The Rock (aka Dwayne "The
THE ROCK BATTLES LIFE BETWEEN THE LINES AND
AGAINST THE BARS TO FIGHT
FOR THE "GRIDIRON
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.
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
"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
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.
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
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
"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
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.'
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