How The Rock Became America's Favorite Populist Hero

Whether he’s playing an action star or a woke bae, The Fate Of The Furious star is ready to be who you want him to be.

Dwayne Johnson is cut like a boulder, an unbreakable outcropping that somehow moves with fluid grace. At 6’5" and 260 pounds, he’s running off cod and his own masculinity. He’s well-proportioned in a way that a lot of bodybuilding former wrestlers aren’t: His head is the right size for his neck (which appears to be the size of an average thigh), which is the right size for his hulking chest and shoulders. Johnson is an impenetrable, undeniable wall. He was, after all, The Rock long before anyone knew him as “Dwayne.”

By all accounts, the 44-year-old should be terrifying-looking. Wrestlers don’t age well; they tend to end up with skin like old handbags, stretched out and haggard. Mickey Rourke’s role in The Wrestler was darkly accurate, a movie about Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler well past his time, struggling to work with a history of drug issues, health complications, and an estranged daughter. Few pro wrestlers are able to break through to mainstream success — Andre the Giant did in The Princess Bride, and John Cena is still in the midst of transitioning from wrestling to acting; though he was funny in Trainwreck, he so far hasn’t shown the versatility that Johnson has in the last decade and a half.

Johnson has gradually, and successfully, moved beyond his wrestler persona with such ease that we barely noticed the shift. He’s the world’s highest-paid actor, raking in $64.5 million last year. His HBO show, Ballers, which he both stars in and produces, was just renewed for a third season. This week, he’s reprising his role in the eighth Fast and Furious installment, his third in the series. Baywatch, the second of three movies he’s co-leading this year, will be released in May. As “The Rock,” he was enticing, charming, handsome, cocky, and winning, even when he technically wasn’t winning. He’s always had a populist appeal, managing to morph himself into whatever his audiences wanted: Sometimes he’s all brawn, a body pummeling through men like they’re paper dolls; other times he’s a bro, an action star who takes the work seriously without taking himself seriously; and other times still, he’s the best version of a woke bae, socially conscious, feminist, and wildly hot. The Rock has always had the range.

The Brawn

Johnson didn’t find wrestling; he was born into it. His father, Wayde Johnson, was the professional wrestler known as Rocky Johnson. So was his maternal grandfather, High Chief Peter Maivia. His maternal grandmother was one of the industry’s first female wrestling promoters. His cousin, Nia Jax, is currently in the WWE. Johnson himself was born in Hayward, California, and raised in Hawaii and Pennsylvania. In high school, he started playing football, and eventually joined the Calgary Stampeders in the mid-’90s. Johnson had only $7 in his pocket when he was cut by the team, he claimed on Twitter. “Defining low point, but motivated me to do more.” It was probably for the best — Canadian football doesn’t really count.

It was only after failing to become a football star that he started getting into wrestling. Johnson’s parents didn’t want him in the business, so Pat Patterson, a legendary pro wrestler, helped get him into the industry that now seems like such an inevitable fit. When he debuted with the World Wrestling Federation (remember when the WWF wasn’t the World Wildlife Federation?) in 1996, he did so as Rocky Maivia, a combination of his grandfather’s and dad’s wrestling names, creating the third line of WWE superstars in his family.

But initially, Johnson as Maivia was seemingly too bubbly, too enthusiastic about getting his ass kicked. The crowd wasn’t on his side, and Johnson didn’t get into wrestling to play the villain. He was booed and he lost. “Die, Rocky, die,” they chanted. “It wasn’t me personally that they didn’t like,” Johnson told Oprah’s Master Class. “It’s that I wasn’t being me. I wasn’t being authentic. Who’s this guy in wrestling who’s smiling when he’s being beat?”

After hurting his knee and recuperating for a few months, he returned to the arena and asked WWE promoter Vince McMahon for two minutes during the live broadcast to speak. “Rocky Maivia might be a lot of things,” he told the crowd, baby-faced and sweating and frowning, “but sucks isn’t one of them.”

It was after this shift in his tone and in his display of sincerity that he started to become one of the WWE’s biggest stars: He won eight WWE Championships, is a Triple Crown winner (meaning he’s won three major championships), headlined WrestleMania, and wrote his biography, The Rock Says…, in 2000. That same year, he hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time, still going by his stage name. (He’s hosting the season finale of SNL on May 20 under his real name.) He became culturally ubiquitous in a way most wrestlers don’t get to be outside the ring.

Johnson found a way to be himself, arrogant and funny, with the ability to deliver lines like “Know your damn role, and shut your damn mouth,” or “The Rock says he’s gonna make your rudy-poo candy-ass famous by beating you in the middle of The Rock’s ring in front of the millions and millions of The Rock’s friends,” with gritted teeth. His main catchphrase was, and likely always will be, the unrestrained, animalistic holler of “If you SMELLLL” — and here, he sticks his tongue out and ululates — “what The Rock is cooking.” He’s still asked to do it, and he does so happily, re-creating the pose, goading the audience to beg for its demonstration.

Eventually, he became known as “The People’s Champ,” or “The Great One.” His wrestling audience literally repeated his own lines back to him, a sea of tens of thousands of people unwavering in their support of an adult man using “The People’s Elbow” on another adult man. (The move involves The Rock coming down hard on someone’s heart while they are lying flat, his elbow flying into an unprotected solar plexus.)

The Rock gave Dwayne Johnson a solid foundation upon which to build a malleable celebrity that bends and twists with what an audience wants.

Wrestlers like Rowdy Roddy Piper or The Undertaker built their careers off slogans and costumes, “HOT ROD!” T-shirts and kilts or long black dusters and a routine of popping out of caskets. And sure, The Rock had a catchphrase and even a signature move, but his most marketable quality was his personality. You can’t make that up. You can’t buy it. You’re simply born with it.

And unlike a lot of the other men he came up with in the WWE, The Rock hasn’t had a public drug addiction, a health crisis, and most importantly, he is not dead. Hulk Hogan did reality shows and then had an acrimonious divorce and a landmark media lawsuit. Chyna was mercilessly mocked by fans and media coverage alike, and then died a year ago from an overdose of alcohol and prescription medications. Meanwhile, The Rock took his wrestling career just seriously enough to thrive — he’s done ads for Got Milk? and signed deals with Under Armour — but not so seriously that he couldn’t do anything other than be a wrestler. The Rock gave Johnson a solid foundation upon which to build a malleable celebrity that bends and twists with what an audience wants.

In reality, The Rock never left the WWE, not formally and certainly not spiritually. He returned to induct his family into the Hall of Fame, for the anniversary of SmackDown, for the anniversary of Raw, to feud with John Cena (this time the crowd chanted “Rocky” as opposed to “Rocky sucks”). He still has ties to professional wrestling, an industry that doesn’t exactly get its due when it comes to mainstream legitimacy. And it makes sense, because those ties are the very ones that helped him build a larger career where he played the role of whatever his eager audience wanted to see.

The Bro

An action movie is a natural fit for a man shaped like a literal rocket who’s trying to transition from play-fighting into a different kind of play-fighting. Johnson started with movies that weren’t too dramatic a departure from wrestling, roles that required a large body, a lot of screaming, and more fake fighting. Playing the Mathayus in The Scorpion King (2002) isn’t a big stretch from what The Rock did on SmackDown. Johnson had played the same role in The Mummy Returns a few years earlier, a small part, which then inspired The Scorpion King with him in the lead. (He made $5.5 million off that role, which was then the most any actor received for their first starring role, making him a Guinness World Record holder, too.) It’s no small feat to go from bit player in a Brendan Fraser action-adventure movie to your very own vehicle, but Scorpion King only touches on what makes Johnson a fun actor to watch. His best work has been in roles that let him be both physical and demonstrative.

One of the Rock’s best qualities was his ability to deliver a line and make it iconic; soon, he could flex that in bigger and better movies. He started dabbling in comedies more — Get Smart in 2008 (spoiler: it’s one of his very few attempts at playing the bad guy), The Other Guys (he dies in the first 10 minutes) in 2010, and The Tooth Fairy (oh god), also in 2010. Then Johnson joined the Fast and Furious franchise for their fifth installment in 2011: Fast Five.

Johnson is good in the three F&F movies he’s done so far — he’s tough and a little brooding and he has facial hair, which somehow racks his intensity up to a 10. (Plus, the franchise owes him a lot. He’s boosted their box office numbers ever since appearing in Fast Five.) But there might be no better movie that encapsulates what makes Johnson so universally appealing than last year’s Central Intelligence. Starring alongside Kevin Hart, Johnson plays a once-bullied teenager, now-disgraced CIA agent looking to clear his name (and confront his fears). The movie is serviceable at best, but Johnson is easily the most watchable part of it. While its ads mostly focused on a CGI version of Johnson as a fat teenager, the best part of the film is Johnson’s ability to balance vulnerability and strength while, in essence, carrying more than half the weight of this buddy-action movie.

In Central Intelligence Johnson gets the opportunity to use his rare ability to be both sincerely funny and tough to deliver lines like “That’s a lot of homophobia coming out of a very angry man. You need to go get that looked at by a trained professional,” and then immediately beat up three guys in a bar. He gently shifts a common power dynamic in action comedies without alienating a base (not that said base needs worth protecting). It’s his most useful skill, the actor’s ability to pull in audiences, no matter what, using his inherent likability.

Johnson's so rarely the direct object of female desire, or in a role that is specifically framed in a romantic way.

Even Johnson’s television career manages to cater to the masses without degrading his brand or public persona. HBO’s Ballers is, without question, a redux of Entourage, just set in Miami instead of Los Angeles. Entourage for men of color, maybe. (Mark Wahlberg is one of the producers.) Johnson plays a football star turned agent who tries to help his terrible friends with their money, cars, and women. Ballers has more than a few characters who feel a little sleazy, but even still, Johnson is more pristine than them all, the “nicest” one. It’s also Johnson’s most sexualized role: He’s so rarely the direct object of female desire, or in a role that is specifically framed in a romantic way. Here, he’s a boyfriend, an ex, allowed to be more than just a muscular body and a big smile.

The reviews for Ballers are fine enough, but the show is far from prestige TV. Johnson is still doing most of the heavy lifting, which might explain why their first season was HBO’s most-watched comedy in the last six years. There’s an audience for this, and Johnson knows that to stay working, you have to appeal to The People. Johnson is almost always playing a good guy. In his 2002 review of The Scorpion King, Roger Ebert saw what makes Johnson so worth watching. “The Rock has the authority to play the role and the fortitude to keep a straight face,” he wrote. “There’s something about the way he eats those fire ants that lets you know he’s thinking, ‘If I ever escape from this predicament, I’m gonna come back here and fix me up a real mess of fire ants, instead of just chewing on a few at a time.”

The Rock has never been a great villain.

The Bae

Wrestling, specifically within World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., has always been about personality. The body is important, sure: Even if you’re not actually fighting, you need to look like you could fight if necessary. Styling is also essential, and getting the right tattoos (a combination of corny but terrifying should do the trick) is as essential as a nickname worthy for the ring. Bret Hart was The Hitman. Mark Calaway was The Undertaker. Steve Austin was Stone Cold.

Wrestling is also built on artifice, a manufactured toughness and toxic masculinity that Johnson hasn’t exactly carried over into his acting career. The Rock would scream “IT DOESN’T MATTER” while wearing a black vest without a shirt. Now, he wears custom suits to fit his mile-wide shoulders, and is sweet and smiling, almost soft-spoken. He’s friendly, and while yes, he could probably rip your head off the way kids pop dandelions off stems, he seems more likely to pick you up and walk you across a busy intersection. (Though he once called wrestling commentator Kevin Kelly an “ugly hermaphrodite,” you might be hard-pressed to hear that kind of toxic language from current-day Johnson. Unrelated: He’s also a registered Republican, which might surprise his more liberal fanbase.)

The Rock’s third act began in earnest in September 2015 after he posted a photo of himself holding two baby Frenchies aloft while standing waist-deep in a pool, a white T-shirt clinging to his body, casually, as if to say, This? Oh, it’s just my pool, these are just my very cute dogs, and I just found these abs on the side of the street. His pups, Hobbs and Brutus, jumped into the pool but one couldn’t swim. He dove in after to save them, and through this act of heroism became the internet’s property in short order, fueling multiple news stories and a lot of Twitter thirst. A few weeks later, he posted another photo with Brutus, along with a caption about how he had to put the dog down after he ate a poisonous mushroom. This, plus his frequently expressed affection for his two daughters, his girlfriend, and his mom, makes Johnson a prime candidate for Internet Boyfriend.

Johnson had morphed into the most appealing type of man: a stupid-hot, charming, woke dad.

For the actor, projecting social consciousness, endorsing feminism, and appearing thoughtful has certainly helped build his fanbase.

For the actor, projecting social consciousness, endorsing feminism, and appearing thoughtful has certainly helped build his fanbase. Seemingly a graduate from the Chrissy Teigen school of internet, Johnson is surprisingly accessible. If you tweet at him, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get an answer. He’s compassionate, friendly, funny, rarely getting himself into arguments and always availing himself to fans. His Twitter followers — where his username is @TheRock, of course — are 11 million strong, and whether or not Johnson is always at the helm of his social media accounts, his air of accessibility and authenticity is reinforced by retweets and responses to his fans, like saying hi to some guy’s aunt.

On Facebook, he promotes his movies alongside photos of his family to the 57.8 million people who like his page. On Instagram, where he has 82 million followers, his bio reads, “Chivalrous gentleman.” And he is. He Instagrams about his grandmother, posts about how men have to respect women, and shared a photo of his mother crying on Mother’s Day because she’s so happy that she raised a good son . He is also a surprisingly prolific YouTuber. In December 2012, he posted on Facebook about buying his mom a new car, recalling how theirs was repossessed when he was 14. In behind-the-scenes footage of Fast 8, he performed a Maori dance ritual with a girls’ soccer team, talking about how it was blessed by their elders.

In the 2016 animated movie Moana, Johnson plays Maui, an antihero demigod who dooms the planet and is then forced to put the Earth back together by a teenage girl and her idiot chicken. Even animated, he is weirdly hot, his body thick and unforgiving but somehow appealing and gentle. In interviews for Moana, Johnson talked about Samoan culture, about how revolutionary the movie is, about his heritage, how his teenage daughter is just like the main character, how much the movie made him cry, how excited he was to make history with the first Disney Princess movie without a love interest and one of the few with characters and voice actors who are people of color. He flashes a row of perfect white teeth and millions of people sigh pathetically.

This shouldn’t work. And yet, it does. Maybe it’s the teeth? God, he’s got great teeth.

Last year as we neared the 20th anniversary of his first WWF fight, Johnson revisited that footage of his much-younger self. Back then he was still “Rocky Maivia,” a rookie, going up against the more established wrestlers Crush and Goldust. It wasn’t clear who might win or, more pressingly, who the crowd might urge to win. Rocky, after all, was the new guy. “It’s something in wrestling you can’t write ... you can’t script it in Hollywood because you just can’t script how people are going to react to something,” Johnson says, watching the old clip. “And that thing that they did was 22,000 people started chanting my name.”

Rocky Maivia defeated Crush and Goldust. (While giving a crossbody to Crush, however, he whispers in his ear, thanking him for helping make his wrestling career.) Once "Referee Jack" announces him as the winner, Rocky raises his arms in the air and the crowd cheers him on. He won, but above all, he became the People’s Champion. ●

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