He’s famous for packing heat on the big screen. But on the day I meet him, The Rock is packing Tupperware. Specifically, he’s toting his translucent to-go tub inside the Hotel Bel-Air lounge, a quintessential LA hot spot. But the atmosphere looks dicey: a table of boozed-up real estate developers is causing a ruckus. Nothing good can come of an encounter with that mob, so he strides down a long hall to another classic eatery, Wolfgang Puck’s, which adjoins the hotel.
A hostess quickly seats Johnson at a white-clothed table; he is backlit by a wall of glowing votives. A formally dressed server approaches. Johnson smiles: “Could you do me a favour, please?” The server waits patiently, perhaps wondering what crazy celebrity demand is forthcoming. But Johnson simply pops the lid on his container, revealing a pile of sliced chicken and scoops of rice. When you’re built like he is, you need to control the quality and quantity of the food you’re eating. Would she mind putting that tray in the microwave on high, preferably with a paper towel over it? No arched eyebrow in sight.
IN HIS SHOW-BUSINESS JOB, Dwayne Johnson is flexing personified. We know him as the ultra-buff hero who knocks out costumed titans in the wrestling ring or dispatches CGI monsters in the movies. Winning is assured because it’s been scripted, sometimes even amped up with special effects.
Out of the spotlight, he’s had a life – and then some. Just one of Johnson’s low points over the past 43 years could anchor a schlocky cinematic comeback story. Lump all his baggage together, though, and it’d make for a depressing, exhilarating, almost unbelievable yarn.
Dwayne Johnson, the actual guy, started out poor; he tangled with the cops as a teenager. At age 14, he and his mum came home one day to find a lock and an eviction notice on the door of the efficiency where they’d been living in Honolulu. “I remember thinking, ‘I will do whatever I can to make sure this never happens again,” he says.
Step one: hit the gym. His father was a wrestler, so he equated fitness with power and the potential to achieve something. Step two: leverage your new body. He won a football scholarship to the University of Miami, and then a national championship with the Miami Hurricanes. Step three: always have a back-up plan. An injury sidelined Johnson during his senior year at Miami, costing him a shot at the NFL. Instead he ended up playing in Canada but was cut in his first season and had to move back in with his parents.
He was adrift. He broke up with his girlfriend, Dany Garcia. (They later married.) It’s an episode he doesn’t elaborate on, but this was reportedly one of several periods of depression. That’s a fight with an unscripted ending.
Things got back on track after Johnson convinced his dad to train him as a pro wrestler. He learned enough moves to tag into the sport’s lower league, grappling in barns and used-car dealerships around the Deep South. It paid 40 bucks a night. At the time, the idea was simply to do his best. “It wasn’t ‘I want to get into this because I want to make money,’” he says. “I felt like if I became something, I could change the circumstances that we were in.”
By 2001, he’d built his alter ego, The Rock, to the point where he could take a risk on Hollywood. He played a small part in The Mummy Returns as a desert warrior known as the Scorpion King. That earned him top billing in a sequel that body-slammed the box office. But Johnson worried about being typecast, so he shed his WWE moniker and trimmed down, trying to hone a classic leading-man appeal. When he posed for the US MH cover in 2006, he barely recognised himself. In the photo he’s in a swimming pool wearing a soaking-wet dress shirt. He’s lighter, with a surfer haircut. “I personally can’t look at that picture. That guy has no clarity,” he says.
“What I realised the hard way was that the most powerful thing I could have been was just myself"
Even now, this guy goes by so many names it’s hard to keep current. While shooting video for Men’s Health, he introduced himself this way: “Rock here. Or DJ or Dwayne or Uncle Handsome. They all work.”
Identity crises are harder to slide past. Once he started doubting himself, he struggled. He starred in The Tooth Fairy and did a voice-over role in a Transformers cartoon. He wasn’t even Optimus. “What I realised the hard way was that the most powerful thing I could have been was just myself,” he says.
That’s the deal with real life: some issues can’t be tied up neatly in two hours by going into beast mode. The fantasies he spins may make you plonk down $20, but they evaporate when you leave the theatre. Dealing with the realities he’s faced, Johnson sought ways to stay motivated and strengthen his resolve. He calls it his “warrior manna.” It’s a spiritual power the man behind the world’s most macho make-believe roles has tapped into time and time again. He’s learned to be relentless.
Careerwise it’s paid off for him: Johnson is currently the second-highest grossing actor in Hollywood; he earned an estimated $52 million at the box office last year, according to Forbes. (Robert Downey Jr was number one, by the way. Maybe there’s something to this life-battle thing.)
This year, The Rock has already starred in one major blockbuster, Furious 7. The next one is recently released earthquake disaster flick San Andreas, which he shot here on the Gold Coast (see box, “Rock Steady”). Spoiler alert: Johnson’s character, Chief Pilot Ray Gaines, saves the day without even taking off his shirt. And he decks a bad guy. “It always feels fulfilling to jaw-jack one dude,” he says. Well, pretend to jaw-jack, of course.
To that end, Johnson doesn’t see playing heroes as his most important role anymore. Many of his current projects, like the recent TNT show Wake Up Call (in which he helps ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges) and the upcoming HBO series Ballers (in which he plays a pro football player turned financial manager trying to get his life back on track), highlight people like him who must deal with the “nuances and flaws” of being human.
“In movies like San Andreas,” he notes, “I play a cool guy who trips a little bit and comes back up.” In doing so, these characters inspire others, rallying them to make more powerful things happen. “But in real life you trip a little bit more often than you do in movies, and you’re a bit more flawed.”
Johnson readily admits that he still struggles. “I’ve got a pretty cool job, but man, I’m trying to be a great dad,” he says. He has a teenage daughter with ex-wife Dany. (They divorced in 2008.) “There was a time in my life when I used to joke that my name should just be ‘I’m sorry,’ ” he says. Then he plays with all the ways he’s pronounced that word. “I’m sorrry. I’m sooory . . . And I’m sorry now for the shit I’m going to say – I’m sure – in a week.”
THE WARRIOR ANGLE IS REAL, by the way. Johnson is half Samoan, from his mother’s side. He’s a descendant of the lineage of Malietoa, or ruling chiefs, of Samoa. Rugby fields aside, you’ve no doubt seen modern Polynesians performing their elaborate war dances, stomping their way into a frenzy. They flex, pose and hike up their grass skirts to show off every inch of the bone-hammered tattoos encircling their bulging quads and rippled torsos.
It makes WWE posing look like cartoon conflict.
Johnson’s grandfather, a former pro wrestler who went by the name of High Chief, paid homage to his bellicose ancestors with tattoos, which became part of his stage persona. And Johnson created his own tribute: Polynesian symbols that wrap around his enormous left biceps, left pec, and shoulder.
What does this warrior legacy really mean in the modern era? That’s hard for him to express. “I will do whatever I can do with my two hands to protect and excel,” Johnson says.
It sounds like sloganeering – what @TheRock might post to chase retweets on Twitter. But this cuts to his core. Johnson boils the premise down to this: a modern man shouldn’t be afraid to act boldly in life, love or his career. A century ago our ancestors did far more dangerous things just to survive. “Generally what you think is a challenge is probably not,” he says.
Johnson isn’t alone in seeking tribal support. The so-called Male Warrior Hypothesis, as defined in the journal Philosophical Transactions, states that men throughout the ages have clustered in tribes to stay motivated, embrace risks, conquer pain and build empires. Early hunter-gatherers warred constantly over turf, resources and women, says study author Dr Melissa McDonald, an assistant professor of psychology at Oakland University. Those who joined forces were more likely to survive (and reproduce).
Consider lab rat #22,347, Dwayne Johnson. Throughout his life, he has sought out workout buddies after school at the local Boys Club gym, his Hurricane teammates, the brotherhood that play-fights in neon underwear, the Furious boys’ club of Hollywood action-film stars. They are all high-testosterone crews that drove – and were driven by – Johnson to accomplish more.
He fell, got up, rose to the top, and fell again. And again. One example: after Hollywood D-listed him, Johnson formed his own studio, 7 Bucks Productions. The name pays homage to how much money he had left in his pocket after being unceremoniously dropped from football.
It’s worth studying his example. In a 2013 study in the journal Psychological Science, UCLA researchers asked two types of men – those traveling alone and those with a group of peers – to rank the formidability of a person shown in a mug shot. Those with comrades ranked the evildoer as smaller and weaker than those without back-up did. That explains underdog team gumption, at least in sports. But the Male Warrior Hypothesis also posits that men in groups are willing to sacrifice their own wealth, time and energy if it means their group is more likely to succeed. You get evicted, find your band of brothers for self-defense. Then you rise together.
"Often we get caught up in 'It's gotta be perfect'. Well, no. Just be better today than you were yesterday"
For Johnson, a few anchors even out the ups and downs. Staying physical maintains his motivation. He’s also trying to spur on his fans to face the fight. The guy basically invented inspirational hashtags—#ChasingGreatness and #TeamBringIt— and just released an app from Project Rock called the Rock Clock, an interactive alarm clock that has Johnson himself heckling you to seize the day.
The idea is to encourage fans to achieve their goals with unique daily messages and videos. Johnson even uses his virtual tribe to motivate himself, posting what time he woke up, how projects are going, or even He-Man Hallmark goals like “Laugh Hard, Love Powerfully, Global Domination”. “The feedback is the best part,” he says.
Of course there’s still some over-the-top bravado. On that same goal list, he wrote “Cuss less” but then added a footnote with an arrow to it. “Fuck this one.”
THAT’S ONE KEY TO JOHNSON the man. In person, he’s more Aloha than aggro, a warm, welcoming human being instead of a chest-beating conqueror. After climbing out of the muck, he has a sense of humour about his persona.
At Wolfgang Puck’s, for instance, he’s approached by an XXXL employee of the restaurant. “Hey, I’m taller than The Rock,” the guy bellows, loud enough to cause a stir. “Maybe I can take you.”
Johnson stares at him, nose-to-nose. The room is so quiet you expect tumbleweeds to blow between them. Then plain Dwayne breaks into a broad smile and laughs loudly. “Take me . . . to lunch?” Bystanders bust a gut.
That same charisma was on display during his recent turn hosting Saturday Night Live. For days, Johnson rehearsed with good humour inside NBC’s historic Studio 8H. At one point, an SNL director asked him to step in front of a green screen and play Scoremax, a high-testosterone parody of the archetype that made him. He nailed it, roaring with abandon until the crew was rolling.
The sketch never aired. But Johnson didn’t seem to care, as long as he went big. “Oftentimes we get caught up in ‘It’s gotta be great. It’s gotta be perfect,’ ” he says. “Well, no. Just be better today than you were yesterday.”
He’s pushing for improvement – his and yours – even in the smallest moments. As we depart Puck’s, he offers me an elaborate bro-hug, but I fumble it. He takes a step back, looks me up and down, and calls for a do-over.
“Let’s get that right,” Johnson says, reaching out confidently to coach me to a better performance. That’s the muscle he loves to flex.
One thing is obvious about Dwayne Johnson's arms: "He has some very special genetics," says Dr Brad Schoenfeld, author of The MAX Muscle Plan. But even if your DNA isn't Dwayne-esque, you can still shred a sleeve by adding these moves to your workouts.
1. BICEPS/INCLINE CURL
Lie on a bench set at 45 degrees holding a pair of dumbbells at arm's length, palms forward. Curl the weights as close to your shoulders as you can. Pause, then lower them. Do three sets of 8-10 reps.
2. BRACHIALIS/REVERSE CURL
Stand holding a pair of dumbbells in front of your thighs, palms facing you. Without raising your upper arms, curl the weights as close to your shoulders as you can. Pause, then lower them. Do three sets of 8-10 reps.
3. TRICEPS/CLOSE-GRIP BENCH PRESS
Lie on a bench holding a barbell above your chest using an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Keeping your elbows tucked in, lower the bar to your sternum. Press it back to the starting position. Do three sets of 6-8 reps.
4. SHOULDERS/OVER HEAD PRESS
Stand holding a pair of dumbbells just outside your shoulders, palms facing inward. Press the weights directly above your shoulders. Pause, then lower them back to the starting position. Do three sets of 8-10 reps.