Young Rock creator previews journey through Dwayne Johnson's wild life: 'He's like Forrest Gump'
Prepare to smell what The Rock and NBC have been cooking up.
Tuesday marks the premiere of Young Rock, the new comedy series that tells the story of Dwayne Johnson's upbringing, spotlighting him at ages 10, 15, and 20 (played by Adrian Groulx, Bradley Constant, and Uli Latukefu, respectively). But in addition to narrating, the real Johnson will be playing himself in 2032, as the wrestler-turned-movie-star aims to add president to his multihyphenate title.
Ahead of Young Rock's debut, co-creator Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh Off the Boat) spoke to EW about plotting out Johnson's life, finding three Rocks, and pairing him with Andre the Giant.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Take me back to the beginning of Young Rock. How did the show come about, and how did you get involved?
NAHNATCHKA KHAN: I have some mutual friends with Dwayne, Jake Kasdan and Melvin Mar, who were exec producers on Fresh Off the Boat and Jake directed Jumanji, so they made introductions. Dwayne was always talking about how he would love to tell his story but he could never quite crack it. So then I went to Jeff Chiang, who is my co-creator on Young Rock, and together we came up with these multiple timelines and focusing on different eras of Dwayne's life, just because he's led such a big life that it can support the concept. We went to him and pitched it, he loved it, and then also pitched him the idea of a future timeline where he's running for president in 2032.
What was your relationship to the Rock, pre-Young Rock? Were you a big fan? Like were you watching all the Fast & Furious movies?
Definitely a huge fan of his. I knew his wrestling persona, but once he made the jump to movies, a big fan of his action but also his comedy. I thought he was really funny and surprising. Loved him in Jumanji and Jake and Melvin spoke so highly of him, so definitely a fan. And I can say even more of a fan now having worked with him. He's such a great guy and so collaborative and open and really down for anything.
I have to imagine that at some point there was a sit-down where Dwayne just unloaded all of these stories from his life to provide you with content to work with. Is that what happened, and, if so, what was that like?
Absolutely. We had a bunch of storytelling sessions, which is what we called it, and we had people recording and taking notes and he was just telling us stories about his life. He has such a big life and we were trying to figure out what were some pivotal moments and what did we want to focus on. The more he told us it was just so many funny things and so many wild moments, and also very emotional moments. It really helped us hone in on these three storylines for season 1, but there are so many more eras that, knock on wood, if we get to make more seasons, we'd love to show people.
What was the casting like for these three Dwaynes? This had to be a search unlike any other, just because there aren't many Rocks just sitting out there.
It's exactly like you said, it was a global casting search. It's a young Dwayne Johnson, he's so well known that you know what you're looking for, you just need to not only find the right visual and the right makeup but also really good actors. It was like trying to find three needles in three haystacks. And it shows because the actors we found are from all over: Little Adrian, who plays 10-year-old Dwayne, is from Toronto; Bradley, who plays him at 15, is from Los Angeles by way of Alabama; and then Uli, who plays college-aged Dwayne, is from Australia. It was really challenging and I'm so proud of the guys that we have because they're really killing it.
You mentioned having Dwayne run for president in the future timeline, which is obviously a nice play on his rumored political aspirations. How did you arrive at that and use it to bring all these stories together?
In terms of sort of like a framework device, it made a lot of sense to us that he's looking back on his life through doing these multiple timelines, so, for me, it made sense to look forward as well. So we're looking back and forward, and being able to construct a narrative and timeline for Dwayne in the future the same way we're doing for little Deweys in the past just made it feel organic and it fit in with the concept. And, luckily, Dwayne was 100 percent in. He got it immediately and was down for it.
You have such great sitcom experience, having previously created Fresh Off the Boat and Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, and so you're used to having an A story, a B story, and a C story in an episode. But this one is so unique in that you have these four timelines and need some thread throughout them. What's it been like trying to balance that puzzle?
That's what was really exciting to us about constructing the stories like this, because it did feel completely different from things we'd certainly worked on in the past. And when you think of broadcast network comedies, you don't necessarily think serialized. You have some exceptions to that rule, like The Good Place, but for the most part, it's pretty self-contained. The idea of really arcing out stories in these individual timelines and like mentioning something in 1982 Hawaii that you eventually callback in 1991 Miami, those sort of threads, it just feels like you are creating a fuller picture of someone's life.
Now knowing so much about Dwayne's life, is there one specific era or event that looking down the road you can't help but hope you get the chance to tackle?
There are so many. He was talking to us about right before he moved to Bethlehem, Pa., which is one of our timelines in season 1, he lived in Nashville and he wanted to be a country-western singer. To me, I'm like, "Okay!" [Laughs] I'd really love to dive into that. I didn't know that, personally, and I feel like a lot of people might not know that. And then, of course, when he ultimately decides to follow in his dad's footsteps and get into professional wrestling. Because, to hear him talk about it, it was a really rocky road and audiences didn't respond to him. He didn't come out of the gate as The Rock, he had to get there, and I think that journey is really interesting for people to hear. And we're not even talking about his movie career yet. He's like Forrest Gump. [Laughs] He's been involved in so many times and with so many people. There are so many stories to tell.
Going back to the presidential timeline, you've reunited with your Fresh Off the Boat star Randall Park. In 2032, Randall plays a reporter interviewing Dwayne about his life as he runs for president, and Randall previously told us that it was his idea for him to actually play himself, with this version leaving acting behind for journalism. What excited you about getting back together with Randall and this funny little spin?
I loved it so much, and that's typical Randall, he just has the funniest pitches and he's such a great, smart collaborator. It was just a fictionalized reporter at first when I sent it to him, and he was like, "I'd love to work with you," and then he called up like, "What do you think if since Dwayne is playing himself in the future, what if I'm also playing myself but I've gone away from acting and found my real passion of journalism and media?" And I'm like, "That's so funny. Yes, 1,000 percent, yes." And so we just started writing towards that, and him and Dwayne together are so funny, they have such great chemistry. Randall, to me, is a comedic genius. I'm so happy to work with him for the rest of my life if I could.
Some more cool casting in that future timeline is Rosario Dawson, who is really funny but maybe doesn't always get to show it, and I'm sure that is what you will highlight on Young Rock. How would you describe her on this show and the character she plays?
I was so happy to work with her. I'd never worked with her before, but, obviously, was such a fan of hers from afar. We came up with when Dwayne announces his running mate, his vice presidential pick, she plays General Monica Jackson, who is like a career military person and brings to the party experiences that Dwayne doesn't have. Rosario leaned in 100 percent. She's super committed to the role and just so funny. She has that sort of wicked sense of humor and like really sly, and she was down to do whatever. There's an episode where Randall interviews her and we peel back the layers of her and just let her play around and have fun with the role.
In the first timeline, you have Dwayne's dad Rocky Johnson, who was a famous wrestler in his own right, but surrounding them are legends like The Iron Sheik and Andre the Giant. Again, I'm sure those were tough casting finds, so tell me about weaving these guys into the mix.
Another casting challenge that those guys just killed. I think it's part of what I hope audiences get out of this show, which is just the surprise element. You maybe knew that Dwayne grew up in a wrestling family and his dad was Rocky Johnson but I don't know that people know how much of an extended family it was and that all these wrestlers hung out together. It's a little bit like a theater troupe in a way; they're all traveling across the country, they're all wrestling in these local shows before WWF takes off and becomes this global phenomenon. Dwayne was shaped by a lot of these guys and being around these guys, so it's cool to see little 10-year-old Dewey spend a day with Andre the Giant and see how that affects him going forward.
There's a lot of fun nods in the first episode, whether it be a Fast & Furious newspaper pun or a Kevin Hart jokey jab, as those two do back-and-forth. Should we expect more of that, and maybe even some more famous faces from Dwayne's life?
Absolutely. I mean, as you say, in 1982 Hawaii you're going to see a lot of characters people may be familiar with from the golden era of wrestling. We're going to introduce a lot more of those, and then even in Miami when he goes to play college football at the University of Miami in the early '90s, the people he encounters there that football fans will know, like Coach [Ed] Orgeron, Coach [Dennis] Erickson, Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp. All these guys were there and we're going to see them throughout the season. And Uncle Luke from 2 Live Crew who was a de facto Hurricane. There's so many people that come in and out of Dwayne's life, and I think that's also interesting too. Like you expect your mom, your dad, your immediate family to shape who you are, but the idea that outsiders can come in and a sort of chosen family can also shape who you are too is going to be interesting.
Young Rock premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.