His latest career turn is just another transformation for Johnson, who became a wrestler after a failed career in professional football. His father, the legendary Rocky Johnson, was a regional favorite during the heyday of Pacific Northwest Wrestling in the 1970s.
As a wrestler, Dwayne Johnson struggled to make a name for himself under several different pretty-boy personas, before making a "heel turn" and reinventing himself as the charismatic, larger-than-life Rock. The Mr. Hyde to Johnson's Dr. Jekyll, the Rock emerged as one of the most popular characters in the world of pro wrestling.
WW spoke to the Rock by phone during the actor's press junket promoting Walking Tall.
Rock: How you doin,' buddy?
I'm all right, how are you?
Good, brother. Where are you calling from?
I used to live there. I used to live in Vancouver, man. We used to go to the Portland Sports Arena.
That was when your dad used to wrestle here, back in the days of guys like Dutch Savage?
[laughs] Dutch Savage. Don Owen. Hey, does that guy still have the TV store? What was his name--he had a crew-cut?
Tom Peterson? He's still around.
[laughs] Tom Peterson. No shit?
Your dad was one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. Was he supportive of you when you decided to climb into the ring?
Man, he hated it. He was a man of color in the business in the 1960s and 1970s, and we lived in the South a lot, so you can imagine how it was. But he still came up in the business in a different time, and he didn't want that for me. And I understand that.
A lot of people say you're going to be the action hero of the 21st century. What do you think about that?
Very flattering, because it was never my intent. I never thought, getting into the film industry, "Wow! I want to take over." I just thought I would like to make movies that are entertaining and that deliver the people's money's worth. But in this process, it's turned into what it has--which, by the way, is great. And I'm lucky I've got some good people around me to help me.
The Rock has become a movie star, but what about Dwayne Johnson? Is he ever going to make a movie?
[laughs] You know what? Same guy. Different name. When I did The Scorpion King, it was like, "Oh, OK, let's go see the Rock." The only thing I had done prior to that, obviously, was wrestling. Over time, different performances that are action or action-comedy or just straight comedy will take care of that.
I've read that you're working on a film about Hawaii's King Kamehameha.
It's one of those projects that is near and dear to my heart. It would be my biggest role. I'm just waiting 'til I'm ready. The studio would make it tomorrow. But it's like what Ali was to Will Smith, what Braveheart was to Mel Gibson. What I'm saying is it's that type of passionate project. I can only be frank: I want the filmgoing audience to be excited and accept. As an actor--in terms of getting the chops--that's something I take serious, so I don't want to rush that.
Let's talk about Walking Tall. Did you have a connection to the original film?
I was always a big fan of the original, and what it meant to walk tall.
The original film was based on a real man, Buford Pusser. But in the new film you don't play Pusser. Why not?
Because of the respect that I have for Buford Pusser, and his name, his family, his legacy--I didn't want to take his name. And it's just not honest. How, as a man, can I call myself Buford Pusser, when I'm not white, and I'm a man of color? I'm honest with it. I just wanted to take the essence of what he stood for.
Speaking of race, you're really open about your ethnicity and race. At the same time, you almost seem to transcend all that.
I think it's a great thing, because my perception of what the world is, and especially here in the United States, is we're one big melting pot. It's like in Walking Tall when I come home. There's a moment when people realize, "Oh, he's home, and we're going to see his parents. But what are his parents going to look like?" [laughs] And I love that. Here's my mom, here's my dad--and it's love. It's family, and here we are.
It seems strange in this day and age that an interracial couple in a film would be a big deal. Do you think an audience accepting that says something about the direction America is taking?
It's a fairly bold step that we took in the movie--yet not. Here we are, in all these places--all these cities in between New York and L.A.--there are families like that. The funny thing was that we sat in a meeting after the first draft of Walking Tall, and I'm waiting for them to ask me: "What's your mom and dad gonna look like?" And there's this kind of silence, and we're all kind of looking around, and fidgeting a little bit. "So, Rock...you know...umm...whatta ya think...?" It is what it is. This is what it should be.
Do you ever feel as if Dwayne Johnson, or the Rock, is an ambassador for some sort of new American society?
You know what? If that's the label that's placed on me, sure, I'll wear that jacket with pride, man. I am what I am, and I've always been proud of it. And if anybody ever asks me, "Well, my mom's Samoan, my dad's black." There it is. And if you've got a problem with it, then, hey, I don't have to deal with you, you don't have to deal with me. You live your life, I live mine. But I've never ever made any bones about that.