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Dwayne Johnson: The Rock in a Hard Place

Oh Mummy! Wrestling’s top baby face goes all out to put Hollywood in a headlock

Dwayne Johnson, The Rock

Dwayne Johnson, aka 'The Rock', on October 3rd, 2001 in Santa Monica, CA.

Jason Kirk/Getty

Any moment now, a headset-wearing lady will open the door to the trailer on the back lot at Universal Studios and tell Dwayne Johnson — who has made quite a name for himself as the Rock, the World Wrestling Federation’s most whoop-ass, trash-talking, ego-inflated wrestler ever — that he’s wanted on the set. When this happens, Dwayne will be driven to Stage 44 to take his place in front of the cameras for his starring role in The Scorpion King, which is an expansion of his smaller role in the just-opened The Mummy Returns. He’ll puff up his massive, bronzed and naked chest, nipples stiff and quivering, and use a sword to hack at some menacing but imaginary snake, while in the background a few crew members will smack their lips, nod their heads, and say things like, “Boy, the Rock looks good,” “Dude, the Rock always looks good,” “Hey, his breasteses are bigger than hers” and “Arnold, eat your heart out.”

But none of this has happened yet.

To keep busy, Dwayne whips himself up a protein shake, watches a few minutes of Robert De Niro on the TV set, switches to some Bruce Willis, then takes a leak. He paces. The trailer shifts under his heft. He’s been cooped up here for nearly five hours, since 5:30 A.M. His hair has been done, his make-up has been done, he’s already been fitted into the hunky, revealing leather togs apparently appropriate to an Akkadian assassin circa 3,000 B.C. His role, he feels, is a great one — it was written expressly for him after Universal Studios’ big shots got an early look at his work in The Mummy Returns — and it could turn him into the next big action hero. He wants it. Obviously, Universal wants it. So, what’s the holdup? It doesn’t seem right. And when something doesn’t seem right to Dwayne, he’s not one to sit still for long.

He gets on the phone with one of his advisers. “Being new to the industry, I’m not sure if this isn’t just the way it is, but this is the fourth time this has happened,” Dwayne says. “I could be getting some sleep. I could be working out. It’s one of those things where, like, instinctively you go, ‘What the fuck!’ and you want to kick somebody’s ass. OK? So I’d like to have a conversation with somebody, so they hear about it from me, face to face.”

Dwayne listens for a moment. Then he says, softly, “Sure, sure, right, right,” and hangs up, wobbling there in sunlight slanting through the trailer’s blinds. As it happens, Dwayne Johnson is indeed new to the movies, brand-spanking-new at the age of twenty-nine, but he’s getting paid like almost no one so untested and green ever has before — $5.5 million for The Scorpion King, which is quite a raise from his Mummy Returns payday of $500,000. It’s true, of course, that Dwayne, as the Rock, is a major, over-the-top crowd pleaser and draw. His autobiography, The Rock Says…, jumped to the top of the New York Times best-seller list; his appearance at WrestleMania events ignites the box office; he’s won the WWF Championship belt six times (at the moment, though, he’s been “suspended indefinitely” from the WWF for arguing with the organization’s chairman, Vince McMahon); and his numerous self-created slogans — among them “Do you smell what the Rock is cooking?” “Know your role, Jabroni, and shut your mouth” and “Why don’t you drink a big, tall glass of shut-up juice?” — are now part of the vernacular. But, say those responsible for making The Scorpion King, it’s not so much the Rock that they’re banking on as it is Dwayne.

Says director Chuck Russell, who introduced Jim Carrey to the big time in The Mask, “I think he has true, legitimate screen presence. I mean, one big issue in action is always whether you really want to ultimately see the action guy kiss the girl. With Dwayne, you do. He’s a classic action star, along with a little bit of Rudolph Valentino.”

And so there he is, Dwayne, the Rock (a.k.a. the Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment, the Brahma Bull, etc.), with a bit of Rudy Valentino thrown in, waiting for his trailer door to open and for his future in Holly-wood, whatever it may be, to arrive.

Inside the overheated confines of stage 44, smoke from a smoke machine drifts and swirls around a room that has the look of an old Egyptian temple, and then, when all is ready, the assistant director says, “Let’s stand by, everybody. Clear the background please. Here we go. And. Action.”

Cameras roll as Dwayne, in full leather get-up, glares hotly at an imaginary snake. He backs up, lifts his sword, drives forward, hacking, hacking, hacking. He steps right, left, back. And glares again, hotly.

“Cut!” shouts the assistant director.

“Really nice,” says Russell. “I mean it. Really terrific.”

“Thanks, man,” says Dwayne. “I appreciate that.”

He tips his head and grins and looks genuinely pleased at Russell’s compliment; and that’s one of the first things you realize about Dwayne — that for a big, beefy wrestler guy who does that snarky eyebrow-hoisting business on the WWF’s TV shows, he may not be such a giant-size turd after all. His voice isn’t what you might expect, either — it’s soft and subdued. In fact, somewhat frequent references to his own outstanding charisma aside, he actually seems pretty humble, and mellow, and thoughtful, despite an intense, brain-frazzling schedule that for weeks has kept him from seeing his wife, Dany, who lives in Miami, and requires him to be on call for twelve hours a day, learning how to sword fight, how to ride a camel, how to pretend a deadly cobra’s about to strike, and how to do all the other stuff you’ve got to do when you’re carrying a motion picture with a budget of more than $60 million.

Grabbing a diet iced tea, Dwayne swings into his director’s chair while the crew arranges the next shot. Just then, a sandy-haired little kid shows up with a pen in one hand and a picture of the Rock, looking characteristically brutal, in the other.

Dwayne glances at the lad. “And what can I do for you?” he says.

“Can I get an autograph?”

“You bring any money?”

“Matt,” the kid says.

“M-A-D-T?”

“No. M-A-T-T.”

“N as in Nancy?’

“No. M!”

“Oh, got it, man,” says Dwayne, smiling, evidently quite the droll kidder.

Afterward, he talks briefly about taking lessons from acting coach Larry Moss. “In two weeks, I learned so much shit, it was unbelievable,” Dwayne says. “Being in the industry I come from, I’m able to convey emotions like anger, fear, surprise, shock and pain, which, of course, is a very big one. But we play 360 degrees, to 30,000 people — it’s physical opera, if you will — so Larry helped me tone it down. Then he helped me get in tune with emotions inside that I’d never been in tune with in our industry. Like sadness. Sadness is something I’d never really portrayed. So, I found that sadness. And, to be honest with you, fifteen minutes later — bawling, bawling like a baby, bawling, not histrionics, but literal, real bawling.” He shakes his head at the memory and says, “Oh, it was amazing, just amazing.”

So, that’s another thing about Dwayne: He’s not afraid to bawl like a baby and talk about it, which is, of course, to his credit.

A third thing is that he’s very rarely alone. Either his personal assistant (and brother-in-law), Hiram Garcia, is standing next to him, taking notes from Dwayne on his CompaqiPaq, or his personal trainer, Mike Ryan, is delivering a protein shake, or Chuck Russell is cooing into his ear, or a kid’s wanting his dramatic, florid scrawl, or his agents, Marty Adelstein and Darren Statt, from the Endeavor talent agency, are showing up, presumably to demonstrate again just how much they adore being in the Dwayne business.

Marty says, “Everything good?”

“Everything’s good,” Dwayne says.

“Cool,” says Marty. “Cool.”

Then Marty leans into the story of how he came to hook up with the Rock. “Two years ago, Vince McMahon called me and says, ‘I think this guy’s really got it.’ I go to one of his events. I said, ‘What are your ambitions?’ He said, ‘I really want to be a movie star. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.’ Everybody in my office was saying, ‘What? We have serious actors here.’ I’m saying, ‘No, no, no, I’m telling you.’ So I came up with the idea of putting him on Saturday Night Live. Did you see it? Hysterically funny. Highest ratings in five years. After that, [then Universal president of production] Kevin Misher called about The Mummy Returns Dwayne did it, and we’ve been besieged with offers.”

When Marty leaves, he is replaced by Darren, who is a very amusing, equally hyperbolic, hipster-type Scots-man. “The WWF is the greatest show on earth,” Darren says. “The dialogue’s fresh, the characters are fresh, the action is second to none. It’s electrifying. It’s modern Shakespeare. It’s just genius. There’s nothing more exciting.”

So, it’s better than sex?

“It depends on who it’s with,” says Darren, narrowing his eyes critically.

Dwayne snorts and guffaws. “Better than sex?” he shouts. “Close. Yeah, there’s the buildup, and then you hear your music, with thousands of people fueling your intensity, fantastic, amazing. But there’s nothing better than pie.”

After a while, Darren takes off, and then for a second it’s just Dwayne.

Right now, Dwayne lives in a rented condominium near the water in Santa Monica, which is not too far from Gold’s Gym Venice, where he works out, and the Firehouse deli, where he likes to take his post-exercise breakfasts. Meanwhile, his wife, Dany, who happens to be six months’ pregnant, is back home in Miami. He’s here, in Los Angeles, in circulation around Hollywood — Sin City. She’s there, living in a gated community. He’s thinking maybe he’ll buy a pad here. It doesn’t seem likely to him that Dany will join him. He’ll travel back and forth. That’s how they’ll set up their lives, that way, if his career in movies really takes off.

“It’s definitely tough,” he says. “No bullshit there. It’s hard. Not only a long-distance relationship and two career-driven people. But we’re so opposite. Here I am in the film industry, as well as in the WWF. And there she is, an associate vice president at Merrill Lynch, a financial planner. I think about it all the time.” He swigs from his iced tea, tells his trainer, Mike, that what he wants for lunch is maybe a couple of steaks and a chicken breast, and then he is called back to the cameras.

It’s 9:30 and dark outside when Dwayne’s driver, Kevin McBride, in Dwayne’s black GMC Yukon, swings by Dwayne’s trailer to pick him up for the forty-five-minute ride to Santa Monica. He sits in the back seat, for the leg room. Soon he’s on the phone. “In my closet,” he’s saying, “I have a couple of pairs of nice jeans, my Gucci shoes, the Gucci slippers, a nice white sweater that’s very thin. I have a pair of sandals very similar to the Gucci ones you sent me. I have a Dolce & Gabbana and some pleatless Armanis. You know what shoes I really liked were the denim with what looked to be crocodile. These are fucking great. Maybe you could help me with that. Like, what could I put with those?”

Afterward, Dwayne says, “That was my stylist, Danny Santiago. He’s Jennifer Lopez’s stylist and Ricky Martin’s. I mean, I feel like I have a pretty good eye for what’s going on. Yeah, man, that’s the persona of the Rock” — the right eyebrow gets hoisted here — “but it’s one of those things. I thought it’d really be in my best interest to hire a stylist to dress me. And it helps.”

He makes a few more calls, while on the stereo country-western great Marty Robbins, one of Dwayne’s favorites, sings about how it is down in El Paso: all love, dust, gun-play and death. Later on, heading into Santa Monica proper, Kevin brings up Dwayne’s autobiography and how much he enjoyed the part about the seedy mattress.

For a celebrity tell-all, The Rock Says… is actually quite well done, largely because Dwayne’s life story is something of a Homeric saga. It tells of his peripatetic early years living all over the country — Florida, Tennessee, Georgia and Hawaii — before finally settling in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with his family — his mom, Ata, a Samoan and the daughter of champion professional wrestler Peter Maivia, and his dad, Rocky, an African-American who was also a champion wrestler. So that’s the world Dwayne was born into, the wild and wacky world of pro wrestling, in the days before the general public knew it was just an act. He traveled the circuit. He got to know all the big names. He bounced up and down on his bed with his dad’s championship belts and developed the same kind of o’er-weening self-confidence that made his dad the great man that Dwayne felt he was.

When Dwayne was thirteen, however, his father proceeded to lose the family’s savings. These were tough times for the Johnsons. They got evicted from their home. The repo man repo’d their car. His dad hit the bottle. Dwayne, though he didn’t mind, had to get a restaurant job, washing dishes for thirty dollars an eight-hour shift.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. At the age of fourteen, he lost his virginity to an eighteen-year-old and immediately became a relentless and highly successful skirt chaser. He was also a kid filled with rage, which not only led to any number of fistfights but also to standout performances on the football field, as both a tight end and a defensive end. In fact, he was so promising that he got a football scholarship to the University of Miami, where he once tried to rip out a teammate’s tongue and more than once successfully used his giant repertoire of cheesy pickup lines on the Miami coeds (“Heyyy, nice legs, what time they open?”).

In 1991, he met his future wife at a bar on the very night he was supposed to be the main player in his first orgy. He did not go to the orgy, but he did fall in love with Dany. Though her family, uptight first-generation Cuban immigrants, did not approve of him, mainly because of his African-American heritage, the two continued to see each other throughout his college years. Years during which he was a huge binge-boozer, who favored Jack Daniel’s and Diet Coke and in one drunken episode, at a family wedding, tried to strangle a woman who he mistakenly thought had dissed his dad. At one point he earned himself a grade-point average of 0.7. By the time he graduated, however, he’d cut back on the Jack and lifted his GPA to 2.9. He left with a degree in criminology, thinking he might become a Secret Service agent, but first he wanted to give the NFL a shot. They weren’t interested, but the Canadian Football League was, so he moved to Calgary, where he took home a measly $175 a week; lived like a pauper on grotty mattresses; quit the stinking job; returned to Miami with seven dollars to his name; broke up with Dany; decided to enter the family business; got hired by the WWF; got back together with Dany; married Dany in 1997; made up with her parents; sighed with relief when his dad gave up drinking; grew up some himself; and found his calling as a WWF wrestler.

“That was my life,” Dwayne says. “That’s what happened.”

Still pondering Dwayne’s miserable years in Canada, Kevin says, “I like the bit about the mattresses.”

Dwayne laughs and expands on the story. “Yeah, four of us were in a truck, and we needed mattresses to sleep on. Anyway, back in this Dumpster, behind this hourly-rates motel, I found the mattress that had the least amount of semen and period blood on it and took that one. I bought a sheet set and a lot of Lysol. It was something.”

They ride in silence, turning onto Ocean Avenue and looking out at the Santa Monica pier with its bright, turning lights.

Later, Dwayne tells another story, this one about what it took to make him into one of the greatest, most beloved pro wrestlers of all time. He learned the lesson about three years ago. This was after he’d gotten the basics down, after his Rock character had been transformed from a baby face, a good guy, into a heel, a bad guy, and after he’d been crowned the Intercontinental Champion. One night, before a match he was supposed to lose, WWF executive Pat Patterson took him aside and said, “Tonight, as you’re getting carried out, I want you to lay on the gurney like a douche bag. You’re dead like a douche bag. You’re still going to be the champion, but I want you out like a douche bag.”

This was news to Dwayne, who didn’t really think of himself as douche-bag material. “I don’t know, Pat,” he said. “Don’t you think that’s kind of weak?”

“Trust me,” Patterson said.

And so it was that Dwayne lay on the gurney douche-bag-like, holding his championship belt high, yes, vowing to return, yes, but acting thoroughly defeated even so. The crowd loved him for showing his vulnerability. It made him human. They could relate.

“And that,” Dwayne says, “is the main reason I’ve worked so well.”

The next day, a Saturday, Dwayne rises with the sun or there-abouts. He’s got on his usual white Hanes tank top and his usual black Calvin Klein boxers. He’s also sporting his usual morning woody. He waits a minute for it to droop, takes his morning leak, talks to Dany on the phone, and to his attorney, then gathers up his workout music — rap only, from Mystikal to Cash Money Millionaires — and heads out the door. He wheels that great big Yukon around the streets of Venice with ease and reveals that when it comes to parallel parking, he’s the best. (“I can do anything but make a white baby,” he says, “and even that maybe I could.”)

Inside Gold’s, Dwayne joins Mike, his trainer, at the front-lat machines. “He’s got photo shoots scheduled for later today,” says Mike, “so we’re gonna go low weight with lots of repetitions, sixteen to twenty. That’ll really bring out the vascularity for the pictures.”

After forty minutes of this stuff, Dwayne wipes the sweat off his face, his muscles all jacked up huge and gleaming like things aeronautic. That’s the exterior view that Hollywood so loves. Later — after one muscle-happy guy starts waving his arms and yelling, “We’re not worthy” — Dwayne drives over to the Firehouse deli, where he orders scrambled eggs and gets around to displaying more of his interior self.

Humorously, he says, “I’ve got size fourteen feet. You know what they say about big feet? Big shoe!” Levelheadedly, he says that he’s never done any kind of drug — not pot, not X, not crack, nothing. Judiciously, he lists his favorite action stars, in order: Arnold, Sly, Seagal, Van Damme. Confidentially, he says that one thing he often likes to do alone is eat. Openly, he shares the fact that “but for the booty” he shaves his entire body once a week, with a Mach3 razor and Edge gel, because “in front of the camera, it enhances the muscles.” Unashamedly, he confesses that he has no sexual weirdnesses. “Nope,” he says. “Can’t really think of any.” Reluctantly, he admits that he is often so tired from his hectic schedule that only twice a week does he get around to masturbating — “something like that, on average.”

Thankfully, he hasn’t begun reading Variety and The Hollywood Reporter yet.

So, that’s some more of Dwayne. He’s willing, honest, straightforward and friendly. He’s kind of great.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens to him out here.

Monday, inside the trailer at Universal Studios, Dwayne is wearing a gray robe over his Scorpion King duds and talking to his attorney, Harold Brown, about his long hours on the set. Dwayne is unsure of a few things, and Brown is doing his best to explain some of the rules that govern an actor’s life.

“If you leave at 8:30 in the evening,” says Brown, “they shouldn’t require you back here until 8:30 the next morning. You’re supposed to get a full twelve hours’ turnaround time.”

“It didn’t happen,” says Dwayne. “I’ve been here at 6 A.M. every day.”

Brown says, “Dwayne, you don’t want to get a reputation as a cranky actor. When it comes to getting cranky with somebody, we should do that more than you.”

Dwayne thinks about this. One of the things he and Dany often argue about is how he likes to go eyeball to eyeball with anyone who’s giving him a problem. “One thing I can’t stand is a chickenshit,” he says. “If you have an issue with me, come and tell me.” But now, in Hollywood, maybe the time has come for him to change a little, if that’s the way Hollywood wants it. He shrugs and says, “That’s a good plan, Harold,” and lets it go at that.

Later, on the set, while Dwayne is in front of the camera, Mike the trainer reports that, over the weekend, Dwayne went on a food binge, downing a double cheeseburger, fries, a shake, onion rings, ice cream, a couple of pizzas, some cookies and more. He succumbed to temptation. “He had a meltdown,” says Mike.

Of course, temptation-wise, it could have been worse. A few weeks back, for instance, he could have gone to Hugh Hefner’s birthday party and hung out in his sleepwear with all sorts of half-dressed, highly provocative slatterns, vixens and harlots, the kind that are only too happy to drop to their knees and bring you to shame. But he didn’t. “I was just imagining the front covers of the Enquirer and the Star. ‘Rock Has Time of His Life with Playboy Bunnies!’ I could see the picture of the bunnies with their nipples blocked out and their vaginas. I was like, ‘Forget it, I’ll just sit at home and not get in trouble and drink by myself.'”

If Dany were here in California, outside Stage 44, she would say, as she sometimes does, “It’s been challenging, but I don’t worry too much. The reason is, our marriage has required him to spend 150 or 200 days a year away from me. I don’t think L.A. is any different from any other place. Besides, I know the type of individual he is. And for me to function as a normal human being, I can’t really think about things any other way.”

As it is, however, it’s Dwayne sitting in the sun, in a golf cart, outside Stage 44. He’s saying, “I think it would be humanly impossible for Dany not to be concerned about me. But she knows the type of guy I am. I don’t go clubbing or to strip joints. I mean, I’ve been to them, but it’s not my thing.”

Then, for a while, he talks about what it might be like the next time he goes home to Florida. Here, in Los Angeles, he’s got his driver, Kevin; his trainer, Mike; his assistant, Hiram; his agents, Marty and Darren; his lawyer, Harold. There, in Miami, is Dany, pregnant.

“You see how things are,” he says. “I’m so used to getting things expedited immediately. You are so catered to. Out here, I’m like, ‘I’m going to need this or that supplement, this amount of protein, this amount of food,’ and they’re like, ‘Whatever you need, Rock.’ But when I get home, it’s just her and me and some family around. I can imagine it now. I’m like, ‘OK, I need this done,’ and it’s like, ‘Well, all right, go get it yourself, motherfucker,’ not that Dany ever swears at me. But it’s like, ‘OK, well, here’s the keys. You go drive and get your own dry cleaning.’

“I think about it all the time,” he goes on. “I think about the commitment and the sacrifices it’s taken for me to get here, and that she’s had to make to get me here. I’m not going to lie. It’s extremely difficult. The best thing we can do, and I tell her this, is trust in what we have and trust in fate. I’m a big believer in fate. But it is extremely difficult for me to be out here, with her in Miami. In terms of wanting a family and a relationship, OK. But other than that, we’re on separate worlds.”

That night, with Kevin at the wheel of the Yukon, Dwayne leaves the set to go out on the town for only the second time since arriving in L.A. Wearing some nice brown slacks and a nice tan sweater (size: Quad X), he’s with Hiram and Mike, headed for the party celebrating the premiere of Sylvester Stallone’s new movie, Driven. He’s heard that Sly would be stoked to see him.

They pull up to the curb outside the Sunset Room, on Cahuenga in Hollywood, and quickly slip inside thanks to the Rock’s celebrity, avoiding the line and the crowd waiting in it. Dwayne finds Stallone and asks a few questions about how a premiere works, “because I certainly don’t know.” Stallone, a one-time champion in the world of action movies, is looking fit and tan and pleased, though not nearly as fit and tan and pleased as Dwayne, the new contender in the world of action movies. But of course that’s only to be expected. Stallone’s been out here for a while, he’s seen some stuff. Dwayne, twenty-six years his junior, has only just now arrived. Later tonight, he will find himself surrounded by the Hawaiian Tropic gals, and former Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen and his wife will want to know when he plans on doing something special for our boys in uniform. But right now, after bidding farewell to Stallone, Dwayne is announcing, “It’s pee time for the Rock.”

Hiram, at his side, says, “You want anything to drink?”

Dwayne says, “Jack and Diet.”

And on into the next room they go.

In This Article: Coverwall

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