Rock Star: Box-office giant Dwayne Johnson doesn’t rule out running for President
Dwayne Johnson has a frame on his wall containing seven dollars—a five and two ones—which has special significance for him.
"It's a constant reminder of the time when I literally only had seven dollars in the whole world and how grateful I will always be to be in the position I am today," he says with a wide smile.
He was 23 years old and hoping to make it to the NFL as a professional football player. He thought he was on the way, having played one game in the Canadian Football League in Vancouver. But then his football career came to an abrupt end.
"I was so excited because I was living my dream in Vancouver and then they cut me and told me, 'You're done. You're not good enough. Hit the road,'" he recalls. "I had just seven dollars in my pocket. It was a very defining moment for me because I sunk into depression for a while, but through that I came back, I think better and with a bit more clarity."
We are talking in Los Angeles shortly after he has returned from another visit to Vancouver. But his situation now is very different from his earlier experience in the city.
This time he was back as one of the most bankable stars in the world, starring in the Universal thriller Skyscraper, which was produced by his own company called, of course, Seven Bucks Productions.
In Skyscraper, due for release on July 13, Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader and war veteran who now assesses security for skyscrapers. In Hong Kong he is framed for a blaze in the tallest, safest building in the world and must go on the run to find those responsible, clear his name and rescue his family who are trapped inside the building.
For much of the production, Vancouver stood in for Hong Kong. "For me it was a great personal story, because to go back to Vancouver as I am today and bring this big production with me meant a lot to me personally. Yes, there’s a tax incentive, and also it was a really phenomenal backdrop for Skyscraper.”
Charming, funny and something of a goofball, the muscular, six-foot-four actor formerly known as The Rock is also a shrewd and canny businessman whose production company made the hugely successful Jumanji sequel and has a full slate of tentpole movies (The Janson Directive, Shazam!, Alpha Squad Seven, another Jumanji sequel) and original television programming including the popular HBO comedy series “Ballers,” in which he stars.
Johnson talks easily and smiles a lot. But while he often comes across as a something of an easygoing, lighthearted joker, he takes his work very seriously and becomes quite earnest when talking about it.
He is, he insists, involved in every aspect of the business of being Dwayne Johnson. "I'm hands-on, 360 degrees, around every corner," he says. "We've expanded Seven Bucks Productions out to digital, to creative. and we have opened up an advertising arm as well. So there’s a lot of things happening.
"I surround myself with a lot of really smart people who are a lot smarter than I am at what they do, because I'm not one to just rest on a problem; I like to find the solution very quickly and often I don't have the capacity to do so. So I bring in more people.
"But the key and number-one goal for us is to make sure we always serve the audience first, whether it's a TV show, a movie we produce for Seven Bucks or creating workout gear for Under Armour. In that spirit, better decisions are made."
Having joined the ranks of big-time Hollywood producers, he is well aware of his responsibilities to his staff: "There’s a lot of people who depend on me and a lot of the work that I do, if we are producing it, starts with me. So, inevitably, I am galvanizing a lot of people and bringing them together. So that in itself will give me enough motivation to put my best foot forward and try to work with a smile. And also I think it’s in my personality. "
He has plenty to smile about. A multi-ethnic star at a time when audiences crave diversity, he has proved to be capable of entertaining in many genres, switching from brawny action roles to light comedy to hosting “Saturday Night Live.”
His path to Hollywood success has been unusual, to say the least. After being cut from the Canadian Football League, he turned to wrestling, the profession of his father, Rocky Johnson, and grandfather before him. Within a few months he was wrestling at Madison Square Garden under the name Rocky Malvia. He was winning matches, but fans were tiring of his good-guy image—so he decided to reinvent himself. After a knee injury, he returned to the ring as The Rock, a member of the “Nation of Domination” crew of bad boys, replete with black boots and a menacing stare. His chiseled good looks and muscular build brought in a new female wrestling fan base and he became a breakout star and a merchandising goldmine.
In 1999, a wrestling champion and pop-culture phenomenon, he made the first of several guest spots on television comedies and in “Star Trek: Voyager.” But it was a hosting slot on “Saturday Night Live” when he gamely donned drag, demonstrated a pleasant singing voice and a flair for sketch comedy that made Hollywood take notice.
After winning his sixth championship belt in the ring, he quietly walked away from wrestling and made his feature acting debut as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns, followed by the title role in The Scorpion King.
Johnson switched between action roles and comedic turns in films like Reno 911, Game Plan, Get Smart and Tooth Fairy. But action was where his strengths lay and he returned to basics in Faster and then joined the Fast and the Furious franchise. After the eighth in the series, The Fate of the Furious, he starred in San Andreas and produced and starred in the less-than-successful Baywatch, followed by Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and the recent Rampage.
At the most recent count he has at least ten movies in the works and the planning stages. He earned an estimated $65 million last year and has a net worth estimated at $220 million. So he is entitled to reflect on his life and career so far with satisfaction—which he does, in a modest way that does not sound like bragging.
"I am really proud of the career that I have been able to navigate through Hollywood and break the mold of a few things and trailblaze a few paths," he reflects. "There wasn’t a blueprint for me to follow when I first came in, because there wasn’t a half-Samoan, half-black wrestler who could be loud and bombastic on some crazy wrestling show—there wasn’t that for me.
"But there were guys like Will Smith and George Clooney and I wanted their kind of careers. So I am proud of that and more proud of the people that I have been able to gather around me to see my vision and really put in a lot of work.
"And what I mean by that is: I switched agencies about eight years ago [from CAA, where he says he was advised to slim down to look more like other leading men, to WME] and we opened up the production company and started building that and just continued to bring in more minds and more people who help me."
Although he carefully planned his path into Hollywood, he freely admits he had his regrets: "Yes, I had regrets. If you think about it, as you are going along in life you have your ups and downs, and at the time I left the world of wrestling I was on top of that world, and I quietly transitioned away because I really wanted to dedicate myself to acting.
"But I felt I didn’t just want to make action movies, I wanted to do more. I wanted to have a diverse career and I felt that would give me longevity. I didn’t want to just be around for five years and then go off into the sunset and do other things—I really wanted to have a footprint in Hollywood and that was important to me.
"So there was a time about two or three years into the transition, into the 2000s, when I started to question whether I had made the right decision, because the movies that I was making at that time were doing okay at the box office, but I was just trying to get better and I wanted to work with quality people. And when questions and doubts started creeping in, I had to try and calm it down and recognize it and try and work through it."
Then he beams. "But I have also gotten to a place today where I don’t have regrets, because in those times when I was questioning things, I realized I wanted to bring in a new team of people around me, to have a greater clarity and help me with everything."
He pauses and beams again. "So, even the bad stuff leads to something else."
Divorced in 2007 from his first wife, Dany, by whom he has a daughter, Simone, he has been romantically involved with singer and songwriter Lauren Hashian since then. They have a two-year-old daughter, Jasmine, and since we spoke Lauren has given birth to another daughter, Tiana.
He takes his family with him wherever he goes and whether he is at home or on location, he spends his life surrounded by women. "I have daughters, a girlfriend, my mother, two rotating nannies, housekeepers—you name it. It's always all women," he laughs.
Then, seriously: "I keep my family with me all the time and I create the kind of environment that, regardless of whether we are in Atlanta or Australia, when I come back from the set I come home to a home, a running, working home with family, noise, babies running around, baby toys everywhere, animals, dogs—that kind of thing. So it never feels like I'm away from everybody, so that really helps. As long as I have the core of family with me, then I am able to do everything I have to do."
Like everyone, Johnson has bad days and, being the boss, he is probably more prone to them when things go wrong. And when he does, he has what he calls "a resetting."
He explains: "If I'm having a bad day, I need to get away from the noise and go off to a quiet place, because in the world of Hollywood and entertainment there is always a lot of noise. I like to shut it out and go someplace quiet, whether it's my bedroom or my truck or my trailer and I will just reset myself and be calm and do a little meditating and try to figure out exactly what the problem is and what is bugging me.
"Often there's something deeper behind it and I'll do my best to try and take care of it. Then, nine times out of ten, I get myself back to being in a better place and then I'll go back to work."
Finally, a question he is being confronted with more and more these days: Would he consider running for President?
Instead of laughing it off, he chooses his words carefully without committing himself. But it is plain he has given it a great deal of thought.
"I've been in the public eye for a very long time now and I think over the years I have become a guy people can relate to who gets up and works hard every day and—what we were talking about earlier—tries to find solutions to any problems that come up. And also I am in the business of taking care of people.
"So I think all of those elements led to this groundswell, little by little, of people who want to see me run for President and be President. It's really flattering and I appreciate it.
"I care deeply about our country, but I have no delusions that running for President can be done at the drop of a hat. I honestly believe it’s a skill set that you have to sharpen over years of public service, so I feel like the best thing I can do is to continue to listen, continue to learn, continue to take meetings and continue to ask questions. Then we will see. And so I say just give me time, I will go to work, and then we will see one day.
"I think when the time comes—if the time comes—I will be as prepared as I possibly could be and will surround myself with really, really bright, hungry minds."