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Career Arc: The Rock

How Dwayne Johnson went from being Warren Sapp's college backup to the biggest WWE superstar of his generation to a bona fide Hollywood movie star

This past January, Dwayne Johnson licensed a project for his production company, a story about teddy bears protecting kids from demonic dragon monsters that attack while they’re asleep. But Teddy Bear, as it’s tentatively called, wasn’t a script or a novel or a comic book. It was a drawing that Johnson’s former assistant found online. Slashfilm gamely informs us that “the plot specifics are being kept hush-hush” — as if there were any plot at all. In the world of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a drawing of a teddy bear protecting a child from monsters is practically Moby-Dick. It is nothingness presented as substance and received as mass-market everythingness, held together by the overmuscled guy with the oversize smile. For The Rock, simplicity is art and form is substance. The picture is the story.

First Down

The Rock

“I can remember one of the first times he was on campus, it was an official visit. Our D-line coach, who was recruiting him, he was very proud, and he says, ‘Look at my new dog.’ And you look over and there’s this yoked-up kid with muscles everywhere walking around on the field. He got everyone’s attention. He was a physical specimen from Day 1.”Kevin Patrick, University of Miami defensive end, 1989-93

Consider the story of the enormous kid from Pennsylvania who gets recruited to play for Miami. It’s 1989 and he’s blue chipper — half-Samoan with beaches in his blood, and so of course he picks the U. He holds a press conference to announce his signing, and he’s a jokester at heart, so as he signs his name he looks up at the crowd and raises his eyebrow all the way to the ceiling. It was The People’s Eyebrow, but of course it wasn’t. It was a kid having fun in his big moment.

This kid was Dewey Johnson, a relative nobody despite the attention of the day, a person as far from The Rock as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is from Hollywood. Johnson was recruited to Miami by D-line coach Ed Orgeron (currently an assistant at USC), an old-school disciplinarian who called his players “candy asses” when they underperformed. Orgeron had reason to be proud of his new signee. Johnson was huge, beefy — a half-person bigger than he would be in WWE. He was Orgeron’s “new dog,” a pure specimen. But Johnson’s football career never reached the level Orgeron had hoped for; injuries kept him playing at less than 100 percent, and in Johnson’s sophomore year, when he was next in line to start, a force of nature named Warren Sapp came in and took his job. Dwayne Johnson might have looked like the best football player ever, but the stouter Sapp actually was that guy. Johnson was the form; Sapp was the substance. While Sapp’s college career had enough highlights to string together a reel longer than the running time of Walking Tall, only one grainy clip from Johnson’s football career has survived online.

Johnson’s other college highlights occurred off the field. He’d provide moments of oddball comic relief by wearing a grass skirt around the locker room, singing country songs on the team bus, and developing a reputation as a formidable sideline cheerleader. He tallied one start and a handful of sacks, but he had a semi-legendary fieldhouse fight and he claims to have chased the mascot of the San Diego State Aztecs during a brawl that erupted in the final minutes of a 1992 game.

After college, he signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, but he lasted only two months before being released.

Second Act

The Rock

“This man is a thoroughbred, there’s no doubt about it. His roots are deep in Madison Square Garden, and he’s in trouble. But can he pull it off against overwhelming odds?”Vince McMahon, Survivor Series 1996

Rocky Johnson didn’t want his son to be a wrestler — most wrestlers don’t, after all. But after his football career had ended, Dwayne Johnson decided to try his hand at wrestling, like his father, who had seen fame around the country in the late territorial days, and like his maternal grandfather, “High Chief” Peter Maivia. Rocky eventually agreed to train his son, with an assist from Pat Patterson. After a brief minor league stint in Jerry “The King” Lawler’s USWA territory, Johnson was brought into the WWF in 1996 and was immediately pushed to the moon. They called him “Rocky Maivia” after his forebears and nicknamed him “the Blue Chipper” — a nod to both his football background and his pro wrestling pedigree — and promoted him by running oddly plaintive promo videos1 that looked more like local news human-interest segments than the usual “I’m Rocky, and I’m comin’ to the WWF to kick some butt!”

When Johnson debuted at Survivor Series 1996, Vince McMahon (playing the announcer, as he did in those days) oozed excitement at his background, seemingly unaware that he was singing the praises of one of the most ill-fated characters he ever put onscreen. Rocky Maivia was a good guy so bland that the only things that stood out about him were his wrongheaded points of flair — his seashelled teal ring gear and a haircut like a greasy head of broccoli. His move set was heavy on antic celebratory dances and flying crossbodies, and his persona was every bit as earnest as the WWF was in red-carpeting his road to the main event. It was difficult to tell who was more oblivious to the notion that entitlement makes a shitty résumé, Johnson or the WWF. He looked the part, but as was the case at Miami, looks couldn’t make him famous.

Johnson (as Maivia) won the Intercontinental title from Triple H, but the crowd wasn’t having it, even if by that point Johnson had fixed his hair and ditched his tribal frills. These were the last days of the innocent WWF, the days before ECW and the Monday Night Wars and postmodernism infiltrated everything, and Rocky Maivia was the least self-aware wrestler on the roster. When he needed time off to rehab an injury, WWF sent him home with no plan to bring him back. He was played as a hero, but he was “the most hated guy on the roster.” His every movement was attended by jeers from the crowd, chants that hinted at the revolution that would soon swallow the industry. “Ro-cky sucks!” and “Die, Rocky, die!” were the prevalent mantras. “It was an epic failure,” Johnson later said, which, astoundingly, is an understatement. When asked about his lowest moment, Johnson doesn’t mention losing the starter’s position at Miami or washing out of the CFL; he talks about the Maivia period. But he finally got the message that being a blue-chipper doesn’t guarantee success. Even the prettiest form requires substance.

Third Person

The Rock

“I want you to take a look at this man right here. Here’s a young man that came to the WWF trying to do things the American way — but what did you people do? No, you frowned on him. He came out here kissing babies, shaking hands, helping old ladies across the street. But he found out that’s not the way to do it.”Ron “Faarooq” Simmons, November 11, 1997

When Dwayne Johnson returned to the WWF, it was as part of a bad-guy black-power faction called the Nation of Domination. He tried to blunt the militancy of the posse with lines like “It’s not about race, it’s about respect,” as his cohorts stood behind him wearing African colors and kufi caps. He explicitly addressed the abuse he’d absorbed from fans — “Rocky Maivia is a lot of things, but ‘sucks’ isn’t one of them” — and soon he abandoned his “given” name and referred to himself in the third person as “The Rock.” It was less a Nation of Islam reference than a cry of narcissistic freedom. The crowd kept chanting for his demise, but now he was asking for it, and the way they hated him was an unqualified success.

A heel turn is a standard way of hitting refresh on a pro wrestling character, but Johnson’s was nothing short of a revelation. He went from being earnest and generic to arch, sarcastic, and fully self-aware. Suddenly, the golem had life.

And he became a superstar. Alongside “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Triple H, Mick Foley, and the Undertaker, The Rock carried the WWF through its modern renaissance. Austin would go down as the face of the “Attitude Era,” and Undertaker and Triple H are institutions, but The Rock was the transcendent star — an iconic force all too rare in the wrestling world. He was champion 17 times, but his signature was never his in-ring ability;2 we really remember him for his bombastic interview style, his litany of catchphrases (his former coach’s “candy ass” chief among them), and a few big moves that were so cartoonish they would have made Jackie Chan blush. His voice was implicitly ridiculous, even if it wasn’t the Randy Savage growl so prevalent in the previous era. It was all affectation, like a kid imitating Michael Buffer singing the Mighty Mouse theme song. That, however, was the key to Rock’s charm — while Austin was “turning the volume up” on his real personality, Johnson was impersonating a superhero.

Which, to be fair, is what they’re all trying to do. Wrestling is superhero play-acting. The Rock’s entire presence, in retrospect, feels like an in-joke on the nature of professional wrestling. While Austin was being realistic, The Rock was being perversely real. His moves were phony, his personality was hammy, and yet despite all that his act never came off as insulting. In fact, fans received him with a sigh of relief. The preceding decade had been an era of ultra-earnest inanity, and while the Attitude Era was a welcome rejoinder, it often led to gritty, foul-mouthed pseudo-realism. The Rock was the countervailing force to this: When he asked fans if they smelled what the Rock is cookin’, it was as if he was inviting them in on the joke. When he raised his eyebrow he was winking at the fourth wall.

All of which shouldn’t discount the sheer force of Johnson’s personality, which was the real key to his popularity. Johnson had incredible charisma, a word that’s overused in the wrestling world but infinitely applicable to The Rock. And so it came as little surprise that after WrestleMania X-Seven, The Rock took some time off to film a small but integral part in The Mummy Returns. It was an inauspicious beginning to his film career, the climax featuring a fully CGI3 version of himself on scorpion legs. Otherwise, he was left to grunt and shout in whatever language it was that he spoke.

It probably helped that the franchise was churning at the peak of Johnson’s wrestling career, and that he looked vaguely Egyptian. But every wrestling star worth his salt has at some point tried to make it in Hollywood, and few have succeeded. The industry’s most transcendent star before Johnson was Hulk Hogan, who had a pretty laughable acting career. For all his wrestling glory, Hogan was too much archetype and not enough arch, and he was constantly outmaneuvered by even the lamest scripts, as if his many years of wrestling performance caused him to play down to his material. (The only film in which Hogan wasn’t wholly subsumed by schlock was No Holds Barred, and it’s possible he didn’t realize he was just playing a more cartoonish version of himself.)

But Johnson was different. Even in his first celluloid moments, he never seemed miscast. The Mummy films are exercises in pulp — and so Johnson was a weirdly perfect fit. The producers of The Mummy signed Johnson for a prequel (with Johnson as the protagonist) before Returns even came out. When he returned to the WWF, it was suddenly brimming with talent from the acquisitions of WCW and ECW. The Rock didn’t get lost in the mix, but it certainly became easier to cover the occasional absences necessitated by his film career. After he lost the title to Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam 2002, he again decamped for Hollywood.

Fourth Wall

The Rock

“On one hand you’ve got a man who revolutionized the industry, a man who appeals to all generations. And frankly put, truth be told, the biggest star the industry has ever and will ever see. And on the other hand, you’ve got … Hulk Hogan.”The Rock, January 1, 2003

Compared to, say, Suburban Commando, Johnson’s first starring role as Mathayus in The Scorpion King was a reassuring start. He was passably funny and convincingly brawny and the movie incorporated enough back body drops to maintain some continuity with his other career. The movie is so straightforward and Johnson so imposing that there’s little room to complain; it lacks the self-awareness that made The Mummy work so well, but that has a lot to do with the difference between Johnson and Brendan Fraser in the lead role; this is pure sword and sorcery, Conan the Akkadian, the sort of movie where it takes a decade for the embarrassment to wear off, and after that we can all enjoy its inanity.

So what if the “romantic” moments between Johnson and Kelly Hu had the emotional depth of a 5-year-old girl rubbing her Barbie and Ken dolls together?4 And so what if he’s much more convincing when he’s playing off of the cute, lispy Mediterranean boy who tries to pick his pocket? Just like Arnold before him, Johnson’s sex appeal is always somewhat theoretical. His inhuman stature turns the carnal act into a silly abstraction.5 As the New York Times put it, “The Rock may be the first movie action hero made of flesh and blood who appears more digital than human.” But what the Times was seeing wasn’t CGI — that’s just what a pro wrestler looks like.

Johnson returned to WWF six months later, courting the fans’ ire by appearing via satellite “Live from Hollywood, CA,” and proclaiming that his priority was making movies, not wrestling. Of course, this wasn’t just a story line; it was true. Although Johnson may have been more wrestler than human in the movies, The Rock was now more actor than wrestler in the ring. The line between the person and the character both arose and blurred almost immediately. His most notable feud in his latter WWE days was none other than Hulk Hogan, his iconic predecessor. They had famously fought the previous year at WrestleMania X8, where The Rock was the good guy, but the nostalgic fans also rooted for Hogan. Johnson won, but they teamed up after the match to take on Hogan’s old nWo buddies, thus allowing Hogan to finally shed his “Hollywood” moniker — and leave it symbolically for The Rock. Now, upon his return, The Rock embraced his Hollywood self — his real self — wholeheartedly. This last chapter of his wrestling career was a victory lap of megamatches — versus Austin for the title of “Superstar of the Decade,” versus Goldberg. These bouts came off like movie-franchise sequels, with big names, bigger explosions, and a noticeable absence of magic moments.

Johnson’s transition to a full-time movie career continued to blur the line between the actor and his wrestling character. He was billed as “The Rock” and then “Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson” through 2010.6 Often, it seemed as if The Rock was playing the roles instead of Johnson. Take his next movie, 2003’s The Rundown, an almost flawless (and mindless) action flick, a sort of Romancing the Stone for dudes, or Indiana Jones on steroids with mining-town despot Christopher Walken as the villain.7 For the first time, Johnson feels like a legitimate star, but that’s mostly thanks to director Peter Berg, who understood that Johnson’s true talent was his humor. Rather than portray Johnson as a muscly automaton in some hard-boiled revenge tale, Berg made a grimy comedy and allowed Johnson to have fun. Even the fight scenes (of which there are many) are played for chuckles.

Johnson’s Rundown co-stars are a bunch of single-function characters who are very good at what they do. Seann William Scott is annoying, Rosario Dawson is sultry, Walken is campy and malevolent, and everyone else is some sort of uncomfortable ethnic stereotype. Johnson is the heart of the movie without having to do anything but be droll, tough, and dirty. The final shootout has him wielding shotguns and calmly dodging explosions, and if that reminds you of a certain Mr. Schwarzenegger, the comparison isn’t just implicit. In an early scene in the movie when Johnson walks through a nightclub, he passes Arnold in a hallway, and Arnold tells him to “have fun.” One assumes Sidney Poitier’s advice to a young actor would be more long-winded, but in the world of action heroes, passing the torch can (and should) be just that simple.

But Johnson wasn’t content to be Terminator Too. His next role was the lead in Walking Tall, a semi-remake of a 1973 pseudo-biopic about do-gooder Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser,8 which wasn’t exactly a character piece but was lower on the bombast meter than one might expect from a burgeoning Harry Tasker. And his turn as a gay aspiring-actor bodyguard in Be Cool is something Arnold probably never would have considered. Of course, Be Cool is a deplorable mess, a series of unwatchable personalities thrown together to politely lampoon the entertainment industry. Johnson is a caricature, sure, but his sincerity buoys the role, and he’s the shiniest turd in the shit show,9 if for nothing else than for his audition “monologue,” which is him performing a two-girl conversation from Bring It On.

It’s around the next run of movies — Doom, Southland Tales, Gridiron Gang, The Game Plan — when it becomes evident Johnson’s eagerness to take on a variety of roles may have come at the expense of the quality of those roles. He lurches from project to project, seemingly groping for a persona to provide enough depth to fill his burly form. But by moving away from the all-around, funny hero vibe that made The Rundown so enjoyable, by choosing wildly different characters that each highlighted a separate part of his personality, Johnson faltered.

It’s also here, stretched thin in wrongheaded roles, that Johnson revealed he really only has two modes in his acting repertoire: brooding monotone and over-the-top. In his earliest promotional interviews, one sees Johnson alternating between playing The Rock and being his quiet, deferential, and slightly halting self. The same personae are on display in his lesser film work — as if he’s comfortable as Dwayne Johnson or The Rock, but nothing in between. As an actor, Johnson is almost wholly unable to access much of the range of human emotion. When he tries to be friendly he comes off as robotic, when he goes for sexy he gets creepy, and when he attempts to appear deep in thought he looks confused.

In Gridiron Gang, a juvie-football-team-done-good yarn, he’s convincing as the hollering coach and as the pensive big-brother figure, but the leap between those two poles is often as jarring as the movie’s inexplicable scene cuts. Walking Tall holds together because the movie goes to great lengths to avoid the in-between: He’s Dwayne Johnson, humble returning war veteran, until he snaps and becomes The Rock, ax handle–swinging scourge of nefarious casino owners everywhere. In Southland Tales he plays Boxer Santaros, an amnesiac football player turned action star, a character that should probably serve as a career-defining cipher if only the movie weren’t so bewildering. It’s satirical shock-cinema with a sliver of brilliance at its core, but the cast is full of actors trying to break out of their comfort zones and almost unilaterally failing.10 Like The Rundown, Southland orbits (loosely) around Johnson, but unlike the former, Johnson has to spend way too much time acting, and boy does Johnson act hard. One would like to think the entire performance is the deliberate bad acting of a self-aware Johnson, but it’s hard for even the most forgiving fan to grant him that. It’s like Hogan’s role in No Holds Barred, except the film takes itself seriously.

Johnson regained his footing with family films that finally saw him quit searching for substance and focus on what he does well: be big and funny and charming. He warmed hearts as a quarterback who finds out he has a daughter in The Game Plan,11 he held his own opposite Steve Carell in Get Smart, he capably saves two superpowered, towheaded kids from an alien attack in Race to Witch Mountain, and he had a tour de force as a hockey player turned tooth fairy in — you guessed it — Tooth Fairy. The last movie is astonishingly terrible, but Johnson is surprisingly good, as if he has finally figured out what volume works best on the big screen. Or maybe he was just the only one in the cast who really wanted to be there.

Fifth Avenue

The Rock

“Stay the fuck out of my way.”Luke Hobbs

It’s not novel to say Johnson willed himself to be a superstar, but it’s noteworthy that he finally became one at the moment when he embraced the role in all its ridiculousness. In The Other Guys, Johnson teams up with Samuel L. Jackson to play a pair of headline-grabbing cops who last just long enough to provide a point of contrast for Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Unlike Johnson’s meandering role in Southland Tales, here his performance is brief, potent, and self-assured. He’s no longer impersonating a bad actor; he’s embodying the role with all of his being, and transcending it. And it’s telling that he was afforded this spot alongside three Hollywood heavyweights. Like any megastar worth his salt, he’s famous because we’re told he’s famous.

Johnson’s next film, 2010’s Faster, an unapologetic modern vengeance noir, while mostly humorless, signaled a return to the simplicity that made his early movies so good. And what followed that made his stardom official: Fast Five, possibly the greatest bad movie ever made, came out in 2011. Johnson wasn’t the main character — Vin Diesel is Fast Five‘s center of gravity, and Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster and the rest of the crew are the twinkling stars — but he is its fiery asteroid, the massive explosion of aggro awesome. Reviewers were quick to identify Johnson as “the best thing, by far” in the movie, and to extol his “hip, comic knowingness.” Time hailed Fast Five as the first in the post-human era of movies, a period when “the screenwriter is less important than the stuntwriter.” Finally, Johnson had taken the mantle of “first CGI action star” with pride, and assumed his throne atop the post-human action movie world.

He remained oddly inept at delivering expository lines. Even in the best hands that sort of dialogue chafes, but Johnson makes it particularly excruciating. And unfortunately — or fortunately, if you’re one of those people who relishes poorly delivered lines — rote exposition is fairly common in the movies that Johnson makes.

In 2013, Johnson’s dance card is rather full. He was already in Snitch, a bro’s version of Traffic. Its cast says a lot about how far Johnson’s career has come — whereas his cohorts in Walking Tall screamed B-movie, Snitch featured a semi-conscious Susan Sarandon and a stunning crew of oh-my-god-it’s-that-guys and -gals: Melina Kanakaredes, Michael K. Williams, Jon Bernthal, Barry Pepper, Benjamin Bratt, Nadine Velazquez. I’ll spare you the plot, except to say that when the credits roll they’re accompanied by statistics about unjust mandatory minimum drug-sentencing requirements, and only then do you understand that what you were watching had a capital-M message. Until then you assume the mishmash of dumbed-down legalese is a failure of the script. Johnson spends a lot of time reacting and emoting, which is a big development, but the muscles behind his furrowed brow are more than a little distracting. Snitch is based on a true story — as in, something like the first five minutes of the movie happened to a person at some point — as were Gridiron Gang and Walking Tall, and just as in those films, the sheer implausibility of The Rock as a regular guy — what makes him so good as an action star — is the Brahma bull in the room. (If one single person in the film had said “Damn, you’re big,” it would have made a difference.) Also: insufficient fighting. That’s the inexcusable part. If The Rock is going to infiltrate a drug cartel to save his son from jail, you’d imagine he’d kick a fair amount of ass. But no, they made an educational film and left an action blockbuster on the table.

He returned to the marquee just last week with G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and it was exactly what every Johnson movie should be: slick, dire, and wry, with lots of punching and explosions. If Johnson never finds sufficient substance to fill out his form — and he certainly didn’t quite get there in Snitch — he has at least found the one niche in which it doesn’t matter at all: playing a toy soldier brought to life.

Much has been made about Johnson being the second coming of Schwarzenegger, but there’s more to it than his he-man body and hypernatural comic ease. The Rock’s movies call back to a simpler time, a time before everything in Hollywood became high-concept, before comedies became Judd Apatow statement pieces and action films became Uwe Boll miasmas of violence. They represent a time when you would watch a movie and say, “It was dumb, but it was good” instead of “I literally do not know what happened in that movie.” G.I. Joe and Snitch were no exceptions. Sure, the latter sometimes verged on an after-school special and the former was literally adapted from a cartoon, but that’s the point: They are comfortable, they are easy to swallow, and they are wonderful. They are an immense comfort to men who grew up watching Steven Seagal in Hard to Kill and Jean-Claude Van Damme in Timecop and even Jeff Speakman in The Perfect Weapon. One can’t watch any of the innumerable trailers for Johnson’s forthcoming Pain & Gain without seeing that Johnson has transformed himself into an icon of symbol-free, calorie-rich celluloid superstardom. Pain & Gain, which retells the true story of a crew of gym rats who decide to kidnap a rich guy, marks Johnson’s triumphant return to his old stomping grounds of Miami. Back in college, he looked the part of a football player to a tee. Now, chiseled and glistening in the sun, he looks like a millionaire lounging by the hotel pool. And that’s who he is.

Oh, and you probably also heard that Johnson — or, rather, The Rock — is moonlighting as the WWE champion, a position he reclaimed at this year’s Royal Rumble. When Johnson first left for Hollywood, he had to distance himself from wrestling to make his name — to prove his commitment and to make a clean break from the legacy of Hulk Hogan. He had to turn his back on the groan-inducing WWE universe to be taken seriously. Now it doesn’t matter. Johnson has wrestled Hollywood into submission. It’s his very own groan-inducing kingdom now, and there’s no stigma left in straddling the line between his two careers. Simplicity is art and form is substance. And, well, Johnson’s form has always been his most amazing trait.

At WrestleMania on Sunday, The Rock will likely lose, but Dwayne Johnson has already won.

Filed Under: The Rock, Celebrities, ILM, Movies, career arc

David Shoemaker , also known as “The Masked Man,” is the author of the The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan