Dwayne Johnson: The Pain and the Passion That Fuel the Rock
If the world seemed a little bit sluggish this morning – if the birds weren’t singing as sweetly, or the sun hung a bit lower in the sky – it might be because Dwayne Johnson didn’t work out.
On any other day, Johnson would be up before dawn, clanging and banging on the 45,000 pounds of equipment in the torture chamber of a home gym he calls his Iron Paradise. But not today. Today Johnson slept in until the downright slothful hour of 6 a.m., in a hotel suite in Beverly Hills under the alias Sam Cooke, where he now sits perusing the newspaper while his longtime girlfriend, Lauren Hashian, enjoys a bowl of room-service granola.
The reason for this uncharacteristic idleness? Johnson and Hashian have a two-year-old daughter, Jasmine, and a second child arriving in a few weeks. “We’re in the home stretch,” says Hashian, rubbing her belly – so they left the toddler with the nanny for the night and snuck off for a little romantic getaway. “We’re getting it in now before it’s too late.” Johnson, padding around the suite in gym socks and a T-shirt that reads BLOOD SWEAT RESPECT, says he and Hashian were originally going to get married this spring in Hawaii. “But then we got pregnant,” he says. “And Mama don’t wanna take wedding pictures with a big belly – Mama wanna look good.” They weren’t exactly trying to have another baby. “We were talking about it,” he says. “And then all of a sudden I get a text from her with a [picture of a] pregnancy test.” Apparently it didn’t take much. “All I did was look at her,” Johnson jokes. “Guess what. You’re pregnant. Baby in you now.”
“He just gave me the eyebrow,” says Hashian. “Pew. Here’s a baby.”
Johnson says he’s excited. “I had Simone when I was 29” – his older daughter, now 16, whom he had with his ex-wife, Dany Garcia, who’s now his manager. (They make it work.) “Guys don’t mature until much, much later, so it’s nice to be in my fourth level and have babies again.” Fourth level – that’s a new one. Johnson, 45, grins. “It’s better than saying the actual number.”
Do they have a name picked out? “I think we do,” Hashian says. “We’re thinking about Tia. It’s simple, it’s Polynesian-ish. And I feel like she might come out looking like a Tia. I mean, she could come out any which way, because we’re complete opposites” – she’s fair and delicate, he’s brown and colossal. I love that name, I tell her.
“Yeah?” says Johnson, sounding pleased. “Thank you. You’re probably the fourth person who’s heard it. It was funny – we were having dinner with Emily Blunt, who I’m getting ready to work with [on Disney’s Jungle Cruise], and I said, ‘What do you think of Tia?’ And she went – beat, beat, beat – ‘No one’s gonna fuck with a Tia Johnson.’ ”
Especially not when her father is Dwayne Johnson, roughly the size of a grain elevator. When he was in high school, other kids were suspicious of him because they thought he was an undercover cop. (For the record, a pretty solid pitch for a Dwayne Johnson movie.) Even now, as the most beloved star in Hollywood not named Tom Hanks, Johnson and his giganticness can still give pause. Director Brad Peyton, who’s worked with him on three films – including the new monster romp Rampage – says the first time they met, Johnson was dressed as Hobbs, from the Fast & Furious franchise. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God – this guy is frighteningly large,’ ” Peyton says. “I was shitting myself he looked so intimidating. It took me, like, 15 minutes to get over it.”
As if to combat this, Johnson carries himself with an abiding gentleness, like a grizzly bear who rolls over so you can rub its belly. On our way to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, we pass a manager who apologizes to him for last night. “Oh, it’s all good!” Johnson says. Only after we’re out of earshot does he reluctantly relate what happened. It turns out when he got back to the suite around 2 a.m., following a long day of work, Hashian was still wide awake, thanks to a mysterious buzzing near the bed. “I shut the AC off, we called for earplugs, maintenance came,” Johnson says. “Finally they had to move us at, like, three in the morning. It was a whole thing.”
What a bummer – and on their special night, too. “One night!” Johnson says. He throws his hands up, mock-exasperated. “The hits just keep on coming.”
They do, actually. Johnson is riding a wave of success as the most bankable star in Hollywood – the closest that movies in 2018 have to a sure thing. A recent Wall Street Journal report revealed that his upfront payday for an upcoming film would be $22 million; a source close to Johnson says that figure is low by “two bills.” But the most surprising part of the news may have been how unsurprising it was: Of course the Rock is worth $20 million-plus. After all, there’s a reason last year’s Jumanji sequel grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide, and all due respect, it’s not Jack Black.
As producer Beau Flynn, who’s made six of Johnson’s films, says, even at that price, “Dwayne is a massive steal and a bargain.”
“He’s a freak of nature,” says Johnson’s Rampage co-star Jeffrey Dean Morgan. “It seems like every month he’s in a movie and making a killing. In the middle of shooting Rampage, he’s off hosting SNL and doing ads for Apple and running for president and whatever else. He works out at 3:30 in the morning so he can get to set on time. I don’t know how he does it. And the other thing is, he’s a family dude, so not only is he juggling the 9 million things he’s got on his plate for work, he’s also raising kids and got a happy marriage. Jesus Christ. I kind of fucking hate him.”
Spending time with Dwayne Johnson is pretty much as uplifting as you’d expect. He will give you a fist bump that makes your humerus vibrate. He will ask your spouse and/or child’s name and then make a point to repeat it 17 times. His warmth and enthusiasm will be infectious, and you will leave with newfound inspiration to wake up earlier and exercise more and be kinder to people and also maybe join the Marines? That’s just the kind of guy he is.
“When I first met Dwayne, one of the first things he said to me was ‘Let’s elevate and dominate,’ ” Peyton says. “If most people said that, you’d be like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But when Dwayne says it, I’m like, ‘Yes! Elevate and dominate!’ ”
Out at Johnson’s regular table on the patio, he asks for Fiji water with lemon on the side, then produces an aluminum takeout container. “If we could just take that back to the chefs and have it heated and plated,” he tells the waitress.
“OK,” she says. “I have to check with them first, because we don’t take outside food.”
“Oh, they will,” Johnson says, smiling confidently.
“It will be fine?” she asks.
“It will be fine,” he says. And she trusts him, because when Dwayne Johnson tells you something will be fine, it will be.
(A few minutes later, a waiter returns with the heated-up breakfast. I ask what he’s having. “Right here?” he says. “This is chopped-up lion heart. That’s buffalo placenta. And these are goat balls. From the Andes.” He laughs and shakes his head. “So stupid. But, no – that actually is buffalo.”)
When Johnson was in college, playing football at the University of Miami, he majored in criminology and wanted to be an FBI agent or a CIA officer, so he could “put bad guys away.” Since then, he has played both onscreen, as well as a lifeguard and a Green Beret. In 2015’s San Andreas, he was an L.A. fire-rescue pilot trying to save his daughter from a terrifying earthquake. Says Flynn, “One of my favorite comments online was ‘This movie is so unrealistic. Dwayne would just go to the center of the Earth and hold it from quaking.’ ”
Johnson has found a sweet spot with the characters he plays: highly skilled bad-asses who are also sensitive and vulnerable, flawed yet decent men with big biceps and bigger hearts. “No one’s going to see me play a borderline psychopath suffering from depression,” he says. “I have friends I admire, Oscar winners, who approach our craft with the idea of ‘Sometimes it comes out a little darker, and nobody will see it, but it’s for me.’ Great. But I have other things I can do for me. I’m gonna take care of you, the audience. You pay your hard-earned money – I don’t need to bring my dark shit to you. Maybe a little – but if it’s in there, we’re gonna overcome it, and we’re gonna overcome it together.”
As a wrestler, Johnson spent years traveling the country performing in stadiums and arenas, learning what people wanted from their heroes. “And the number-one goal in all those towns, from Paducah, Kentucky, to Bakersfield, California, was always take care of the audience. You find that today in anything I do. Never send an audience home unhappy.”
There’s a moment in Rampage that illustrates this perfectly, but it’s impossible to talk about without discussing the ending of the film. “But if there’s a way to put it in, feel free,” Johnson says. “Because I think it’s interesting how we got there.”
In the movie, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a former special-forces-soldier-turned-anti-poaching-commando who’s now a primatologist. (Hey, it could happen.) His best friend, a lovable albino silverback gorilla named George, gets infected by an evil corporation’s genetic experiment and transforms into a 40-foot monster hellbent on destroying Chicago, a pursuit he’s joined in by a mutant crocodile and a giant flying wolf. Davis reunites with George and reminds him that he’s a good guy, and together the two of them team up to take down the crocodile and the wolf before they destroy the world. “So the script comes in, and I’m reading it,” Johnson says. “And at the end of it – George dies! I’m like, ‘No. Did I miss something? George can’t be dead.’ But I go back, and yeah.”
Johnson says this moment became “the number-one topic of discussion” between himself, the director and producers, and the studio. “I don’t like a sad ending,” he says. “Life brings that shit – I don’t want it in my movies. When the credits roll, I want to feel great.” His concerns went up the chain of command, and “we had a big meeting where they gave me all the reasons they thought George should die,” he says. “He sacrifices himself saving the world. Killing these animals who had ill intentions to harm mankind. He sacrifices himself like a brave soldier. OK. But this is a movie! There’s a crocodile the size of a football stadium – we’re not making Saving Private Ryan.”
“Dwayne rarely digs in, but on this he was very adamant,” Flynn says. “It was back and forth for about two months.”
According to Johnson, it was about more than just George. “My problem is I have a relationship with an audience around the world,” he says. “For years I’ve built a trust with them that they’re gonna come to my movies and feel good. So every once in a while, you have to drop this card, which is: You’re gonna have to find another actor. We need to figure something out, otherwise I’m not gonna do the movie.”
In the end, they landed on a compromise that made both sides happy. But everyone agrees that Johnson had the right instinct. “He understands the audience and his relationship with the audience better than anyone,” Peyton says.
“That’s Dwayne’s genius,” says Flynn. “And watching it with an audience, he was 100 percent right.”
Johnson’s other big hallmark, in addition to being strong and hard-working and able to laugh at himself, is that he’s a good dad. It’s built into his brand: He’s the guy who can punch out 20 dudes in a prison riot or divert a torpedo with his bare hands while hanging from a speeding truck, then make it home for his little girl’s soccer game. He says he’s learned a lot from being a father, especially a father of girls: empathy, sensitivity, how to listen better. As Hobbs puts it, “The only thing that I love more than saving lives is my daughter.”
His own dad was a little more reserved. “Soulman” Rocky Johnson was a wrestler too, part of the first black tag team to win a WWF championship. Before that, he was kicked out of his house at age 13 and forced to live on the streets. “My dad was tough,” says Johnson. “Tough, tough, tough, tough.” Johnson’s earliest memory is from when he was two, and his dad was filling up a kiddie pool with a hose. “He was like, ‘Hey, come look at this,’ so I went over and he pushed me in.” Johnson laughs. “That’s why I need therapy.” (These days they’re close enough that Johnson bought his dad a new Cadillac after hip surgery.)
Back then, wrestlers were like nomads, eking out a living in Memphis or Allentown for a few months before moving on to the next territory. Johnson lived in five different states by kindergarten, 13 by the end of junior high. “It sucked,” he says. “I would just be getting settled, and then it’s the anxiety of a new school, new friends. . . .” When he was 12, they moved to Hawaii, where his mom’s family lived. “That’s when it got rough,” he says. His dad worked less. His parents fought. “Times were lean,” Johnson says. Frustrated with being poor, he started stealing, then getting arrested. Later, he began getting in fights more, and turning into an angry kid. An only child, he found it hard to talk about his feelings.
Johnson says he’s been to therapy a few times now. “I’ve had a few bouts of depression, as happens to a lot of us,” he says. The first was around the time of his divorce: “Around 2008, 2009, I was going through a lot of personal shit that was really fucking me up. I was just struggling, man. Struggling to figure out what kind of dad am I gonna be. Realizing I’d done a piss-poor job of cultivating relationships, and a lot of my friends had fallen by the wayside. I was just scared. Personally, everything was in a very bad and challenging place. And then professionally, I couldn’t bet on myself. I wasn’t used to that. I’d always felt like I could put in the work and fix the scenario with my own two hands.”
He’d made a splashy entrance in Hollywood, earning $5 million for his first starring role, in 2002’s The Scorpion King. But after a string of slightly embarrassing kids’ movies, it seemed he might be done. “My career was a little shaky – really shaky,” he says. “Returning to wrestling wasn’t an option, because I didn’t want to go back deemed a failure. So I’m making these movies, my third family movie in a row, which is often considered career suicide for someone who started in the world of action. Like, ‘Check, please – you’re done.’ ”
Johnson called a meeting with his agents and said he had a plan. He wanted to be Will Smith, only different and bigger. “I don’t know what that means,” he said. “But I can see it, and I have these” – he held up his hands – “and I need everybody to see it with me.” The silence was profound. Pretty soon he had new agents. But 10 years later, what kind of career does he have? Will Smith’s, only different and bigger.
When Johnson started wrestling, he didn’t want to use his real name because “it didn’t have any pizazz.” Now it’s practically its own genre. “People just know it’s the new Dwayne Johnson movie, and they’re in,” says Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group. Blair Rich, the studio’s president of worldwide marketing, agrees: “He’s a brand unto himself.”
Through it all, he’s never stopped improving – working with acting coaches, learning about business and marketing. “It’s kind of amazing to see how far he’s come as an actor,” Morgan says. “A couple of weeks ago I was flipping through channels, and one of his first movies came on, this movie Doom, from the mid-2000s – it was old enough to where he had hair. To see the subtleties he brings now – I give mad props to him.”
“Dwayne started as an athlete, so he’s used to being coached and pushed,” says Rawson Marshall Thurber, who directed Johnson in Central Intelligence and this summer’s Skyscraper. “He responds really well to that. He’ll give you a hundred takes if you want.”
By all accounts, Johnson is a dream on set – remembering everybody’s name from craft services to the camera operators, taking pictures with the second prop department guy’s brother even though no one asked. After two movies together, Thurber says he’s seen Johnson get truly mad only once, when “there was a miscommunication about when he would be done shooting, and he wasn’t gonna be able to get on his flight to go see his little one. It was the most upset I’ve ever seen him. But the way he handled it was really cool. He brought everybody together in the middle of the set and said, ‘I’m disappointed in all of us that we’re here at this point. How can we solve this and move forward?’
“It was pretty tense,” Thurber says. “He’s a big guy – everyone was staring at their shoes. But what he didn’t do was say ‘screw it’ and storm off, or sit in his trailer and have his people make a fuss. He’s a giant movie star – he could just walk out. But he called everybody together and said, ‘Let’s figure this out.’ I gained a lot of respect for him in that moment.”
All of which may help explain the drama that boiled over on the set of The Fate of the Furious in 2016. During the last week of filming, Johnson posted a message on his Instagram slamming anonymous co-stars who fail to “conduct themselves as stand-up men and true professionals” and were “too chickenshit to do anything about it. . . . Candyasses.”
It soon became clear Johnson was referring to co-star Vin Diesel. When the film came out, eagle-eyed viewers noticed the pair’s scenes were shot in such a way that they might not have been on set at the same time. “That is correct,” confirms Johnson. “We were not in any scenes together.”
“Dwayne will give you a lot of latitude,” Beau Flynn says. “You can push and push and push. But there’s a line in the sand with him – close to his toes, probably – and if you cross that, that’s one of the rare times he gets upset.”
Johnson says their beef came down to a disagreement about professionalism. “Vin and I had a few discussions, including an important face-to-face in my trailer,” he says. “And what I came to realize is that we have a fundamental difference in philosophies on how we approach moviemaking and collaborating. It took me some time, but I’m grateful for that clarity. Whether we work together again or not.”
Does that mean he might not be back for the ninth installment? “I’m not quite sure,” he says. “Right now I’m concentrating on making the spinoff as good as it can be” – Hobbs and Shaw, co-starring Jason Statham, due next year. “But I wish him all the best, and I harbor no ill will there, just because of the clarity we have.” He considers this, then lets out a big, sly laugh. “Actually, you can erase that last part about ‘no ill will.’ We’ll just keep it with the clarity.”
On the day of the nationwide March for Our Lives to protest gun violence, Johnson posts for his 102 million Instagram followers a picture of the marchers in D.C., along with a caption that reads (in part), “Very proud of our youth leading this movement. . . . very strong day.” Johnson rarely chooses to weigh in publicly on political issues, but the massacre of 14 students and three adults in Parkland, Florida, hit close to home, literally. His daughter Simone goes to school just half an hour away.
“She was absolutely terrified,” he says. “A lot of her friends’ friends died. It’s heartbreaking. They’re still going through it.” I ask him what he thinks we should do. “You gotta do something, right?” he says. “I don’t think giving teachers guns is the answer, because then we’re just bringing more guns into school. I don’t know, man. I don’t have the answers. But we’ve gotta keep our kids safe.”
I mention how moving it’s been to see kids leading the way. “Incredibly moving,” he says. “And powerful and emotional. But like with anything, we’ve gotta have people who will meet them in the middle. It’s frustrating. We’ve gotta see better leadership.”
Johnson’s idea of leadership includes a few things. Empathy. Inclusivity. Being open to other views. Staying calm and avoiding knee-jerk reactions. “I also feel, at some point, like we just need good-quality human beings,” he says. “I think when you’re a good-quality human being in your DNA and your constitution, it leads to more effective decision-making.”
As an example, consider the clash between President Trump and the NFL players who knelt during the national anthem. Johnson (who says if he were in the league, he “would either have knelt or raised my fist in solidarity”) says that what those protests were about – namely, African-Americans being killed by police – was misunderstood. “I felt like our president’s responses were being dictated by the noise, and not the actual problem,” he says. At their core, he adds, the protests were “a cry for help: ‘As one human being to another, we’re having this issue that’s affecting our country and our little kids, and I need your help.’ And I think when human beings are in jeopardy, and they ask for help, good-quality human beings, whether locally or at the highest level of office, they help.”
Johnson doesn’t know Trump. They met once, 15 or 20 years ago, at a wrestling event at Madison Square Garden. (“Saw him, shook his hand. That was it.”) But politics aside, Trump seems like exactly the kind of guy Johnson would have little patience for. As his character in Central Intelligence says, “I don’t like bullies.” Can you imagine the Rock’s reaction if a man on his set mocked a person with a disability, or bragged about assaulting a woman? “You’re gone,” Johnson says angrily. “You’re done. I don’t have friends like that, nor is it anywhere in our business.”
That kind of behavior, he says, “is why I didn’t vote for him.”
Johnson says he voted for Obama twice, but he didn’t vote in 2016. “At the time, I just felt like it was either vote for the [candidate] I thought would make a better president than the other, even though I would rather have someone else, or not vote at all. I wrestled back and forth with it. We were on the set of Jumanji in Hawaii, and it really was like calling on the gods. Give me the answer. Ultimately, it was [to not vote].”
But it sounds like he may be having second thoughts. “The next elections, in 2020, I think I’ll be a little bit more vocal in who I support,” he says.
It’s hard to have this conversation without addressing the elephant in the room, which is Johnson’s own political aspirations. For the past few years, stories have come out floating him as a future commander in chief. It makes sense: He’s popular, smart, charming, a natural leader and all-around good guy. He’s spent years touring small cities across America – wrestling at state fairs, flea markets, barns, high school gyms. He was born in California, has deep ties to Hawaii and Florida, has lived everywhere from Texas to Georgia to Pennsylvania, and currently resides part-time in Virginia – that’s 153 electoral votes right there. A poll last year showed him beating Trump head-to-head, 42 to 37.
But let’s be honest: Dwayne Johnson is not going to be president anytime soon. As much as we’d all love to see him drop the People’s Elbow a few Novembers from now, everyone needs to just calm down.
“I mean, look,” says Johnson, “people are very excited, and it’s so flattering that they’re excited. I think it’s also a function of being very unsatisfied with our current president. But this is a skill set that requires years and years of experience. On a local level, on a state level and then on a national level. I have the utmost respect for our country and that position, and I’m not delusioned in any way to think, ‘Oh, absolutely, if Trump can do it, I can do it, and I’ll see you in 20-whatever, get ready.’ Not at all.”
Besides – is it even a good idea? More than a year into our first celebrity presidency, most Americans would agree that it’s not going supergreat. Have we not learned our lesson? “I think in a lot of people’s minds, what Trump has proved is that anybody can run for president,” Johnson says. “And in a lot of people’s minds, what he’s also proved is that not everybody should run for president. What I’m sensing now is that we have to pivot back to people who have a deep-rooted knowledge of American history and politics and experience in policy and how laws get made. I think that pivot has to happen.”
So there you have it. Dwayne Johnson knows he probably shouldn’t be president right now. And yet . . . maybe someday?
Johnson says he’s been taking “under-the-radar” meetings with experts from across the political spectrum: “Republicans, Democrats, independents, mayors, strategists, you name it. Just soaking in and listening. Trying to learn as much as I possibly can. I entertain the thought, and thank you, I’m so flattered by it. But I feel like the best thing I can do now is, give me years. Let me go to work and learn.”
Johnson smiles. “I will say this really quick, which is cool. So there’s a well-known political figure who said, ‘All right, listen. If and when you want to run for president, when you text me this word, I’ll come running. Don’t text any other word – not hi, not how you doing, not what’s up. Just this word.”
So what’s the word?
“The word is fr— I can’t say the word!”
Is it freedom?
Johnson smiles again. “Freedom patriot. Two words.”
In 2032, he will have just turned 60. Freedom patriot. Mark it down.
The last time I see Johnson is on a rainy L.A. morning, when he picks me up at a Whole Foods near his house in a black Escalade with Hank Williams Jr. on the stereo. “Hey, brother,” he says, opening the door. We pull out of the parking lot and onto the freeway, and he checks his mirrors before merging across three lanes of traffic. “Very smooth,” Johnson says. “Please note that.”
We’re on our way to the practice facility of the Los Angeles Lakers, where he’s due to give a “Genius Talk” – one in a series of TED-style lectures that the Lakers’ GM, Rob Pelinka, has organized to spark players’ curiosity for subjects outside basketball. Speakers so far have included Elon Musk and former Disney and Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. Today it’s Johnson’s turn.
When he walks in, waiting to greet him is the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, Earvin “Magic” Johnson (no relation). “What’s up, baby!” Magic says.
“How you doing?” says Johnson, hugging him. They’ve known each other for years, since Johnson came to Lakers games when he was just starting his transition from wrestling to Hollywood. “To see what he’s doing now, see it just, boom, explode, number one in the world – they need to hear that,” Magic says. “We’re trying to become number one in the world ourselves.” The Lakers are waiting for Johnson in the video room – rookie sensation Lonzo Ball up front in sweats and sandals. It’s one of the few gatherings on Earth where Johnson looks small. The team has struggled this year, 30-36 as of this morning. But the Lakers are young, and improving, and they have a lot of potential.
“Thank you, boys, for having me,” Johnson says to the room. “I really didn’t know what to say to you today, because you guys are already successful. So instead, let me just tell you what’s worked for me, and maybe some of it might work for you.”
For the next 40 minutes, Johnson delivers a heartfelt, extemporaneous speech cataloging his lifetime of failures. How he was arrested multiple times as a teenager. How he failed to get drafted into the NFL, his dream crushed at 22. How he made it big in wrestling, but then quit to star in movies and struggled, and two years later wondered, “What the fuck did I do with my career?” He says he carries these failures close. “You gotta keep that shit in the front of your mind. When shit goes bad or sideways, when you get booed out of the building, it should form you. It should drive you.”
At one point, Johnson looks around the room at the hungry young faces looking back at him. “You guys are on the come-up,” he tells them. “You’re on the rise. But at some point, you gotta be fucking tired of not being number one. You gotta play angry. I’m cool and calm when I step on a set. But when it comes to business and when it comes to executing” – he raps his fist against the wall – “every day my back is up against this motherfucker. And when my back is against this motherfucker” — he raps again – “I don’t give a fuck who’s in front of me. I won’t stop.”
That night, the Lakers win by nine.