WWF Superstar The Rock makes his big screen debut in the sequel to 'The Mummy'

By Benjamin Svetkey
May 11, 2001 at 12:00 PM EDT
Universal/courtesy Everett Collection
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  • Movie
Genre

The Rock put up with a lot while making The Mummy Returns. He endured searing 110-degree Saharan heat. He agreed to learn ancient Egyptian (well, a few lines of it, anyway). He even suffered the indignity of having his head digitally affixed to a 28-foot-long arachnoid body. But on one matter, The Rock would not budge.

”I was adamant,” says the 6’5”, 275-pound World Wrestling Federation superstar-turned-film actor. ”I didn’t want to do the eyebrow thing. I didn’t think it was fitting. Not for this movie.”

So his millions of fans won’t be seeing The Rock’s trademark facial tic — the cockily raised right eyebrow — during his big-screen acting debut in The Mummy Returns. Nor will they hear any of The Rock’s famous catchphrases (unless writer-director Stephen Sommers somehow managed to translate ”Do you smell what The Rock is cooking!” into hieroglyphics). In fact, audiences won’t get much more than a pebble in The Mummy Returns, but don’t let that fool you. The Rock is all over this movie — even if he’s on screen for only 15 minutes.

The film’s putative star, of course, is Brendan Fraser, who is reprising his role as swashbuckling tomb raider Rick O’Connell from Sommers’ 1999 monster smash The Mummy (which grossed a very undead $414 million worldwide). This time, it’s 1933, eight years since O’Connell’s first run-in with the gauzy Imhotep (once again played by Arnold Vosloo, after you peel off the bandages). He’s now married to his Egyptologist love interest from the first film, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), and has a young son Alex (Freddie Boath). Also back for more are Evelyn’s weaselly brother Jonathan (John Hannah); Arab warrior-priest Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr); and Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez), who was executed at the beginning of the first Mummy (for cheating on the pharaoh) and who’s reincarnated this time as the 20th-century femme fatale who reawakens Imhotep. (She probably wishes she had brought along a Certs for the occasion.)

The Rock’s role in all this? He plays the Scorpion King, a vanquished warrior who, in the film’s 3067 B.C. prologue, sells his soul to the god Anubis in order to conquer Egypt with an army of pooch-faced soldiers — and who returns from the dead as a giant scorpion-man to battle both O’Connell and Im-hotep. But The Rock has another, far more important role in The Mummy Returns, one that Fraser sums up succinctly: ”Ka-ching! This guy fills stadiums all over the world,” says the actor. ”Whatever he’s got, I’ll take it.”

That appears to be the sentiment over at Universal, as well, at least judging by how heavily the smackdown artist is being pushed in The Mummy Returns‘ trailers, TV ads, and posters (which feature The Rock’s face nearly as prominently as Fraser’s). ”We’re always looking for emerging talent,” says Mary Parent, the studio’s president of production. ”And The Rock is definitely emerging. You can’t take your eyes off him on the screen.”

Universal is so enamored of The Rock’s potential as a movie star that the studio is betting a possible franchise on him, spinning off his bugged-out character for a movie of his own. Which makes The Mummy Returns more than just one of the most anticipated sequels of the season; it’s also a $100 million coming attraction for what’s currently filming in Los Angeles and on its way to theaters in 2002: The Rock’s first starring vehicle, The Scorpion King. “And in that movie,” he promises, “I raise my eyebrow.”

To get to the set of The Scorpion King, you have to duck into a cave. The very same cave, it so happens, that Adam West and Burt Ward zoomed through in the Batmobile in the 1960s. Also the cave in which Robert Vaughn misspent his youth in the 1958 B movie Teenage Caveman. As well as the one Brendan Fraser swung around in while filming 1997’s George of the Jungle.

Today — a sunny April afternoon — this perennial Hollywood location nestled on the southern tip of Griffith Park is standing in for an antediluvian village somewhere in the neighborhood (and time frame) of Sodom and Gomorrah. In a clearing at one cave opening, a few dozen extras dressed in wicker and twigs are cheering in front of the cameras as Dwayne Johnson pretends to beat Michael Clarke Duncan with a stick.

A six-time WWF champion, Johnson (the name The Rock was born with 29 years ago) knows something about fake fighting. “This part of it isn’t all that different from what I do on TV,” he says while the Green Mile Oscar nominee staggers off in need of an ice pack (to soothe the lip Johnson accidentally elbowed during their last take). “But instead of smashing people with metal folding chairs, we’re using swords and knives and a wider array of props. I’m able to pick it up fairly quickly. All I need is about two minutes to figure out the scene.”

Off-camera, Johnson couldn’t be less like his slogan-shouting, pile-driving, groin-kicking WWF alter ego. He’s perfectly polite, the kind of guy who opens doors for ladies (and reporters). He speaks in a near whisper, with a slightly plummy, almost erudite precision — a voice that sounds like it’d be comfortable reading Joan Didion on National Public Radio. Even bare-chested and carrying a spear — as he is right now on the Scorpion King set — you half expect him to suggest retiring to the library for brandies and Debussy.

“Most action stars aren’t nearly as well-spoken,” says Sommers. “He’s very smart. Very civilized. Also, he’s really big and looks like he could beat up Brendan.”

Oddly enough, Fraser never got the chance to actually work with Johnson on The Mummy Returns — or even meet him during production, unless you count their computer-generated encounter at the end of the movie. “Let’s put it this way,” says Fraser. “I was in a room with a 28-foot dreadlocks-flapping bug-man, so, yes, in that sense we met.”

NEXT: “I always knew I wanted to do film,” Johnson says. “And not only did I want to do film, I wanted to make an impact.” 

[pagebreak]That Sommers would make a Mummy follow-up at all became a historical inevitability after the first film’s opening. Released nearly two years ago to the day of the sequel’s May 4 bow, The Mummy surprised even its studio by grossing an astonishing $43.4 million in its debut weekend (Universal’s projections had it closer to $20 million). Initially, though, Sommers had doubts about reawakening the mummy. “Sequels usually suck,” he says bluntly. Besides, the first Mummy had been an arduous, dangerous shoot (Sommers even took out terrorist insurance on his actors while filming in Morocco). Postproduction hadn’t been any easier, with the director still searching for the right tone—trying to balance campy with creepy—during editing. “The original script was a bit reckless,” concedes Fraser, who lost a chunk of his performance to Sommers’ scissors. “The characters related to one another a bit awkwardly. And the dialogue needed to be pared down. But it really was okay in the end.”

Still, Sommers decided that if he was going to do a sequel, he’d better do it quickly. “If I waited two or three years, I might not have been able to bring back the same actors,” he reasons. “Some of them might have been asking $20 million a movie by then. Or, God forbid, one of them might die. And there’s no way I would have made a sequel without the same actors.”

Nobody died, although Fraser did reportedly ask for $20 million (he settled for $12.5 million). Some original cast members, like Oded Fehr, even saw their roles expanded. “From a brooding, dark, one-line character in the first movie, I’m afraid I’ve become a bit of a blabbermouth in this one,” he says. Still, Sommers had the part of the Scorpion King to fill, a character he says he whipped up from actual Egyptian history. “It’s based on a real person,” Sommers says. “His name was either Narmer or Menes — they don’t know which — but he was nicknamed the Scorpion King. He was this badass warrior who united the upper and lower kingdoms and became the first pharaoh.”

Sommers knew he needed a badass warrior for the role. “When I was writing it, I thought to myself, I’m going to get one of those huge wrestlers,” he says. “That was always in my head. But I didn’t know anything about wrestlers. I had never even heard of The Rock.”

Luckily, others had. In fact, even before Sommers had finished the sequel’s script, Johnson was beginning to draw crowds outside the ring. There was his autobiography, The Rock Says…, in which he recalls his childhood as the son of a wrestler (Rocky Johnson, who retired in 1990) and the grandson of a wrestler (Samoan sensation Peter Maivia, who died in 1982), his college dreams of joining the Secret Service (he majored in criminology at the University of Miami), and his romance with his wife, Dany, a financial consultant. (Postscript: The couple are expecting their first child this August.) The book ended up shocking the literary world by spending several months last year on the New York Times best-seller list.

There were also Johnson’s much-covered appearances last summer at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions, where he rallied wrestling fans to get out and vote. (“I guess I’m a Democrat with some Republican beliefs,” he says, explaining his bipartisan appeal.) And there were his guest spots on DAG and Star Trek: Voyager, not to mention his gig baking cookies on Martha Stewart Living (no joke). But the TV showcase that did the most to break his image as a thick-necked bone cruncher was his turn in March 2000 as host of Saturday Night Live, where he proved he could score big ratings (SNL‘s best of that season) without bonking people on the head with a stepladder.

“I told the [SNL] writers I definitely didn’t want to do any wrestling stuff,” Johnson says. “But I guess the writers wanted to test me, because they came back and said, ‘Okay, how would you like to do a sketch in drag?’ I said, sure, just no wrestling. So they came back to me again and said, ‘Okay, how would you like to put on a monkey suit and simulate having sex with another guy’s leg?’ I said, absolutely, just no wrestling.”

Not surprisingly, Hollywood started taking notice. Revolution Studios courted Johnson for a sci-fi action film called The One (he turned it down; Jet Li took the role). Miramax pitched him a comic-book-hero script (“I don’t really remember much about it,” he says). And, after studying some Rock wrestling videos, Sommers decided he wanted him for The Mummy Returns. “I met with him and really liked his attitude,” the filmmaker says. “He told me he wanted me to teach him how to act in front of the camera, that he wanted me to help him not look foolish. He really wanted to learn.”

“I always knew I wanted to do film,” Johnson says as a makeup artist dabs fake blood onto his forehead. “And not only did I want to do film, I wanted to make an impact. And not only did I want to make an impact, but I wanted to make a long-term impact.”

Of course, Johnson isn’t the first “sports entertainer” — as pro wrestlers now like to call themselves — to want to make an impact outside the arena. Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper succeeded in crossing over into movies (albeit mostly in video-bound clunkers like Santa With Muscles and Hell Comes to Frogtown). Jesse Ventura managed to make the transition from beefy supporting roles (Predator, Batman & Robin) to a governorship. But Johnson is in a class by himself, arguably a much bigger star within the wrestling world — “I’ve had grandmothers come up to me and ask for autographs,” he notes in a rare flash of immodesty — as well as outside of it.

Certainly, he had no trouble making an impact on the suits at Universal. Sitting in a studio screening room last fall, watching dailies of The Mummy Returns, then president of production Kevin Misher saw something in Johnson’s performance he couldn’t shake. “There hasn’t been a new straight-up action figure in quite a while,” says Misher, who’s since left his post for a production deal (he’ll get his first credit as a producer on The Scorpion King). “And The Rock seemed like a guy who had all the credentials. Big, handsome, charismatic. So I turned to [Universal chief] Stacey Snider and said, ‘We should really make a movie out of this character.'”

Snider agreed. Universal tapped Sommers to write a first draft of a Scorpion King script — a sort of Mummy Returns prequel, recounting Narmer’s (or Menes’) ancient adventures prior to selling his soul to Anubis — and signed Johnson for the film even before The Mummy Returns had wrapped. Signing him, incidentally, for a reported $5.5 million, among the highest salaries any untested actor has ever earned for a starring role. “I was very humbled” is all Johnson will say about the money.

I’ve given him a few acting tips,” Michael Clarke Duncan mumbles through the ice pack on his mouth. “I told him to try reading his lines in front of a mirror at home. Sounds crazy, but it works. The amazing thing about Dwayne, though, is that he catches on so quickly.”

Johnson has also been smart about his choices up till now, not biting off more of a role than his acting chops can chew. His part in The Mummy Returns, for instance, isn’t exactly a stretch. “Basically, he’s playing The Rock of 3000 B.C.,” Sommers says. “Except he’s meaner, nastier, and doesn’t raise his eyebrow.” (That eyebrow almost did get raised; Sommers considered digitally adding the gesture to the scorpion-man creature, but then remembered those videotapes of The Rock pummeling guys with metal chairs and thought better of it.)

In The Scorpion King, however, Johnson actually will have to act. In English, not ancient Egyptian. For the entire movie. And while his character may not be Lear, this King does have a few more inches of dramatic depth than anything Johnson has attempted before. “There’s a scene in this movie where his brother gets killed right before his eyes,” says the director Sommers chose to helm the spin-off, Chuck Russell (who worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Eraser). “And The Rock is game for that. I put him together with an acting coach [Larry Moss, who guided Duncan through The Green Mile] and told him this was going to be an emotional journey. And he’s been fearless about it. His heart is completely in it.”

Perhaps too much. “The second session with my acting coach, an hour into it, I’m bawling,” Johnson confesses. “It’s very challenging. It’s different from the industry I’m coming from. On wrestling shows, we don’t have to deal with things like the loss of a family member. But in movies, you have to learn to express a whole array of emotions. That’s the hardest part of it for me.”

Actually, for The Rock, the hardest part will be accomplishing all of the above without raising any eyebrows. Especially in the audience.

(Additional reporting by David Hochman)

type
  • Movie
Genre
mpaa
  • PG-13
runtime
  • 125 minutes
director
  • Stephen Sommers
Performers
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