The man they once called The Rock is going back to a hard place.
After establishing himself as family-friendly movie star with “The Game Plan,” “Race to Witch Mountain,” “Get Smart” and “Tooth Fairy,” actor Dwayne Johnson is going in a very different direction with his next film, “Faster,” which arrives in theaters in November with a brutal tale of R-rated vengeance.
“I’m taking it a different place with this one,” Johnson said last week, and that was abundantly clear by his surroundings. The 37-year-old actor with the diesel physique was standing on a gritty stretch of San Pedro sidewalk dotted with taverns and tattoo parlors and glowing with red promise of a neon sign advertising “Triple-XXX Peep Show.” During one break, Johnson looked down at one of his sinewy arms with disapproval — his fake prison tattoo was starting to fade.
“This,” he said to a member of the makeup team, “needs some work.” As a crew member with a pen carefully restored the dark edges, Johnson talked about doing much the same thing for his acting career.
“I’m excited about this, it’s been some time since I’ve been in this space,” Johnson said, referring to genre not to the seedy pawnshop where the “Faster” crew was at work. “I’m excited to be kicking ass. My genetic make-up is one of physicality. I’m a visceral guy. And career-wise it was time to change it up and keep things interesting.”
This is the 10th anniversary of the former pro wrestler’s great Hollywood adventure, and he has been aggressive throughout, even when his on-screen characters veered toward cuddly or — as with Twentieth Century Fox’s cloying “Tooth Fairy” — the movies didn’t wow the critics. In many ways, Johnson is like his good friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, who famously came to Hollywood with a relentless appetite for success and a background as a competitive, brawny showman. For one thing, both the wrestler and the bodybuilder talk about their careers in terms a CEO would love.
“It’s about creating opportunities where I can take this brand and expand it,” Johnson said on the set. “That could mean foundation work or outside marketing opportunities. But movies are what drive it, always. That’s my passion. “The goal is to make great movies and to make them in a variety of genres.”
Almost every big-time movie star thinks in blended terms of art and commerce, but most aren’t comfortable doing so in public. Johnson, though, grew up thinking about crowd-pleasing victories and box-office receipts. The Hayward native is the son of Hall of Fame wrestler “Soulman” Rocky Johnson, a Nova Scotia native who in 1983 won the World Wrestling Federation’s tag-team championship with his partner, Tony Atlas, becoming the first black wrestlers to hold the title. The actor’s maternal grandparents, meanwhile, were wrestler “High Chief” Peter Maivia and Lia Maivia, a promoter in Polynesian Pacific Pro Wrestling.
Growing up, Johnson lived for a time in Hawaii and New Zealand and connected with his mother’s Samoan heritage, but a job transfer took the family to Bethlehem, Penn., which put the athletic youngster in a region passionate about football. He became a gridiron star at Freedom High School and went on to the University of Miami, where he was a defensive lineman on the team that won the 1991 national championship.
It was in the wrestling ring, though, that Johnson became an international celebrity known simply as The Rock. Switching back and forth between hero and villain, the muscular 6-foot-4 won (and lost) the championship more than half a dozen times, but the true victory had nothing to do with gold-plated belts. In the late 1990s, he rivaled Hulk Hogan as the most recognizable face in wrestling and with his arched eyebrow he suggested an ironic detachment from his peers that took him into settings such as “Saturday Night Live,” “The Martha Stewart Show” and “The MTV Movie Awards.”
Then he turned to Hollywood, where he knew his bid to become a star would be met by smirks. The first significant role was as Mathayus the Scorpion King in “The Mummy Returns,” but from the start Johnson wanted to go well beyond bare-chested bad guys.
“I got into it to become a great actor. And because I got into it in a nontraditional way, I decided the best way to find success was to get a broad base of work,” Johnson said. “I came into it with confidence in my natural ability and instinct and, really, that’s all I had to go by, my gut. I didn’t have a lot of craft, certainly. I knew credibility would come only in time and through earnest performances. People had a certain perception of me 10 years ago, coming from the world I came from, so there were a lot of challenges.”
After a supporting role in the “Mummy” film, Johnson starred in the 2002 sequel “The Scorpion King,” which grossed $165-million worldwide — respectable but a far cry from the first film’s $433-million take. “Walking Tall” in 2004 presented Johnson in a PG-13 tough-guy role, but that didn’t exactly light it up at theaters either. After a memorable turn as a gay bodyguard in the 2005 comedy “Be Cool,” the beefy star turned his sights to lighter material that played off of his intimidating profile.
Looking back on his early work, Johnson said there are “a lot of wince moments” but that he still sees “an earnest guy” who was coming into a new arena to compete. “The one thing I knew I had to do was honor and respect acting itself,” he said. “That was key. I wanted everyone to know I was passionate about it and how dedicated I was to becoming good at it. I always thought that time and performance would get me past all those challenges.”
Plenty of challenges remain. Although Johnson has had commercial success, the critics have been frosty, but there is a sign of a thaw. Take the appraisal of A.O. Scott, for instance, writing in the New York Times last year: “[His] range improves with every role and his natural, lapidary charisma takes him a long way. He is best when he expresses an agitated annoyance amusingly at odds with his solid, muscular presence. He doesn’t really have much to do in ‘Race to Witch Mountain’ … but it’s not painful to watch him do it.” Ty Burr, writing in the Boston Globe had similar backhanded praise for “The Game Plan,” calling Johnson “by far the most likable of modern movie muscleheads.”
Still, Johnson long ago separated himself from Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin and others pro wrestlers with SAG cards. He senses, though, that it’s time get away from “heartfelt life lessons” in family films and mix it up in an R-rated landscape. “I think there are a lot of people who will be happy to see me in a pure action movie again too.”
“Faster” is the story of a hulking, taciturn man known only as Driver who is viewed almost as supernatural figure in the underworld after his exploits in prison; in his first three months in the penitentiary he took on challengers from every cell-block gang and beat them all (victories, by the way, he documented in that prison tattoo) before he was put into solitary confinement to protect himself and, perhaps, every other man in the prison yard. Nine and half years later, he emerged from “the hole” and was released to the outside world with one mission: To hunt down the people responsible for his incarceration and, worse, his brother’s death.
“I wanted to make sure that with all the violence that’s in the movie he still maintains a sense of integrity and righteousness,” Johnson said. “That was important. These guys in these sort of films can turn into robots — that’s the easy way to take the characters — but with ‘Faster’ the material was so good it lent itself to doing something better than that. It’s very well written so there’s a great reservoir that we can work with. There are layers of integrity to him even with all the violence. And there is a lot of violence.”
“Faster,” which began filming in August, is being directed by George Tillman Jr., whose previous credits include “Men of Honor” and “Soul Food.” Tillman said he’s striving to give “Faster” the scowling intensity of 1960s and 1970s tough-guy classics like “Vanishing Point,” “Get Carter,” “Point Blank” and the films of Steve McQueen.
“McQueen said so much without talking a lot and in this movie I don’t think Dwayne has a scene with more than 12 or 15 words,” Tillman said. “He’s alone a lot of the movie. A lot of the performance is an interior one and I think something we haven’t seen from Dwayne before. It’s almost like a western, he’s on a mission. This performance is going to really surprise some people and give them the Dwayne they really want to see.”
Johnson has been developing the property for more than a year and it’s clear that he sees it as new chapter in his career — even if it’s not the wordiest role of his career. “No, not at,” Johnson said with a laugh. “There are no soliloquies, no pontificating. He says little but what he does say lands very sternly, all the time.”
The script was written by the brother tandem of Joe and Tony Gayton and also stars Billy Bob Thornton, an Arkansas native who became fast friends with Johnson through their mutual love of country music. Johnson says he loves the “honesty and the irony in the writing” of Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck and Merle Haggard and he cherishes the guitar Nelson presented to him as a birthday gift. Johnson says he’s learned from watching Thornton at work, just as he has learned from other actor elders through the years.
“He’s an intriguing person and I love the guy,” Johnson said. “I’ve always been intrigued by his work and the power of his work. He’s got an incredible amount of talent and a really diverse career.”
And what of the future? Johnson said he was pleased to see the success of “The Blind Side,” both at the box office and on Oscar night, and intrigued about what it might mean for other sports-based films. He is also long overdue, he says, to appear in a superhero film.
“I would love that,” said Johnson, who might be a good fit as Luke Cage, Namor, the Martian Manhunter or Captain Marvel. “We’ve been active in talking to these different companies and these different studios about making that happen and finding what makes sense. There’s so much there and so much untapped. I’m sure it will happened. We’ve worked to develop good relationships with the studios heads and executives.”
There’s also ongoing chatter about a “Jonny Quest” film with Johnson as Race Bannon, and he lighted up when the venture was mentioned. “Oh, absolutely, we’re talking about that, I love ‘Jonny Quest.'”
Johnson said he would love to also make romantic comedies as well as “a big sweeping epic” and one of his dreams is to see a big-screen account of the life of Kamehameha, the ruler who unified the Hawaiian islands in 1810. “It’s the Hawaiian version of ‘Braveheart’ in a way,” Johnson said.
The touch-up job on his prison tattoo was done and Johnson grinned at the fearsome-looking result. “You know, I started in action and then I went to comedy school,” he said. “Now I’m back in action again. And believe me it’s fun.”
— Geoff Boucher
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PHOTOS: Top, Dwayne Johnson in “Faster” (CBS Films). Three posters for Dwayne Johnson films. Images of Captain Marvel (DC Comics) and Luke Cage (Marvel Comics), character that fans have often mentioned as plum roles for Johnson.