILDREN: Simone Alexandra Johnson, age 7
EDUCATION: University of Miami, where he was a member of the 1991 NCAA National Championship football team. In 2007, he donated $1 million to the university's football facilities renovation fund-the largest gift ever by a former student-athlete.
WRESTLING TRIVIA: Before he became "The Rock," Johnson was known as Flex Kavana, then Rocky Maivia (a combination of his father's and grandfather's names). He was the first-ever seven-time WWE World Champion. Along with Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, he is one of the few wrestlers to hold both WCW and WWE titles on multiple occasions.
FILM HIGHLIGHTS: The Mummy Returns (2001), The Scorpion King (2002), Walking Tall (2004), Be Cool (2005), Gridiron Gang (2006), The Game Plan (2007), Get Smart (2008)