THE POPCORN REEL REEL LIFE/REAL LIFE AT RANDOM SERIES

                      
    
                     
The Rock (aka Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson)

THE ROCK BATTLES LIFE BETWEEN THE LINES AND AGAINST THE BARS TO FIGHT
FOR THE "GRIDIRON GANG"

                       by Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
 

         
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson with Sean Porter, the real-life probation officer he plays on screen; (middle photo) as Coach Porter in "Gridiron Gang"; (right photo) sharing a laugh with Xzibit (who plays Malcolm Moore) during the film.  (Photos: Sony Pictures)

"I had been arrested eight times by the time I was 17."

In his teen years, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson had been anything but a saint.  He was getting into trouble all the time, and seemed for all the world as if he was going to stay on the wrong side of life.  He recalled that he would either continue to be arrested by the local police, or that he would have to get his life back into gear.  One of the ways that he could do that would be to play football and consequently play his way out of trouble.  It turns out that The Rock was able to do that and more.

The NFL football season began on September 7 in the United States, and it was on that day that the actor, author, former wrestling superstar and former college football player for the Miami Hurricanes (1991-1994), returned home to the Bay Area where he was born, to promote his latest film "Gridiron Gang".  The roundtable interview included journalists Gail Berkley of the Sun Reporter and Peter Sciretta of slashfilm.com.

Lean, muscular and perhaps a few pounds lighter than he appeared on screen in this physical, rough-and-tumble feature film, if The Rock is on a tight schedule, he doesn't appear to show any hint of it.  Relaxed, with a quick and ready smile, he warmly greets his interviewers and patiently answers several questions.  Within ten minutes one of his assistants comes into the room, a suite at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco, to warn us that one last question was left to be asked.  Before that moment however, he spoke about the documentary on which the film "Gridiron Gang" was based and all things "Gang" film-related.

"Lee and Shane Stanley are responsible for the (1993) documentary.  They directed it, they shot it . . . I spent a lot of time with them."  The film which opened on September 15 takes its name from the documentary, which features Sean Porter, the probation officer and football coach at Camp Kilpatrick, a juvenile facility for wayward teenagers located in the Santa Monica Mountains in Southern California.  The Rock plays Porter in the feature film directed by Phil Joanou ("U2: Rattle and Hum", "State of Grace").  Johnson was impressed by Mr. Porter's approach to the film crew, which shot the film at the actual Camp, with real inmates and staff literally a few yards away.  "Sean's one of these rare guys who in the wake of a Hollywood movie being made, stayed away, and frankly wasn't that crazy about the idea about the movie being made."  The actor said that the director, the producers and the studio had to talk to Porter.  Johnson was quick to point out that Porter had nothing personal against him.  "He said, 'I love The Rock, I love what he's doing work-wise, but my only concern are these kids.'" 


Sean Porter, whom Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays in the film, was originally reluctant at best for shooting of the Hollywood film to take place at all.  After seeing the film, Johnson recalled that Porter had cried and said, "'just tell Dwayne I said, 'thank you'.  We won.  We won.  We won.'"


Another reason for Porter's concern was the effect the movie could have on those who had spent time at the Camp, as Johnson recalls Porter saying during filming.  "He said, 'Junior Palaita (his character is featured in the film) has killed people with a baseball bat, and he went on to be a productive member of society.  He's a good man, he's a good dad.  What happens when his employer sees this movie, and he doesn't know about Junior's past, how's that going to affect him?'"  It was from that angle that the real-life Sean Porter came to the film, Johnson said, "and I appreciate that."  The actor acknowledged that Porter's concerns were the foremost priority and were conveyed to Johnson during their meeting on the set.  "'I'm glad you're doing this, but again, I just care about the kids . . . if you're going to tell the story, I want you to be authentic, I want you to be real, the world is violent and it's dark . . . but at the same time it's still very, very positive, the stuff I preach to these kids still to this day . . . and if you don't do that, we don't win.  Flat out.'" 

Johnson was waiting for Porter's verdict on the movie, which he saw in August. 

"He saw the movie, he was crying, he cried at the end, wiped his tears away, he said, 'just tell Dwayne I said, 'thank you'.  We won.  We won.  We won.'"

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson and wife Dany at the LA premiere of Columbia Pictures' Gridiron Gang ROCK GALLERY 
Family Man: with wife Dany, at the L.A. premiere of "Gridiron" in early September.  (Photo: Jesse Grant/Wire Image)
Fighting Man: in his days as the wrestler The Rock.  (Middle photo: Rik Fedyk)
Football Man: As Sean Porter, on the set of "Gridiron Gang".  Johnson played college football for the U.S. city of Miami, for the Miami Hurricanes from 1991-1994.  (Right Photo: Sony Pictures)



Johnson spoke about the similarities that he and Sean Porter shared as kids growing up and the impact of their encounter on the set during filming.  "It was an honor to meet him, to shake this guy's hand.  There's a power that you get when you shake a man's hand like that.  He looks you in the eye, he shakes your hand, he says, 'thank you for what you're doing.'"  As the movie's shooting schedule unfolded, Johnson realized the similarities between them.  "He had his run-ins with the law when he was younger.  I certainly had mine.  I was arrested multiple times.  He cares about kids.  I'm a proud dad myself.  I care about kids.  He understands the value of sports and what sports did for him and what the thread of football does to bring these kids together, and I understand that too."  Johnson spoke about the "incredible" relationship that Porter had with his mother (who passed away on October 25, 1993 during the filming of the "Gridiron" documentary), and cited his relationship with his own mother, whose birthday is October 25.  Johnson termed his relationship with his own mother as "amazing."  He also acknowledged that like Sean Porter, he continues to struggle with his relationship with his father.  "It's that father-son thing, you know?", he said. 


"There's a lot of heavy stuff going on everyday.  You need chocolate ice cream after a lot of these scenes that I had to shoot!"


"It was overwhelming . . . he stayed away (during shooting)", but later came in.  "It makes you feel good that's there's a guy out there like that [genuine and down to earth]."  Relaxing in his chair across from his interviewers, he continues.  "You guys meet a lot of actors I'm sure who are good people and some not so good people.  There's pretentiousness and there's genuine people that you meet."  Johnson reflected for a moment on a realization about his onscreen real-life character Sean Porter that impressed him.  "You know it's not just him -- he [Porter] represents thousands of men and women in probation [in America] who care about these kids, and I appreciate that."
 

A question about the prison system brought this response: "every single kid deserves a second chance, but not every adult.  I firmly believe that . . . I think the prison system does what it can to rehabilitate these men in prison . . . I've talked to a lot of men in prison . . . when you're an adult it's different.  There's not much changing by the way, that you're going to do to somebody.  Somebody's committed murder and they're in there for murder, the likelihood of you changing, it's not going to happen.  A kid -- you can reach.  I can tell you that.  I can tell you that from playing a guy (Porter) who still to this day oversees five prisons for kids.  He'll tell you that -- he'll tell you that very straight up and honestly." 


"I understood what those kids went through.  I understand what it's like to disappoint people who love you."


Johnson speaks very earnestly about the experience of filming in the real Camp Kilpatrick.  "We shot at that prison -- 130 kids were locked up.  You realize that they're just that -- they're kids.  They're 13, 14, 15-year-old scared kids and they know they did wrong.  They don't want to be in jail.  They want their mother's love.  They don't get their mother's love.  They want some kind of love.  Sometimes they get it from a gang.  Sometimes they get it from a guy like Sean Porter.  They need that.  They want that."  Johnson said that of all the fun he had the most enjoyable time was "to see those kids get motivated, the kids that were locked up."  The real life kids at the Camp Kilpatrick were continually being told that "here's a movie about your life that we're making.  And it ends on a positive note.  This is no b.s.  This is -- here's the truth.  Here's the proof right here in front of you.  Kids here before you got out, and they made it.  They became men.  Here it is right here.  That was great.  That was motivating.  That was a lot of fun.  Because this movie's -- it's not like it's a comedy.  It's not like everyday we're telling jokes.  There's a lot of heavy stuff going on everyday.  You need chocolate ice cream after a lot of these scenes that I had to shoot!"

 
Photos from "Gridiron Gang" film, which opened in North America on September 15.  The middle photo: director Phil Joanou on set; and right photo: actors Jurnee Smollett (of the film "Eve's Bayou") and Jade Yorker.  (Photos: Sony Pictures)

The actor, who is slated to appear in the much-talked about near-three-hour film "Southland Tales" (Johnson was confident that the film's "going to find a home somewhere") within the next few months in the U.S., and next year in "The Game Plan", in which he plays a National Football League star quarterback and young bachelor who finds out he has a young child from a previous relationship, spoke about the time on the set of "Gridiron Gang" when he was feeling ill.  "That particular moment, that was real touching for me.  I was real sick that one night.  It was about 3 o'clock in the morning, we were shooting nights.  I was walking to my trailer across the grass, and there was a kid walking beside me, probably about five feet away . . . it was odd . . . you don't see just kids walking around by themselves.  He's like 'hey man, how are you doing?'  I said, 'I'm doing alright.  He said, 'I heard you weren't feeling well,' which surprised me.  First of all I said, 'well where are you going?'  And he said, 'I'm going to the box (solitary confinement).  I said, 'you going by yourself?'  He said, 'yeah, they send me over here all the time.'
 


"['Gridiron Gang'] was a very defining movie for me on many, many levels.  Now as an actor I understand what it's really like to search your soul. . . I wasn't tested like that with films in the past."



The actor recalled asking him how he knew that Johnson was ill.  "The word kind of travels quick around here", the young man replied.  After admitting that he was not feeling too good, Johnson said, "'he said, 'I'll pray for you, I'm going to pray for you.  I hope you feel better.'  That moved me, man.  Here's this kid, he's taking himself to solitary confinement.  He's already locked up, and he's going to pray for me.  I don't know what that kid is doing now, or what he's going to do.  But it reminded me that he's just a kid, a little kid."


The Popcorn Reel asked him about the subject matter of the film and how its impact had affected Johnson's performance as Sean Porter, showing a dimension in his work that many audiences had not seen before.  "I appreciate that . . . that's a compliment.  This was a labor of love.  There's a reason why -- this ["Gridiron" film script] has been around for 15 years.  There's a reason why it fell into my lap.  The past 15 years, Nicolas Cage, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, all these actors wanted to be in this movie, wanted to make the movie.  Something happened, they had another project.  Something fell through . . .  all these things happened for a reason, that's why I have it.  Everything in my past happened for a reason.  I wouldn't change anything.  I watch that ["Gridiron Gang"] documentary, I'm moved.  I know these kids.  I understood what those kids went through .  .  .  I understand what it's like to disappoint people who love you . . . so it touched me here [pointing to his heart] on a level frankly that I had not experienced in movies.  You know, I made some movies in the past -- all movies in the past I stand by, even 'Doom'."


Johnson quickly laughs, flashing a trademark grin and exuding charisma.  "This ["Gridiron"] was a very defining movie for me, on many, many levels.  As an actor, in terms of now I understand, as an actor what it's like to really search your soul, like you said.  I wasn't tested that way with films in the past.  I'm still very committed as an actor, but no, not like that, not like when you have somebody who's alive and will die for these kids, and who's watching you [referring to Porter]. 'Here I am, I'm watching you, I'm watching you . . . does your performance show that you're going to die for these kids too?'  Man, that's heavy."

 


Previous profiles in the Real Life/ Reel Life series:
Hotel Rwanda's: Paul Rusesabagina


 

 


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