Dwayne Johnson finds room to grow in ‘Young Rock’

It’s hard to imagine Dwayne Johnson as something other than the giant, muscular star of “Fast and furious” and “Jumanji” movie franchises, TV series like “Ballers” and the professional wrestling ring where he first became known as Rock. But he was once a smaller – or at least younger – man.

His story is now the basis of the new comedy “Young Rock,” which debuts Tuesday on NBC. This series checks in with Johnson in three phases of his life: as a preteen, still known by the nickname Dewey (played by Adrian Groulx); as an awkward teenager (Bradley Constant); and as a budding college football player (Uli Latukefu).

“Young Rock” also features Stacey Leilua as Johnson’s real mother, Ata, and Joseph Lee Anderson as his famous father, wrestling champion Rocky Johnson. Dwayne Johnson appears as himself in the series, which was created by Nahnatchka Khan and Jeff Chiang (both of “Fresh Off the Boat”).

And while he’s rarely known for being taken down, Johnson, 48, said in a recent video interview that the process of creating “Young Rock” was “so incredibly surreal” that it “knocked me on my ass.”

“Unlike anything I’ve ever participated in, it required real specificity and attention to detail,” he said. “And nuance, finding the comedy and making sure that some of those lessons that I learned in a hard way would hopefully help the audience as well.”

Johnson went on to talk about mining his life stories for the material in “Young Rock,” and how the show required him to reevaluate himself and his father, who died in 2020. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

First of all, is there anyone in your life who still calls you Dewey?

Yes, my mother calls me Dewey all the time. And unfortunately, she calls me that in public. I hadet this name when I was young – hated it every time my parents called me it in front of girls, teachers and my friends. And it’s stuck.

How did you decide which phases of your life the series would focus on?

It took many hours to sit down with Nahnatchka, just talk and share stories and then walk away, go home, write things down, meet again, go through more stories. After we had chopped many years back, Nahnatchka and her team went back and they sifted through everything. And they came back with the concept of three timelines at. 10, 15 and 18 that defined years in my life.

Have you done anything to help restore these old stories and generate the raw material?

I poured a lot of tequilas on me and I was able to jog my memory. I would leave Nahnatchka these tone of voice after my second or third drink and say, listen, you will never believe it. But I’ll tell you that anyway. And then we talked the next day.

Did you want to be involved in the casting of the actors who play you in the show?

Every single one. And I was able to spend some time with them before the recording and let them know how I was during that time. What I thought my priorities were. The more important times that I fell on my ass and I had to get up again. It was surreal in itself. What really pulled in my cold, black heartstrings was finding the actors to play my mom, my dad and my grandma and spend time with them. When we have these conversations and they start talking about what they knew about my mother and my grandmother and my father [snaps fingers]within seconds I would well up.

Have you ever considered one “PEN15” style approach to the show where you would play yourself at different ages?

We talked about everything creative you could think of. Could I play all three characters? How could we do that? Would we pull technology in and see what we could accomplish there? One of the problems was time and effort trying to balance my already very full plate of things I had to do. One of the original pitches was that I would actually stay in the shadows – doing what I wanted to do, advertising, but otherwise let this live alone. Then we came back and realized, let’s have you in every episode, talking and thinking again. This is probably a better way to do it.

We see in “Young Rock” how with the wrestlers in your father’s era, their lives in the ring are glamorous and exciting, but their lives at home are more mundane, even a little skinny. Was it true for your experience growing up?

Oh, yes, we show the truth in that generation, in the 70s and 80s. These breaking stars were loved and they were celebrated. They fought in 5,000 places or in high schools. And when they went, they always left in a Cadillac or a Lincoln. Always. Everybody. Wherever they would park, you would see a fleet of Caddies and Lincolns. Because it worked gimmick. And it was important that fans saw them get into an expensive car. But then when you walk along the road where they lived, in many cases it was small apartments that we did. And we would live paycheck to paycheck. I felt there was value in showing it. This was the commitment that these men had to their business. This essentially puts food on their table.

Some viewers have already gotten a glimpse of your awkward high school years, thanks a famous photograph from the era that showed you wearing a turtleneck, a gold chain and a belt bag. Will we learn the origins of fanny pack in a future episode?

The fan package will definitely live a life. It is very, very important. But we all went through that in high school to varying degrees. I was 14 when we left Hawaii and had to move to Nashville. And it was here that everyone thought I was an undercover cop because “21 Jump Street” was at the time. And we left Nashville within three months and moved to Bethlehem, PA, and I felt like who I was was not good enough. I would not be Dwayne, I would be Tomás. I thought girls would think that was a cool name. They had to think I had money and I wanted to steal these expensive clothes. I was arrested twice when I went to Bethlehem to steal – which is not in the pilot either, but it will get in the way.

The show’s portrayal of your father is complicated because we first see him as a popular wrestler, and then later, when his wrestling career is over and he’s working on several kvidian jobs to make ends meet. Was it hard for you to think of him this way?

When NBC said, “We’re in, let’s cooperate [on ‘Young Rock’]”It was great news. I called home to my mom and dad and talked to them both. A few days later he died suddenly. But I think he wants it to show. He would like to offer this example to help other athletes go out of their world with perhaps a little more grace than he did. He was having a very hard time and he had to find some job. He drove a truck, he did what he could to make money. It’s a tough reality shift. My dad and I, we had a complicated relationship – it was very hard love. Let’s show the mistakes, but when people are not here anymore, let’s show the good things too.

Has your mother seen the show yet?

My mother was my “Young Rock” consultant all the time. She felt we could show off the hard [expletive] and the hard [expletive] because we got through it. That’s the lesson. Hopefully people who go through hard [expletive]can also see that there is a way out. You can get on the other side of it.

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