But if it hadn’t been for Johnson’s incredible strength of spirit, things could have turned out very different for The Rock – the People’s Champion who became the film industry’s undisputed leading man.
Who’s the biggest male star in Hollywood right now? Brad Pitt; George Clooney; Johnny Depp? Think again. The answer to that question must surely be Dwayne Johnson, and that’s not just because he’s six foot five and has arms like tree trunks. No, the man who made his name as one of the most iconic WWE wrestlers of all time is now worth a staggering $64m a year – and that means he ranks higher than any of those silver screen stalwarts, no matter how extensive their cinematic pedigree.
So how is it that Tinseltown has been conquered by a man whose past life as alter ego ‘The Rock’ mainly involved cocking an incredulous eyebrow and participating in entirely staged bouts of gladiatorial combat – all greased musculature and trash-talking? Johnson isn’t the first member of the World Wrestling Entertainment organisation to have attempted the move from the ring to the red carpet. Former heavyweight ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper made a good fist of things and current industry golden boy John Cena has been known to dabble in gun-toting action movies from time to time. But whereas these films have taken on a cult following (and one made up largely of WWE fans), not one has managed anywhere close to the kind of post-wrestling success that Johnson has.
If Johnson thought fighting in the ring was difficult, his transition to Hollywood necessitated him facing challenges of a very different kind.
“When I first went into acting, it was a weird time for me,” the 44-year-old says. “When you come from the world of wrestling, and you’re half-black, half-Samoan, people don’t know who you are – because they don’t know what you are. And that’s the harsh truth.
“I was coming into a world where the ideal was Brad Pitt, George Clooney. It was all about their aesthetic, their facial features, their bodies, and I was so far removed from that and I thought I needed to be more like them. So I slimmed down, acted a little differently, and tried to fit that mould and get away from wrestling and The Rock and that persona. I was being told that was the best path, and maybe it worked for a little while, but I wasn’t happy. It felt so unnatural and I just thought, ‘I have to be me, that’s the only person I can be,’ rather than trying to fit in.”
While you could be forgiven for thinking that Johnson now has the world at his feet just by virtue of his natural charisma – and the large US following he’d already accrued through his wrestling work – the truth is that life for the California-born star has not always been so pleasant. The son of Canadian wrestler Rocky Johnson, one half of the first black tag-team to win the then-WWF’s coveted Tag Team Championship, Johnson’s childhood was spent largely on the move as his father followed his career. But while Johnson was part of an entertainment industry that was starting to make waves across America, Rocky was wrestling at a time when there was little financial reward for stepping into the ring.
“I saw my family getting evicted from our house when I was 14,” Johnson reminisces. “I remember coming home from school and seeing my mother in front of the house, weeping. There was a padlock on the door and I felt this total sense of helplessness. I swore to myself that nothing like that was going to happen to me and my family again.”
But with the family’s frequent relocation came future problems – and Johnson quickly became, by his own admission, a “delinquent”.
“As the new kid, I was bullied a lot when I was in junior high school,” he reveals. “I had some hard times. I had a lot of problems with my identity and figuring out who I was and who I wanted to be. I was getting into a lot of trouble early on in high school and I was arrested multiple times when I was 15 and 16. I was mixed up, and sports are what turned my life around and gave me something to focus on and gave me some purpose and direction in life. All kids need that and I was lucky enough to find it. During my last year in high school, I won a full scholarship to the University of Miami and we went on to win a national championship.”
But just as it seemed a door had opened for the teenage Johnson, just a few years later it slammed shut once again. “I was probably at my lowest at 24 years old when I was cut from the football team I was playing with in the Canadian version of the NFL,” he explains. “I had just seven bucks in my pocket. I had nowhere to live and I had to move back into my parents’ house – that was a low blow.
“I was lost. I didn’t know where I was going to go or what was going to come next because I couldn’t see a future. All I had known was football up until that time in my life and I was crushed. But in hindsight, it was the best thing to happen to me because I learned during that period that no one was going to hand me a life. I wasn’t going to get back on my feet feeling sorry for myself. I had to pick myself up and keep going and fighting and grasp and claw and scratch at every opportunity that came my way.”
From just seven dollars in hand to an annual take that tops the tables in one of the world’s most lucrative industries, Johnson is riding higher even than when his name was on every American teenage wrestling fan’s lips. No matter how far he goes, however, he still relies on the mentality he forged when he saw his footballing ambitions fade away.
“The scratch and claw mentality is still there,” he agrees. “That mentality comes through when you’re trying to make a transition to Hollywood. It never goes away, and that’s what you see. You get a rejection – a studio or a network says, ‘No, we don’t like your show, go pitch it to someone else,’ or ‘You’re not right for this role, so we’re going to give it to this other guy,’ and that mentality is still there. So if you tell me no, I’m going to say, ‘OK, no problem. I’m going to keep driving forward.’”
Integral to Johnson’s revival was a strong support network, along with his unshakeable self-belief and faith. Though never overtly vocal about his religious beliefs, Johnson has on more than one occasion alluded to his “special relationship with God”, and the inference that relationship has on his personal mantra of “have faith, and on the other side of that pain is something good”.
“After I was finished as a pro football player I was left feeling empty and devastated,” he says. “I was lying on my sofa crying. I didn’t want to do anything or see anyone. But I had some good friends who helped pull me out of that, and I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and find a new dream. f
“I turned to bodybuilding because that was something I knew I could do and I enjoyed the feeling that training gave me. That led me into wrestling, where I was able to use some of my natural charisma and all the emotions that I was used to bottling up inside.”
Boosted by the support of WWE president Vince McMahon, Johnson revolutionised the world of professional wrestling in a way that would change the landscape of the sport. His ability to inhabit a persona like The Rock set him in good stead for his future move to the big screen – “I saw that I had a gift for showmanship,” he explains. “I could create a persona that audiences would react to” – but there were deeper implications to Johnson’s reinvention in the world of wrestling.
Like his father and grandfather before him, as well as his beloved grandmother, Lia Maivia, the star is considered part of the Anoa‘i Family – a highly respected group of American-Samoan wrestlers who have been at the forefront of the sport’s development for generations. Just as Johnson’s Christian faith forms a large part of his life, so too his Polynesian heritage, which he was given the chance to delve into as part of Disney’s critically acclaimed Moana last year. Indeed, it has left an indelible mark on him both spiritually and physically.
“I’m a high chief in Samoa,” he smiles. “That’s the highest title you can have bestowed on you by the king. It was a very big day for me, the most meaningful moment in my life, second to the birth of my daughter. Fifty thousand people were gathered for the ceremony, which was very long and very spiritual. It was an amazing day and experience for me.
“My tattoos also hold spiritual meaning. One is a partialpe’a, which are very meaningful in Polynesian culture. Tattooing is a rite of passage. It’s spiritual and it tells a story. Symbolically these are stories that have been around for thousands of years. They tell a story of one’s life, and my tattoos tell the story of who I am and my journey in life.”
Such a physical expression of his personal story is typical of Johnson’s open and easy-going character. With his dazzling smile and connection with his fans – be it his propensity to hang around at premieres taking selfies or the near-constant stream of inspiration that flows from his social media pages – Johnson has remained apart from the conceited elite of the film industry; simultaneously making an effortless segue from musclebound action hunk (The Scorpion King, Hercules) to capable comic (Central Intelligence) and bona fide franchise heavyweight (The Fast and the Furious).
“I try to never take myself too seriously.” he laughs. “I mean come on, we’re playing dress-up and running around doing stunts, taking down bad guys, making jokes, getting to do red carpets and premieres. It’s a privileged life.”
While some Hollywood heavyweights seem happy enough being elevated above the rest of us, Johnson’s Christian values – to treat every man and woman as an equal – shine through. “One thing I always look for in people is humility and graciousness – because this isn’t a business known for it,” he nods emphatically. “I want to see a huge star be as gracious and open and giving the same respect to the catering staff as they do to the director. And when I don’t see that, it upsets me. I really hate it.”
It’s hardly a stretch to suggest that Johnson’s strong ethical and moral backbone have led to his enduring appeal to Hollywood producers and casting directors. This year sees him take the lead in two modern reincarnations of American classics with Baywatch and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The idea that a half-Samoan bodybuilder is now treading in the footsteps left by screen legends such as David Hasselhoff and Robin Williams is not lost on Johnson, who will always have those times of hardship to keep him grounded among the bright lights and camera flashes of the film industry.
“I’ve always held on to the dark times in my life,” he agrees. “I think about them every day in some shape or other; I know what it’s like to struggle and have no money whatsoever – to live pay cheque to pay cheque, and that worry and anxiety and how it can rule your life, and dreaming big but worrying that you’re never going to get there. I’ll never forget what that was like.
“I like to keep those times close to my heart, and that helps me to not so much achieve success but to appreciate it and never take it for granted. That’s a mistake that a lot of people make, not just in Hollywood but in life, and your past is who you are; it made you into the person sitting here right now and as long as you never forget that, you’re on the right track.”
Who can tell what the future holds for Johnson? He’s still revered among the great and the good of the wrestling industry, and directors are clamouring to bag the man who is universally adored by fans and co-stars in their films. Off-screen, there have even been murmurs that one day Johnson could run for President. It’s an idea he’s never actively ruled out when quizzed on the subject, and unlike his hero Arnold Schwarzenegger – another bodybuilding Hollywood hero who stood for office – his American birthplace deems him eligible for the top job in the White House.
If you’re inclined to scoff at the idea of a man who once traded blows with Hulk Hogan taking on the mantle of commander-in-chief, you’d do well to look at the current occupant of that post. And consider that since that moment in 1996 when Johnson first coined his wrestling alter ego in its lasting form, this is one Rock that’s been on quite a roll.
“When you’re not afraid of your feelings and worries and being able to express yourself to the people you love, it just transforms you in so many great ways,” he enthuses. “You begin to enjoy your own spirit and everything about yourself that allows you to connect with the people you love – that I can be just as vulnerable and loving as I can be tough.”
The lasting feeling Johnson’s unstoppable rise leaves is that beneath that winning smile and Adonis-like physique, there’s a quietly understated but insurmountable power that goes far beyond the (no less unbelievable) amount the star can deadlift. Unlike many of his predecessors who tended to appear unapproachable by virtue of their celebrity, however, Johnson is ready to connect with anyone and everyone who wants to listen and improve their own life.
“You must always, always have faith – it’s one of the vital qualities in life, and it’s irreplaceable,” he concludes. “When I grew up it was always the same: when one door closed, there was no window opening. All I was given was cracks, and I did everything – bite, scratch, claw or bleed – to get through them. I never lost my faith that I would get through, though. Now I have all the opportunity I could ever have imagined. That door has opened at last – and it’s huge.”