In the wrestling ring, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was always the center of attention. Now he captures the big-screen spotlight with his first dramatic leading role.
Johnson plays a football coach who uses the sport to bring discipline and confidence to juvenile prisoners in “Gridiron Gang,” in theaters Friday.
It’s a dream role for the actor, who says he can relate to the character’s real-life inspiration, Sean Porter, and the misbehaving kids he mentors. A young troublemaker himself, Johnson says football — and the attention of a caring police officer — helped him turn his life around. He went on to become a star player at the University of Miami, where he studied criminology.
But rather than working for the secret service as he had planned, Johnson followed in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps and became a professional wrestler. One taste of the on-camera experience and he knew he wanted to be an actor.
Johnson, 34, talked with The Associated Press about how life imitates art and his transition from the ring to the screen.
AP: How did this movie parallel your life?
Johnson: As a parent, I understand the value of having someone in your life who’s encouraging, who tries to maintain a sense of positivity. I was one of these kids, too, which is probably the biggest reason why this story resonated with me. I had multiple arrests by the time I was 17. And I had my own Sean Porter, if you will. I was lucky. My arresting officer at that time said, “I want you to stop screwing up. You’re going to go out and play football for your freshman high-school football team.”
AP: Did you find the role or did it find you?
Johnson: Neal Moritz, who is a producer on this movie, said, “I have something that is very close to me and I’ve had it for many years. Here’s a script. Here’s a documentary. All I ask is that you watch the documentary first.” I watched the documentary that night. I was moved. I was so motivated. I laughed, I cried, I cheered. I was inspired. I called my agent at 2 in the morning and woke him up. I said, “I’d love to do this. It would be an honor to do this movie.”
AP: How hard was it to play a real-life guy?
Johnson: It became very clear to me the awesome responsibility you have as an actor of not only playing a real person, but a person who’s still alive. Sean Porter is an intense man. He said, “If you’re going to tell this story, I want you to tell it authentic and real. The world that I come from and the world that these kids come from is real. It’s dark and it’s violent, but, at the same time, it’s positive and I want to make sure that that positivity is the thread that brings these things together. If you don’t do that, then you’ve failed me, and more important than that, you’ve failed the kids.”
AP: When did you catch the acting bug?
Johnson: In 1997. I started wrestling in 1996. At that time, wrestling, as it is now, was all television. So we were doing television shows. I never cared about being the biggest guy or the loudest or anything like that. I just wanted to be the most entertaining. So it was then that I knew I wanted to be an actor but I didn’t know how I was going to make that transition. It was a long process of studying and waiting for opportunities. Then I hosted “Saturday Night Live” a couple of times, and that prompted a lot of phone calls.
AP: Did wrestling help or hinder your acting career?
Johnson: It was a positive step because it allowed me to perform. It allowed me to cultivate a performing sense, because there are still multiple cameras and you still had to work them. It really kept me on my feet in terms of forcing [me] to have a live-crowd acumen. Plus, you’re playing a character. But I will say it became somewhat of an impediment getting in [to acting]. My goal was to become a good versatile actor, but the material was not going to allow me to do that.
AP: Do you think this role completes the transition?
Johnson: It does complete it. Because this movie is an emotional movie, it’s drama driven, it’s something I can relate to on so many levels. And [I] realize this is where I’m meant to be.
AP: Isn’t your next project football-related, too?
Johnson: I love the game of football. I’m excited about [the film] because it’s a family comedy with Disney so I’m able to take my 5-year-old girl for the first time. It’s called “The Game Plan.” Here’s another story that resonated with me. I play a professional quarterback on his championship run and I discover I have a little 7-year-old girl who calls me Daddy. She completely turns my life upside-down in a way that I don’t understand, but ultimately in a beautiful way.