Most actors look smaller in person than they do stretched across a 40-foot movie screen. But not the Rock. Perched atop a relatively tiny dining room chair at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, the 6’4” WWE wrestler-turned-actor cuts an imposing figure, even while slouching. In fact, the muscles ripple beneath his cotton knit shirt every time he takes a bite of his ”nasty, very nasty” protein bar. Kinda looks as if he’d be more comfortable beating the stuffing out of bad guys with a 2×4 (as he does in ”Walking Tall,” now in theaters) than sitting in a fussy Victorian hotel suite.
For this reason alone, only a very unwise person would want to make fun of him. But then the Rock (born Dwayne Johnson) launches into a discussion that seems, well, just a little bit ridiculous. Claiming that his acting coach has helped him hone his thespian skills — not only in ”Tall” but in the wrestling ring — he says, ”There were times when I would try to be really over the top, now I try to be more subtle.”
Wrestling? Subtle? Luckily, the big guy ends a very awkward pause by tossing back his massive head and laughing. ”You never thought you’d hear a wrestler say THAT!”
Well, there are a lot of things you’d never guess about this wrestler — that he’d play a gay villain (opposite John Travolta in this fall’s ”Get Shorty” sequel, ”Be Cool”), that he’d make a splash as one of ”Saturday Night Live”’s funniest hosts, or that he’d choose to live in the tiny Florida town of Davie, where neighbors ”ride their horses to Burger King.” Go figure.
Johnson, who established himself as a successor to ’80s action stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger in last year’s ”The Rundown” and 2002’s ”The Scorpion King” is itching to defy expectations. Like that gay villain gig. ”I wanted to take a role you wouldn’t necessarily expect me to play, being a bad guy, being gay, poking fun at myself.”
”Poking fun” included playing a clueless aspiring actor-slash-bodyguard who wears a cheesy afro and satirizing his own signature glare. ”I’m raising my eyebrow at John Travolta like, ‘Look, I’ve got talent. I can act!”’
In ”Walking Tall,” though, he doesn’t do much eyebrow raising as he lends some gravitas to what could have been a conventional vigilante movie. Based loosely on the true story of the late Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser and a 1973 film of the same name, the movie follows one man who, returning home from war, discovers his small town is being destroyed by the local drug trade and the corrupt practices of a casino owned by a childhood friend, Hamilton (”Boomtown”’s Neal McDonough). He runs for sheriff in response. ”I first saw the [original movie] when I was eight and didn’t really appreciate what it meant to walk tall,” says Johnson. ”But I think it’s something all of us can relate to, the experience of being forced into a position where you should stand up for yourself.”
Clearly the hulking Johnson can do that without breaking a sweat, but he doesn’t want to be seen as a bulletproof hero — on screen or in the ring (he continues to make appearances for the WWE between films). ”Even when I was wrestling, I always wanted to make sure I was vulnerable and flawed, and I lost a lot more than I won. It’s important to me. There are moments in this movie when I get whupped, and it’s real.”
Just then he smiles winningly, more pussycat than Pusser. But that still doesn’t make it advisable to laugh at him.