Dwayne Johnson is back in tough-guy mode this weekend with “Faster,” a hardcore revenge fantasy about a man with no name — he’s referred to only as Driver in the film — who is coaxed into armed robbery by his brother and then watches him die because of the treachery of some cohorts. After a stint in prison, Driver becomes an unstoppable force of vengeance. The bleak movie was written by Tony and Joe Gayton, directed by George Tillman Jr. and stars Billy Bob Thorton, Carla Gugino (“Watchmen“) and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (“Lost“). I sat down with Johnson last week to get the lowdown on his return to a hard-edged cinematic world.
GB: The look of the film is great. That sort of gunmetal tint to everything suggests a hard world where hard people make hard decisions…
DJ: It was important to George to capture that type of tone and texture to movie to tap into the essence of those classic movies from the 1960s and 1970s — like “Point Blank,” “Bullitt,” “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” — and also some of the Tarantino films or some of the Robert Rodriguez films.
GB: I saw you when you were filming “Faster” on location in San Pedro and you were pretty far along in the shoot. I’m wondering, though, if the character or the project as a whole presented you with any surprises as you went along. Did it take you to places you weren’t expecting in any way?
DJ: One of the things is you don’t have a lot of dialogue in this film. You run into the challenge of that, and it was a great challenge for me. Holding an audience in a scene with no words or very few words — to embrace that and the challenge of it was very exciting for me. From an emotional standpoint, because there were so few words, there had to be a greater subtext to all these words. They couldn’t just be words. They had to have powerful, driving emotion in every scene. There are so few words but there is one big scene with me and Adewale and he’s an evangelist who has impacted the lives of hundreds of children and become a man of God — he’s changed his life, he’s resurrected his life and purpose — but he is also responsible for the death of my character’s brother. He’s asks me, “Can you forgive me?” Given that opportunity, in front of a man of God and under God, what do you? And with few words, finding what that emotion and subtext should be and could be, that was a great challenge. I enjoyed every moment of it.
GB: Presented with all that sort of challenge, did you watch rushes a lot to gauge the your performance? Were you concerned that you might do too much to compensate for the dearth of dialogue?
DJ: It felt good to me to not do a lot. It was exercising a muscle I hadn’t exercised before in terms of nuance, in terms of subtlety. Some of the action movies, it’s about the adrenaline, the bravado, the physicality. In comedies, there’s the back-and-forth of the dialogue and working with a comedic partner. This was very different. I had to be confident in it, too and have it feel good. If something didn’t feel right I just talked it over with George. I choose not to watch the dailies, though; I always want to go on feel. I haven’t done [watched dailies] for years, by the way. It’s just got to feel good to me, that’s how I find it.
GB: Those billboards for the film certainly send the message that you are in the R-rated action sector this time around, not in the family-comedy mode.
DJ: Absolutely. The campaign’s been strong. It’s one of those straightforward campaigns; not only me back in the genre but the notion of ‘It’s my family. You took something from me, you ripped them away. Now you pay.’ And I think when people see the material they get a vibe and sense that, ‘Oh that’s a little stylized, that looks a different. There’s something about that tone that looks a little different. There’s something funky, quirky about that texture that looks cool.”
GB: Tell me a bit more about working with George Tillman Jr. He directed “Men of Honor,” “Soul Food” and the Biggie Smalls movie, “Notorious,” but this was a very different exercise. Did you find that you connected with his take right away, or did the two of you have work out certain things to find a common-ground vision?
DJ: Right from the beginning we saw it the same way. He came over to my house and, you know, there were a lot of directors that raised their hand for the project. There were a multitude of directors and not because it was a big payday but because it was really just cool. The script was well written. So George came over and I immediately loved his take on the movie. On paper, the movie read very well but you don’t get the emotion and energy. Also, the characters were written without names, basically — you don’t know their names, so how does work for the audience?
Anyway, sitting down with George, the most important thing to him was emotion: “I want to make sure that all action carries the weight of great emotion.” Oh, OK. Talk to me about the type of movie you want to make. “I want to make a classic.” OK, that’s sounding good. So it all started very early on and happened quickly, as far as the decision that he was the guy. George is also one of the most prepared director I have ever worked with. He blows you away with all the visuals, but it’s all the other little things he does, too, before the camera starts rolling.
GB: You also have a packed schedule. What can you tell us about your projects that are underway or on deck?
DJ: I wrapped “Fast and Furious” [aka “Fast 5,” the fifth movie in the franchise that began with “The Fast and the Furious” in 2001], which was great. We shot in Puerto Rico, Brazil and Atlanta and it was great. The idea of finding a formidable man to chase down Vin [Diesel’s character] and bring him in, I liked that idea. Not only is the franchise successful but to work with Universal — I started my career with those guys and to go back with that studio was great. And to introduce a new character, Hobbs, that the audiences will like — a FBI agent that has the power of the government behind him but also the viciousness of a beast, of an animal — I think that’s great. And then the simple intrigue of seeing he and I on screen together as adversaries. We go at it. That’s much more interesting. I didn’t want to play buddies. Vin’s an interesting guy. He cares about this movie greatly and really wanted to make the best movie possible. And right now I’m shooting “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.”
GB: That’s a sequel to “Journey to the Center of the Earth” but with a significantly different approach and tone, correct?
DJ: It’s a sequel in that we’re working within the novels of Jules Verne, but Warner Bros. called up and asked me to part of a reboot of the franchise. This one, they wanted to make it bigger and make it better. It’s a big adventure. It’s myself, Michael Caine, Luis Guzmán and Vanessa Hudgens. It’s — I have to tell you, this is an exciting time in my career. To be able to shoot somebody in the head in a movie and then get after Vin in a big franchise and then get a call from Warner to help reboot a franchise…. To have this type of flexibility and leverage and diversity is very exciting. I could not be happier.
GB: What would you say links the roles you take? And is there anything you wouldn’t want your characters to do onscreen?
DJ: The one thing that I do like is that by the end a movie, that my character gets better. He becomes a better man. It doesn’t have to be a great man, just a better man. It can be off-kilter a bit, not right down the middle, that’s fine. If he gets better in some way, that is important to me.
— Geoff Boucher
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