Interview By: Michael Dance
If Dwayne Johnson likes one thing, it’s this: a challenge.
How does he choose movies? “If the script gets me excited, and I think I can be challenged,” he says. Why did he decide to star in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales? Because he thought the director’s previous film, Donnie Darko, was “an interesting movie – it was very challenging.” In Southland Tales, he plays a movie star stricken with amnesia. “I thought that he was just a very challenging character to play,” Johnson explains.
The philosophy has served him well over his relatively short but highly successful career. Over four years ago, “The Rock” retired from wrestling and launched his movie career, starring in the successful spin-off of the Mummy franchise, The Scorpion King. Since then he has been embraced by the average moviegoing public by (A) actually being a good actor with a charming screen presence, and (B) not starring exclusively in action roles. In other words…challenging himself.
Post-Scorpion King, his first role was The Rundown, a seemingly typical action movie except that his character was a pacific who didn’t like to use guns. In Be Cool, he played a gay bodyguard. And this very fall he starred in The Game Plan, a Disney family comedy that has become his highest-grossing film since The Scorpion King.
Now, he stars in Southland Tales, which is about as genre-bending as it gets.
“I always say that to me, it’s a comedy,” Johnson says of the film. “It’s a dark comedy about the end of the world, and how people, very specifically in Los Angeles, would react. I will say that I loved [the script]. I thought it was great, it was intriguing, it was different, it was funny.”
The amnesiac celebrity he plays, Boxer Santaros, is not necessarily based on any Hollywood type he’s come across. “Well,
Southland Tales has grown to be a sharply divisive movie; it received a frankly terrible reception at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, and has since been re-edited and cut down. Some reviewers are loving it; others continue to call it a mess. Johnson, perhaps buoyed by his recent success with The Game Plan, doesn’t seem worried, although remains realistic about its prospects.
“Whoever finds this movie, whatever small audience finds this movie, I think they’re going to enjoy it,” he says. “If they don’t, that’s great too. That’s art. That’s movies.”
Then again, he’s not going to pretend that box office grosses mean nothing to him. “The Game Plan was very significant. The box office success was very significant. It allows you a lot more freedom; that’s just what happens in Hollywood.”
And more freedom means he can take the kinds of roles he craves. “It was very important earlier on in my career to just make sure I wasn’t only doing action movies. That would be the easy thing to do. You’re unchallenged that way. No, I want to grow, do comedies, quirky stuff like this, you know?”
The plan is working – Johnson’s next role will be opposite Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, and Alan Arkin in Get Smart an update of the classic television comedy. “Oh, it’s great!” he
After that comes Witch Mountain, the second in what he hopes will be a long and lucrative relationship with Disney. It’s an update of the classic 1975 family film Escape to Witch Mountain.
“We’re going to shoot Witch Mountain next, with Andy Fickman, who directed The Game Plan. We’re very exiting about that, David Baumbach turned in a really outstanding script. And I know a lot of the writers have been up against a wall handing in their scripts, but he really nailed it, and we’re very excited. Big Disney movie, March of ’09 it’ll be out,” he says. “The action and comedy are amped up, the children are a little older – AnnaSophia Robb is in it, and we still haven’t cast the boy.”
(Johnson elaborates on the WGA Strike in as neutral terms as possible: “I look for it to be resolved as soon as possible, but I understand where the writers are coming from, sure,” he says. “I was hosting Saturday Night Live next week, and from what I know now, obviously we’re not going to do that. But it’s fine. You know, big deal – the most important thing here is that the writers and everybody come to an agreement.”)
Finally, there’s the little question of his name – Southland Tales marks the first time the actor is simply referred to as Dwayne Johnson – not The Rock, not even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. “Yes, it is the
So does that mean “The Rock” is dead? Although his wrestling days are behind him and he finally has his real name on the movie posters, he’s hesitant to let go of the moniker completely. “Well, people still call me it. It’s my nickname. And by the way, it’s a cool nickname,” he says, switching on another ear-to-ear grin.
Near the end of the interview, someone asks him, simply, why people should go see Southland Tales. An open-ended question like that could send an actor’s answer off in wildly different directions – praising the script, the director, the co-stars. But he’s already said all of that. “Boy, that’s a good question,” he jokes, biding his time.
Finally it dawns on him: his old standby. “I think they should see it if they want to be challenged when they watch a movie.” Of course.
Time’s almost up. But lest you think Johnson is content giving us nothing but predetermined, soundbite-friendly answers, he leaves us with a tantalizing bit of random information. The conversation has rolled around to food, and he leans in close. “Double-dough pizza,” he states. “It’s a secret. You order a pizza, and you tell them to double-dough it. Just two pieces of dough together on the bottom, so it’s a lot thicker. Nice and fat.” One final time, he grins. “It’s awesome.”