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.
So he has you to thank for getting on the project.
He doesn’t have me to thank. Don’t start that. [Laughs.] No. It was always a very appealing idea to work on something with Kevin. Just the visual of seeing he and I together. There were a couple of pictures I saw of us talking backstage at MTV, and when I saw the pictures, I thought, “That’s a great movie poster right there.” I’ve always enjoyed his comedy, and I have everything he’s ever put out. It wound up being something really special. You kind of never know. You can put two guys in a room with a great director who’s coming off of a big movie, We’re The Millers, and a studio who does these very well, but you never know. But with this being our last week of production, I’m pretty confident. I think we got something pretty good.
Rawson said your character was sort of stuck in the ’90s. How ’90s is your character, and were you able to insert your own favorite ’90s things into the mix?
He is. In the construction of this character, the fun part is that. We know the big bones of it, but now we can add meat and layers. I called Rawson and asked, “What if there was a certain part of his brain was completely stunted when he was thrown out on his dick in front of the entire school?” There’s a final pep rally, and Kevin is everything — he’s class president, four-letter all-American, the whole thing. One of those guys you love. Obviously on the path of success, he’s got this pep rally, he gets down on one knee, he’s going to propose to his girlfriend, and it’s a big thing.
Meanwhile I’m grabbed out of the shower, because it’s a big school thing, everyone is there and I’m in the shower. So I can shower by myself because I’m weird. I get thrown out on my ass in front of everybody, and my last name is “Weirdicht.” [Ed. note: pronounced “weird dick.”] That’s a lot of fun later, in that, to answer your question, the stunting allows him to go through life and be proficient because the other side of his brain accelerated, but it allows him to go through life earnest. Tom Hanks in Big was a big reference for us in creating this character. A little Bill Murray in What About Bob? He’s earnest in the way he speaks. [To interviewer.] “Wow, where’d you get that shirt, man?”
I don’t remember.
I love it.
You can have it. [Laughs.]
He’s that guy. With the ’90s, it’s the fanny pack, Public Enemy, and 90210. Continuously quotes things from the ’90s. But there is a switch when bad guys come around. He gets down to business. It was so much fun and constructing this thing, working with Kevin, making sure our characters are balanced. Working with Rawson too has been great. It reminds me of how fun the job can be. It’s like, “Okay, what from the ’90s did we love?” We loved the Geto Boys, you name it. Throwing all these quotes out.
Going back to taking the model that’s worked in the past, these buddy cop movies — that’s worked very well. When you have movies like this, you always have two characters who are totally contradictory: One wants to go this way and the other wants to go this way. But they have to work it out because they’re stuck together. For Kevin, if he wants to go that way, I’m going to go that way too because there’s a big level of hero worship there. I love this guy. I worship him. I wish so badly I could be him. I’m still that guy. There’s this interesting dynamic where he wants to get the fuck away from me but I love this guy. There’s this one scene where I’m so excited that we’re even together and he’s like, “We’re not together,” and I’m like, “Oh, no, no. We’re like Taylor Swift and whoever she’s dating now.” I might age myself here, with 90210. There’s this one scene where I’m like, “We’re like Brandon and Brenda. No. Dylan and Brenda.”
Looks like there’s a lot of ad-libbing on set.
There’s a good amount. Rawson does a lot of the writing. We make sure we lock the script, and you can’t fuck with a director that much who does his own writing. He’s been great, by the way. I jokingly knock him. So there’s a good amount of ad-libbing but there’s also a good amount of trust. If we have the ability to do it, great. If ad-libbing isn’t your thing, that’s fine. WWE really helped me with that. But there’s a lot of trust to know we’ll always bring it back to where it needs to go. You guys have been in the business a long time too and it doesn’t always work out that well where it’s great and there’s a lot of chemistry. Especially when it comes to laughs, to comedy. It’s a hard thing when you’re trying to elicit laughs from people and you have the most successful, hottest comedian on the planet who can easily take control of a room if he wants to. We’ve been having a blast.
It’s an interesting mix of you and Kevin because you have very different backgrounds. And you’re right that he’s one of the biggest comedians, but he hasn’t really succeeded outside of America like you have. Do you see how it’s going to play in other places where Kevin hasn’t really been seen yet?
From a business standpoint, he’s got a little work to do in regards to international appeal. And he understands that, by the way. He’s already started to layer in trips over there. I think he went for The Wedding Ringer. He’s got an international tour prior to the film coming out. With anything, it takes time to build. He’s built an incredible business here. I think that this movie has a lot of potential to travel globally. We do have different sensibilities but have similar sensibilities in terms of business and in terms of growth and connecting with audiences. Kevin understands the potential — we all do, by the way — of what this movie could be. Because it’s the type of comedy that can travel. I believe in it, and where I go in terms of promoting this movie, he’s going. We’re both going, buddy.
Could you see playing this character again?
I would love to. Yes. I think about whether films have global potential, I wonder if people are going to like it, if they’re going to enjoy seeing me in it, and my dancing partners. We’ve got a good shot in terms of it getting global. In terms of franchise, I think it does too. It depends on the fans, the reactions. In terms of what we do, in terms of success. It’s that funny combination of box office success and your cinemascore. For me, that’s what I like to pay attention to. It has potential. I would love to play this character again. Love it. Because it’s rare, man, it’s rare. It’s like Bill Murray in What About Bob? and Tom Hanks in Big. It’s rare when you’re an adult but you can have fun and you can be very childlike in your ways and in your thought process, and still be successful in what you do and still have this really cool earnestness. It’s rare that you get a shot like this as an actor. I’d love to play Bob again, but it’s up to the fans though.
What was the level of prosthetics for the flashbacks?
We have WETA. Those guys are going to come out. No prosthetics. We have a great Bobbie Weirdicht at 18. He’s running around here. He’s a great dancer, too. Bobbie can cut a rug, the guy can dance. So no prosthetics. We’ll use WETA and their incredible technology. What they did in [Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier], it’s really going to look fantastic.
We heard you were singing in the shower. Are you doing the singing?
It’s me. I’ll be singing. I’m an egotistical actor. Show me an opportunity, and of course I’m going to sing. [Laughs.] Naked in the shower singing En Vogue. There’s a very cool moment at the end which is, within the context of comedy — great laughter, we hope — is going to be a cool message. It’s going to be [the message that] the most important thing you can be is yourself. There’s a nice moment where Bobbie shows the world the real him.
Central Intelligence infiltrates theaters on Friday, June 17. Until then, here’s a preview…