Dwayne Johnson knows how moviegoers want to see him.
Strong — as in physically imposing. But emotionally tough too. The kind of guy who's the first to walk into a dark room. A man whose sheer will inspires others to conquer their own demons.
"There's a strong audience appetite for me in roles where, if there's a problem, I will galvanize people around me and I will handle it," is how he puts it.
So that's who the 44-year-old has been for us for the last decade. In the "Fast and Furious" franchise, as a G.I. Joe or Hercules, Johnson has grossed billions at the box office as the multicultural action hero who is still endearing enough to be voted People's Sexiest Man Alive.
Which is why, at first glance, an animated Disney musical doesn't seem to jive with the former WWE star's image. But while the family-friendly "Moana" has no gun battles or profane villains, the movie still manages to fit into Johnson's wheelhouse. In the PG-rated film the actor voices Maui, a tattooed, musclebound demigod who must swallow his pride to help the film's young heroine, Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), save her Polynesian island.
Johnson, who grew up in Hawaii and has his own biceps tattooed to represent his Samoan roots, saw "Moana" as an opportunity to showcase Polynesian culture to the world. But he also liked the challenge of taking on Lin-Manuel Miranda's songs — singing in public for the first time since he was young, when he sat around with his family, a ukulele and a few drinks.
Johnson made a brief stop in Los Angeles last weekend to promote "Moana," which hits theaters Wednesday. After the movie's world premiere here, he would return to the set of "Jumanji," a reboot of the 1995 film he's making with Kevin Hart and Jack Black. Johnson has worked on so many projects this year that his publicist reached out to debrief on "all things DJ" before I met him: She reminded me that in addition to "Jumanji," he recently completed a film adaptation of the television series "Baywatch," wrapped "Fast 8," shot a "Rock the Troops" holiday special for Spike TV and will start filming the third season of HBO's "Ballers" in January.
It's one thing to strike while the iron is hot. It's another to do, well, all of that. So why? What's motivating Johnson to devote literally all of his time to work?
"His drive isn't any different than when I met him when he was 18 years old," insisted his manager, Dany Garcia, who also happens to be his ex-wife. (The couple divorced in 2008 and have a 15-year-old daughter together; Johnson welcomed his second daughter with longtime girlfriend Lauren Hashian in December.) "He was born that way. He's going to die that way, if he ever dies. But he's always had this level of excitement to do more. Like, 'What else can we bring?' It's never, 'Woo-ha! What else can I crush?'"
Of course, it wasn't always like this. After Johnson walked away from wrestling in 2004, Hollywood didn't know what to do with a guy who was 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds at a time when muscle-bound action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were slipping out of vogue.
"When I first got into the business, I didn't have studios knocking on my door. I couldn't greenlight anything," Johnson recalled, his arms glistening with oil that had been lathered on for the day's photo shoot. "So I made a vow and a pact to myself that I was going to understand the business from top to bottom. I'm new to acting, therefore, who are the best coaches? Who are the studio executives I should know so I can understand how the business works on the marketing and publicity side, on the production side? I really wanted to be a sponge and I didn't give a [damn] if it was overwhelming. Bring it on. I got one shot at this."
Johnson is the rare star who admits to putting serious thought into his career choices — none of that "I just respond to good scripts" rubbish most actors spew. Everything is considered. That's his motto. He knows, for instance, that his fan base would likely be confused if he suddenly pivoted to serious drama.
"You're not going to see me all of a sudden, out of the blue, in a slice-of-life drama," said Johnson, who runs his Seven Bucks Entertainment production company with five employees near his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "There's a smarter way to bridge the gap. You've got to build to it. I'm in this business to service the audience. That's the No. 1 thing. It's not, 'Well, I would like to do this or that.'"
"There's no aspect of the directions that we're making creatively that's like, 'Where the hell did that come from?'" Garcia said of Johnson's career strategy. "We're going to naturally move into a space that also encompasses some drama, but it'll be done in an elegant way where the audience knows and it makes sense and it's meaningful. We'll get there. He used to be a single lane highway, at the end of the day he's going to be a 10-lane highway."
That transition begins, in part, with "Moana." As he moved out of his comfort zone, Johnson relied heavily on "Hamilton" creator Miranda to coach him through his vocals — signing on for 20-minute Skype sessions with the sometimes still-costumed Broadway star whenever he was off-stage. Once Miranda felt comfortable with Johnson's vocal ability, he urged fledgling singer to infuse the performance with bravado.
"The technical thing I wasn't worried about," explained Miranda. "The fun of it was the Rock's persona and how it dovetails with Maui. We're basically just elevating [that] because the Rock is like a god among us — he's a mountain of a man."
Johnson took the advice to heart. Miranda had a "Hamilton" costar with a similar vocal range record the actor's "Moana" showpiece, "You're Welcome," and then sent him the track. Johnson played the recording continuously — on his phone, in the gym, in his truck — to make sure he could nail it.
"I think part of that comes from his athlete background," surmised John Musker, who directed "Moana" alongside Ron Clements. "If he doesn't hit something, he'll keep at it like running a pass route or something. He really is determined to get it right, and he will go to any lengths to do that."
It's evident that Johnson is concerned about not letting people down. He spends much of his little down time on his phone, refreshing his social media accounts — Twitter, 10.6 million followers; Instagram, 70.4 million — so that he can respond personally to fans and members of the media.
"I'm on everything all day. I'm doing my best," he said, clutching his iPhone. "Because here's the thing. When I was wrestling in flea markets and fairs and used car dealerships in front of 150 people, getting paid $40 a night, I developed a skill to listen. When those 150 people would respond to something, it was like, 'Let's go in that direction more.' I think developing that has helped me."
It's also gotten him in a bit of trouble. In August, he posted a candid Instagram from the set of "Fast 8" calling out his male costars for being "candy asses." "Some conduct themselves as stand up men and true professionals, while others don't," he wrote in the post. "When you watch this movie next April and it seems like I'm not acting in some of these scenes and my blood is legit boiling — you're right."
The post immediately went viral, sparking a string of TMZ reports about a beef between Johnson and costar Vin Diesel. A few months later, Johnson seems to have no regrets about the post.
"I was very clear with what I said. I've been in the game a long time," he said with a knowing smile. "Would Universal [Pictures] have preferred that didn't happen? Sure, we talked about it. The irony is after that and as they do their tracking and all their analysis, the interest shot through the roof to a whole other level."
Johnson, as it turns out, isn't good at masking his true feelings. That's a lesson he learned in 2008, he said, the year he stopped trying to conform to Hollywood. Up until then, he'd thought a leading man had to look a certain way, à la Will Smith or George Clooney. So he covered up his muscles, wearing long-sleeve shirts in photo shoots to hide his tattoos. He tried not to talk about his wrestling past, fearing the subject would turn off studio executives.
"And then it hit me: I'm not being authentic," he said. "I'm really not being me. I like going to the gym. I like driving my pickup truck and maybe I don't want to live in Hollywood. Maybe I want to live in Florida in the country. Maybe I don't want to wear a suit. I love wrestling and I love going back and being with the fans even if I don't wrestle anymore. I'm that guy."
Johnson said he still isn't into flashy things, his one extravagance being his beloved Ford F150 truck. Every time he goes on location to film a movie, he brings his girlfriend, his daughter, his French bulldog, his housekeeper and his truck.
"I get it shipped everywhere," he said. "Maybe I'll get therapy one day for this, but there's nothing that brings me joy, like, 'I'm gonna go buy this yacht or Ferrari.' But my truck is jacked up. There's an 8-inch lift on it, it has big country tires on it — I call it brown neck. That's my thing. I'm not into sports cars. I can't fit into them. And I can't have people drive me. I don't like service that way. Maybe I'll get therapy for that too."
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