King size
He already rules the wrestling ring. And with this month's The Scorpion King, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson might just steal the action-adventure crown from aging heros Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Here, Johnson talks about the movie, WrestleMania 18 and being down-and-out in Calgary.

By Sean Davidson

Dwayne Johnson sounds tired.

On the phone from a noisy backroom somewhere in South Carolina the pro wrestler explains that he's in between shooting two pay-per-view specials for the WWF. Last night the six-foot-five, 270-pound bruiser better known to his zillion fans as The Rock — a.k.a. The People's Champion, the Brahma Bull and the Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment — was busy whaling on and hollering at his spandex-clad colleagues, whipping the crowd into a froth with his trademark slogans ("Do you smell what The Rock is cooking?") and laying, as they like to say ringside, the smackdown on any candy-ass jabroni fool enough to climb into the ring. And tonight, he'll do it all over again.

"Then I fly back to L.A.," he says, clearly a little worn-out and fighting a persistent cough, for some last-minute work on The Scorpion King. The third installment of the Mummy series has kept 29-year-old Johnson busy since his appearance in last year's The Mummy Returns so wowwed studio execs that they approved and rushed to production a third film based entirely on his character.

Mummy Returns hadn't even wrapped when he got the good news. "I was so overwhelmed from being sick. I had sunstroke and whatever else you can get from the Moroccan desert," he recalls. "I told my agent 'That's fantastic but I've got to go to bed, 'cause I've got to be up in an hour and I've got things coming out of my body you wouldn't believe.'"

So it's probably best for all involved that they shot Scorpion King in Arizona. Set in ancient Egypt, the swords 'n' sandals prequel casts Johnson as Mathayus, a ruthless assassin recruited to take out a sorcerer who's in league with an evil warlord. But when said sorcerer turns out to be a beautiful woman, Kelly Hu of TV's Martial Law, he instead takes off with her into the desert, hoping to unite the local tribes and raise an army against her former boss. Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) also stars and Chuck Russell (The Mask) directs under the, no doubt, watchful eye of WWF head honcho and executive producer Vince McMahon.

So Mathayus is a good guy? But in Mummy Returns the same character was a CGI monster. To borrow again from wrestling jargon, is this guy a baby face? Or is he a heel?

"Hmm, good question," he says, stopping to think. "He's a baby face with heel qualities. That's the great thing about this character. Not only is he born to kill but he's also born to lead thousands of men."

As in the ring, Johnson says it's important for his screen character to seem real and human. A key to The Rock's popularity, it has been observed, is that he's not invulnerable to pain or suffering. "I lose," he explains quietly. "I'm one of those guys who wins often and loses often. But as much ass-kicking as I do it's important to have that balance of being in jeopardy and being flawed."

"There are some unbelievable fight scenes in this movie," he continues, but adds that Scorpion King doesn"t make much use of splashy special effects, unlike the previous Mummy movies. Computer- and effect-heavy films, he offers, make it hard for audiences to connect with the action and the characters. "Every fight scene is very relate-able. Everything that happens — man, woman, child, from eight to eighty — can put their finger on it and know that it could actually happen."

The third-generation wrestler and six-time World Wrestling Federation champ certainly knows a thing or two about stage fighting. And playing to crowds. But unless his Bronze Age assassin beats his enemies into the sand with a folding chair, surely Johnson had to learn a few new tricks to make this movie?

"Oh yeah, I had to learn a lot of new things. Obviously, coming from the industry I come from — a very frenetic, energized, live industry — was a great thing and really helped my transition into film," he says. But his acting and swordplay needed some coaching so Andy Cheng, one of Jackie Chan's fight co-ordinators and stunt men, was brought in to help. "He's amazing," Johnson exclaims, "I had to work very closely with him on sword fighting, staff fighting. Not necessarily martial arts but really becoming a student in terms of sword knowledge."

Maybe he can put that to use on March 17, when he and the WWF hit Toronto for the highly anticipated WrestleMania 18. ("WrestleMania X8" on the posters.) At the very first mention of the SkyDome bout, Johnson perks up and shifts noticeably into his Rock persona.

"I absolutely cannot wait. This will be the biggest WrestleMania of all time," he exclaims. "I know I said that last year, and I made it happen with Stone Cold Steve Austin. We broke attendance records. This WrestleMania will top that for the simple fact there's a fantasy match-up that you thought you'd never see." By now he's into what sounds like a well-practised monologue, boosting a bout that will "answer the age-old question of what would happen if Muhammad Ali faced Mike Tyson? What would happen if Dick Butkus played in the NFL today? Could Jim Brown run over linebackers today? It will be icon versus icon. Do you see where I'm going with this?"

I don't. He'll have to spell it out.

"The Rock versus Hulk Hogan," he booms. Big news for wrestling fans. And assuming he sees himself as Iron Mike, quite a compliment for Hogan; but not entirely inaccurate seeing as Hogan's not much younger than the ailing heavyweight.

This won't be Johnson's first trip north of the border. He's been up for matches before and, in an earlier life, spent time down and out in Calgary at the tail-end of a failed football career. Rather than follow in the footsteps of his dad, wrestler Rocky Johnson, or his maternal grandfather, Peter Maivia, Dwayne Douglas Johnson started out on the gridiron — making All-American in high school and getting a scholarship to the celebrated football program at U. of Miami. He finished his degree, criminology, but an injury- and alcohol-plagued senior year cost him his shot at the NFL.

"When I didn't get drafted it was a huge disappointment," he recalls, "because you spend five years of working hard to attain this one goal and you only get one shot at it. It's like the Olympics."

The only team that would take him was the practice squad of the Calgary Stampeders, up in the Siberian gulag that is the CFL. "Making $350 a week, Canadian, living with three other guys," he says. "We had no furniture, no food, and I had to go get my mattress from a seedy hotel, one of those hourly motels that are used for sex and drugs, in the back dumpster. I tried to get the best mattress that had the least amount of bodily fluids on it. And I lived that way for months." Eventually cut from the team, he had just $7 left when he called his dad from a payphone. He was coming home, and would he train him to be a wrestler?

A minor-league tour as Flex Kavana led to his WWF debut in 1996 as Rocky Maivia. A year later he became The Rock and climbed a "predetermined" path to the WWF's top ranks. These days he draws an estimated salary of $15 million, American, plus another $5 million for the movie.

"I'll never forget [Calgary] but I'm glad I went through it. It's a chapter in my life I knew was gonna end... my inspiration comes from knowing where I came from and knowing I never want to go back."

Two new chapters have opened for Johnson. He now has a movie career and, eleven months ago, he and his wife Dany had their first child, a girl called Simone. "It's by far the biggest blessing I've ever had in my life," he beams. But it's never easy for career people — she's a vice-president with Merrill Lynch in Miami — to make time for family, least of all when one of them is on the road wrestling or making movies. Johnson's a strong guy, but can he carry two careers and a family?

"I will say somehow, someway, some form, some fashion," again a spurt of ringside banter, "I will always be a part of the WWF. There's nothing like a live audience and getting that immediate reaction." But at the same time, the hardest workin' man in wrestling says, "changes will definitely happen."

"The hardest part for me right now is juggling and balancing two very big careers," he admits. "And I'm not sure how long I'll be able to balance both."

March 2002