Why Dwayne Johnson’s still The Rock

The actor brings heft and a sense of community to everything he does — be it promoting his new film Red Notice or advertising his tequila brand, Teremana

There are few things that are worth a 4 am wake-up call. Speaking to one of the biggest movie stars in the world (even if it is on Zoom) is one of them. When Dwayne Johnson appears on my screen, he’s three hours late. It’s been a mad rush, with the LA premiere of his new film Red Notice followed by a day packed with interviews (organised by Netflix to promote said film) — mine being the last for the day. But his trademark smile is at the ready.

It’s this sense of warmth that draws people in and which, with a keen business sense, has made the 49-year-old either the highest or second-highest paid actor for the last five years, according to Forbes’ annual list — with an estimated total earning of $430.4 million. “I think the reason why he’s adored is because he is adoring of other people,” Oprah Winfrey recently told Vanity Fair magazine. “He really is what he appears to be. And people know that.”

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We can see this, for instance, in how he works social media to his advantage. His feed is peppered with his workouts and famous pancake cheat meals, brand endorsements and film promotions. There are photos, too, of him giving his five-year-old daughter, Jasmine, a manicure. After the perfectly-curated Instagram profiles of influencers, this comes across as a busy, joyful mess. But it’s one that you want to be part of.

In a clip that has 6.6 million views, Johnson pulls up in his pickup truck next to a tour bus driving through his Hollywood neighbourhood. “Can you tell me where I can find The Rock?” he asks, as the tourists go wild. In the same Vanity Fair story, he explains, “There was a time when no one knew who I was… I roll the windows down as a reminder. What an incredible position to be in. You got a chance to make somebody’s day.”

Dwayne Johnson in ‘Red Notice’
 
| Photo Credit: Netflix

The hustle is real

  • Johnson is also a serial entrepreneur. Teremana, the tequila brand he launched last March, is his pride and joy (an interest he shares with co-star Reynolds whose Aviation Gin was acquired by Diageo last August).There’s a custom Red Notice cocktail recipe on Johnson’s Instagram, if anyone’s interested. He also co-owns the American Football League, the XFL; has collaborated with Under Armor for a line of apparel; co-founded ZOA, an energy drink; and also featured on rapper Tech N9ne’s new song, ‘Face Off’.

Thinking about tutus

As he settles down for our chat — his casual grey T-shirt a nice contrast to the previous day’s purple Ralph Lauren jacket on the red carpet — we begin with The Game Plan (2007). One of my go-to feel-good films, it is the last one where he is credited with his WWE stage name, ‘The Rock’. “I had a lot of fun doing that movie,” Johnson says. “It was a seminal moment in my career.”

It not only marked a departure from being identified as a former wrestling star to being acknowledged as an actor in his own right, but the movie, produced by Disney, also showcased his versatility. As star quarterback Joe Kingman, he plays a typical jock, but by the end of the family comedy, he’s in a tutu, prancing about in a ballet recital.

Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds in ‘Red Notice’

Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds in ‘Red Notice’
 
| Photo Credit: Netflix

As it turns out, all that dancing was good practice for Red Notice. In a press conference earlier in the day, co-star Gal Gadot playfully recalls a scene where they dance. “I was quite afraid for my feet,” she laughs, as he adds, “She thought she was dancing with a Velociraptor.” Despite his 6’4” muscled frame “he is light on his feet, like a ballerina”, she says.

Art for art’s sake

Johnson plays FBI profiler John Hartley in the art heist film directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. This is the third time he is collaborating with Thurber, after Central Intelligence and Skyscraper, and their camaraderie on set is well-documented. As is the cutting-edge technology they both enjoy working with. In a recent interview with comicbook.com, Thurber refers to the Komodo, a 6K camera that they attached to a race drone to shoot immersive sequences — like the opening shot where he ‘flies’ the audience over a bridge to Johnson standing at the door of a museum, and the subsequent chase — where the camera never appears to cut.

Dwayne Johnson on set with writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber

Dwayne Johnson on set with writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber
 
| Photo Credit: Netflix

It brings to mind that Johnson is often surrounded by relics and artefacts in his films (think the Jumanji films or the more recent Jungle Cruise). The actor says, “I’ve always had a keen interest in history, and was curious about art. While I’ve been lucky enough to travel and see some interesting places… [Red Notice] really opened my eyes to the world’s greatest museums, and the art they hold.” There’s tech, art, and action at every turn — as Agent Hartley teams up with art thief Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds) to bring down his rival, The Bishop (Gadot). Throw in some rudely-interrupted car chases, moped getaways and a narrow shave with a yacht, and you get a film that doesn’t claim to be intellectual, but is great fun.

Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot in a still from ‘Red Notice’

Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot in a still from ‘Red Notice’
 
| Photo Credit: Netflix

Netflix x action

Netflix has a penchant for big, bold action movies. Think 2019’s 6 Underground, also starring Reynolds. The Michael Bay film had a $150 million budget. Or last year’s Extraction, directed by Sam Hargrave, at $65 million. On a set visit of the Chris Hemsworth-starrer, I had a front-row seat to just how large scale these productions can get. The crew had recreated the bylanes of Bangladesh on the outskirts of Bangkok, and even imported bags of garbage from Kolkata to make the litter on the streets look authentic!

Netflix acquired the distribution rights for Red Notice in 2019. Much of the film was shot pre-pandemic across Atlanta, Rome and Sardinia, with an initial budget of $160 million. By the end, it was closer to $200 million, making it the most expensive Netflix movie ever. At the film’s press conference, Johnson makes a reference to the 1,000+ crew. So one can just imagine the production scale.

Gal Gadot and Dwayne Johnson at the press conference

Gal Gadot and Dwayne Johnson at the press conference
 

There’s something about DJ

While Johnson, DJ to friends and fans, is quite capable of carrying a movie on his own, he also excels in ensemble casts. In his 43-plus film career, Pain & Gain, the Jumanji movies, as well as the Hobbs & Shaw spin-off come to mind, as does his rapport with his co-stars, from Emily Blunt to Liam Hemsworth. While he and Gadot have acted in the Fast and Furious franchise, this is his first with Reynolds. “I’ve known Gal for 10 years, and Ryan for 20,” he says. “The chemistry we share comes with experience and time, and with trust.”

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On and off screen

  • 25 years of The Rock: November marks the 25th anniversary of Johnson’s WWE debut at the 1996 Survivor Series pay-per-view. There’s a month’s worth of content coming up on Peacock. On YouTube, watch a special compilation of all of his championship wins.
  • Social star: Johnson retains his stage name on Instagram @therock. With 276 million followers, he is one of the top five most followed accounts (behind footballers Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, and influencer Kylie Jenner). He trails Ronaldo on the list of highest paid celebrities on the media sharing platform.
  • Superhero special: With Black Adam, Johnson joins the DC family. After several roles that were a nod to his immense strength, he finally plays a superhero in his own right. He will also voice Krypto the Superdog in League of Super-Pets. Both films are slated for release in 2022.
  • Fast and Furious feud: Johnson and Vin Diesel have had public beef since Fast & Furious 8, aka The Fate of the Furious. With the franchise coming to an end with the 10th instalment, Diesel extended an olive branch via an Instagram post earlier this week. “Hobbs can’t be played by no other (sic). I hope that you rise to the occasion and fulfil your destiny,” he wrote. Ball’s in “little brother” Dwayne’s court now.

And with ‘keeping it real’ off screen. On November 5, he captioned a red carpet Instagram post from the premiere: “Two of the biggest movie stars in the world. And a guy who’s famous for wearing a fanny pack.” He’s referring, of course, to the iconic image of him wearing a black turtleneck with jeans and a belt bag that he just can’t outrun.

The bankable star — whose fans cut across all ages — has been nominated for multiple People’s Choice Awards for Jungle Cruise and Young Rock. There’s even talk about him running for president of the United States; 46% of Americans polled last month stated they would support his candidacy. Perhaps it’s the family-friendly films like Tooth Fairy and Moana that make him relatable, or it’s his take-charge attitude in disaster movies like Rampage and San Andreas. Perhaps it’s because he’s such a rock!

“I don’t think our Founding Fathers ever envisioned a six-four, bald, tattooed, half-Black, half-Samoan, tequila drinking, pickup truck driving, fanny pack-wearing guy joining their club — but if it ever happens it’d be my honor to serve you, the people,” he’d said back in February. Then last month, he admitted on Instagram, “I’m humbled… but at the end of the day, I don’t know the first thing about politics. I may have some leadership qualities but that doesn’t necessarily make me a great presidential candidate. And that’s where I am today.”

For now, there’s enough DJ to keep us going this weekend — a double bill of Red Notice and Jungle Cruise (both premiered online yesterday), the former on Netflix and the latter on Disney+Hotstar.

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