Mr. Johnson’s Winning Season
When a Four Seasons bellman greeted him with, “Welcome, Mr. Johnson!” the former wrestler who’d once had only seven bucks to his name was blown away. Such courtesy was for important people, he thought.
It’s impossible not to notice Dwayne Johnson when you walk into a room. Be advised, though, that Johnson also notices you when he walks into a room.
“I’m very aware of what happens when I come in,” says Johnson, arguably the biggest movie star on this or any other planet. “When success was very new to me, that made me uncomfortable. Which would then make me a little sour. Then my ex-wife, Dany [Garcia], reminded me of something.”
She explained, he recalls, that whenever he enters a place, people say, “Oh, wow! It’s The Rock!” They work themselves up, thinking, “Should I go over? Maybe not? I’m never going to have this chance again, but I don’t want to bother him.” So by the time they actually do come over, they’re nervous and shaking when they ask for a picture.
“I used to sigh and go, ‘Okay. No problem,’” he says. “I was giving off this negative energy, which created a funky reaction where these people would apologize to me. But then Dany said, ‘Have some empathy. Put yourself in their position one time.’ And that was the beginning of something for me.”
In particular, it was the start of a new attitude that would eventually help him become the $64 million man, according to Forbes ’s list of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors. It was time to appreciate that his world isn’t always about him.
“The first thing you realize when you meet Dwayne is how charming and charismatic he is,” says Mark Wahlberg, Johnson’s friend — and an executive producer of his HBO series Ballers. “But the thing that really surprised me was how humble and grateful he was to have the opportunity to make movies and work as an actor.”
His Ballers costar Rob Corddry adds: “He might seem intimidating at first, but within 30 seconds, you forget all about that. He’s so used to people feeling he’s imposing, I think he probably goes to great pains to make whoever he’s talking to feel more comfortable. He can make you feel like you’re the only person he wants to speak to in that moment.”
In fact, he’s such a good guy that nobody thinks he could actually be that good a guy. He’s found that, “People don’t expect me to be nice. It’s still a thing: ‘Is he really like that?’” This belief makes sense in a world where, as he says, “Bad behavior is tolerated depending on your box-office numbers. But it takes effort to be an asshole. It’s a lot easier to be nice.”
If there’s one thing in his life that does come from a selfish place, it’s Ballers. Johnson doesn’t need to do a TV series. This year alone, he’s starred in two movies — The Fate of the Furious and Baywatch — and a Jumanji reboot is due in December. Meanwhile, he’s traveling from Atlanta to Chicago to China to shoot two more potential blockbusters, Rampage and Skyscraper, while Shazam and Doc Savage are in the development stage.
Yet he makes time to tackle television in a number of ways. He hosted and produced The Hero, TNT’s 2013 reality-competition series. In the past year, he’s also produced an HBO prison documentary, Rock and a Hard Place, and the CNN music docu-series Soundtracks: The Songs That Defined History.
Meanwhile, his company has a deal in place at USA Network for Muscle Beach, a one-hour drama about the members of a Venice Beach bodybuilding gym in the 1980s. “It’s going to be great!” he says. “At least I hope it’s great and doesn’t suck!”
Perhaps most important, he has now spent three years carving out a couple of months from his hectic schedule to shoot Ballers; in addition to starring in the series, he is an executive producer. (Besides Johnson and Wahlberg, the exec producers include creator Stephen Levinson, Dany Garcia, Peter Berg, Evan Reilly, Rob Weiss, Denis Biggs, Karyn McCarthy and Julian Farino.)
“To be honest, I was both thrilled and shocked when DJ read the script and said he was in,” admits Casey Bloys, HBO’s president of programming. “I think the show is a nice thing for him, because he gets to go a little deeper and darker than he can in his movies.”
The series, which begins its third season July 23, features Johnson as Spencer Strasmore, a retired NFL player trying to launch a new career as a financial advisor to current athletes. Johnson says the character “felt like he was in my DNA, a part of my wiring.” Like Strasmore, he dreamed of playing pro football but had to find something else to do with his life when that dream died.
It can be tough, as he puts it, “to have the ambition to try something new with everyone telling you that you can’t make the transition, and you don’t know what you’re doing.”
According to Wahlberg, who originally pitched the series to Johnson, “He is Spencer in many ways. Playing the character, he’s able to show that everyone is human, has issues, has family, has adversity.... that life isn’t all glitz and glamour.”
Seeing him unwinding in his Ballers trailer with a sip of Don Julio Real tequila and the soft soul sounds of Sam Cooke, though, it’s hard to picture Johnson ever not living the high life. The truth is, his real beginnings were so humble, they’d make Oliver Twist feel more upbeat about his childhood.
As the son and grandson of barnstorming pro wrestlers, he got used to living a gypsy lifestyle early on, moving more than a dozen times. Eventually, his parents decided to leave him with his grandmother in a cramped efficiency apartment in Hawaii while they went in search of bouts around the mainland.
As if that weren’t bad enough, there was also the fact that everyone thought this future movie tough guy was actually… a girl.
“It’s true,” he says, with a laugh. “Between the ages of two and 10, I had these soft features and soft curly hair, so people thought I was a girl. We’d go out to eat and every time the waiter would say to me, ‘And what would the little lady like?’ This is why one day I’m really going to need therapy!”
All that changed when he hit 15 and a growth spurt left him standing six foot four and weighing 225 pounds. His family had left Hawaii, where he and his grandma had been evicted from their apartment, and he found himself doing “some stupid shit” that got him arrested more than once.
The Johnsons landed in Nashville, where his imposing size and the fact that he had a driver’s license (the minimum driving age in Hawaii was 14) had his peers figuring he was really an undercover cop.
That size became an advantage when he moved yet again, this time to Pennsylvania. Johnson threw himself into playing football, hoping that a pro career would be his ticket out. That ticket never got punched, though.
He earned a scholarship to the University of Miami, but a series of injuries kept him out of the NFL. Following a failed attempt to make it in the Canadian Football League in 1995, he retreated to Florida, where he spent his days “just sitting there watching the O.J. Simpson trial every day.”
This was, he says with a heavy sigh, his lowest moment. In an effort to shake off his depression, he wrote out a list of goals for 1995. He has since framed that list and hung it on a wall at home as a reminder of how far he’s come.
“I’d reached into my pocket and there was a five-dollar bill and two one-dollar bills. It was all I had to my name,” Johnson says. He named his production company Seven Bucks in honor of that humble balance. “So I wrote down the things I wanted to do with my life, like ‘Graduate from college’ and ‘Fix Grandma’s situation.’ She was homeless at the time.”
Seeing no other career options, he went into the family business and started picking up wrestling matches all over the Southeast. On Monday nights, he might be performing in a flea market. Come Saturdays, he could be wrestling at a county fair. During the week, he might have matches at schools or even used car dealerships.
“If you got a car, you got to see the match, which we did right there in the dealership. It was crazy!” Johnson recalls.
Inventing a unique persona is essential to a pro wrestler’s success, so Johnson dubbed himself “The Rock” and happily played the villain in most of his matches. He’d grown up loving comic-book bad guys like Lex Luthor and Brainiac. “I always thought they were way over the top,” he says, so it seemed perfectly natural to adopt a similar character for the ring.
The plan worked. By 2000, he’d been dubbed “the People’s Champion” in the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment). In 2001, he made his feature-film debut with a supporting role in The Mummy Returns, then played the title role a year later in its prequel, The Scorpion King.
The movie opened to mixed reviews, but it made money. Johnson finally felt like he’d made it. “I’ll never forget the moment when I got out of my car at the Four Seasons in New York and the bellman said, ‘Welcome to the Four Seasons, Mr. Johnson!’” he recalls with a beatific grin. “I’d never heard anyone use my last name like that. I thought it was only for important people. So I freaked out!”
If he was going to be treated as someone important, he figured, he had to live the part. That attitude worked as well as the fake Rolex he’d bought as a teenager in Hawaii. (The watch turned green.) “I thought owning a Rolex meant you’d succeeded. Then, I eventually got myself a real one, and it was the worst decision I ever made. It just wasn’t me. I ended up giving it to my dad.”
Uncertain how a celebrity is supposed to act, Johnson struggled to adjust to fame. At first, it didn’t go well.
He remembers having “an extremely tight mindset. I was an extreme micromanager.” His mantra was essentially: “Only I can do this.” That approach brought him depression, a divorce and forgettable movies like Walking Tall (2004), Doom (2005) and The Game Plan (2007).
“I made some bad decisions and was in a downward spiral,” he admits. “The words ‘I don’t know’ were never going to come out of my mouth. The key to pulling out of it was to accept I didn’t know all the answers. Ego is the biggest success inhibitor, so if you take care of that, you’ve got a shot.”
He needed an anchor to keep him attached to the real world, and it came in the form of Simone, the daughter he and Garcia had together in 2001. Watching Simone grow up gave Johnson a sense of empathy and self-awareness he’d never experienced before. Being a dad taught him he wasn’t always the most important person in the room, which led to surrounding himself with people who “are much better at what they do than I am.”
Once he relaxed enough to trust the advice of others, the hits started happening: he joined the Fast & Furious franchise in 2011 with Fast Five, then did G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Pain & Gain in 2013. It was the latter that led him to discover Ballers and give tTV a try.
It started when Pain costar Wahlberg handed him the script for a new series about an athlete-turned-agent. Eager for something different, Johnson was happy to play somebody with more of an edge than his film characters usually have.
It didn’t take him long to realize that acting in a series probably has more in common with wrestling than with features. On the small screen, as in the ring, he could take the time to build a character he felt comfortable playing.
“With big movies, there’s a certain speed you have to keep up, because you only have a limited amount of time to tell your story,” he says. “I didn’t realize until the end of the first season that with a series, you have so much more time to develop. And then I thought, ‘Wow! This is great!’”
The series may not have the fanatical, headline-grabbing following some other HBO series command, but Johnson is convinced Ballers really hit its stride by the end of season two. The finale showed a very vulnerable Spencer reflecting on his personal failures while speaking to a group of NFL rookies, then limping off for the hip replacement surgery he’d long avoided.
“That’s the nice thing about TV for an actor. You gradually find your character, and the stories begin to roll out organically, like they have with Ballers,” Bloys explains. “I don’t think we knew back in season one where Spencer would be in season three. We saw a similar thing in Veep, where once the actors settle into their parts, the writers have a better sense of tone.
"And with Ballers, the idea from the beginning was to have the characters get to a darker place.” Johnson’s willingness to play a role unlike his usual infallible hero has impressed everyone on the show, particularly costar Richard Schiff. The veteran actor may have been a bit nervous the first time they met, but Johnson’s openness immediately won him over.
“It’s interesting to watch him, because the more he works on this part, the better and deeper that work gets,” says Schiff, who may be best known for his work on The West Wing. “He really puts himself through some shit with the character. He’s willing to always be there, always be present — and there aren’t a lot of actors out there like that. He’s an open book, and what’s really impressive is, he’s picked all this up later in life.”
Which might explain why Johnson has become a cinematic supernova — and still remains very much DJ, as colleagues call him. No matter what larger-than-life role he takes on, he’s still that guy who drives himself to the set in his F-150 pickup, never remembers to clean out the cups he leaves in the sink and cracks dirty jokes to loosen up business meetings.
“I feel that I hold myself accountable like a real man should,” Johnson says. “And that’s why the characters I play tend to be attractive to audiences and studios. They’re trying to overcome something bigger than themselves, which is something I’ve lived, so I understand these people. I see it as a responsibility. I’ve built up a trust with my audience that I’ll send them home feeling good.”
With a perspective like that, it’s not surprising to see how he reacts when the TV in the corner of his trailer takes a break from Shark Tank reruns to feature a promo for a show called Secret Lives of the Super Rich.
“That’s appropriate, don’t you think?” Johnson says, flashing the same wry grin he uses when saving the world from a mammoth earthquake or a criminal mastermind. “Let me tell you about the secrets of my super rich life. There’s a game I play with Lauren [Hashian, his longtime girlfriend] all the time that we call ‘I Wonder What My Favorite Movie Star Is Doing Right This Moment?’
"People probably assume I’m out doing something so cool, like hanging out, smoking cigars with Jay Z and Beyoncé on a yacht. But the reality is, I’m just sitting with my dog’s balls on my leg, watching Lockup at home on a Saturday night. You know... the stuff real stars do.”
Spoken like a true baller.
Go behind the scenes of emmy’s cover shoot with Dwayne Johnson. Visit TelevisionAcademy.com/cover.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017