Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is one of the biggest stars in professional wrestling history. He's a nine-time world champion, enormously popular with fans and he managed to maintain a charismatic clean-cut persona in a world that has recently proven to be anything but.
AP Photo/Matt Sayles
The Rock, with his co-star in "The Game Plan," Kyra Sedgwick.
The football-player-turned-wrestler-turned-actor told all -- including why Warren Sapp deserves all the credit for his Hollywood hits, and how he really feels about Chuck Liddell and the UFC. From his bad Boston accent to the girl who turned his life upside down, read on to smell what The Rock has been cooking these days.
Mary: The lifestyle of professional wrestlers has been under great scrutiny lately. You've lived it. Describe what it's like?
The Rock: Number one, what I can tell you is that it's an incredibly difficult industry to be in. It's incredibly difficult to make it. There are a lot of things that factor into that schedule and that crazy lifestyle. You have to understand that professional wrestling is this rare combination of being an athlete and being a rock star. Those guys are on the road all year long, all over the place, in a different city every night, working 250 nights out of the year. The wonderful thing about traditional athletics is that there are seasons, and more importantly there are offseasons for the guys to rest and recuperate and train and give their bodies chances to recover. But you don't have that in wrestling. There is no season. Plus, there is no injured reserve list. They have to work through pain and in pain, and they are expected to have a personality on display through it all. So there are a lot of different things that motivate those guys. And likewise, there are a lot of contributing factors that lead to the tragic early deaths of young wrestlers -- many of whom I've known for a long time and many of whom were my friends. I hate seeing it. It's sad. It's really very sad.
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As someone who knew Chris Benoit, what did it feel like to read those tragic headlines? Were you surprised at what happened?
Oh, of course I was. I was just as surprised to read about that as anyone else was. But it had this very visceral effect on me, because I knew him very well and I knew his wife and I knew his kids. That was an awful tragedy and I hated to see that, and still to this day my heart goes out to the families. It took me probably 36 hours to realize that I had to stop trying to figure out why he did that. I heard what happened and I was just full of questions, like why and how did that happen? And I realized that you and I, we don't have the wiring, or the capacity, or the constitutional makeup in our bodies to understand why that happened. We can't make sense of it, we can't figure it out -- you shouldn't try to figure it out because it just doesn't make sense. There were things going on in his mind that we couldn't fathom. But it was awful, and I know that it was a big wake-up call to a lot of guys. There is a tragic epidemic happening right now and changes have to be made to avert the trend.
What, if anything, can be done to change the direction of professional wrestling?
People are talking about it now, which is a good thing. And everybody is asking what can be done, and how do you solve this? Do you implement a drug-testing policy? I think you do that, sure. I think you do that in order to change the mind-set towards steroids and in order to establish a zero-tolerance approach to their presence in wrestling. But I think the most important, and the most relevant, way to try and solve this problem would actually be to educate these guys more. I really believe that. I think we need a greater level of information available to these guys about the disasters associated with those drugs, because nobody is telling them that when they are getting into the substances. Since they don't know the truth and the reality, they will believe what they're told. Wrestlers want to live a lifestyle, so they decide to do something -- take something -- that they think will enable that lifestyle. But mixing the things that they mix, with the environment, and the travel, and -- it's a recipe for disaster, it really is. We need to arm these guys with information and the knowledge that they have the ability to live a long, healthy, successful life in wrestling.
Even without its problems, wrestling has been on the decline, and boxing is certainly not what it used to be. Mixed martial arts, however, are kind of on the rise
(Laughing) Kind of on the rise?
Well, to be blunt, MMA is blowing wrestling and boxing out of the water right now, right?
Well, I think that there is still great boxing out there, and there are fights coming up that I look forward to seeing. But mixed martial arts is just phenomenal. It is so hot, and it's clear to me why it's so popular. I have a ton of love and respect for those guys. I've become friends with a bunch of those guys and they have my support. I think mixed martial arts requires an amazing athleticism, and those guys must put together a strategy and a game plan every single time they go out and fight because it's not one-dimensional, it's not so predictable. On any given day, the greatest can go down. I think it's really exciting to see the success that MMA is having right now. Everything that that sport provides and all the attention that people are diverting to that entity right now is well-deserved, and it's -- well, it's a big deal and I'm excited about it.
Who are your favorite UFC guys?
Randy Couture is a guy who I have the privilege of knowing. Randy's story is just an amazing, incredible story. Did you see his last fight? I mean, his work ethic and his talent is just fantastic. I'm friends with Chuck [Liddell], I love Chuck. And Georges St.-Pierre. And what's so cool is to see guys like that who are knockout artists and they are really actually very, very humble. Georges St.-Pierre is one of those guys who is just so humble. I love seeing that. I think that is so cool, and it's guys like those who are making that sport what it is. They are great faces and representatives of their sport, and you have to appreciate that. I certainly do.
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It's been a while since The Rock stepped in the ring with the likes of Hulk Hogan.
The showmanship of wrestling definitely factors in. I've always loved that part of wrestling. There wasn't too much that I couldn't get away with saying on that television show, and I always enjoyed that freedom. But in terms of athleticism, I was really fortunate to draw from all my experiences down at the University of Miami. You learn how to take losses and of course, down at Miami, you learn how to talk a little trash. And I was able to bring that to this movie.
You were on that national championship team in 1991. Teammates with Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis and the like. Do you still keep in touch with those guys?
Yeah, I'm great friends with those guys. I've got a lot of love and respect for what those guys do every day, and we still keep in touch. Warren, you know, actually beat me out for my position.
Don't be so modest, Rock, you were injured!
Naaah. That's funny, that's what's always written -- that I was injured. But I can honestly tell you that, injured or not, Warren would have beaten me out for that position. I have no problem saying that, that's the truth. I was a good football player at the University of Miami. He was great. He was clearly great. Ray Lewis was clearly great, and that's why those guys are dominating still today. I say when I talk to Warren, "Warren, man, if it weren't for you, I wouldn't be in Hollywood." He's the reason I'm an actor!
You just filmed a football movie -- "The Game Plan" -- in New England, but your team name is the Boston Rebels?
Yes, I know, right? But I must say that the Kraft family was extraordinarily supportive, and we shot at Gillette Stadium and the Patriots were great and willing and able to show us all kinds of love. It just so happens that the reason that we had to turn into the Boston Rebels and not the New England Patriots, as was originally slated, was that the NFL and Disney just couldn't come to certain agreements.
Can Pats fans at least take comfort in a solid Boston accent or two?
Yes, Pats fans can expect good old-fashioned Boston accents -- however not from myself. I have the innate ability to butcher the Boston accent and take it to places that are very unattractive, so I let the Bostonians take care of it in this one.
Did you get a chance to hang out with any of the Patriots players when you were there filming at Gillette?
Yes, Junior Seau was there when we were shooting, and I've known Junior for years. And Tedy Bruschi -- I played against Tedy when he was at Arizona. I also got to meet Tom Brady.
What do you think of Brady -- sure, maybe he's the most successful QB in football right now, but could he stand up to one of your hits?
My ego tells you, absolutely not. Tom Brady absolutely could not handle a hit from The Rock. But reality tells me that yeah, he probably could. He's a tough quarterback and he's taken a lot of hits in his day. He could probably withstand one of mine.
You were a defensive tackle at Miami, but you play a quarterback in this movie. Did you have to take any hits?
No but, well, we had an interesting situation. Two weeks into shooting I was on the field and I ran a play where I rolled out and threw the ball, and I jumped up and when I landed I snapped and ruptured my Achilles' tendon. I had to fly back home to Miami and get it reattached by my doctor down there, who has done all my surgeries since I was at the University of Miami. Two months later I was back on the field, trying to get through the scenes, but anybody who knows anything about Achilles injuries knows that it takes 12-18 months to really get back to normal -- and two months later I was out there limping around. So the guys went easy on me and everybody was very patient. But just so you know, I would have been a quick scrambling quarterback, but I had to change my game plan to [being a] straight drop-back passer.
I have no problem with that. As long as you can throw.
I had a great QB coach who made sure my mechanics looked like they were on point. I didn't stink up the field too much trying to run things out there and when I did, the magic of movie-making took over.
Do you have a better arm than Adam Sandler and other made-for-movie QBs?
It's safe to say -- and I'm officially going on record right now with you, Mary, you tell ESPN -- that of all the actors that have ever played quarterback, I look the best, with the exception of Mack Davis in "North Dallas Forty."
Whoa. That's a bold statement.
You screen the film, and you let me know if you think otherwise.
Walt Disney Pictures
Can The Rock cut it as a QB? You'll have to decide for yourself!
No, nothing like that. This role was created for me, and I worked with amazing producers. They are the guys who specialize in making great sports movies with heart. They are responsible for "Miracle," "The Rookie" and "Invincible" so they had a great track record. When they came to me with the idea, I loved it. I loved the idea that [my character] was a will-be Hall of Famer living the bachelor life.
Does the character you play remind you of any real-life NFL personalities?
It's interesting, because at first the tone and direction of the writing for this character was most like Terrell Owens. And I said no, that's exactly what he should not be like. I thought he should be like Joe Namath -- a great talent, beloved by his city. The character I play in this movie is arguably the greatest quarterback going, and he has that showmanship and bravado and ego of a Joe Namath. But at the same time, he is knocked on his knees by a little 8-year-old girl. To me, that's funny. That's what makes the movie.
All right Rock, last question. When I got word that I was going to get to talk to you, everybody I mentioned it to -- co-workers, friends, everybody -- they all offered up the same bad puns. Rock on, that rocks, rock it out. Does a day go by that you don't hear those?
Not a single day, Mary. It's everybody with the bad puns, but I've got to appreciate them because they are delivered to me with such excitement -- as if it's the very first time I've heard, "You rock, Rock." And they start laughing and I'm like, "Uh huh. Yeah, man!" I've heard that a million times already [today]. And it's only 9 a.m. But it's cool.
So there's nothing I can throw at you that you haven't heard? Rock beats scissors? Nothing?
Nope, nothing I haven't heard.
There's got to be something, Rock.
Noth-ing. Believe me. But it's cool.
All right, well your movie comes out [this Friday]. For those about to rock, I salute you.
Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.