Dwayne Johnson, the former professional wrestler dubbed “The Rock” (whom we all still call “The Rock” anyway), is a national treasure. Aside from starring in one of the most financially successful action movie franchises in history, the 44-year-old acting polymath boasts a resumé bedazzled with hit television shows, surprisingly good-looking film adaptations of classic programs, and pretty much the entire internet. He’s also, as this reporter and a roundtable of others found out last July on a Boston film set, apparently one of the nicest people in the business. Which is good news, because his neck was approximately the same width as our combined thighs.
Among the many, many projects Johnson has lined up for the next few years, his latest is Central Intelligence, an original action-comedy by We’re the Millers director Rawson Marshall Thurber and Mindy Project writers Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen. He plays Bob Stone, a badass CIA operative who recruits the one guy who didn’t bully him in high school, Calvin (Kevin Hart), to help him with a mission of the utmost importance. Sounds like your typical buddy comedy movie, right?
In a sense, Central Intelligence is precisely that. Yet as Johnson explained it to us as he answered our questions, it’s also about bullies and what it takes to stand up to them. Hence we witnessed the filming of a surprisingly tense, ugly, and action-free scene that hot July day, one involving Johnson, Hart, and an actor making a surprise cameo. Bob was physically the biggest thing in the room, but he was reduced to a scared, insecure teenager because of a slew of nasty words.
So what we saw in that scene, is that kind of indicative of who your character is when we meet him?
Right, when we meet him, he’s incredibly shy. Bullied unmercifully, he has a lot of quirks and idiosyncrasies. So that’s who we meet in the beginning of the movie. Because he was bullied, he quit high school after this one particular event. He decides to change his life. He works for the CIA and becomes very efficient as an operative. And, like a lot of things in life, when it’s time to pay the piper and face your greatest fears, sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, [the character played by the actor making a surprise cameo] is my greatest fear.
He’s a different character for you. We’re used to you as an alpha who’s always very confident.
Yeah, so seeing you like this was very odd.
It had been a while since I had done a comedy, and I was just waiting for the right opportunity, to hopefully find a script that had some action elements in it. When New Line brought me the script, I loved it and wanted to take a crack at the Bob role. It wasn’t necessarily for me. There were other actors who were attached in the past. The idea was if I was going to go back into the genre of action-comedy, how do we bring this to an audience in a way that it’s not something they’ve necessarily seen? How do we take a model that’s been successful over the years — whether it’s been Trading Places, 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon or Rush Hour? How do we take the model and present it in a way that had never been done before? So the idea of playing a guy who was unmercifully bullied in high school for being obese and different, and then that guy becoming who he becomes… I loved the script and met with [director] Rawson [Marshall Thurber]. I think we had a good shot to create something that was going to be different, with me playing a character I’d never played before, with these interesting quirks and layers.
And within that, create a story that could be pretty interesting to people depending on the pairing. So we were all on the phone, going through a list of probably five or six big stars, and by the end of the list. We were all on the phone — New Line executives like Toby Emmerich, myself, Rawson, and some Warner Bros. executives. I said, “I have a crazy idea. His name is not on the list, but I think it could be really funny: Kevin Hart.” There was a long pause. No one said a word. About 15 seconds into the silence, Toby Emmerich says, classically, “I’ve got an idea. How ’bout we go out and get Kevin Hart?” [Laughs.] Kevin and I have known each other for a long time, and now here we are.