I have a tremendous amount of respect for the former wrestler known to the world as “The Rock”. People know about Dwayne Johnson’s success as a wrestler, but many don’t realize some of the tall challenges he had to face. His plans of being a football player out of college didn’t quite pan out. He played in the Canadian Football League for awhile. And upon making the decision to start wrestling, he trained for a few years and then after spending time in one of the WWE’s minor league equivalents under the name Flex Kavana, he made his debut in the WWE in 1996.
Entering the WWE would have seemed to be an easy road. After all, Dwayne’s father was WWF favorite Rocky Johnson, his grandfather was WWF hero High Chief Peter Maivia. And more importantly, Dwayne grew up around wrestlers — it was common for him to spend time in the locker room of Madison Square Garden or The Philadelphia Spectrum watching Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan and Pat Patterson suit up next to his dad. But unfortunately the road wasn’t quite so easy. When he was presented to WWF fans in 1996 as a babyface (or a “fan favorite”), his skills were still a bit raw and unfinished. And at that time, fans’ definition of what a “hero” was had been changing. People found more favor in rooting for the dark and mysterious Darth Vader than they did the once popular Luke Skywalker. And similarly, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Diesel and other WWE bad guys turned good were getting a lot of “shine”.
I was present for Survivor Series 1996 in Madison Square Garden when “Rocky Maivia” made his debut. Rocky’s first match had been hyped for a few weeks. He came out to a rousing reception and actually helped his team win the Survivor Series that year. But as time went on, people started growing tired of the “good guy” image. After a few weeks of tolerance, you could start to hear the boos intensify with each match. At one point it began to get really embarrassing — “Rocky Sucks” and “Die Rocky, Die” chants could be heard from the front row to the rafters. People just didn’t like the character.
Rocky’s saving grace came when the WWE wrote him out of the babyface role and had him become a heel (bad guy) and join the Black militant group, “The Nation of Domination”. It was at that time that his creativity was allowed to flow. Slowly fans began to find humor in Rocky’s interviews and charisma in his actions. Within a few years Rocky went to the top of the card and won the WWE Championship seven times. He became one of the biggest starts that the WWE ever saw. Quite a change from “Die Rocky, Die” and “Rocky Sucks” chants.
Which brings me to his current career direction. A few years ago, The Rock shed the WWE altogether and decided to give a full time Hollywood career a try. Seemingly all wrestling stars have tried their hand at Hollywood at one point. Hulk Hogan made a few token movies I’m sure he’d rather forget. Roddy Piper, Terry Funk and Steve Austin have all had roles in films — usually with little more than minor fanfare. Arguably the Rock had the biggest success of appearances in movies by wrestlers when he acted in the “Mummy” series. His roles in The Mummy Returns and a starring role in The Scorpion King were both well received. But then he started pushing his luck. Roles in The Rundown, Walking Tall, Be Cool and Doom have all enjoyed moderate success, but nothing approaching superstardom.
I’m not sure why I’m so bothered by these token movies. There’s a big part of me that feels that wrestlers are incredible actors. They need breakout roles that better accentuate their talents. If you’ve seen the trailer for the newest WWE Film starring John Cena, The Marine, then you know what I’m talking about. This looks like every recent John Claude Van Damme film I’ve seen. Certainly Cena and others are better actors than this. They prove it every Monday night. The role selection for wrestlers has to be the worst crop of damaged scripts in tinseltown. It’s painful to watch even the trailers.
And so my plea to The Rock (and to all wrestlers who are thinking about making the jump to movies) is this: challenge yourself. I don’t consider you first-time actors. You act every time you enter a ring — and I say that will all respect. Look for that challenging breakout role, like Will Smith found in Six Degrees of Separation and Tom Hanks found in Philadelphia. Start out with modest efforts — take smaller roles next to actors who have some real chops. Audition for films with directors that have critical acclaim in Hollywood. It will pay off better in the end.
Clearly The Rock is not starving. The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) reports that he earned $12 million and $15 million for the Rundown and Walking Tall, respectively. Not too shabby for crappy films. And if money is the goal here, then I guess it’s ok to keep cranking the sub-par movies out. But if you really want to get into that “upper room” where all of the real stars are granted access, you’ll need to challenge yourself more. And by “challenge yourself”, I’m not talking about a movie where you coach a bunch of kids in football, and even though you’re tough and they hate you at first, slowly they learn to respect you and when they win the championship at the end of the film, they think of you as much more than a coach, but perhaps even the only father they’ve ever known. (I’ve only seen the trailer, but I’ve probably just described The Rock’s next release, Gridiron Gang.) After that release we can look forward to the movie inspired by the video game Spy Hunter. (I’m not kidding.)
Recently the Rock has claimed that he’s not returning back to the WWE and he’s going to make Hollywood a full time job. I admire your decision, Rock. But just be aware that if you keep cranking out movies like Spy Hunter and Gridiron Gang, you might find yourself getting back into a ring and doing the People’s Eyebrow during interviews on Monday nights sooner than you think.