|Dwayne Johnson as Agent 23 in Get Smart.
LOS ANGELES -- Let's dispense with any confusion a la Sean Combs (or P. Diddy or Puff Daddy or Puffy or Sean John).
The Rock is now Dwayne Johnson. Period. Not Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson. Or even what may have seemed the inevitable acronym: DtRJ.
In a town where birth names are as disposable as noses, breasts and virgins, the former Calgary Stampeder has dropped his WWE pseudonym altogether, believing moviegoers will still want to smell what he's cooking -- even if his moniker is agreeably dorkier.
Nor is this the only leftover bulk Johnson has shed since retiring from the ring. Physically, the 36-year-old is also decidedly sleeker. As he strides into a media conference at a Beverly Hills hotel, he may still make you feel like a scrawny whelp, but he's far from the muscle-bound hulk who swung a sword as the Scorpion King.
"There was no need for me to carry all that weight," he says of his physique. He could just as easily be talking about his name. "I played football for 10 years and wrestled for an additional five, so a lot of weight was still there out of that. But I changed my training and eventually ... trimmed down a little bit."
And there is this to consider: That after being presumptively anointed cinema's next great action hero, such slam-bang productions as Walking Tall, Doom and The Rundown sputtered at the box office while his greatest success arrived with last year's Disney comedy, The Game Plan.
Given this, it's no surprise to find the macho star again aiming for --not terrorists or thugs -- but laughs in a self-mocking role in Get Smart. He'll then be seen next year in two more family-friendly comedies: Race to Witch Mountain and Tooth Fairy (in which, yes, he has the title role). Intentional or not, Johnson, whose stripped-down frame is better suited for non-machine-gun-toting characters, says this latest twist in his career all feeds into his long-range plans for bankability and, brace yourself, respectability.
"When I first started acting in movies in 2000, my background wasn't in theatre, my parents weren't movie executives -- I didn't have those connections. But I loved movies and thought I had good instincts and loved performing in the world that I came from," he says.
"The goal is always to grow. I love the idea of going from action to drama to comedy back to action and finding hopefully a little bit of success in all these movies. Tom Hanks, Will Smith, George Clooney -- these guys who have this wide foundation of work they do. The goal for me is to be that kind of actor."
One of the reasons he signed on to tomorrow's Get Smart -- in which he plays Agent 23, the slick-operator opposite of bumbling Maxwell Smart -- was to work alongside The Office's Steve Carell and veteran Oscar-winner Alan Arkin.
"It's like being around your favourite professor. That's what those guys were. Alan in particular was just very gracious with his time -- especially with me."
Johnson did have one advantage over his co-stars: Years of experience blowing things up real good. Certainly he was better conditioned and experienced to handle Get Smart's action quotient -- particularly a harrowing, climatic chase involving a runaway SUV, railroad tracks and a helicopter-to-street rescue.
If this sounds curiously intense for a comedy, Johnson believes just because the movie doesn't take itself seriously doesn't mean it can't deliver the same thrills as its straight-faced rivals. They are competing for the same box-office coin, after all.
"There's some high-quality action stuff out there this summer," he reasons.
Still, some stunts proved more challenging than others -- notably the kiss which he shares with not Hathaway, but Carell.
Asked by one journalist to elaborate on the encounter, he laughs.
"Ever had a warm apple pie with cold ice cream? Hey, it was great. Not too many can say that -- that they did a nice big lip-lock with an actor. But Jake Gyllenhaal did it, Will Smith did it -- I thought it was my turn to kiss a man."
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