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Gridiron role tailor-made for The Rock
Football and hard knocks: This role was right up actor's alley
By JIM SLOTEK -- Toronto Sun
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Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, the former pro wrestling star, is steadily earning cred as an actor.


Like the teenage hoods depicted in his new movie Gridiron Gang, Dwayne Johnson credits football with straightening him out and making him a man.

But the artist better known as "The Rock" also credits getting dumped by the CFL's Calgary Stampeders with making him the man he is today.

"I played in Calgary for a very short time before I was cut," the wrestling superstar turned actor says in a phone interview. "I played with Doug Flutie and a couple of other great players.

"But I probably shouldn't have been playing. When I was down at the University of Miami, my senior year in 1995, I ruptured three discs in my lower back. And after those ruptures I still tried to come back and play. And after I signed with the Stampeders, I was released three months later.

"I knew I wanted to close that chapter in my life and move on. I gotta be honest, the truth is I'm thankful I went up there and I'm thankful I got cut. I had no money, I was making $250 a week Canadian at that time and I had to move back in with my parents. It was a life-changing experience."

The rest, as they say, is history. The Rock went on to become the first seven-time champion of the then-World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) and one of the biggest draws the, er, sport ever claimed.

More importantly, he's breaking ground in another way, becoming arguably the first ex-wrestler to attain cred as an actor.

Nobody's handing him any Oscars yet. But the guy who scuttled around as a mute computer-generated arthropod in The Mummy Returns has proven a durable box-office draw with no reservations about stretching his acting instrument (witness his turn as a gay Samoan bodyguard/wannabe actor opposite John Travolta in Be Cool -- "The critics weren't kind to the movie, but they were to me," he says with a chuckle.)

Still, Johnson never forgets that it all could have gone very wrong, very early -- which, he says, was a big part of why he took the lead in Gridiron Gang. The movie is the story of Sean Porter, an idealistic Malibu youth corrections officer who grew tired of seeing the young hoods in his care re-arrested and headed for adult prison. His big idea: Turn them into a football team to build character and find a high school league to play in. The movie follows the ups and downs of Porter's project as the team, the Kilpatrick Mustangs, plays its first season in 1993.

"The big reason I related so much to the story is I was one of those kids," says Johnson, who spent an unsettled childhood in different cities, courtesy of the career of his dad, wrestler Rocky Johnson. "By the time I was 17, I was arrested nine times -- fighting and theft and assault and more fighting -- and I was very fortunate to have a few Sean Porters in my life. I was living in Hawaii when I was 14 and had my sixth arrest. One of the officers on the Honolulu force said, 'One of my co-workers, another cop, is going to be an assistant (high school football) coach this year and I want you to go play for him.'"

Johnson's personal history gave him an edge for the role, which had been kicking around for years with the likes of Bruce Willis and Nicolas Cage attached. This despite the fact that the real-life character is white.

"Me being of colour -- half-black and half-Samoan -- was never a concern from the first time I sat down with producer Neil Moritz. He looked me in the eye and said, 'You're my guy. I've had this project for 15 years and I feel like you're the right guy because I wanted someone who'd been down this path and could tell this story as it happened.'"

Nor was race an apparent concern with Porter himself, Johnson says.

"The ultimate responsibility, I came to realize, was playing someone who's not only alive, but passionately cares about the story you're telling. Last week I had dinner with him and asked, 'Did you ever think what you were doing would ever turn into this?' And he said, 'Absolutely not. I just came to work every day and tried to make a difference.

"And I appreciated that, because I know a lot of actors who played real people and they share with me that the person they're playing becomes fascinated and interested and likes becoming a celebrity. And Sean never one time said, 'When are we gonna go on Oprah?'"

GRIDIRON GANG
Starring The Rock, Xzibit
Directed by Phil Joanou
Opens Friday

Rated PG
Based on a true story, the Rock plays detention camp probation officer Sean Porter, who starts a high school-level football team from a ragtag group of teenage inmates.
As his career continues apace, turning attention away from The Rock's muscles is a gradual process. Film projects like the remake of Walking Tall or the video game-inspired Doom still lean heavily on Johnson kicking butt. "What wrestling gave me was a platform to perform," he says. "My parents were not studio executives in Hollywood and I didn't attend Juilliard. So wrestling was my theatre where I was challenged in front of a live audience, a relentless live audience, which was great.

"But in terms of crossing over into acting -- and this is what I tell wrestlers all the time -- you have to make up your mind what kind of actor you want to be. Six years ago, I realized after The Scorpion King that to become a versatile actor you have to 100 % commit yourself. You have a studio investing $100 million, other actors investing their time, it's given me a tremendous amount of respect for the creative process, the business process and the acting process."

Upcoming on Planet Rock: Johnny Bravo, a live-action version of the animated series about a musclebound blonde Elvis type -- yet another movie where he will play against race.

"And I'm getting ready to shoot Sept. 15 a movie called The Game Plan, a family comedy with Disney where I play an NFL quarterback who's Super Bowl bound, the greatest QB on the planet. And he gets a knock on the door one day and a finds a little girl who calls him 'Daddy' -- and hijinks ensue.

"I don't regret any of the movies I've done, whether they make money or not or are seen as successes or not. I step up to the plate to swing for the fences."

RELATED LINKS

  • Toronto Sun review: Gridiron Gang scores in an understated way
  • More on The Rock
  • The SLAM! Wrestling Movie Database


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