Even over the phone, Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. The Rock, is monumental. He's so big, he has to dial down his bigness to keep from scaring lesser mortals – and by that I mean, everyone else. He speaks carefully, in a voice that sounds exactly like U.S. President Barack Obama's. (Diction, pauses, sincerity level, everything – it's uncanny.) He's polite, responsive. He says he feels humble, more than once. He doesn't just tell you something; he says, "I'll share this with you." He calls you by name a lot and also says, "That's a good question," after almost every question. It's like a "make friends and influence people" seminar in a superhero's body.
In his new crime thriller, Pain & Gain, which opened yesterday, Johnson, 40, is bigger than ever, both in size and in creative ambition. Directed by blockbuster king Michael Bay (who's about to start filming Transformers 4) and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Chronicles of Narnia), Pain & Gain is the can't-be-true, true story of three Miami bodybuilders who embarked on one of the stupidest, most violent crime sprees in recent U.S. history, in pursuit of their pumped-up, perverted version of the American dream. "It's Michael Bay's Fargo," McFeely sums up.
Mark Wahlberg plays the ringleader, Daniel Lugo, who's currently on death row in a Florida penitentiary, and Johnson is Paul Doyle, his naive stooge. Wahlberg gained 20 kilograms for his role, eating 10 meals a day and downing supplements from his own "performance nutrition" line, Marked (which, he made sure to tell me, is available at Walmart). Johnson, already pumped from starring in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, only had to add seven kilos. His challenges were more psychological than physical.
"This role is a risky move for Dwayne," Wahlberg says. "He's usually got this wholesome, heroic thing going on. In this, he's sniffing cocaine off a stripper's butt cheeks. He really impressed me. I thought, 'This dude's really bringing it.'"
Johnson was ready for a risk. He'd been looking for something that would stretch him, something darker and more complex that his usual action fare. "There are qualities that studios look for when they bring me a script, qualities of leadership or heroics," he says. "Put it this way: When Brokeback Mountain was written, the studio did not come to me. So I was hungry for this type of role, one that would allow me to give a performance that people would get lost in and forget who they're watching."
He'd never, however, played a character this vulnerable and easily influenced before. "It goes against my wiring," Johnson says. "As an actor, I'd never gone to those places, and I wasn't quite sure how to tap into that type of weakness. And to be honest, some roles can make or break a career. Sometimes if the decision isn't right, and you fail, it can be a long time before you get out of movie jail."
A week before the shoot began, after many heart-to-hearts with Bay, Johnson still had doubts. So Bay wrote him a letter. "I'll share this with you," Johnson says. "It was one of the most articulate and optimistic but honest, truthful and beautiful letters I have ever gotten. The overall spirit was, 'I want you to trust me as your director and your friend, because in this movie, which is my passion project, Paul Doyle will be the consciousness of the audience. When they need to feel kindness and empathy, or satisfaction and salvation, they'll find it in Paul.'"
Of course, Johnson has always been big, from playing football at Freedom High in Bethlehem, Pa. (which is my alma mater, by the way – it tickles me to picture him striding through its halls) and at the University of Miami, through his years as a professional wrestler, a "sports entertainer" like his father and grandfather before him.
"I'm living the American dream, and I'm grateful, and I'll tell you why," Johnson says. "When I was 14 years old, we were evicted out of our little apartment. I saw my mom break down, and I thought to myself, 'I will do anything and everything I can to make sure we're never evicted again.' At that time, the heroes in my life were all big men who had built their bodies. From the men in my own family to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. In my mind, those men were successful because they'd built their bodies. That's what inspired me to go to the gym."
When Johnson decided to try acting, he knew the risks. "When somebody comes to Hollywood who's been successful in another area, generally it's met with sarcasm and raised eyebrows," he says. "I understand that, because more times than not, people are just looking to cash in on their success. And the professional wrestlers who took a crack at Hollywood before me didn't do so well. They didn't apply the same discipline that they'd applied to becoming a successful wrestler to becoming a good actor."
Johnson did. He worked with "three of the top acting coaches in Hollywood." He immersed himself in the business "from top to bottom, from marketing and publicity to distribution to producing and directing to studio executives. I wanted to learn so much. Keep in mind, I was flying by the proverbial seat of my pants. But I felt that if I
did all I could to know and understand the business, I thought it would make me a better actor."
It worked. "There's that great quote about, when you find something you love to do, you're never working," Johnson says. "The greatest part about acting, for me, is entertaining a lot of people. I'm in it for that reason. Which is why I make the type of movies I do – they make a lot of people happy." He laughs. "And
if one doesn't, I'll do the next one."
The definition of the American dream depicted in Pain & Gain, its writers say, is, "I deserve what I want, and I want what he has." Johnson's definition is different.
"It's the idea of, there's no substitute for hard work, for putting in the time, coupled with just getting better," he says. "Often we find ourselves in a position – and I'm guilty of this – where we think big. We think bigger is better, and you've got to be great at something. But that's not the way life is – we fall, and we get our asses kicked. So I've learned over the years to embrace just getting better. If you just get a little better every day, those days start adding up. And then you'll find you're great."