Dwayne Johnson is one of the most famous, most likable, most followed and therefore most bankable people on the planet. In interviews and on social media, the pro-wrestler-turned-movie-star seems to be an open book with his fans, as candid about his cheat day meals as he is about his experience with depression.
Yet all of that is nothing compared with the transparency he allowed in the making of “Young Rock.” The series, which premieres Tuesday on NBC, zooms in on three pivotal periods in Johnson’s early life. Series creators Nahnatchka Khan and Jeff Chang interviewed Johnson for hours and hours about his younger days — back when people called him Dewey! — and ensured that every plotline of the debut season is inspired by an actual anecdote. “Even if you think you know everything about Dwayne, this show has some pretty surprising stories he’s never gotten a chance to tell before,” said Khan.
The series required a worldwide casting call to find those who would play Dwayne at 10, 15 and 18 years old. “We had read multiple actors for all these roles, and while all of them were very talented actors, many of them — you could tell right away — were just actors,” said Johnson of the “surreal” project. “While 99% of the time that’s what you want, these three guys brought to the table a real authenticity, just in who they are as human beings. I’m so grateful for their commitment to tell this story, which my family and I have lived.”
The Times spoke with the three leads of “Young Rock” to find out more about their distinct portrayals of Johnson.
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Character age and location: childhood Dwayne; Honolulu in 1982
Actual age and location: 11 years old; Toronto
Favorite Johnson movie: “The ‘Jumanji’ series is so funny.”
How he prepared to play Dwayne: “Physically, I just had to grow the ‘fro a little bit. I didn’t know much about Hawaii — just that it’s very hot and tropical. Whenever I thought of Hawaii, I just thought of people laying on the beach with a little coconut and an umbrella and a straw in their hands. I did look up how people dressed during that time and, uh, I was shocked.”
Most “Dewey” attribute: “I was an only child, and my friends were these pro wrestling legends: The Iron Sheik, Andre the Giant, the Wild Samoans, Ric Flair, the list goes on and on,” said Johnson. “Immediately, I saw that Adrian is exactly how I was at that age: earnest, loving, sweet and a little rambunctious. I’m so grateful for his performance because, in a way, the whole series is anchored on the 10-year-old boy, and then it grows from there. He had a lot of responsibility on those little shoulders, and he did a tremendous job.”
His “Young Rock” storyline: “Dwayne worshipped his dad Rocky Johnson, and the other wrestlers were like his extended family — this really was his whole world,” said Khan. “But when you’re 10, you think you know a lot more than you do. Adrian made that precociousness and curiosity feel so real and natural. Hopefully people can see the very beginnings of what Dwayne would go on to become.”
What he hopes comes across in his performance: “I want people to know that your dreams can come true if you really put your mind to it. When Dwayne was 10 years old, he said, ‘I’m going to be a big, famous wrestler just like you, Dad.’ And look where he is now. Anything is possible.”
Mastery of the Rock’s eyebrow raise: “I tried my best, and I still can’t do it.”
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Character age and location: teenage Dwayne; Bethlehem, Pa., in 1987
Actual age and location: 22 years old; Los Angeles
Favorite Johnson movie: “‘Walking Tall’ is the first movie I saw of his, and it’s still my favorite.”
How he prepared to play Dwayne: “I didn’t have a mustache when I auditioned, so they glued a fake mustache on me. Halfway through my performance, it starts to flap off, and I had to stop multiple times so they could re-glue it. Thankfully, the mustache I have in the show is mine! I’m proud of it. And I didn’t know anything about the ‘80s, so it was very helpful that my mom grew up during that era. We played all the music and watched all the movies.”
Most “Dewey” attribute: “When I was 15, I was already 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, clanging and banging on the weights every day,” recalled Johnson. “I really struggled to stay on the right path. I was angry about the situation we were in; I was tired of living paycheck to paycheck and I wanted my family to have nice things. The moment I met Bradley, I knew he was our guy because he had that swagger, and he embraced that big chip that I had on my shoulder at that time in my life.”
His “Young Rock” storyline: “When Dwayne was living in Bethlehem after his dad’s heyday with the WWF, his family was struggling,” said Khan. “Dwayne was really open about what he was up to at the time, and his stories about how he wasn’t going down the best road were so relatable. Because we know Dwayne ends up OK, we show how his family managed to make ends meet. And Bradley is incredible at encompassing that idea of wanting something you can’t have.”
What he hopes comes across in his performance: “I hope people can relate to the parts of being a teenager that get misunderstood by adults. Your actions don’t always define who you are, especially at that age, when no one knows what you’re dealing with at home. The show does a good job of saying, ‘Give people a chance, so they can grow from these things and become the Rock.’”
Mastery of the Rock’s eyebrow raise: “Nobody said it was a requirement for the role, but of course, immediately after I booked it, I’d practice every time I’d pass a mirror. But I can’t keep a straight face while doing it.”
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Character age and location: college-age Dwayne; Miami in 1991
Actual age and location: 37 years old; Sydney, Australia
Favorite Johnson movie: “I watched ‘Tooth Fairy’ with my daughter the other day — it’s pretty good.”
How he prepared to play Dwayne: “The day after I got the job, I started training at the gym because I looked at old photos and went, ‘Uh, that’s not me.’ And it was so cool to step back into the ‘90s — the hair, the shoulder pads, the MC Hammer pants.”
Most “Dewey” attribute: “When I was 18, I signed a football scholarship to the University of Miami, an institution where if you did all the right things, worked your a— off, understood the value of the team and balled out like a son of a b— on the field, the chances of you going pro are great,” Johnson explained. “The pathway to success became so clear for me, after being in the struggle for so long. I’m sorry to cuss but Uli f— nailed this role, and that motivation to prove himself and to make a name for himself.”
His “Young Rock” storyline: “Dwayne came into college thinking, ‘This is going to change my life,’” said Khan. “But things didn’t work out the way he thought they were going to. How does he respond to that kind of adversity, of shifting what he thought was his dream? There’s a lot of fun and relatable stories there.”
What he hopes comes across in his performance: “College was such a pivotal moment for Dwayne, who just wanted to make something of himself but kept getting setback after setback after setback. I know this sounds super cheesy, but if he could pull himself out of that rut, pivot and move forward, then we can too.”
Mastery of the Rock’s eyebrow raise: “Growing up, I thought I could do it. But when we did a photo shoot, someone pointed out that I was raising the wrong eyebrow. I was like, ‘Oh, you’re kidding!’ Believe me, I practice.”
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-DS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and sexual content)