After breaking the Internet, can Dwayne Johnson conquer Hollywood?

There's more to the People's Movie Star than meets the eye—or raised eyebrow.

May 29, 2015, 1:27 pm

Streaming

Feliks Garcia 

Feliks Garcia

Everywhere you turn, there he is. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson shows up in your Internet feed. One minute he’s officiating some comedian’s wedding; the next, he’s setting a Guinness World Record for most selfies taken in three minutes (105). He’s the Bill Murray of the Internet generation, appearing almost as if from nowhere, doing things no one would believe if you told them. 

Most of his antics can, of course, be attributed to the big year he’s having. Coming off the relentless promotion of Furious 7, Johnson hopped back on his jet to promote his mega-earthquake disaster flick, San Andreas, which opens today. In June, Johnson will premiere his new HBO series, Ballers, that looks like a cross between Arli$$ and Entourage.

He’s the Bill Murray of the Internet generation, appearing almost as if from nowhere, doing things no one would believe if you told them. 

Sure, Johnson could be passively snoozing through his press junkets, but following his own mantra to “be the hardest working person in the room,” he takes that extra step to make his promotions unique, memorable, and fun. It’s that accessibility that makes Johnson the “People’s Champion.” And in 2015, he’s securing his spot as one of the world’s biggest movie stars by doing what he does best: being Dwayne Johnson.

However, one thing about Johnson’s explosive film career stands out to me. Although he is a household name with a devoted social media following and dialed-in presence, San Andreas will be a first for the actor: Instead of a spinoff or a sequel, the blockbuster is his first time toplining a big-budget original property. As he told the New York Times, “the stakes are higher.” 

If San Andreas falters in the box office, Johnson’s status as an A-lister could stand on shaky ground.

At a time when audiences are asking for more diversity in Hollywood, Dwayne Johnson stands out as one of a small handful of actors of color in a sea of whiteness. Johnson’s cinematic successes have generally been with the help of an ensemble cast or in roles in previously established franchises. 

It’s easy to forget that his scene-stealing stint as the cartoonishly chiseled Hobbs started five movies into the Fast & Furious franchise. Injected into the sequel to Rise of Cobra, Johnson had the help of Adrienne Palicki and Bruce Willis in carrying G.I. Joe: Retaliation; it also served as a passing of the torch from Channing Tatum, who starred in 2009’s horrendous first installment. 

Naturally, Johnson’s aware of this trend. In the opening monologue of his fourth time hosting Saturday Night Live, Johnson crooned a sensual tune about his position as “franchise Viagra,” referring to the ways in which he’s been cast in sequels to boost box office earnings.

However, box offices aren’t “thumpin’” when Dwayne Johnson is the only leading man.

Last year’s Hercules performed poorly at the domestic box office, earning just $72 million in the U.S.; however, the film made its money back in the international market (to the tune of $170 million), speaking to Johnson’s global draw. 

Not only was Hercules not a domestic moneymaker, it just wasn’t any good; however, that wasn’t Johnson’s fault. Odie Henderson of RogerEbert.com noted, “Watching Hercules you can feel your intelligence being insulted in almost every frame.” The New York Times review jeered that Hercules is “tongue-in-cheek revisionist mythology, pitched at classics students who prefer to attend their lectures stoned.” 

Hercules was so poorly received domestically, that only a star as resilient as Dwayne Johnson could survive such a lashing.

The year before Hercules bombed domestically, Dwayne Johnson starred in Snitch. The movie barely broke even and was met with fair to positive reviews, but Johnson’s performance received notice. While the New York Times’ Stephen Holden couldn’t see past Johnson’s imposing stature, Richard Roeper declared that Johnson “[delivered] the best work of his career playing a guy who squares off against a pack of small-time street thugs.”  

The problem with these movies, as well as some of Johnson’s previous work as the leading man, amounts to growing pains as he worked to find his niche in Hollywood. With a few exceptions (Gridiron Gang is still one of my favorite movies starring Johnson), it was hard to figure out what to do with the former wrestling champ. Is he an everyday blue-collar Joe? Is he an intimidating super soldier? Is he or is he not The Rock?

It was tough to separate that initial identity—the man in the ring who always wanted to know if you could smell what he was cooking—from the actor who could step into a role with charisma, nuance, and a smirk if the situation called for it. 

Is he an everyday blue-collar Joe? Is he an intimidating super soldier? Is he or is he not The Rock?

As Melena Ryzik notes in her New York Times profile of Johnson, he didn’t begin to garner such wide appeal until his first time hosting SNL in 2000. The appearance not only introduced him to a whole new audience, he demonstrated much more versatility and personality as Dwayne Johnson in those 90 minutes than he could as The Rock in the WWE. 

“He has a wonderful sense of timing, he has an innate theatricality and because he projects strength, the audience kind of relaxes with him,” SNL producer Lorne Michaels told the Times. “He could do nuance, he could do subtle, he could do big and broad.” It still took roughly a decade for him to dial into the Dwayne Johnson brand—a process which, Johnson insists, he could only undertake by being 100 percent “me.”

His online persona certainly feels like he’s being himself. He broadcasts daily inspiration, movie hype, and straight-up charm to nearly 24 million followers on Twitter and Instagram, creating a sense for fans that they are part of his daily life, or at least catching an honest glimpse of it. 

What’s refreshing about Johnson is that conveys a genuine sense of appreciation for his success, often sharing personal stories of times he was down and out—most notably when he was cut from his football team in 1995 with only $7 in his pocket—or his heartbreaking story of his mom’s eviction when he was 14. Using social media in such a way connects him with audiences, too, so that when he steps into the role of everyman, it’s not such a stretch.

What’s refreshing about Johnson is that conveys a genuine sense of appreciation for his success.

In San Andreas, Johnson’s character flies a rescue helicopter for the L.A. Fire Department, combining elements of the action hero (helicopter + giant muscles) with the other aspects of his character, a vulnerable blue-collar dad and soon-to-be ex-husband. But this time, maybe it won’t be so unbelievable to critics. Johnson’s fans know there’s an honesty to the vulnerability he performs on screen, and that he can inhabit both spaces.

Absolutely, we want to see The Rock kick ass onscreen while wielding a giant machine gun seconds after he just broke off his cast simply by flexing (arguably the best part of Furious 7). However, if he can do that and shed a tear in the same take, then he’s got the “it factor” that makes Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and Will Smith such bankable stars. 

Johnson’s in a position to assume his rightful place on the A-list. And even if San Andreas flops—but, really, why would it?—Dwayne Johnson’s going to keep pushing upward, because he’s nothing if not the hardest worker in the room.

Feliks Garcia is a writer, powerlifter, and foster of homeless cats. He holds an MA in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, is Offsite Editor for the Offing, and previously edited CAP Magazine.

Screengrab via Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube

Share this article
Last updated Mar 1, 2020, 2:45 am