The biggest draws at any comic convention are the brands and franchises — your Star Wars, your Game of Thrones, your Marvel movies. If you’re a celebrity, your value is directly related to whatever series you are a part of (or even, whatever series you were a part of 30 years ago). That is, of course, unless you are the Rock. Then you are your own brand. And everyone likes the Rock.
When you’re the Rock, you take the stage at L.A. Comic Con in late October to chants of “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky!” and every mention of any project you’ve ever been involved in elicits a roar. Your longtime career as a pro wrestler? Cheers. Your HBO show, Ballers? Cheers. Tooth Fairy? Cheers. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which doesn’t come out until Dec. 20? Very loud cheers. You will probably interrupt the panel to say hello to a 5-year-old boy in the front row or greet a gaggle of enthusiastic female wrestlers who invite you to grapple. When you turn to the audience for questions, most attendees want to know whether they can take a selfie or get a signature or even just get close to you. When someone finally poses an actual question, they ask whether you’re serious about running for President of the United States, to which you reply, “I think the People’s President has a really nice ring to it. I’ll just say that.” And that earns the biggest cheers yet.
Liking the Rock is about as controversial as liking puppies or chocolate. As his Jumanji director Jake Kasdan puts it: “When I tell people I’m working with him, everybody standing there always says, ‘Oh, I love the Rock.’ It’s almost like a reflexive, mechanical reaction.”
The Rock probably likes you, too. (His real name is Dwayne Johnson, but he’ll answer to Dwayne, Rock, or DJ.) If you meet him, he’ll shake your hand, and as he grips your puny hand with his enormous, impeccably manicured one, you’ll have a brief thought that if he wanted to, he could squash your tiny fingers into jelly. He doesn’t, of course, and you’ll feel silly for even thinking that because his voice is soft and his smile is genuine and he wants to know everything about you. He may already know where you’re from and where you went to college because he likes to do his research. And if you talk to him again weeks later, he’ll ask you about an upcoming major life event and whether you have any anxiety about such a radical change because he knows how important it is to have a strong emotional foundation. He may also give you moving tips. He may resemble a bouncer, but inside that hulking frame is Oprah. (Dwoprah?)
That aspect of Johnson’s persona — a hardcover stud with a self-actualized center — gets particularly resonant play in Jumanji. He stars as an impossibly strong adventurer named Dr. Smolder Bravestone. Johnson enters the film, at about the 20-minute mark, by dropping from the sky into the jungle, and his very first shot is a close-up of that famous People’s Eyebrow. From the moment that right eyebrow arches skyward — it’s always the right eyebrow — you know you’re in good hands. Over the next 90 minutes, he’ll crack some jokes, take out some bad guys, and carry a screaming Kevin Hart on his back. “I’d love to sit up here and call him a jackass and all types of names, but I can’t,” says Hart, who also partnered with Johnson in last year’s Central Intelligence. “He’s an unbelievable guy and an unbelievable talent. If it’s light comedy, if it’s action, if it’s sincere, he can pretty much do it all.”
But as much as Jumanji embraces classic tropes of a Johnson movie, it also inverts them. Technically, Johnson isn’t playing Smolder Bravestone but a high school nerd named Spencer, who was sucked into a magic videogame after choosing Bravestone as his avatar. He has to lead his classmates — who are likewise stuck in the bodies of Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black — through the jungle while trying not to break down in tears. It’s been a while since the 45-year-old star had to tap into his inner awkward teenager, but that anxiety isn’t foreign to him. “When I was 13 and pimply and had an Afro, I was two years away from people thinking I was a girl,” Johnson says with a laugh. “When I was 11, kids thought I was a girl. I had very soft features. My Afro was soft; it didn’t kink up yet. So I was still battling my own insecurities.”
Jumanji also connected Johnson to his youth in a more immediate way: It was filmed in Hawaii, where he spent some of his teenage years. The only child of a black father (pro wrestler Rocky Johnson) and a Samoan mother, Johnson was a rebellious kid, getting arrested multiple times. “We were evicted, so we had no choice but to leave the island — which is not how people should generally leave Hawaii,” he says. “You should leave happy with the aloha spirit and get on a plane with your leis.” Today, he shoots in the state whenever he can to bring jobs to the islands, and whenever he’s there, he likes to drive his daughters by the 7-Eleven where he used to steal a Snickers bar every day on his way to the gym. (Johnson has a 1-year-old with his partner, Lauren Hashian, and a 16-year-old from his previous marriage.) “There’s a Polynesian word we have called mana, which means spirit or power,” Johnson explains. “And it’s so gratifying for my mana to go back.”
That honesty about his past is part of what has earned Johnson such a fervent fan base. On his Instagram — which boasts a whopping 96 million followers — Johnson shares both his triumphs and his setbacks, always with an unflinching positivity. Sometimes it’s behind-the-scenes video of him lifting weights in the gym at 4 a.m. Or maybe he’s sharing stories about wrestling for $40 at Memphis flea markets. Or struggling to make friends at new schools because classmates thought he was an undercover cop. Or naming his company Seven Bucks Productions because when he was cut from the Canadian Football League in 1995, he had only $7 in his pocket. “I like to contradict what this awesome life is with a truth as well, which is my past,” Johnson says. “I’ve found that that openness helps other people.”
Even after Johnson landed his first film role — playing the Scorpion King in 2001’s The Mummy Returns — it was years before Hollywood knew what to do with the 6-foot-5 wrestler. He admired the careers of stars like Tom Cruise and Will Smith, but he didn’t fit that mold — either professionally or physically. Unsure of how to navigate the unfamiliar world of moviemaking, he tried to stick to the existing blueprint — at first. “He was told he was going to have to be in a box,” says his longtime producing partner Beau Flynn. “He was going to have to take a path. And I have such immense respect for him because he went back to that extraordinary gut, and he listened to himself—never to his handlers or his agents at the time. He was like, ‘This is who I am. This is who I want to be.'”
That authenticity seems to be working. In 2016, Johnson was the world’s highest-paid actor, raking in a reported $64.5 million, according to Forbes. His 2018 will include Rampage and Skyscraper, and his upcoming slate is stacked with high-profile, big-budget projects — from Disney’s Jungle Cruise to a Fast & Furious spinoff. Meanwhile, he’s earned a reputation as the kindest and hardest-working guy in Hollywood. “I’ve realized that the number-one thing that keeps me motivated and positive is operating like my back’s against the wall,” he says. “Because when my back is against the wall, I feel like there’s only one way to go: You’ve gotta go forward.”