Andy Fickman is not in love with Dwayne Johnson.
“I am in heavy like,” Fickman says, as he paces around his Disney Studios office, which looks as if a 12-year-old boy exploded in it, decorated as it is with alien heads, robots, and a five-foot poster of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson in skivvies and knee pads, a Post-it artfully taped over the crotch. “It is the weirdest thing,” he continues, handling a Johnson action figure. “I swear to you, you walk around with him, and just the sight of him makes other people smile.”
Behind him the actual Dwayne Johnson pretends to be interested in the contents of Fickman’s bookshelves. The two worked together last year on ‘The Game Plan,’ which Fickman directed, and are shooting an amped-up remake of ‘Escape to Witch Mountain.’ The unexpected success of ‘The Game Plan‘ (more than $100 million for a comedy about a bachelor quarterback raising an eight-year-old daughter) has made Johnson the new go-to guy for family-focused Disney. Twentieth Century Fox apparently feels the same way, having signed him to play the tooth fairy.
“Listen,” Fickman says conspiratorially, “as a director, I need a star, even if he’s the biggest asshole in the world. But the crew can pick and choose projects. And every single one of them came back when they heard we were casting Dwayne.”
As he says this Johnson comes up behind him, grinning a mack daddy monster-cheese grin. “Tell the story about the bathrobe,” Johnson prods.
Fickman obliges, launching into a long anecdote whose sole purpose is to make Johnson look like a douche bag. “So there was his double, knocked out cold, and Dwayne is on the sidelines, in his robe, oblivious, picking fruity snacks from his assistant’s palm, like, ‘Ooooh, the purple ones are my favorite.’ He may as well have been wearing an ascot.”
Johnson laughs loudly, then extends his palm and pretends to eat fruity snacks. “What an asshole,” he says of himself.
Dwayne Johnson is not an asshole. Assholes do not relish in the telling of stories that make them look like assholes. Nor do they show up on time, send thank-you notes, stay in love with their ex-wives, or schedule multimillion-dollar projects around their daughters’ soccer schedules. By all accounts Johnson is the antithesis of asshole, his last foray into actual assholery being a 1992 college football game during which, in a fit of adrenaline, he chased the opposing team’s mascot with the intention of beating him to a pulp.
“Eighteen-karat asshole,” he says.
Since then Johnson has matured, transformed. He is 36 now, a newly single grown man with a six-year-old daughter and a mushrooming movie career. He has gone from action hero (‘The Scorpion King’) to character actor (‘Be Cool’) to childproof leading man (‘The Game Plan’). Not all that long ago Johnson was the adrenal WWF champ who did the eyebrow thing and told foes to drink big glasses of “shut-up juice.” Now he has trimmed down (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and cleaned up (buzz-cut the fade) and evolved in a way that is hard for any actor, but particularly for those who come from the world of sports entertainment, which may be why he has finally, formally dropped “the Rock” from the Dwayne Johnson sandwich.
No longer an athlete-actor hybrid, he is striving to become something else: everything else. In a way he is a modern breed of film star. A man as interested in the business of show as he is in performance. An amalgam of magnetism and marketing savvy. Talented and shameless. A charming control freak. George Clooney minus the smugness. Arnold minus the skeeve. Tom Cruise minus the crazy. Ryan Seacrest, if Seacrest were a man.
“He’s the real deal,” says director Peter Segal, who cast Johnson as James Bondian Agent 23 in the upcoming Get Smart. In that film, premiering June 20, Johnson will showcase his improv chops alongside Steve Carell.
“We wrestled on-set all the time,” says Carell. “We would oil up. Do Greco-Roman. Oh, it was just so much fun. After the wrestling, we’d snap towels at each other. I called him Rock ‘the Dwayne’ Johnson.”
Carell adds, with unexpected seriousness, “He’s a good comedic actor. I wouldn’t bet against him in anything. Comedy, action. I would like to see him do dramatic work.”
So would the studio heads, who view Johnson as the world’s most attractive cash machine.
“When we cast him in ‘The Mummy Returns’ as the ultimate baddie, I remember sitting and watching dailies, and my sense of him was that here was the next great action star, even though he didn’t speak a word of English in that film,” says producer Kevin Misher. “Everybody who sat in that room – Ron Meyer, the marketing guys – they all got it. There was a sense of inevitability.”
Johnson may not yet have the gravitas of a Harrison Ford or a Will Smith, the kind of megastars who are bankable in any genre, but give him time. “He knows who he is, and he knows the potential for the future. He’s smart about it,” says Misher, who made the $165 million-grossing ‘The Scorpion King’ explicitly for Johnson. “And he’s always working at it. Always.”
Johnson is ambling through the halls of Disney studios, jeans slung low, knit shirt tight. He is headed to lunch in the corporate dining room. The walk is a short one, just a few yards and a quick elevator ride, but it takes Johnson a while to make it. First, there is the tour group, who can’t believe it when, in the middle of a tedious recitation of Disney’s all-American know-how, the Rock struts by, flashes his teeth, and says in his cane-syrup baritone, “It’s all true, every word,” then pivots and glides away. Then there are the executives who stop him to offer congratulations on his appearance as a presenter at the Oscars the night before, a coming out of sorts. “It was wonderful,” he says to everyone. “Exhilarating!”
When he finally settles into a center table in the dining hall, Johnson is approached by Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios.
“You were great last night, tremendous,” Cook gushes. “We loved you up there. The next film is going to be great. Just great. Did you work out this morning?”
“He’s a good man,” Johnson says when Cook leaves. “He has a love of the product.”
It is hard to tell if he is talking about the film or himself. “I look at it like a business,” says Johnson, who also says he may someday want to run his own studio. “The brand is a business. I created the brand.”
“He’s always had a great understanding of marketing,” says his ex-wife, and now business partner, Dany, whom he met in college at Miami. (Of their split Johnson says, “We realized about three years ago we just weren’t meeting the expectations of marriage. For a long time there was this elephant in the room. It was just there, like, ‘Look at that big fucking elephant.’ Excuse my language.”)
Dany remembers how, post-wrestling matches, her husband would come home battered and bruised and review tape, clocking the laughs, analyzing the ratings tick by tick. She would watch him watch himself and knew then that her husband was looking beyond the ring.
“The core of Dwayne is his relentless drive, and that has never wavered,” says Dany. “He wants to know what demographics aren’t working, and then he’ll do a show that hits that demo.” That strategy has led him to do guest spots on ‘Hannah Montana’ and ‘SNL.’ “What has never changed is his ability to be very coachable. He has no vulnerability in that way. Other people ask how was it, and they want to be told, you were great! He’ll say no, really, let’s break it down.”
“He wanted to know about what makes things funny,” recalls Alan Arkin, who co-stars in ‘Get Smart.’ “He’s got a lot of humility, which is not a feature that usually gets you very far in show business. He’s not afraid of asking questions.”
“I am extremely competitive. Always. Very,” confirms Johnson. His mother Ata hails from Samoa, and “there’s a lot of pride in Polynesian culture about having a warrior spirit. Never, ever being denied. I’m driven. I always want more.”
In 1997, Johnson was watching WWF tapes when he noticed a little flab on the sides of his already gravity-defying pectoral muscles. Soon after, he had it liposuctioned out. In Johnson’s world there is no obstacle that can’t be overcome by will (or in this case plastic surgery). When he started wrestling in 1996, he earned $40 a night. Five years later the Rock was helping bring in $120 million in WWF merchandise sales. He was paid $500,000 for ‘The Mummy Returns’. He now commands $10 million for lead roles.
“At first I had to fight to be taken seriously in Hollywood. I understood I would have to do that. I knew I came from the world of wrestling, that brand of show business. It was going to take time. It was going to take roles.” Roles like Elliot, the gay cowboy bodyguard in 2005’s ‘Be Cool,’ in which Johnson demonstrated he had the cojones to slap himself on his polyester-clad ass for laughs.
“Dwayne has surprised people with the roles he’s chosen,” says ‘Get Smart’ director Segal. “He wanted to show he had range. It was a smart move.”
Perhaps any initial misperception – the jock masquerading as a movie star – can be forgiven. Johnson is a large man. A handsome man. With charisma. And lacerating bone structure. And a record of real-life ass-kicking. He could be a prick and still succeed in Hollywood. He could be Steven Seagal.
Instead Johnson overcorrects. He compensates. He is nice with a capital WTF? Even when he was the Rock, performing in a milieu in which arrogance equaled airtime, Johnson was less jerk than comedian. His rants were machismo with a wink.
There is a touch of Tony Robbins about Johnson. The inclusive speech (“And I know you can appreciate this too”). The sustained eye contact. To converse with Johnson is to be immersed in the positive, a symphony of up notes. It is also to be flattered with questions. You get to stand before a man of mythic stature and have him stoop to get to know you, to find you worthy of keen focus and booming laughter. It’s a conscious transaction that allows everyone who speaks with him to come away feeling good about himself and, by extension, him.
This is not to say that Johnson is full of shit. He is not. “He never looks as if he is trying or posing,” says co-star Carell. “That’s his secret. People in our business want to be perceived differently than they are. But you never get the sense he is trying to prove anything to anybody. Really, he is a good guy. Just a really good guy.”
Which is not the same as being happy. Happiness leads to satisfaction, which leads to sloth, which in Johnson’s world leads to all sorts of unsavory consequences.
When asked if he’s ever content, Johnson furrows his brow.
“Uh. In what way?” he asks.
You sound a bit like a shark, always racing ahead to the next meal, the next kill.
“That’s okay,” he answers quickly. “To me it is positive. Once you’ve been extremely hungry, you’ll never be full.”
Johnson was 14 when he watched his mother beg creditors not to repossess the family car. Around the same time, an eviction notice appeared on the door of their Pennsylvania efficiency apartment, a cramped space in which Johnson slept on the only bed while his parents crashed on a pullout couch.
“When I was 15 we had to go to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving because we couldn’t afford our own meal,” he says. “They didn’t know the half of it. I remember they asked my mom to say grace, and she started crying, she couldn’t get the words out. And the family was like, God, she’s really thankful. I remember I was so angry then. I thought it was unfair.”
Johnson expressed his rage at school and in the neighborhood, where he fought all comers and stole “stupid dumb stuff, clothes mostly,” leading to multiple arrests.
“The teen years, those were tough years for me,” he recalls. “I struggled to stay on the right path. We were moving around a lot. I never had a chance to really bond with people. I had to be the anchor for the family in many ways.”
Dwayne’s father Rocky “Soulman” Johnson, one of the first successful black wrestlers, was always on the road. When he wasn’t, he was home marinating in discontent and alcohol. “My relationship with him was strained,” Johnson says. “He was not a very loving guy.”
Johnson shares another Thanksgiving story, this one from his father’s childhood. “It was not even a year after his dad had died, and his mom’s new boyfriend got drunk and urinated on the turkey. So my dad took a shovel and knocked the guy out cold. The cops came and said these two guys are going to kill each other, one of them needs to leave – thinking, of course, that his mother would send the boyfriend away. But instead she looked at my dad and told him he had to go. He was 13 years old, on his own. With nothing.”
Johnson pauses, runs his palms over his thighs. “He never had love. Never knew what it was. How could he love me?”
Johnson was 15 when he had what he calls the defining moment of his life. “I had just been suspended for fighting. I hit a kid and the back of his head hit a locker and he fell on the cement. He went to the hospital. It was a scary time.”
When Johnson returned to school, he was helping himself to the faculty lavatory when the head football coach came in and asked him to leave. “I said I would as soon as I was done washing my hands. And he got in my face and yelled at me, saying I needed to get the fuck out. So I gave him the brush-by. You know, the shoulder brush-by.”
The next day Johnson was seized with fear and guilt. He found the coach, apologized, and the two shook hands. The same week, Johnson was arrested for fighting again. His parents came to the police station, his mother weeping.
“She said I was wasting my life away. We had nothing at that time. My dinner every night was Chicken McNuggets from a buddy who worked at McDonald’s and brought me the 100-nugget bags. I realized that even though we had nothing, I was the main source of my mom’s heartbreak. And it killed me.”
When Johnson got back to school, the football coach found him this time and asked him to join the team.
“This was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the sort of town where if you are like me, you graduate, get a blue-collar job, and you remain there until you die,” Johnson says. “Coach wanted so much more for me. He pushed me, got me to apply for scholarships, which led to my signing with Miami.” He stops talking, lowers his head. “I could have easily gone the other way.”
For years football protected Johnson. “I played for the national championship with Warren Sapp. I saw so clearly my vision, that I would be on an NFL team making millions of dollars. And it all came crashing down in a matter of four months.”
Johnson – who has admitted to trying steroids briefly in college – blew out his shoulder his freshman year, then his back as a senior. He wasn’t drafted. He joined the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL, where he made $250 a week, Canadian. Then he was cut.
“I moved back in with my parents in Tampa,” he says. “I had to have my dad drive to get me. I was going to get a job pulling weeds for $10 an hour.”
Before everything went pear-shaped, Johnson had made a to-do list. It read:
January 1995, 1/95–6/95. Goals.
2. Marry Dany.
3. Buy mom and dad a house.
4. Fix grandma’s situation.
“My grandmother was homeless at the time. Literally on the street. Within that six-month period the only thing I was able to do was graduate. I remember as my dad and I were driving up I-75, I looked in my pocket and I had $7. That’s all I had. It was a $5 bill, and a $1, and some change.”
Back home Johnson fought off depression, then decided, screw weed-pulling, he was going to try the family business. “I had a feeling I might be pretty good at it.”
Initially he sucked. The Rock was a “baby face,” as the industry calls its good guys, and no one was buying it. Then, in an act of desperation, he turned heel. He became so hated by the fans that they threw batteries at his head, cut him with X-Acto blades when he walked through the crowd. Still, he persisted, and soon that persistence won them over. That and time on the microphone.
He worked the crowd like a Catskills stand-up. He insulted them, smacked them down with humor. The formula worked. “As soon as I had a connection with the audience, I thought, Wow, I’ve really got something here. I wanted to create a unique brand of comedy and wrestling.” His innovation turned the Rock into the WWF’s (now the WWE) most beloved star until 2004, when he left the ring altogether to focus on Hollywood.
Not long ago Johnson’s mother sent him his 1995 to-do list.
“I cried when I saw it,” he says. Then he framed it, along with $7, and put it in front of his desk so he could look at it every day.
“I love old-school country.”
It is late afternoon, and Johnson is headed out to his home in sleepy horse country, a place an hour from L.A. that, he says, “could be Montana.” (When he’s not working he prefers to spend his time in the quiet isolation of suburban Florida, where he can be near his daughter.) Once there he will pack for a quick trip to Europe to promote the foreign release of The Game Plan.
“Merle Haggard. Hank Sr. Waylon Jennings. Elvis.” He smiles. “Willie Nelson gave me my first guitar. When I was 29 I flew down to a video shoot of his in Texas. We met and hung out on the bus.”
Johnson came to appreciate country music as a boy, traveling with his father to backwoods wrestling venues. “We’d drive all throughout the South, listening to Conway Twitty, Charley Pride, those guys. I love the storytelling of country music, the ease of it. There’s a great quote from Hal Ketchum. He said, ‘Good country music will never steer you wrong.’ It’s true.”
Johnson smiles again. “Willie said the best songs ever written are those that in the first five words you know exactly what the song’s about. Are you lonesome tonight? Crazy? Blue eyes crying in the rain.”
Johnson doesn’t write songs, but if he wrote a country tune about his life he says he’d call it “Living to Laugh and Love.” Which sounds a little like Matthew McConaughey’s motto: “Just keep livin.'”
“Really? He says that? Ha! I’m gonna change it. I can do better.”
There is little Johnson likes more than doing better.
“My daughter Simone plays soccer,” he says. “And I tell her there is a great lesson in losing. You get the chance to think about how you can improve.”
When asked if he’s afraid of anything now, Johnson is silent for three minutes.
Alzheimer’s. Spiders. Armageddon. The end times…
“Ha, ha! Honestly, I don’t have a lot of fear. I’ve failed a lot. I understand what that’s like. I’ve lived in poverty. I’ve seen homelessness. I’ve slept on piss-stained mattresses. I’ve been through awful times. I’ve seen awful things. Now, life is good. Which motivates me even more.”
To do what?
“To make sure the foundation never cracks.”