By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Dwayne Johnson recalls watching Harrison Ford in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in a movie theater as a boy and being mesmerized by the hero he saw on the big screen.
“I walked out of the theater feeling so inspired,” he recalls of that experience. “I loved the movie and went, “I want to be that guy.”
Although he took a circuitous route getting there, first as a college football star and then as a professional wrestler known as The Rock, Johnson has been living the dream for well over a decade now. He most recently reprised his role as FBI agent Hobbs in the mega-hit “Furious 7.” He now stars in the big summer action drama “San Andreas,” playing a L.A. fire & rescue helicopter pilot, who will move heaven and earth to find his missing daughter after The Big One nearly levels California.
A California native (he was born in Hayward, a town near San Francisco that was nearly destroyed by a temblor in 1868, and grew up in Miami and Hawaii), Johnson has witnessed the fury of Mother Nature firsthand. He got the script, co-written by “Lost’s” Carlton Cuse, while shooting “Hercules” in Budapest. He says it was a no-brainer to say “yes” to playing Chief Ray Gaines, an expert pilot, who joins forces with his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) to locate their teenage daughter (Alexandra Daddario) after a series of strong earthquakes shake California along the notoriously dangerous San Andreas fault. As buildings topple and survivors scramble for shelter, Ray and Emma must race to the Bay area to find their only child. Thanks to state-of-the art CGI, the disaster flick is like 1974’s “Earthquake” on steroids, and Johnson is in full action hero mode as a very motivated father.
The actioner reunites Johnson with filmmaker Brad Peyton, who previously directed the actor in the family friendly adventure film, “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.”
Like his onscreen character, Johnson is the divorced father of a teenage daughter, for whom he’d do anything to protect from harm.
Q: How did this project come to you?
Johnson: We were in Budapest shooting “Hercules,” another movie that Beau (Flynn) had produced, and I read the script (for this). I loved it. I read it all the way through. At 3:30 a.m., I texted him and said, “I’m in.” It all came together fairly quickly in terms of the amazing actors who had their hands up, and wanted to come in and play in this sandbox and really, hopefully, play in a genre, redefine a genre that has been around for such a long period of time.
Also, I think collectively, we wanted to create something special because it’s been a long time since there had been an earthquake movie. Everyone came together and the script came together very quickly and here we are.
Q: Are you as careful with your action movie persona as you were creating The Rock persona in wrestling? Do you work with the filmmakers to determine what Dwayne Johnson should be doing in a movie?
Johnson: It’s such a collaborative effort. There are so many different moving mechanisms to making a movie. When you’re trying to construct a heroic character, one that can play a part in being an anchor in a big movie like this, that’s a real-world movie—playing real men and women who live and exist today in terms of first responders.
The level of detail and the deep diving that we do is really extraordinary, the level of conversations. Brad (Payton, the director) flew to Budapest a few times, and we had detailed conversations. We also had detailed conversations with Carla Gugino and detailed conversations with Alex (Daddario), to understand the relationships.
So there were a lot of detailed conversations because you have a responsibility when you play first responders, which I’ve learned. This is why I say it’s been a life-changing experience for me, this particular role. But also there’s an expectation that fans globally have with what we have been used to delivering.
So now we want to take that and raise the bar, which was why everybody came together with this script. The script was very well written. We had an opportunity to create something that was very special and unique but also ground it in heart and anchored it with amazing heart and science on that end with Archie (Panjabi, who plays Serena) and with Paul (Giamatti, who plays Cal Tech scientist Lawrence), certainly. And then we have producers, actors and certainly a director who is ready to raise the bar.
Again, there’s an expectation so we want to meet that expectation in terms of heroic characters across the board, by the way. All of them having the core of heart but also exceed the expectations too as well. I think we did it in the movie.
Q: What have you done in emergencies to be heroic?
Johnson: I want to share this with you guys. I saw the movie last night for the first time in its final form. This was my first time seeing. There’s the element of the first responders and the family element but then, just as important if not more important, is the anchor you have with the scientific side of the movie. Prior to Paul coming on board, we had the best seismologists, top earthquake scientists from Cal Tech and USC pore over the script, challenge it and then ultimately walk away from it saying, “This could happen. We hope it doesn’t, but it could happen.”
When you have that in a script and then you have the top scientists say that and give it that stamp, then you have to have equally someone come on board and apply it and then act it. They have to act it in a way as with such conviction.
Q: When you were a little boy, did you imagine growing up to be this hero icon?
Johnson: I was born in Hayward (Calif.) and raised a lot in Hawaii, and in Miami. Did I ever think I would be in this position? No. When I was eight years old, I saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in Charlotte, N.C. I walked out of the theater feeling so inspired. I loved the movie and went, “I want to be that guy. Charming and cool and he kicks ass, and he’s cool with the ladies.” (He chuckles.) But I had no connection to Hollywood so, to be sitting here today, I’m very grateful and happy. I will say just for the record, I received a letter from that gentleman who directed “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Very cool. You know who that is. I’m not a namedropper.
Q: In what context did you get a letter from Steven Spielberg?
Johnson: He reached out and he said a lot of cool, inspiring, motivating things to me. When we went into a movie like this, we sat in Budapest and we started chopping things up and said, “Wow, this feels like a Spielberg movie.” (While make “San Andreas”) we had conversations about how much Spielberg had inspired us. I didn’t write him or call him or anything like that. It’s just we’re such big fans of his movies.
Q: Was there any new training or skill you had to master for this role?
Johnson: Sure, the training part is pretty consistent, but the difference was actually participating in something I’d never participated in before (and) spending time with first responders. I spent time with (the L.A. Fire Department), rescue pilots operating a helicopter. I spent a lot of time with deep dives, drilled down, processes with these guys and girls for a pretty good amount of time. So that was the different part for me. It was exercising a different muscle.
Carla and I have played characters like this (before), where you’re pretty proficient at taking care of business, whatever that business is. But, in this case, it was very different than anything I had experienced before.
Q: What was your takeaway from the first responders you met?
Johnson: Just how special and unique they are. It’s why so few are able to do it. They are really exceptional human beings and I’m very lucky to have met them. That’s why I say it was a life-changing experience for me.
Q: Congratulations on the success of “Furious 7.” Will Hobbs be in “Furious 8”?
Johnson: Of course. They can’t go on without Hobbs.
Q: Is a Hobbs spinoff still something you’re interested in?
Johnson: We all are interested in it. I just had a big conversation with the studio, so we’ll see. We will create a little bit of space from (“Furious 7”) and gauge what the audience will want and go from there—that’s my take on it. A lot of other people have their own (take).
Q: Do you have an emergency bag in your house in the event of a natural disaster?
Johnson: I do. I have two.