Crime, Punishment and Second Chances: Gritty Gridiron Gang Star Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson on Personal Responsibility, Making a Difference and Acting as a Work in Progress
“The Rock” stars in Columbia Pictures’ real-life drama “Gridiron Gang”
By Lee Shoquist
The moment Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson enters the room for our sit-down to discuss his inspiring new real-life drama Gridiron Gang, it is immediately clear to me why the former WWE wrestling champion turned megawatt Hollywood star was the spot-on choice to play Sean Porter, a counselor and unlikely football coach to a motley band of juvenile delinquents.
In a story about discovering self-confidence and redemption through second chances in the grim world of teenaged incarceration, Dwayne Johnson—with his stacked, 6’4”, 225 lb. frame, confidently approaching gait and accessibly warm, pearly smile is nothing if not presence. Onscreen he’s magnetic all right. In person, the guy inspires awe.
The Oscar Igloo: One of the most important concepts in Gridiron Gang in this film is that a single person can make a difference in the life of another if he shows up at just the right time.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: Sure. I know firsthand what that’s like. I was arrested multiple times by the time I was seventeen. When I was fourteen, I had been 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 going to stop screwing up. I want you to go play football for the high school freshman football team.’
One of his officers was going to be an assistant coach at the time. I played for them and did not learn my lesson. It was a work in progress. I continued to get in trouble and arrested. It wasn’t until I was seventeen, through my high school football coach and my mom and my dad as well… That gives you a prime example of (what can happen) when you invest a little bit of time in a kid. I was running the streets and making all of the wrong decisions, getting involved with people who were not good people. I was fortunate. I got a second shot. If it weren’t for those people in my life who cared, who knows what I would have done? I’m fortunate.
LS: In that sense, Gridiron Gang seems like a film written for you.
DJ: I’ve got to say that when I start to think about the fact that it has been around for fifteen years and Nicolas Cage, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone all wanted to be Sean Porter at some point, I’m lucky. There’s a bigger reason I believe it fell into my lap. I was one of these kids. I understand that. Now being a daddy to a little five-year-old girl, I understand the power of being a parent and a mentor and the value of what sports can teach our kids.
LS: What did you learn about these kids in your time shooting at the real-life Camp Kilpatrick?
DJ: That was eye opening for us. It was motivating for us as well. We’re invading their turf but respect their turf and respect what the probation officers are doing there. You realize that even though they are bad a** kids who committed some heinous crimes, and they should be punished and they are; they realize that. But at the end of the day they realize that. They are just kids. They deserve a second chance; a second shot. We’re filming every day. These kids are watching from behind their bars, solitary confinement, and to tell them, ‘This is a movie we’re making about you guys that ends on a positive note. The kids before you got out. A couple got shot dead. A couple are serving life terms in other prisons. But you can change.’
LS: Why do you think it’s an important movie for young people today versus most of the nonsense that comes out of Hollywood aimed at their demographic?
DJ: (laughs) I’ve made some of that too! It’s important for a lot of reasons. The kids who are locked up, and I’ve spent a lot of time with them, don’t see tomorrow. They come from a world of neglect; a world of failure. But white, black, Latin, Asian, rich or poor, there is still a value to be learned as a kid; a value structure—the value of competition in sports; the value of sacrificing your own personal goals and needs for the better part of the team. Whether it’s in a business setting or a team like this, college, high school or whatever level it is, just being part of that team, setting a goal, failing at that goal, learning how to deal with that failure, being gracious with your successes—all those things you take with you. Talking to the men and women on probation, there’s a power of expectation. 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. You’re going to do great and I expect you to recognize that.’ If you tell a kid that, nine times out of ten they are going to respond in a positive way. With me, exact same thing. Mind you, it took me a lot of times of hearing that from people. But there is that power of expectation.
LS: Let’s talk about your approach to constructing Sean Porter, who must be a fascinating person to portray.
DJ: I reflected very much on my own experiences. I watched a documentary and I was moved by it. You laugh, you cry—all of the things that you do when you watch the movie. As far as acting, now what I can tell you from experience is there is this awesome responsibility you have as an actor when you are portraying someone who is alive, watching you intensely, making sure you get it right. Sean Porter was reluctant about the movie at first. I’ll tell you why and it will give you an idea what kind of man he is. He said, ‘Listen, there are kids portrayed here who are still alive and responsible citizens in the community; good men with families. What happens if their employers don’t know the bad crimes that the committed? What happens if Junior Palaita’s employer doesn’t know that he beat and killed people with a baseball bat? How is this going to affect his life?’ He was adamantly against the movie at first. He came around and said, ‘If you’re going to tell this story, tell it like it is. The world these kids come from is real. It’s gritty. It’s not nice. But it is positive. It’s something that we preach to these kids every day.’ He said, ‘If you don’t do that, you have failed me and you have failed these kids. I’m telling you man to man, if it doesn’t happen, you have failed me.’ That’s powerful to me, for another guy to sit across from me and tell me that. I appreciate that. I was really grateful for that.
LS: Talk about what Sean gets back from this experience. It’s clear what the kids are getting from him, but what does he learn?
DJ: Sure. I think what Sean gets back, and Sean is one of those guys it’s like pulling teeth to get information out of. It had to be earned. For example, the mom stuff he never told me. What Sean got out of that- I asked him, ‘Did you ever think 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. I care about these kids.’ I think through that whole season that was a defining time for Sean.
LS: Do you feel like a role model as Sean is in Gridiron Gang? Do you feel that responsibility?
DJ: A hundred percent. We all have responsibility. I have responsibility not only as a celebrity but also as an adult. We all have that responsibility to kids and to take care of our kids. As a celebrity that is non-negotiable. It annoys me when some say, ‘I’m not a role model.’ You are. It’s non-negotiable. Kids look up to you. That’s important.
LS: What’s your take on your acting career today? How has your transition into movies been? Your roles now seem to be broadening a bit.
DJ: I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had a wide array of movies offered to me from comedy to action. But with a movie like this, not only is it an incredible story, but then for me as an actor to be challenged and then to grow. As you can imagine, when I first started five or six years ago, I knew I wanted to become 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. I understand that. But I’m fortunate to get this, especially with a story like this that resonates on a lot of levels.
LS: How do you balance that? Obviously being The Rock was your entry point into acting. So is there going to be a point where you have gone from The Rock to Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson to just Dwayne Johnson? Is there a point you will want to shed The Rock from the credits? Will it become more of a curse for you as a serious actor?
DJ: That’s a good question. I don’t think it’s going to be curse. I think it’s on this trajectory now where it is naturally happening, which is nice. For example, with The Scorpion King, I didn’t want to sit down five years ago and say, ‘Please refer to me only as Dwayne Johnson, the Actor, and don’t refer to me as The Rock!’ The Rock was my nickname and it stuck, and over the course of time, through performances- for example, in Be Cool, which became a defining performance, people said, ‘Wow, we understand.’ It happened more naturally. I was just getting referred to as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. In Southland Tales it is just Dwayne Johnson. I’m sure for now it’s going to remain Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson until it naturally takes another turn. (Wrestling) was a great launching point for me; a great opportunity for me. I don’t regret any of that nor do I try and hide that past. Interestingly enough there are so many people I run into who have no idea I had that past. They had no idea that I wrestled!
LS: When did you realize you had a future as an actor? At the beginning it must have just been a side hobby or fun pursuit.
DJ: It was after The Scorpion King happened and into The Rundown. But at that time it was defining for me. It wasn’t like I nailed a scene and now I’ve got a future. What was defining was realizing that in order to do this and be good at what you’re doing, you have got to apply yourself and you have got to be 100% committed. It had to be one or the other, because there is too much involved in both—the studio, millions of dollars, the other actors who have given their lives to the craft. You have to be committed! Then I saw what it takes to make it. Now, I may not. I may strike out.
LS: Which discipline is a greater challenge for you—the physical reality of wrestling or the emotional reality of acting?
DJ: The emotional reality of heavy scenes. Place yourself in that position and you’re trying to get the essence of Sean Porter. He lost his mom and had a great relationship with her. Me too, and my mom is still around, thank God for that. Things like that. I have a strained relationship with my dad, and that scene in the box where he asks me about forgiving—things like that which you have to bring back up and think about—it’s not easy. That’s when you realize acting is tough and I have a lot of respect for it. It gets me excited and motivated. I continue to be even more motivated now and inspired because I understand the process. You learn a lot in five years. You can learn as much as you want to learn. Christopher Walken said, ‘There’s always something to learn.’ That’s coming from him, and I appreciate that! I understand the process much more. It’s hard to make good movies.
LS: What might be a real stretch for you as an actor or something you might be afraid to do?
DJ: I’m not too sure I can pull off the homicidal hermaphrodite attorney! I don’t know. I’ll give it a shot! I’m 6’4”, 225 lbs. It is what it is.