LOS ANGELES — The man they once called the Rock is going back to a hard place.
After establishing himself as a family-friendly movie star with “The Game Plan,” “Race to Witch Mountain” and “Tooth Fairy,” actor Dwayne Johnson is going in a very different direction with his next film, “Faster,” which arrives in theaters in November with a brutal tale of R-rated vengeance.
“I’m taking it a different place with this one,” Johnson said last week, and that was abundantly clear by his surroundings. The 37-year-old actor with the diesel physique was standing on a gritty stretch of Los Angeles sidewalk dotted with taverns and tattoo parlors and glowing with a red neon sign advertising a “Triple-XXX Peep Show.” During one break, Johnson looked down at one of his sinewy arms with disapproval — his fake prison tattoo was starting to fade.
“This,” he said to a member of the makeup team, “needs some work.” As a crew member with a pen carefully restored the dark edges, Johnson talked about doing much the same thing for his acting career.
“I’m excited about this, it’s been some time since I’ve been in this space,” Johnson said, referring to the genre, not to the seedy pawnshop where the “Faster” crew was at work. “I’m excited to be kicking ass. My genetic makeup is one of physicality. I’m a visceral guy. And careerwise, it was time to change it up and keep things interesting.”
This is the 10th anniversary of the former pro wrestler’s great Hollywood adventure, and he has been aggressive throughout, even when his on-screen characters veered toward cuddly or — as with 20th Century Fox’s cloying “Tooth Fairy” — the movies tanked with critics and moviegoers. In many ways, Johnson is like his good friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, who famously came to Hollywood with a relentless appetite for success and a background as a brawny competitor. For one thing, both the wrestler and the bodybuilder talk about their careers in terms a chief executive would love.
“It’s about creating opportunities where I can take this brand and expand it,” Johnson said. “That could mean foundation work or outside marketing opportunities. But movies are what drive it, always. That’s my passion. The goal is to make great movies and to make them in a variety of genres.”
Almost every big-time movie star thinks in blended terms of art and commerce, but most aren’t comfortable talking about it publicly. Johnson, though, grew up thinking about crowd-pleasing victories and box-office receipts. The San Francisco Bay Area native is the son of Hall of Fame wrestler “Soulman” Rocky Johnson, a Nova Scotia native who in 1983 won the World Wrestling Federation’s tag-team championship with his partner, Tony Atlas, becoming the first black wrestlers to hold the title. The actor’s maternal grandparents, meanwhile, were wrestler “High Chief” Peter Maivia and Lia Maivia, a promoter in Polynesian Pacific Pro Wrestling.
Growing up, Johnson lived for a time in Hawaii and New Zealand, but it was during the family’s time in Bethlehem, Pa., that he became a gridiron star; he went on to the University of Miami and played on the 1991 national championship team. It was in the wrestling ring, though, that Johnson became an international celebrity known simply as the Rock. Switching back and forth between hero and villain, the muscular 6-foot-4 fighter won (and lost) the championship more than half a dozen times, but the true victory had nothing to do with gold-plated belts. By the late 1990s, his arched eyebrow and ironic detachment from his peers had taken him into settings such as “Saturday Night Live,” “The Martha Stewart Show” and “The MTV Movie Awards.”
Then he turned to Hollywood, where he knew his bid to become a star would be met by smirks. The first significant role was as Mathayus the Scorpion King in “The Mummy Returns,” but from the start, Johnson wanted to go well beyond bare-chested bad guys. “Because I got into it in a nontraditional way, I decided the best way to find success was to get a broad base of work,” Johnson said. “I knew credibility would come only in time and through earnest performances. People had a certain perception of me 10 years ago, coming from the world I came from, so there were a lot of challenges.”
After a supporting role in the “Mummy” film, Johnson starred in the 2002 sequel “The Scorpion King,” which grossed $165 million worldwide — respectable, but a far cry from the previous film’s $433 million take. “Walking Tall” in 2004 presented Johnson in a PG-13 tough-guy role, but that didn’t exactly light it up at theaters either. After a memorable turn as a gay bodyguard in the 2005 comedy “Be Cool,” the beefy star turned his sights to lighter material that played off of his intimidating profile.
For the most part, critics have been frosty, though there have been signs of a thaw. Take the appraisal of A.O. Scott, for instance, in the New York Times last year: “(His) range improves with every role and his natural, lapidary charisma takes him a long way. He is best when he expresses an agitated annoyance amusingly at odds with his solid, muscular presence. He doesn’t really have much to do in ‘Race to Witch Mountain’ ... but it’s not painful to watch him do it.”
Still, Johnson long ago separated himself from Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin and other pro wrestlers with Screen Actors Guild cards. He has also proved himself far more adept than, say, Brian Bosworth, another football star-turned-action actor. He senses, though, that it’s time to get away from “heartfelt life lessons” in family films and mix it up in an R-rated landscape. “Faster” is the story of a hulking, taciturn man known only as Driver who is viewed almost as a supernatural figure in the underworld after his exploits in prison. After 9 1/2 years in solitary, he emerges into the outside world with one mission: to hunt down the people responsible for his brother’s death.
“Faster” is being directed by George Tillman Jr. (“Men of Honor”), who cites the influence of tough-guy classics such as “Vanishing Point,” “Point Blank” and the films of Steve McQueen.
“McQueen said so much without talking a lot, and in this movie I don’t think Dwayne has a scene with more than 12 or 15 words,” Tillman said. “A lot of the performance is an interior one, and I think something we haven’t seen from Dwayne before.”
Less talk, more action suggests that Johnson’s aspiration to become a better actor means studying the mayhem movies of Clint Eastwood, not the stage work of Laurence Olivier. Johnson, meanwhile, has other versions of himself that he’d like to see, among them, a superhero role, a romantic comedy and an historical epic about Kamehameha, the ruler who unified the Hawaiian Islands in 1810. But on the “Faster” set, with the tattoo touch-up done, Johnson grinned at the fearsome-looking result. “You know, I started in action and then I went to comedy school,” he said. “Now I’m back in action again. And believe me, it’s fun.”