LOS ANGELES – Finally, The Rock has arrived… in Hollywood.
Dwayne Johnson’s films have grossed over $2 billion since his debut in “The Mummy Returns” in 2001. His new movie – action thriller “San Andreas,” which opens nationwide on May 29 – serves as the latest reminder Johnson possesses the acting chops and versatility to lead a major Hollywood production.
Despite the distance between Tinseltown and Titan Towers, Johnson remains the “People’s Champ.” The grounded megastar offered his perspective on Hollywood success, his future in wrestling, and even commented on the “Deflategate” controversy.
“I had a coach, his name was Ed Orgeron, and he was our defensive line coach at the University of Miami,” said Johnson, who helped the Hurricanes capture the NCAA football national championship in 1991. “He’s a phenomenal coach and crazy as all hell. His sentiment to something like this is how we feel as defensive players.”
Johnson was fond of the expression, “It doesn’t matter!” during his time in wrestling. The same can be said for his opinion on over-inflated footballs, under-inflated ones, and the Wells Report.
“We were raised in an environment at the University of Miami where Ed would say, ‘We don’t give a f---,’” explained Johnson. “You go after the quarterback the exact same way. You pin your ears back and get after it. And if the quarterback is able to get the ball off, then it’s your fault.”
Johnson, Hulk Hogan, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin are the holy trinity of professional wrestlers. Yet only Johnson has survived – check that, thrived – in Hollywood.
“It’s hard,” said Johnson. “It’s hard work. That’s the key, but it’s not that those guys don’t work hard. For whatever reason, it just kind of worked out for me. That’s the only answer I can give. I’ve had incredible matches with those guys and I’m good buddies with those guys, especially Austin. I know that they put their heart and soul into everything they do.
“Think about the matches and the tours I had with Austin. He is probably, if not the greatest of all time. There is a wiring in his head, which is, ‘I’m going out, I’m going to take it, and I’m going to be the best.’ He was my mentor, by the way, back when I was this young buck. With a top guy like Austin or Undertaker, you only get to work with them if they say it’s cool. For Austin to say it’s cool to have The Rock work with him is one thing, but he also wanted me to main event WrestleMania with him. He took me under his wing, taught me a hell of a lot, and I’ll never forget it.”
After a seven-year absence from wrestling, crowds have exploded each time The Rock has returned home to the WWE. The lone exception, however, occurred this past January at the Royal Rumble. Initially met with a large pop from the crowd, Johnson and real-life cousin Roman Reigns were showered with boos from those in attendance at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.
“I wasn’t surprised by the reaction at all,” he said. “That’s the beauty of Philly. I have felt that from Philly on both ends, as a heel and a baby face. Roman was getting booed in every city, and I just knew – we all knew – well, Philly was going to be worse.”
Fans revolted at Reigns’ manufactured push to the top of the card, while crowd favorites – like Daniel Bryan – were pushed aside.
“The only advice I gave Roman was that you just need to stay the course,” said Johnson. “It’s a unique dynamic and relationship that you have with the fans in wrestling. They’re passionate, just like you’re passionate, but they know it’s a work, just like you know it’s a work. It’s this fine balance you have to find between just staying the course and continue to cut your teeth every night by putting in good performances.”
Johnson relates to Reigns’ plight. His own work as “Rocky Maivia” was booed heavily in 1997 when fans did not feel an organic connection with the character. History repeated itself this past year as Reigns was regularly criticized – and booed – after his force-fed lines failed to make any connection with WWE fans. That disconnect ultimately cost him the world heavyweight championship at WrestleMania 31.
“Eventually, he’ll overcome that,” said Johnson. “But here is the key – you’ll only overcome that if you are real. You’ve got to be authentic in your performances. The moment they start smelling, ‘That’s not real. You don’t really talk that way, you really don’t feel that way,’ then you cancel Christmas.”
Before revealing whether he plans to wrestle again, Johnson shared that his dream match would be a 4-way encounter between himself, grandfather “High Chief” Peter Maivia, father Rocky Johnson, and the “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
“I’ve always been such an incredible fan of Randy Savage,” he said. “Even before I started wrestling, I would watch his old tapes from Memphis. I’d watch his promos and his ring style. When I was in the eighth grade, my nickname was ‘The Macho Man.’
“I never had the pleasure of meeting him, and I always wish I had. Especially after he passed away, you just want to kick yourself in the ass. I have the resources, so I could have called him up and told him I was a big fan. I wish I did that, but I didn’t.”
“San Andreas” is directed by Brad Peyton, who worked with Johnson on “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.” Johnson was asked to describe the difference between working on a Hollywood set with Peyton to a Monday Night Raw with WWE CEO Vince McMahon.
“This will be the only time that Brad Peyton’s name will ever be mentioned in the same sentence as Vince McMahon,” said a smiling Johnson. “Vince has been a mentor and a father figure to me. I met him when I was eleven years old. Even still today, I appreciate the relationship we have. It’s a real cool father-son dynamic, and especially as I get older, I can appreciate the relationship today better than when I was a punk 25-year-old kid.
“But here is the connective tissue between Brad Peyton and Vince McMahon – they come to work every single day like it’s their first day on the job and they will outwork every single person in the building. Vince’s work ethic at 70, or however old he is, is just crazy. He’s squatting 500 pounds at one o’clock in the morning. Not that Brad Peyton is squatting 500 pounds, but they both want to excel, raise the bar, and go beyond expectations.”
In addition to “San Andreas,” the 43-year-old Johnson has major roles in upcoming films such as “Central Intelligence,” “Shazam!”, and “Furious 8.” He also revealed he is strongly considering a return to the squared circle at AT&T Stadium – in front of more than 100,000 fans – in Texas at WrestleMania 32.
“Myself, Vince, Triple H have talked about creating something that is amazing,” said Johnson. “Any time for me, going back into the WWE, especially if it’s a match – and these guys know this because of the open dialogue between me and Triple H – the question is, can we create, in terms of a promotional scale for the fans, something better than what we did in Miami and back-to-back in New York with John Cena? Can we put together something that’s different but equally, if not more, exciting? So there’s a lot of elements involved that we continue to talk about and chop up. That’s the coolest part about the relationship I have with the McMahons, including Triple H.”
One piece of the puzzle is certain – the WWE wants The Rock at WrestleMania, and Triple H is doing everything he can to persuade “The Great One” to return.
“Look, the platform is there,” said Johnson. “You have Dallas and could set an attendance record, so that’s the first goal. And then what is the match that allows us to do that? I’ve had incredible matches with Triple H, so I’m not ruling it out, but I’m not saying it is going to happen.
“We continue to talk about it, and we’re still shooting each other text messages. He sent me a message from Dallas that said, ‘This could be us. The record is ours.’ So we’ll see.”
If you smell what The Rock is cooking.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.