Can't stop the Rock - Hollywood’s most bankable star

From a failed football career and having just seven dollars in his pocket, this is the stratospheric rise of Dwayne Johnson.

May 4, 2015

Twenty years after making his debut as a wannabe wrestler, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is one of the biggest movie stars in the world.

This is a fact that might come as a surprise; it has certainly for Hollywood. But consider this: in 2013 the biggest grossing Hollywood star was not Robert Downey Jnr., who had Iron Man 3 out. It was not Leonardo DiCaprio or George Clooney or Brad Pitt, all of whom had movies in theaters that year. It was Dwayne Johnson, whose films, among them Fast & Furious 6 and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, grossed $1.3 billion worldwide.

And this year the onetime juvenile delinquent, failed football star and spandex-clad, smash-talk-spouting WWE champ looks like he might well top even that, with the Abu Dhabi-shot Furious 7 and earthquake flick San Andreas looking to be among the cast-iron hits of the summer.

Pretty good going for a kid who two decades ago had seven dollars to his name, a failed football career behind him, and no idea what he was going to do next. The Rock Dwayne Johnson. Dwayne Douglas Johnson was born on May 2, 1972 in Hayward California. Wrestling was in the family blood. His father had been a state and regional champion in the ‘70s and ‘80s. His maternal grandfather "High Chief" Peter Maivia, aka “The Flying Samoan”, had been a champ too. Maybe it was inescapable that Dwayne would wind up donning the garish trunks and joining them in the sweaty arts.

But by Dwayne's early teenage years his father’s glory days were behind him, as the family traversed the country, his father hunting for elusive work. “We lived like gypsies really, carnies,” remembered his mother. “I think we lived in 38 or 39 states during those years.”

By the time he was in eleventh grade the family had washed up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Dwayne, who had found himself in trouble with the law on more than one occasion, enrolled in the local high school where his astonishing physique aroused both admiration and suspicion from his contemporaries. “He was 16 years old or something and he looks like he’s 25,” remembered one pupil. “We figured he’s posing as a student, undercover for something.”

The football coach was duly delighted with this new physical specimen, and promptly enrolled him in the football team and thus began Dwayne’s abortive football career. By graduation, his telephone kept the family awake through the night, calls coming in from colleges across the country. The Rock Dwayne Johnson NFL. The Miami Hurricanes were the first beneficiaries of Johnson’s athletic talents, but luck was not on his side. A catastrophic shoulder injury put him out of training in his first year and he was soon dropped. A brief stint in Canada playing for the Calgary Stampeders also failed to work out, and, back home with only $7 dollars to his name Johnson finally decided to give the family business a whirl.

And he wasn’t bad at it. Rebranded as “Rocky Maivia” he could pirouette a costumed lunk round his little finger and smash him into the canvas with the best of them. But there was nothing distinctive about it. Nothing memorable. For a start he was cast as a ‘babyface’, a good guy, arguably the hardest and least rewarding role to play in the pantomime of wrestling. The crowds liked him, but they didn't engage with him. As with his football career he felt himself stalled, going nowhere. His handlers noticed the problem too, but they had a plan.

One day in 1997 a WWF manager approached him in the dressing room and an epiphany was had. “How would you like to turn heel?” he said. ‘Turning heel’ is one of the many dramatic devices the WWF (now WWE) uses to keep the fans buying gigantic foam hands. One-time heroes of the ring inexplicably suffer some catastrophic moral reversal and emerge from the dressing room as tar-black villains that would make Blofeld cower.

Heels’ careers, though, can be short lived, if the crowd genuinely takes against them they tend to find themselves, and their careers, pounded into oblivion. But when they succeed they are also among the sports most memorable, and perversely beloved stars. It was a risk then, but Johnson had never been averse to taking those.

“Genius, I love it.” said Rocky Maivia. “Well, we’re gonna need a new name,” the exec told Rocky.

The Rock turned out to be a very different wrestler from plain old Rocky Maivia. “I will be all over you like stink on an outhouse corn-cob baby!” The Rock would yell at his opponent, arching his eyebrow in what would become his trademark expression. “The Rock will take you down Know Your Roll Boulevard and check you directly into the Smack Down Hotel!” he would bellow. “IF YOU SMELL WHAT THE ROCK IS COOKIN’!”

The Rock turned out to be one of the best heels WWF had ever had in its stable. He was the perfect combination of precision theatrics and devastating wrestling talent. But more than that The Rock brand was insanely lucrative. By the beginning of the millennium the WWF was making over $120 million a year solely on merchandising powered by The Rock brand. The Rock Dwayne Johnson. With money like that flying around it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling, though his surprise casting in 2001’s The Mummy Returns that instigated his movie career was not the most auspicious of film debuts. Johnson has barely 10 minutes of screen time and utters not a word of dialogue in English, jabbering instead in a highly unconvincing ancient tongue.

But what it led to was unprecedented. “He was so charismatic Universal decided they wanted a sequel starring him," says director Chuck Russell. Johnson was thus offered $5.5 million to star in The Scorpion King, placing himself in the record books for a financial as well as a sporting milestone: the highest payment Hollywood has ever made to a debut leading man.

The Scorpion King was a moderate hit and for a while he seemed to have pulled off the unprecedented. But having discovered that movie audiences warmed to him as enthusiastically as wrestling crowds had, Hollywood subsequently struggled to find him projects to fit his oversized frame. All that changed, big time, in 2011 with Fast Five.

This late entry in the The Fast & The Furious franchise, by then running on fumes, took Johnson seriously as an action star of the old school, casting him as a titanium hardass cop on the trail of Vin Diesel's merry gang of automotive miscreants and framing him a latter-day Willis or Stallone. Any trace of camp or de-fanged family appeal replaced with a snarling, cussing and distinctly cool movie presence of the kind that Hollywood was then, and now, in short supply. The Rock Dwayne Johnson. Around the same time Johnson switched agents from his long-time reps at CAA to WME, who advised him to play on his massive physique rather than try to hide it, and to leverage the relatively new and then little understood social media beast to build his brand (and to return to wrestling, which he did in 2011 signing for a series of high payday one-off bouts). The results were astounding. Fast Five took in $626 million, more than twice the previous installments, and likely saved it for future installments in the process.

He repeated the lazarus-like effect with Journey 2: Mysterious Island, which brought in $100 million more than its predecessor and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, where adding him to the cast also added $75 million to the box-office earnings. Subsequently he has become one of the industry’s most reliable moneymakers, with even relative flops like last year’s Hercules, which made $72 million in the US, managing to nearly quadruple its final profits in overseas markets, significantly Asia and China, based for the most part on Jonson’s carefully nurtured global appeal.

The reinvention shows no signs of losing steam. Furious 7, extensive portions of which were shot last year in Abu Dhabi, looks set to extend the franchise’s success. San Andreas, an earthquake-themed disaster movie has all the hallmarks of a breakout hit, and only a few months ago Jonson announced that he would play arch villain Black Adam in Warner Bros. megabudget adaptation of D.C.’s Shazam.

Johnson is well aware of the sheer unlikelihood of the journey he’s taken, but is in no doubt about his goal. “What do you want?” a journalist recently inquired. “I want the world,” he replied. He seems well on the way to achieving that. For now though The Rock stands head and, bloody massive shoulders, above any other action star plying their high-quality octane on the international mayhem markets. He harks back to the golden action age of Harrison and Will and Sly and Ahnuld. He is steadfast, immovable, imperturbable. He is as solid as a Dwayne.