Published at: Sept. 16, 2006, 4:51 p.m. CST by merrick
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here with a transcript of a roundtable discussion I was a part of with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who was in Chicago recently promoting his surprisingly effective new film GRIDIRON GANG – in which The Rock actually gets a chance to flex his acting muscle and not just his quads.
I normally don't involve myself with roundtable interviews for reason I won't go into here, except to say that chief among my concerns is using other people's questions in article with my name attached to it. It feels slightly dishonest to me. Still, I did want to hear The Rock discuss this particular film and compare his real-life experiences in his trouble youth with the events in GRIDIRON GANG, which isn't about him, but seems tailor made for the guy. See if you can tell which of these probing questions belongs to me!
Question: Can you start by talking about this idea of a single person making a difference in the lives of other people?
The Rock: Absolutely. I think that, number one, I know for a fact what that’s like. I was arrested multiple times by the time I was 17. When I was 14, I was arrested five or six times. I had that one guy in my life who cared enough to invest time in me, who said, “Listen, you’re gonna stop screwing up, you’re gonna stop f’ing up. I want you to go play football for your freshman high school football team.” One of his officers was going to be an assistant coach at that time on the team. He said, “I want you to go play for him.”
I played for him--did not learn at all, didn’t learn my lesson. I was a work in progress. I continued to get in trouble. I continued to get arrested. It wasn’t until I was 17--through my high school football, through my mom, through my dad as well,
who lend that love and support. And, that gives you a prime example of just what happens when you invest a little bit of time in a kid. I was runnin’ the streets, I was making all the wrong decisions, involved with people who were not good people, and I was fortunate, I was really, really fortunate. I got a second shot. And, if it weren’t for those people in my life who cared, who knows what would have happened. Who knows what I would have done, you know? Who knows? That’s why I’m fortunate.
Q: This film was, like, really made for you then…
R: I gotta say that when I start to think about the process, the fact that it got made, the fact that it has been around for 15 years, the fact that Lee Stanley’s held onto it for so long, the fact that Nicolas Cage, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone--these guys all wanted to be Coach Porter at one point. So, I’m fortunate and lucky, and there’s a bigger reason than just your Hollywood reasons. I believe it fell into my lap. I was one of these kids. I understand that. And, now being a daddy to a little five-year-old girl, I understand the power of being a parent, the power of being a mentor, and what that means. And, the power of sports, the value of sports, and what sports can teach our kids and our youth.
Q: …The power of a movie like this. Why do you think it’s an important movie for young people today versus most of the crap that’s peddled?
R: [Laughs] I’ve made some of that, too. It’s important for a lot of reasons. These particular kids who are locked up--and I’ve spent a lot of time with them--they don’t see tomorrow. They come from a world of neglect, a world of failure, but White, Black, Latin, Asian--whatever you are--rich or poor, there’s still a value, there’s a value to be learned as a kid. The value of structure, the value of competition and sports, the value of sacrificing your own personal goals, personal needs for the better part of the team.
Whether it’s in a board room in a business setting or whether it’s teamwork, whether it’s in college, high school, on whatever level it is, but just being part of that team, part of that structure, and how important that is. Commitment and sacrifice. And, setting your eyes on a goal. Failing at that goal. Learning how to deal with that failure. Being gracious with your successes. All those things that you take with you.
Now I realize, I didn’t realize it before we shot the movie, but I realize after it’s done, after watching it, after going from city to city, talking to kids all over the place, all across the country…is there’s a power. And, especially talking to the men and women of probation about the power of expectation that we can’t forget when we tell our kids, “I expect you to do better. I expect you to challenge yourself. I expect you to make the right decision. I expect this from you. You’re gonna do great, and I expect you to recognize that.” You tell a kid that, nine times out of ten, they’re going to respond in a positive way. It’s like they did with me, the exact same thing. Mind you, it took me a lot of times hearing that from people, but there’s that power of expectation.
Q: What type of acting challenge was it for you to play this mentor? How much did you reflect on your own experience?
R: Well, I’ve reflected in a lot of ways on my own experiences. I watched [the GRIDIRON GANG] documentary and I was moved by it…in its entirety, you’re moved, you laugh, you cry--all the things that you do when you watch this movie. But, as a source for acting, now what I can tell you from experience is that there’s this awesome responsibility that you have as an actor when you’re portraying someone who’s alive, watching you intensely, making sure you get it right.
Sean Porter was reluctant about the movie at first, wasn’t crazy about the idea. I’ll tell you why, and it gives you an idea of what kind of man he is. He said, “Listen, there’s kids here, there’s kids in this movie that you’re going to portray who are still alive, who are responsible citizens in the community, and they’re good men, and they have families. What happens if their employers don’t know the bad crimes that they committed? What happens if Junior Palaita’s employer doesn’t know that he beat and killed people with a baseball bat? How’s this going to affect his life?”
He was adamantly against the movie at first. He came around, and he finally said to me, “Listen, if you’re going to tell this story--and I’m glad you are--I want to make sure you tell the world like how I see it, how it is, this world, the world that these kids come from. It’s real, it’s gritty, it’s violent. And, it’s not nice, but it is positive, and something that we preach to these kids every day.” He said, “If we don’t do that, you failed me, you failed these kids.” And, he said, “As a man, I’m telling you man to man, and if it doesn’t happen, you failed me as a man.” Now, that’s powerful to me when another guy can sit across from me and tell me that, and I appreciate that, and I was really grateful for that.
Q: It seems that there isn’t a lot of writer’s embellishment here. If you look at the documentary and you look at the film, a lot of the scenes are taken directly from real life, what these kids went through. Was that difficult for you having to really re-create down to…like the one scene where Junior didn’t want to play, and he had to walk off. Was it difficult to re-create real life?
R: That’s where we’re fortunate with this movie. We only have one writer, Jeff Maguire, who really, really nailed it, and he was fortunate that he had all these realities happen and the people who can talk about these realities--Malcolm Moore to Paul Higa to the Stanleys, who shot the documentary, who were there…to Sean Porter.
You know, the one thing, I got to be honest with you, the one creative liberty I thought we were taking was with Sean’s mom [dying], after I read the script, because that’s not in the documentary. And, I thought, well, it really makes a good story. Then, you come to find out the day they shot the scene where Sean's mom passes away in the hospital, Lee Stanley came up to me and said, “I just want you to know that Sean’s mom died in the middle of the season.” I was blown away.
Then, I come to realize that…for example…and I didn’t know this until three weeks ago when I sat down with Sean for dinner…the flower scene where the kids give him flowers. This whole time I thought, well, that’s a nice scene, it’s really nice and touching. And, he said that really happened. And, I was, like, why didn’t you tell me?! And, he said, “I just don’t want to talk about my mom that much, to be honest with you.” Paul Higa said, “Isn’t the team supposed to be out there practicing?” Just like in the movie, he goes out, and Malcolm Moore stops and says, “Hey, I want you to come in the gymnasium.” It wasn’t at the dorm, it was a gymnasium. And, he [Sean] says, “Why? What’s in there?” He goes, “Ah, come here, I just want you to go in there,” and he almost got in a fight with Malcolm. He said, “Well, I’m not going to go through those doors, ‘cause I don’t know what’s on the other side, and I just don’t do that.” Sean’s that way, very intense. And, he goes, “Look, the kids are in here, they want to give you something.” He comes in…flowers…cries. Really incredible. So, we’re lucky…to your point that we didn’t have to take a lot of creative liberty. It was there. It unfolded.
Q: Something I wanted to ask you was…personally, I think it’s the best performance you’ve ever given.
R: Thank you
Q: [You cover] a whole range in this film--you laugh, you cry, you have that scene when your mother is dying, and I think that’s one of the things that intrigued you about this script is [that] you finally get to show your range as an actor.
R: Sure, I agree with you. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to get a wide array of different roles offered to me from the comic to action to comedy again. But, with a movie like this, not only is it an incredible story, but then, for me as an actor, to be challenged and to grow, because that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. And, as you guys can imagine, when I first started five, six years ago, I knew I wanted to become a good actor then, a versatile actor. I just wasn’t getting the material that was going to allow me to do that. It just wasn’t coming my way, and I understand that. But, I’m fortunate to get this, especially with a story like this. It resonates on a lot of levels.
Q: How do balance that…obviously, being The Rock is an entry point into this business, right? Is there going to be a point where you want to shed that from your name on the credits? Will that become more of a curse than a blessing down the road?
R: That’s a good question. I don’t think it’s going to be a curse. I think it’s on this trajectory now where it’s naturally happening, which is nice. For example, with THE SCORPION KING, I didn’t want to sit down and say with you guys five years ago, and say, “Okay, from this day forward, please refer to me only as Dwayne Johnson, the actor, and don’t refer to me as The Rock.” I mean, The Rock was my nickname, and it stuck, and over the course of time, through performances…for example, like in BE COOL, where that became, like, a defining performance, where people are, like, Oh, wow, now we understand. Then, it happened more naturally. I was just getting referred to as Dwayne "Rock" Johnson. So, that’s why it’s there. For example, in SOUTHLAND TALES, it’s just Dwayne Johnson, and who knows, if there’s a…I’m sure for now it’s going to remain Dwayne "Rock" Johnson, for a little while, until it naturally takes another turn. If there’s some badass action movie out there [laughs] with guns and kicking ass, then it’s gonna be another…
Q: I have to ask this question because I am--and I told these guys before--I am hardcore WWE…
R: Cool, man
Q: …and ECW. And, I have to ask you, Do you miss it?
R: I miss the live crowd interaction. I miss that, ‘cause there’s nothing like that. And, that was a great launching point for me, that was a great opportunity for me. I don’t regret any of that, nor do I try to hide that past. Interestingly enough, though, there’s so many people I run into who have no idea that I had that past-- no idea that I wrestled.
Q: Who are those people?!
R: Or, they heard about it, but just unfamiliar with, you know, like, Oh, didn’t you used to do this at one time? Yeah, I miss that. I miss the live crowd and action, that’s all.
Q: What takes more out of you, out of your mind, the more action-oriented physical stuff, or the emotional rawness of dramatic acting?
R: I would say the emotional reality of heavy scenes. You place yourself in that position, and you’re trying to get the essence of Sean Porter, and he loses his mom. I found that out that day he lost his mom. His mom died on October 25, my mom was born on October 25. He had an amazing relationship with his mom. She was his biggest fan. Me, too, and my mom’s still around. I thank God for that. But, things like that…I’ve got a strained relationship with my dad, you know, and that scene where the one kid asks me, “When did you forgive your dad?” I mean, things like that that you have to bring back up and think about, like that--it’s not easy. That’s when you realize acting is tough, it’s hard. I’ve got a lot of respect for it.
Q: Talk a little bit about what Sean gets back out of this experience. It’s clear what the kids get. But, when you mention that scene where he discloses his father and all the rest of it, what is he getting back from this whole experience, the process he’s gone through?
R: I think what Sean gets back…and Sean is one of those guys you should know, too…it’s like pulling teeth with Sean to get information out of him. It wasn’t like he was, like, “Hey, let’s go, man, let’s sit down, whatever you need to know.” I mean, it had to be earned. For example, the mom stuff. He never told me any of that. It would have helped. It was fine that he didn’t, and I respect that.
Sean got out of that… I asked him, “Did you ever think that you were really going to make a difference?”… not that you were really going to make a difference… “Did you ever think that you were doing incredible things? Did you ever think you were going to save lives?” He said, “I never thought I was going to save lives, but I honestly just cared about these kids. No one else cares about these kids.” And, he goes, “I care about these kids.”
So, I think through this whole process, through that whole season, that was a defining time for Sean, because Sean had tried to start that program three years earlier. And, it started it with eight men, so he was playing eight-man football, but there was no season, and there was certainly no regular high school season, so he’s trying to get this off the ground, trying to get it off the ground. And, finally that Christian school in Los Angeles decided to play, give him a whole season. And, so that was a big moment for him. All his hard work had finally come to fruition. He was enjoying the fruits of his labor.[Snaps his fingers] Then, his mom passes away like that, and his world comes to an end.
So, in that strained relationship, it all plays out in the movie, which makes it really, really special for me, just to sit down with the man, you know, and pick his brain and ask him the same question, What did you get out of it? He goes, “Well, out of that I realized then that I’m not a bad guy.” I guess for a long time people had been saying, “Well, you know, you’re this…you’re that…you’re this…you’re that.” He goes, “I’m well aware of what I accomplished, and what I still accomplish to this day.” He oversees five prisons for kids.
Q: Is there anything about acting that scares you, and what type of physical challenge do you have to be up against to make you a little nervous?
R: Is there anything that scares me? No, there’s nothing that scares me about acting, other than…no, there’s nothing that scares me about acting. It keeps me excited, motivated. I’ll tell you what, I continue to be the more motivated now and inspired than I was when I first started because I understand the process now. You learn a lot in five years. You can learn as much as you want to possibly learn, or you can kind of skate along and think you know everything. Christopher Walken says, “There’s always something to learn.” And, that’s coming from him, you know, and I appreciate that. Because the process is so much more now, what it takes to make a movie. From the screenplay to the big screen, it’s a wonder that movies get made. It’s hard to get movies made. And, good movies, too, it’s hard to make good movies. So, no, I’m continuously motivated, nothing really scares me about it.
[Regarding physical challenges that might be nerve-racking] Well, you know, let me see, maybe the homicidal, hermaphrodite attorney. [laughs] I’m not too sure if I can pull off playing an accountant…maybe, I don’t know, I’d give it a shot. I see what you’re saying, but I’m 6’ 4”, 225 lbs.
[Someone notices he's got a cast on his leg.] I was rehearsing for THE GAME PLAN, which is a Disney comedy that I’m doing next, a family comedy, and I ruptured my Achilles, and I had it opened up. It completely got ruptured. I had it reattached nine weeks ago. She’s got a look on her face. Pain, a lot of pain. Sept. 25 we start shooting.
Q: When did you realize you had a real future in acting, because when you did THE SCORPION KING, you probably thought--I don’t want to speak for you--you probably thought, well, this is a nice lark. But, something must have happened when you said, Hey, I have a future in this.
R: It was probably in around…it was after THE SCORPION KING happened and into THE RUNDOWN. Now, it’s my second time into movies--I’m not even counting THE MUMMY RETURNS—but it was at that time. It was defining for me that…and, it wasn’t, like, you know, all of a sudden I nailed a scene, and Wow, now I understand what everybody’s talking about, yeah, now I got a future. What it was for me, what was defining was realizing that this is what I wanted to do, and in order to do this, and in order to be good at what you’re doing, you’ve got to apply yourself, and you’ve got to be 100 percent committed. You can’t be, Well, I’m going to give it 50 percent over here, then I’m going to come back to movies, and then, for example, I’ll go back to wrestling. It had to be one or the other, because there’s too much involved. The studio has millions of dollars involved, the other actors, who have given their lives to the craft, involved, so you’ve got to be committed. You have to be. And, once I realized that, then that’s when…that’s not when I realized, Wow, I’ve something to offer. That made me realize then that now I see what it takes to make it. Now, I may not. I may strike out.
Q: Can you talk about the challenges of actually filming at Camp Kilpatrick among all these actual inmates and young men who may look up to you?
R: That was eye-opening for us. It was motivating for us as well. We’re invading their turf. We respect their turf. We also respect what the probation officers are doing there. So, every day we’re filming, but what was great was, we talked to these kids every single day. You realize a couple things: you realize that even though they’re badass kids--and they committed some heinous crimes, and they should be punished, and they are, and they realize it--but, at the end of the day, they’re still just that. They’re just kids. They deserve a second chance. They deserve a second shot.
What was motivating was as we’re filming every day, these kids are watching, they’re watching from the bars, from behind the bars, solitary confinement, and to tell them, “This is a movie we’re making about you guys that ends on a positive note, ‘cause the kids before you got out and made the right decisions. Couple of them got shot--dead. Couple of them are serving life terms in other prisons. But, you can change.” These kids have a big bullshit barometer, and they smell fragrance from 10 miles away. And, they hear it all the time, they hear the formula: [pounds out a beat on the table in rhythm] Got to do the right thing when you get out. Got to make sure you make the right decisions. But, these kids collectively, they say, “Well, listen, that’s bullshit, ‘cause when I get out I go right back into this crap that I left, so these second chances…” They’re calling B.S. on me, because they say, “Well, I never even had a first chance, ‘cause I’m going right back to this.”
So, what was motivating is “Listen, we understand you hear all the B.S., but these are the kids, like the Junior Palaitas, the Kenny Bates, all these kids, the Willie Weathers, they’ve gotten out and they’ve done things.” Willie Weathers, his real name is Michael Black, who went on to Washington State, who went on to play in the NFL, I mean, he really did incredible things. Like Allen Iverson, coming from that background. So I said, It’s great to let these kids know that here it is, right here. It happened in front of you. Then, they get motivated. We have these special programs for those who want to get involved in film and movies, and we took them around the set, and how things are filmed, and they were blown away by the catering. [Everyone laughs] “Is it free? Steak?”
Q: Do you get blown away by that?
R: Daily. That I do, man, I mean, you can eat lobster, steak. It’s very surreal at times.
Q: Do you feel like a role model, like Sean? Do you feel a responsibility in any way, or no?
R: One hundred percent. We all have responsibility. I have responsibility, not only as a celebrity, but as an adult. We all have that responsibility to kids. We all have that responsibility to take care of our kids. As a celebrity, that’s nonnegotiable. And, that annoys me, you know, when celebrities are saying, “I’m not a role model.” Well, you are. It’s non-negotiable. The kids out there look up to you, and that’s important.