The Rock is just finishing off a text when he pops up on my screen. “Be there in 20 minutes,” he says aloud to himself before hitting send and looking up at me. “How you doing, man?” he says with a wide smile.
The Rock, or to use his given name, Dwayne Johnson, is standing in his home office, a bright, inviting space into which afternoon sunlights pours through French doors. Next to Johnson is a life-sized replica of what looks like a T-REX skull, an unapologetically masculine office paperweight, but befitting of a man who calls himself The Rock. Behind him on a shelf are bottles of his tequila, Teremana. Johnson is wearing a tight-fitting black Project Rock muscle tee, with tattoos creeping out the sleeves onto his mountainous biceps. He’s also wearing red shorts and occasionally grabs at his knee. It probably goes without saying, but he is in awesome shape.
It’s the third time I’ve interviewed Johnson, though this is the first occasion we’ve been able to see each other. I tell him it’s good to put a face to his name. He laughs obligingly. “You, too. I was always wondering what the fuck Ben looks like.” I hope he’s not disappointed.
The Rock is here to talk about his new film, Black Adam (in cinemas Oct. 20), a passion project he’s been attached to for 15 years. It’s a notable addition to Johnson’s canon for a number of reasons. Firstly, as many have posited in relation to Tom Cruise, you wonder if Johnson is too big a star for comic-book fare? Is the power of his personality and the wattage of his charisma somehow neutered in spandex? Time will tell on that one. Secondly, the film required the most likeable and arguably most popular actor of his generation to play an anti-hero. Finally, it required him to get in the best shape of his life and maintain it. Even for someone like Johnson, an all-time great gym-floor grinder, that was a challenge.
“That was our goal, for me to bring in the best physique possible,” says Johnson. “So, the challenge with that is not only do you set the bar high, which is fine… bring it on! But then you realise you have to maintain that for months. As you know, you bring in a great physique, usually for a very finite window. If you’re an Olympic athlete, if you’re a fighter cutting weight for your fight, if you’re a bodybuilder stepping on stage, it’s for a short amount of time, usually a day or two, maybe a week. I had to maintain this for months!”
Johnson gave himself an additional challenge – of course he did – forgoing the padding actors usually wear to fill out superhero costumes. He’s like Christopher Reeve in the original Superman but with, you know, Everest-sized traps bursting from his neckline.
“We could have said, ‘Fuck this, put the muscle pads in the suit. Don’t worry about it’, as they normally do,” says Johnson. “And it’s not a knock to my friends at all, but I felt like, Let’s be disruptive and let’s do it differently. Let’s take all the muscle pads out, which we did, and let’s just make this like it’s my skin. And now what happens is when you have that suit on, every detail shows. It’s as if you had your shirt off. Man, it was constant, constant work, tweaking and tweaking for months.”
Johnson prides himself on being the hardest worker in any room he’s in – if he and Cruise were ever to share the screen, celluloid might just combust. But it’s this ethic that’s kept him at the top of his game – and at the head of the Hollywood pack – for over two decades now. And, as he enters his 50s, Johnson’s not letting up. If anything, he says, this is the time when, as a man, you’ve got to double down on hard work. Between The Rock and a hard place, perhaps. That’s the uncomfortable space Johnson’s always inhabited. That’s where you have to go to get results. That’s how you become a force of nature.
Men’s Health: Where are you? Are you at home?
Dwayne Johnson: I am. I’m in heaven known as my office.
Very good. What have you been doing today?
Just got up with the babies. Regardless of what time you go to bed, they’re up at 6am. They’re jumping on us and I went to bed probably around 1-1:30, as I normally do. So, the babies, did my thing, working here. I went to go work out, but then I realised I had some more stuff to do so I came back and got my work done. I’ll go train in about an hour-and-a-half to two hours.
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All right. So, let’s talk about Black Adam. This is an iconic comic book character and you’ve been attached to the project for a long time. What excited you about the role?
Delivering a character in the superhero genre that had never been seen before. No actors before me had played Black Adam, brought him to life. That was an exciting opportunity to do something that had never been done, but also, more important than that, is the opportunity to get in and disrupt the superhero genre in this way. You have a character like Black Adam, who is, depending on how you interpret his philosophies, is he a superhero, an anti-hero or just a bad dude? And so, that was exciting too. And I’ve had this project for a very long time. This is a true passion project. A lot of times that sounds cliched, but brother, in this case, it’s been almost 15 years since we first started talking about making the movie. So it’s been a passion project of mine, and also, you have an opportunity here to deliver something, I think, that’s pretty cool. A lot of people don’t know about Black Adam. If you’re not deeply invested in DC, then you’re familiar with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman, Lex Luthor, etc, now the Suicide Squad. And what I like to tell people is, pound-for-pound, Black Adam is right there with Superman in terms of his superpowers. The difference is Superman has a code of ethics that he abides by, which is why he is the greatest superhero of all time. Superman won’t kill anyone. Black Adam, on the other hand, you can’t finish your sentence if you mean harm to him or his family. You can’t complete your sentence without him ending your life.
So, an antihero then. Did you have any internal conflict about playing against your public perception or did you relish that?
Well, the world knows that I have a heart as black as my T-shirt and that I’m one cold-hearted human being. I was excited about it. The movie-going audience who watch Black Adam may not agree philosophically with his way, but ultimately, they will understand. And I love the opportunity of bringing that character to life. One of the reasons why I’ve identified so deeply with Black Adam… Yes, he lives in a grey area, but his philosophy is black and white.
If you hurt my family, the ones I love or my country or my people, you’re going to pay. And there are no questions asked and there’s no more conversation. There’s no bringing you to justice. There’s no apprehending you. You die. What was also very appealing to me, and I think will appeal to a lot of people, is you can’t put him in a box. You can’t say, “You have to be like this. You can’t do this. You have to do this. You have to do that”. I felt like I experienced that throughout my career, like when I first got to Hollywood, for example. Twenty years ago, “You can’t call yourself The Rock . . . You can’t talk about pro wrestling. You can’t be this big. You can’t work out as much. Change your diet. Lose weight. If you want to be like Will Smith, Johnny Depp, George Clooney” – who were the biggest stars when I first came in 20 years ago – “this is how you have to be”. Well, I tried that on for a few years and then finally I said, “Man, fuck this. I can’t be like that. I’m not those guys. I could never be those guys. I’ve got to be myself. I’m not in a box. Don’t tell me how to be. I’m going to be myself.” Same thing with Black Adam. So that was one of the many reasons why I connected with him.
Yes, in your early days in wrestling, you were a bad guy or a heel and then you ended up becoming the most popular guy. Is it the same kind of thing where being real is what fans respond to?
Yes. When I first got to the WWE, I was brought in as what’s called a babyface – means a good guy, wrestling terminology. And I was told at that time by Vince McMahon, “I need you to be happy and smiling and you are grateful to be here, and that’s who I want you to be when you go out there”. Now keep in mind, I had just come from the world of college football and in our football over here in the States, the University of Miami were a defining football team. We talked shit. We were disruptive. We were undefeated for 10 years at home. We were national champions and not only would we kick your ass, but we would tell you afterwards. We would enjoy that ass kicking. So we were just big shit talkers. So, I was not that way [a babyface], even though I, of course, smile and be affable, but when it’s time to do business and rock and roll, there’s no smile. That was a hard transition for me. Now, obviously, the world of wrestling is different than MMA. We know the outcome of what’s happening,
But you’re still going to rock and roll with this guy. There’s no smile. So, I had to adjust and I started going out smiling all the time, happy to be there. Man! The fans just felt in their gut what I was living in my gut, which was, “This shit is not me, and this is not real”. So, what happened in that world of wrestling, after a couple of months, they said, “Man, I saw you play at University of Miami, man. You’re not this dude”. And they started booing the shit out of me every night in arenas. Now, is that a problem in wrestling? No. Fans boo everybody all the time. The problem was I was being pushed to be the next big star as a good guy, so I would go out and it would be like, “From Miami, Florida, Rocky Maivia”. “Boo”, and I smile. “Hey, hey, yeah, thanks”, and it got to a point where it drove the fans crazy that I wasn’t being myself. And then it was just the vitriol, man. It was like, “Go fuck yourself – fuck you”. And it killed me not to go, “Fuck me? Come over that guardrail. You step over that guardrail. You tell me how tough you are.” I couldn’t do that. So finally, they made me Intercontinental Champion. That didn’t work. I was booed out of the building. They took the belt off me. I got injured. I tore my PCL. I had to go home. It was the summer of 1997. At the time, UFC wasn’t as popular, but a group called Pride was very popular in Japan. I knew those fighters, and I was like, “Man, do I go do that? I could make more and at least I could be myself”. Then I get a call from Vince McMahon, who said, “Listen. When you come back in August… ” (this is in May)… “I want you to join a group called the Nation of Domination. It’s a heel group. Black militant group. And you’re going to be a heel”. I said to Vince McMahon, “Okay. I have one request for you”. He goes, “What is it?” I said, “When I come back, I just need two minutes on the microphone so I can tell people my why.
And I want to establish I’m in the Nation of Domination, even though I’m half Black and half Samoan, a proud man of colour. Me being in the Nation is not a white thing; it’s not a Black thing. It’s a respect thing.” So he goes, “Fine”. I went out there. I said what I said to the people: “It’s not a white thing. It’s not a Black thing. It’s in me. It’s a respect thing”. And from that moment on, I was myself. I reacted to people how I wanted to react. I became, within a month, the hottest bad guy in the company. It got to a point where I was, in a way, so bad, that fans were like, “That’s my guy. He’s real. He’s authentic. He just told me, ‘Go fuck myself’, and I love him.” That’s a long story to tell you that it’s the same thing with Black Adam: he is himself all the way.
Dwayne, let’s talk about your fitness. You were already in amazing shape. But did you have to up the ante to play a comic-book hero and fill out the Black Adam costume?
We did. My goal was to bring in the best physique of my career, and that includes my years as a football player, my years as a pro wrestler and my years as an actor. And I’ve worked with a trainer very closely now for over a decade. His name is Dave Rienzi. That was our goal. The real challenge was the diet and putting in the work and balancing the cardio, the training and then 12 hours on set. It was all very demanding. And then trying to find the right time to get your proper rest and recovery.
But the real challenge was to maintain that for months and months. You have to approach that strategy with real care and real nuance. It’s not, All right. Go after it and grit and grind it out. No. You can’t do that because your body can’t sustain it and your body will break down, whether you’re in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties or sixties. It doesn’t matter. So, we had to really approach it with a real care and a real science, and he [Dave] was there throughout the shoot and just constantly looking at my body, seeing how it’s coming along. How’s my sodium intake? How are the carbs? How’s this? How’s that? There’s just so much we had to look at.
You turned 50 earlier this year. How are you feeling about that? And has that affected your training?
Yeah, I think there are markers you have in your life. I think us, as dudes, you hit your thirties, you like to think you’ve got your shit together – you generally have no fucking clue. You’re trying to work your shit out. And you’re trying to fake it till you make it, that kind of thing.
You hit your forties, hopefully by that time you’re starting your family, you’ve got some things, you find yourself in a groove, you’re getting settled now, it’s feeling good, feeling comfortable. You’re going through a lot in your forties too, but I wanted to make sure that by the time I hit my fifth level, I was in my rhythm and groove and also make sure that, by that time, my training was in a great place. What I mean by that is that my body was in a great place, that it wasn’t too banged up, and that I wasn’t like, “Oh man, I got to get this surgery done and that surgery”.
So really, in my thirties and early forties, when I was coming off of wrestling, I was still feeling the effects of wrestling and all my injuries there. And then I had a big injury where I tore the top of my quad off my pelvis and I tore my adductor off my pelvis in the last wrestling match I had in 2013, which then caused my abdominal wall to tear in three places. So, I had to have emergency hernia surgery in three places. And then with the tearing of the top of my quad, it never got reattached because the doctor said, “If you want to reattach, it’s going to take you a year; the way it’s torn, it will scar-tissue up and you just have to be really smart with your training”. So, that’s what I did.
By 40, I said, Okay, I’m going to spend the next decade training as smart as I possibly can train, balance out training and family and work as best I can, be an open sponge, learn every day and apply what I’ve learned, but also not worry about ego training, not worry about the weight that I’m putting on the bar, push myself, but not worry about any of that, so hopefully, by the time I hit the fifth level, my joints are feeling great, I’m still able to not only maintain, but still able to add real muscle and some really dense muscle. That’s a long answer to tell you I’m feeling pretty good.
Make your body rock solid
To play a badass you’ve got to train like one. Here, long-time trainer Dave Renzi (above) reveals how he got Johnson in bad-guy shape… and kept him there.
“We came into this project with the goal of bringing the comic-book depiction of Black Adam to life, which meant getting DJ into the best shape of his life, elevating his physique to a whole new level and building the ultimate superhero physique.
It was an 18-month pre-production process to achieve this. The first 12 months were focused on gradually gaining lean muscle while maintaining DJ’s body-fat percentage and the last six months we shifted emphasis to maximise the detail, shape and roundness of the muscle. Once we achieved the look, it was then a matter of maintaining that look throughout the entire five-month production, which is a massive undertaking given DJ’s gruelling filming schedule of 12-hour days and intense action sequences. This required a lot of nuance and close communication. It’s a balancing act of managing the intensity of training and diet to maintain the look, while also taking into account the physical demands of filming and acting. DJ’s performance on screen is paramount and having the energy he needs to perform is the top priority. The end result is one of DJ’s greatest performances to date.”