This is a big week for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. SAN ANDREAS, a disaster blockbuster in which he stars, arrives in theaters on Friday. BALLERS — an HBO series in which Johnson serves as both executive producer and star — premieres in June. Warner Brothers recently announced plans to develop a superhero film of SHAZAM, and Johnson revealed that he will play the nemesis Black Adam in the big screen adaptation of the DC comic book.
With all this activity, perhaps it is to be expected that Dwayne Johnson is everywhere in the media right now. Yet his omnipresence is more than the product of a busy publicity schedule. His public persona rises above any individual project, subsuming each role into the greater narrative, the one in which Dwayne Johnson conquers the world.
Scott Meslow examines the phenomenon in theweek.com under the headline “How Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson Became the People’s Movie Star.” Meslow writes: “Johnson’s filmography is unusually eclectic, pivoting sharply from one movie to the next: big action movies to wacky comedies, weird indie movies to fun little cameos, often playing himself. The only unifying trait is that every role seems to have been carefully chosen to show off another aspect of his talent.”
Indeed, his career choices have been made carefully. Each new role is selected to enhance his brand. He is methodically creating a profile with broad appeal. His film debut role — a significant cameo as The Scorpion King in THE MUMMY RETURNS —led to the starring role in the spinoff feature that followed, THE SCORPION KING. The picture made money and pointed to a future as an action star. Buddy films like THE RUNDOWN and WALKING TALL allowed Johnson to develop his screen presence while playing off of energetic co-stars.
Johnson then set about expanding his horizons. Jen Yamato, writing in The Daily Beast, charts the next phase of his career: “He took chances and diversified with a surprising comedic turn as a gay bodyguard/aspiring actor in BE COOL, a cameo in RENO 911! THE MOVIE, and a major role in Richard Kelly’s ambitious sci-fi satire SOUTHLAND TALES.”
Daniel Roberts, writing in Fortune, says, “You could argue that Johnson fully emerged as an actor with BE COOL in 2005, in which he played a gay bodyguard with an Afro. It was the first time he acted opposite A-list stars (Uma Thurman and John Travolta) and, more significantly, it helped establish that his groove was in action comedy.”
To establish himself in this new genre, Johnson moved into family films. Yamato continues: “The Most Electrifying Man In Sports Entertainment became The Most Electrifying Man In All of Entertainment by shrewdly trading in his crowd-pleasing brand of brow-raising brio for a relatable strain of All-American humility.
“That transformation started as The Rock went Disney as a footballer with a daughter he never knew he had in THE GAME PLAN, his first family flick and his last credited picture as ‘The Rock.’ The movie made $147 million worldwide, making it the most successful Johnson-fronted film to not feature violent action at the time.
“Then came GET SMART, RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, and TOOTH FAIRY … with a dose of friendly neighborhood brawn for the whole family. A scene-stealing blip of an appearance in 2010’s THE OTHER GUYS was a stroke of perfect casting: Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson as the NYPD’s hotshot star cops.” In 2012 his JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND drove to a $335 million gross.
Having introduced himself to the family market, his next move was back to action films. His career was turbo-charged when he joined the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise in FAST FIVE. The picture helped boost his action cred, but Johnson was also widely credited with rejuvenating the Furious series. The nickname ‘Franchise Viagra’ stuck, and he repeated the magic in G.I.JOE: RETALIATION the next year. After two more FURIOUS films, Dwayne Johnson finds himself standing on the entertainment mountaintop.
Smart career choices and the blessing of the box office gods don’t fully explain his success, however. Clearly he began with an extraordinary charm and charisma, qualities that audiences embraced from the beginning. Roberts tells us the story: “Johnson went from being so poor as a kid that he and his mother were evicted from their home, to Division I college football, to World Wrestling Entertainment, to Hollywood, to being the highest-grossing actor of 2013. How he did it is a case study in determination…
“The only child of a Canadian father and a Samoan mother, Johnson grew up like an Army brat, living everywhere from California to New Zealand to Texas, because his father, Rocky Johnson, was a professional wrestler and traveled the circuit. At age 15, Dwayne and his mother were living in a small studio in Honolulu when they came home to an eviction notice and a lock on the door. Their rent, at $180 a week, was too much for his mother, who cleaned hotel rooms. ‘It broke my heart,’ he says. The pair had no choice but to move to Nashville, where his dad was wrestling at the time. ‘I remember saying to myself, ‘I will do anything and everything I possibly can to make sure we never get evicted again.’ But what does that mean—what does it mean to be successful? Well, the successful men I admired all built their bodies.'”
Johnson played football in college, hoping for a pro career. He joined “the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. That didn’t work out either; he was cut after two months. Broke, jobless, and embarrassed, he flew from Canada to Miami and called his father to drive from Tampa to get him. On the ride home, he emptied his pockets and found just seven dollars (hence his company’s name: 7 Bucks Productions).
“Johnson had never planned on going into the family business, and his father initially forbade it. But once he moved back in with his parents, and after weeks of depression, it seemed the obvious move. Rocky told Dwayne he had nothing to offer the sport; Dwayne, hurt, felt differently. ‘Looking back,’ he says, ‘I understand that he was thinking, ‘Man, I wrestled for 40 years, and this is what I have to show for it: a tiny apartment in Tampa. I don’t want this for you.’”
“It turned out that Johnson had a lot to offer the sport. He began wrestling in small-time matches as Flex Kavana, made it to the WWE in 1996 and took the name Rocky Maivia, and went on, as The Rock, to become the biggest superstar televised wrestling has ever seen. Fans of the ‘sport’—which is part verbal performance, part dance, and all theater—loved his charisma and family backstory.”
It took effort to convert the charm into stardom. One thing observers agree on is “how hard Johnson works.”
He takes each role seriously. Speaking to comicbook.com about the upcoming role in SHAZAM, he says “It’s a mythology that I love. It’s been with me for almost 10 years now. What made me choose Black Adam was, I just felt like Black Adam was inherently more interesting to me, because I felt like there were more layers to Black Adam, starting out as a slave, then ultimately becoming the anti-hero that we know today. But I’ve always said that’s got to be earned.”
He means earn the respect of the audience. Johnson tells Fortune: “From wrestling in flea markets (making $40 bucks a match) to used car dealerships to barns, to breaking attendance records in every major dome in the U.S., I learned that the most important relationship I will EVER have in business is the relationship I have with my audience. Pay attention to who you do your business for.” He earns his fans’ respect twice: in the performance of the role and in the marketing of the film.
Roberts explains: “Hollywood teems with hardworking actors, of course, but Johnson goes further than most. He’s not done when the cameras stop rolling. He takes each movie’s promotion into his own hands, pushing it to his 56 million fans across social media, a platform that film insiders say is more valuable to a Dwayne Johnson flick than any ad campaign.”
Meslow concurs: ” the range of talents Johnson has displayed on the big-screen is just one half of the cocktail that has elevated him to superstardom. It’s the inherent likability Johnson shows off-screen — which he cannily harnesses on Twitter (8.7 million followers), Instagram (14.8 million followers), and Facebook (49 million likes) — that has earned him such an unusually loyal fandom.”
His creative use of social media elevates his media reach. Last week, for example, he set a new Guinness World record for the Most Selfies Taken in Three Minutes. “The Furious 7 star broke the record at the UK premiere of his upcoming disaster flick San Andreas, snapping selfie after selfie with fans and revelers on the red carpet outside of London’s Odeon Leicester Square,” gushes US magazine. Traditional media outlets drool over this kind of publicity efficiency.
Johnson manages to be sincere in the process. Meslow says: “Following Johnson on social media feels like an actual window into his day-to-day life: unusually chatty, heavy on pictures, and full of upbeat affirmations about the best ways to live a happy life. … Johnson spends a lot of his social media platform promoting his various film and television projects — but first and foremost, he’s always promoting Dwayne Johnson.
Last week, Johnson scored a huge viral hit by serving as the officiant at a surprise wedding for Nick Mundy — a writer and fan who just happens to have 33,000-plus Twitter followers.” And he turned the Chinese Theater hands-in-cement ceremony into an opportunity to thank Steven Spielberg, telling Reuters: “This man who has inspired me over the years, inspired movie-making and created characters that I loved…this man told me: ‘you’re going for it, and just keep going for it.”
The other piece of advice he treasures came from director Phil Joanou: Protect the thing that allows you to do what you do. Johnson rephrases it: “Around every corner always protect the engine that powers you.” (Fortune.)
Mostly, Dwayne is having fun, and it’s rubbing off on everyone. John Patterson sums it up in his SAN ANDREAS review in The Guardian: “As he has refined his brand, Johnson has stepped out. His recurrent appearances on SNL, playing Hulk-like, shape-shifting Potus “The Rock” Obama, have been ridiculously endearing (especially whenever he flings Ted Cruz out of a window), and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen him lip-sync Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off with Jimmy Fallon (“Oh Jimmy, your ass is gettin’ ready to know Tay-Tay!”). There is an unadulterated joy to be derived from watching a performer make all the right movies, one after another. Vive Le Rock! ”