Tall Boy

 

As a professional wrestler, the Rock faced down giants like Hulk Hogan, the Undertaker, and Big Show. As an actor, in a relatively short period of time, he’s held his own onscreen with Oscar winner Christopher Walken (whom he describes as “geniusly insane”). Behind the scenes, in his home life as Dwayne Johnson, he’s been dealing with the challenges of being a new father.

Today, however, he’s going to face a new challenge. The Rock is going to have to answer a series of tough questions posed to him by … wrestling T-shirts.

Unlike the merchandise available at many pop-culture spectacles, wrestling shirts often don’t feature images of the star — or even the star’s name. Instead, they sport catchy slogans or double entendres, frequently phrased as questions.

A Hulk Hogan shirt demands to know: What’cha gonna do, brother?

The Rock responds, “I’m-a slap the lips right off your face if you ask me that stupid question again. And don’t ever call me brother.”

A shirt for Al Snow, who’s known for wielding a mannequin’s head, inquires: Got head?

“Yeah. Got balls?”

One of the most popular Stone Cold Steve Austin shirts ever sold simply asks: What?

“Come a little closer, I’m gonna box your ears and dot your eyes real quick, and you won’t ask me what again.”

Last up, a shirt for five-time world champion Booker T wants an answer: Can you dig it, sucka?

The Rock cracks up. “That’s my boy!” he says, referring to Booker, the Houston wrestler best know for a breakdance-like maneuver called the spin-a-roony.

The Rock’s latest film, a remake of the 1973 action-drama Walking Tall, has more ties to wrestling than just its star. The original film’s protagonist, Joe Don Baker’s Sheriff Buford Pusser, was a retired grappler known as the Bull. As a kid, growing up the son of wrestler Rocky Johnson, this made a big impression on eight-year-old Dwayne.

“When I was a kid, that’s a big reason I loved the movie, like, ‘Wow, he’s one of the wrestlers,’ you know what I mean? Especially when I was a kid, wrestling was such a closed business — it wasn’t global. So it was like, ‘Wow, big movie, this guy’s a wrestler?’ It was awesome.”

Fans of ’80s wrestling product are also familiar with the notion of a righteous hero taking on rule-breaking miscreants with a big piece of wood — “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, inspired by the original film, always had a trusty two-by-four in his corner. “He’s very, very proud, by the way,” the Rock says.

So did the star on the set ever cut loose with Duggan’s trademark “Hooooo!” yell?

“Oh, my God, never ever,” he says. “I think I’d be put in a straitjacket or sent to jail. Plus, that’s called gimmick infringement. I can’t do that — that’s his deal.” Even the signature piece of wood is now a four-by-four, to avoid having the same dimensions as Duggan’s enforcer. Director Kevin Bray suggested an aluminum baseball bat, an idea the star quickly vetoed.

The Rock soon got comfortable wielding the plank — too comfortable. A scene in which he was supposed to smash the taillight on the villain’s car ended up costing the studio $70,000 — the cost of replacing the rented vehicle.

“I dented it badly,” the Rock says. “And then we kept doing take after take where I would hit it, but when you’re trying to hit the tail light in the scene, you’re hitting the bumper, you’re hitting everything, so they just wound up getting it, and I think a producer’s driving it now.”

Much was made of the scene in last year’s The Rundown in which an unbilled Arnold Schwarzenegger essentially passed the action-hero torch to the Rock. But despite being every bit as built as California’s governor, the man known to WWE fans as the People’s Champion wants to establish a less Terminatorlike persona.

“A lot of times, when the writers write, their initial instinct is to be just straight-on ass-kicking, barrel through everybody, whereas in reality it’s important to showcase the vulnerability,” he says. Unlike certain prima donna wrestling stars of today, the Rock proudly notes that he always lost more matches than he won. He cites the ’70s movies of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen as his favorite actioners. “They take time in telling the story, and it’s not just action for the sake of action,” he says. “In movies, it’s important to me to show jeopardy, and there are moments when I get whupped.”

In the Rock’s next movie — Be Cool, the sequel to Get Shorty — he won’t be getting whupped. He says there’s no action at all, in fact. Writer Elmore Leonard seems to have had the Rock in mind for the character Elliot Wilhelm, described as a thirty-year-old Samoan who can raise one eyebrow, is trying to act, wants to sing … and is gay. Yes, fans, if you were wondering why the Rock sported that slightly effeminate-looking goatee when he teamed with Mick Foley at WrestleMania XX, now you know.

Some jocks might have a problem with such a character stretch, but not the Rock. “It’s fine, you know? I’m a liberal guy anyway, so for me, I just thought, wow, it’s a great opportunity to work with these other actors [among them John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel and James Gandolfini], and I get to play a character where I poke fun at myself, and gay, too, something nobody would have ever thought about. Sure, why not?”

Beyond that, there’s the video-game adaptation Spy Hunter and the Hawaiian historical epic King Kamehameha, which he describes as a more violent version of Braveheart and a change of pace from the PG-13 fare he sticks to for his younger fans. Between projects, he hopes to return to the ring as time allows. “A lot of my [acting] buddies, they go back to theater, and I understand that, because they go back to get that live interaction. The ring is my stage, and I always have a lot of fun.”

If he goes back to Vince McMahon’s arena, he won’t be going unprepared. The Rock maintains sufficient attachment to wrestling storylines that when this reporter tells him that former arch-rival Triple-H will not be traded from the Monday night Raw show to the Thursday night Smackdown show as promised, he dramatically knocks an empty bottle off the table. “I bet the Raw guys are throwing a celebration now,” he adds sarcastically, apparently displeased.

With the Rock off making movies and Stone Cold Steve Austin retired after repeated injuries, wrestling is undoubtedly suffering. Minnesota behemoth Brock Lesnar was officially dubbed “The Next Big Thing,” only to quit last month to try out for the NFL. (“It’s a ballsy move, and I admire that,” the Rock says.) So does the People’s Champ see a potential successor on the horizon? “If there is, I haven’t seen him yet, to be honest with you, and it sucks to say, because I love the business. But I think someone will surface. I believe that. It might be someone who’s already there, like it happened with me, because I was on my way out as a babyface [good guy]. I was teaming with Flash Funk, fighting the Headbangers, I was doing jobs [losing matches]. I was done. Then all of a sudden I turn heel [become a villain], boom, boom, bang!” He notes that new Smackdown champion “Latino Heat” Eddie Guerrero, whose career has followed a similar arc, might have some mainstream crossover potential.

Asked to finish the interview with his latest catchphrase, the Rock pauses. The newest phrase, he explains, is always slightly improvised depending upon the situation. “Hold on. OK, this is off the cuff. If I get through this, it’s gonna be awesome.” He inhales deeply, as if smelling someone’s imaginary cooking. Then he lets fly. “It’s the jabroni-beatin’, pie-eatin’, trailblazin’, eyebrow-raisin’, not small, always walking tall, teamed with Mick, carried a big-ass stick, People’s Champ the Rock!” Then he busts up laughing at himself. That the chuckles come so easily is a big part of why he is, indeed, the Great One.

Categories: Movies