The Rock plays the name game

HERE'S A news flash: The Rock is no more. It's not even Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson but merely Dwayne Johnson, plain vanilla, regular guy, would-be action-hero for the text-message set.

For us mere mortals, it's always slightly mystifying to watch celebrities and their names mutate. Madonna Ciccone to Madonna. Fabio Lanzoni to Fabio. Prince Rogers Nelson to Prince to The Artist formerly known as Prince to the unruly acronym TAFKAP.

And let's not forget Sean Combs, who seems to shuffle his handle with each new business incarnation. Just last week, he posted a bizarre video on You Tube, explaining that despite rumors to the contrary, he hadn't changed his name . . . again. Staring at the camera, he ranted, "But if I wanted to I could call myself anything I want because I have lived this life . . . By the way, I'm rich. . . . I would say that to any of my names."

A few years back, I was asked by a women's magazine to interview Jennifer Lopez (in her early J-Lo days) while she was getting a manicure. We were supposed to get them together in a totally faux-women's-bonding moment, but she came with a very large posse, and there weren't enough manicurists to go around. So they got their fingers buffed while I stood and watched. Anyway, it was around the time she was dating Combs, a.k.a. Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy, Diddy, Sean . . . I had no idea how to refer to him so settled for "your boyfriend." (I don't think Lopez noticed much -- she was busy ripping pages from a fashion magazine and handing them to an assistant/publicist/hanger-on and asking her to find the pictured item.)

Opting for a solo one-word stage name is like grabbing for the brass ring in celebrity-dom. It's a naked bid for icon status, a way to brand yourself like Kleenex or Xerox or Liberace. Going the other direction, however, is rare. It connotes artistic seriousness and the versatility needed for true art. Dana Owens to Queen Latifah and back to Dana Owens (but only when she's singing jazz). Marky Mark to Mark Wahlberg. John Cougar to John Cougar Mellencamp to just John Mellencamp.

I asked Johnson about his moniker change recently, which is being touted in "Get Smart," where Johnson plays suave Agent 23, the ultimate in spies -- or in Johnson's rendition, a suavely amusing send-up of the uber agent. I guess it's hard to take an actor seriously who bills himself as The Rock (The Rock stars in Hamlet!), and the former wrestler is clearly intent on transforming himself, if not into John Gielgud exactly, at least into a family-friendly movie star.

He recently jetted back from Las Vegas, where he'd been shooting the Disney remake of "Race to Witch Mountain," in which he plays a Vegas cabby charged with helping a pair of kids with paranormal powers escape to the Luxor, where they make gobs of money in 30 seconds flat. Just kidding. They actually are fleeing the usual array of government and alien evil-doers.

Johnson was perennially genial, though I suspect he keeps a Power Point presentation of his career plans in his head. "The Rock was a name, a character I created in TV. When I made the transition into film, I knew eventually I was going to be billed as my given name," he said via telephone. Real actors have real names, not just brand monikers. "I wanted the transition to happen naturally. Ten years ago [when he went into films and television], I didn't want to make an announcement or a statement, 'From this day forward, I'm an actor.' I didn't want to make a big deal about it. There was just a natural and easy way for the transition to happen."

Flash back 10 years, and Johnson was strutting around in black wrestling shorts, taunting opponents with his signature eyebrow move and boisterous trash talk. The seven-time WWE champion liked to refer to himself in the third person, as in "The Rock says," and add un-Disney-like comments such as "Keep bangin' on that door and The Rock's gonna lay the smack down on your candy ass."

Even then, "The Rock" wasn't his first incarnation. The 36-year-old, part African Canadian and part Samoan, had done a stint as a college football player for the Miami Hurricanes and had been a short-lived pro player for the Calgary Stampeders. He first tried wrestling under his given name, then with a stage name of Flex Kavana. He later morphed into a baby-faced good-guy wrestler called Rocky Maivia.

"My father and grandfather were professional wrestlers," Johnson said. "Rocky's my dad's first name, and Maivia was my grandfather's last name. The company thought it was a good idea to merge the two names together out of respect for my father and grandfather," and all the marketing possibilities.

In 1998, Johnson dumped their names for The Rock, because, as he says, "I just wanted to make it on my own." He also tweaked his persona, changing into a mouthy bully as part of the "Nation of Domination." When the fans stopped ritualistically booing him, Johnson overhauled his act again. "My intent and goal was to inject humor in as many places as I could within the structure of the show. Humor was not a big part of that world. For me, the goal was never to be the biggest, loudest and toughest guy. The goal was to be the most entertaining."

He did anything he could think of to entertain his weekly audience of 20,000 to 30,000 live wrestling fans -- sing, operate the camera himself. "It got to a point where there was nothing I was not willing to try in front of a live audience. Sometimes I stank, and sometimes it was grand slams, and those balls still haven't come down."

Given his physique, Hollywood initially tried to send Johnson the action route, with such fare as "The Scorpion King" and "The Rundown." But times have changed since the '80s and '90s when he-men like Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger strode the cinema colossus. Action heroes these days are sleek like Christian Bale or Will Smith or boyish like Tobey Maguire or smart like Robert Downey Jr.

One only has to look at the mess in Iraq to know that power -- and hugely defined muscles -- can't solve everything. Pure might has a hard time battling ingenuity and fanatical suicide bombers. In fact, it's hard to even look at muscles seriously these days, given the steroid scandals rocking professional sports. Today's action heroes tend to be comic-book heroes where the aesthetic tends to be boyish -- just like the fan base.

These days, killer pecs are an ironic accouterment best suited for comedies like "Get Smart" or family films because kids, unlike adults, still see giant men as powerful. Johnson's career exploded with last year's Disney flick "The Game Plan," a Mr. Mom-style comedy with Johnson as a vain professional football player doomed to care for a little girl. And Johnson, who has a 6-year-old daughter, seems perfectly content to be a Disney-style guy. No knocking the Mouse's brand appeal and marketing might.

After "Witch Mountain," he's donning wings to play the tooth fairy -- yes, the one that puts money under your pillow in exchange for molars and bicuspids in "Tooth Fairy." "With high-concept comedies like that, it's always about the collisions of worlds," Johnson says. In this case, it's a powerhouse of masculinity "being forced begrudgingly to become the tooth fairy."

Johnson talks about structuring his career like Tom Hanks or Will Smith, Everymen who appeal to all quadrants, but in truth, he most closely resembles Schwarzenegger, when he segued from "The Terminator" into "Twins" and "Kindergarten Cop." Indeed, Schwarzenegger himself once toyed with playing a version of the tooth fairy before bailing out for another arena ripe for self-re-creation, politics.

So I asked Johnson what he wanted people to call him, if they ever ran into the star while he's working out or having a cappuccino. Johnson isn't fussy like Edward Norton, who mandates that he is never, ever called Ed.

"They call me both," says Johnson. "Rock is a nickname, and it will always be. I'm fine with that. It sounds better than Cupcake."

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rachel.abramowitz @latimes.com

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