'The Rock' on His Own Troubled Youth

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Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson talks about his new film, Gridiron Gang, his own turbulent childhood, and how he's using his fame to help troubled teens.

TONY COX, host:

Before he was a wrestling star, Dwayne The Rock Johnson played college football. In his new film Gridiron Gang, The Rock returns to his old turf portraying juvenile detention officer Sean Porter. The film is based on Porter's real-life challenge of forming a football team at a youth prison.

Johnson spoke with me candidly about his career in the spotlight and how his early battles with the law helped him identify with the kids in his new film.

Mr. DWAYNE JOHNSON (Actor, Gridiron Gang): Well, by the time I was 17, I was arrested probably eight or nine times. And, you know, Tony, like you said, I was one of these kids, which is why the story resonated with me. I was getting in trouble; I was doing a lot of things I shouldn't have been doing, getting arrested. That started happening when I was 13 years old.

And, you know, I could've easily been one of these kids in lockup and in jail. I was fortunate and I was lucky that I had a couple of people in my life who cared about me. I had good, loving parents. It wasn't until I got older that I realized the importance of that consistent love at home, and that's something you realize that a lot of these kids don't have.

COX: I don't want to dwell on it, but I'm just curious. Were you just involved in petty stuff like, you know, stealing hubcaps…

Mr. JOHNSON: It was fighting and theft. You know, and that's just what I got caught for. And, you know, I wouldn't have changed anything that happened because it certainly shaped me. But you talk about making the wrong decisions and bad choices, you know, I know what it's like to fail. And frankly, I know what it's like to expect to fail too, especially at that age.

COX: Well, you certainly know what it's like to succeed. I mean look back at your football career and college, your wrestling career, the movies. You've been successful, you know, in all three of these areas. There's some similarities of course I guess you could say between football and wrestling and movies in terms of the performance aspect. But which do you think you're the best at?

Mr. JOHNSON: That's a good question. That's tough because, you know, all those things happened at different times of my life and different chapters in my life. You know, I was a good football player and I had a chance to play with some great players. And I was good wrestler, too. You know, and again, I had a chance to - you know, I didn't do it by myself. I had a lot of great guys around me to help.

But in terms of acting, you know, I could say that the challenges in acting, they're as difficult as you make them. And that's why, you know, movies are as rewarding as they can be. Especially, you know, when you work hard and you commit yourself. And I can tell you this with sincerity is that I'm a student of the game, continuing to learn. You know, and that's a great thing about acting, too.

Christopher Walken told me that. I said what's the greatest, most gratifying part of acting. He said it's that you never stop learning.

COX: Let's talk about the movie, Gridiron Gang. It seems to me that this must be tricky from the standpoint that this was a true story, to make it appealing to Hollywood and yet at the same time to be honest to what happened. And I noticed from some of the dialogue that you seem to try very hard to stay on track with what really took place at Camp Kilpatrick.

Mr. JOHNSON: A hundred percent. And therein lies that awesome responsibility you have I think for not only the guys who really change lives around - like, for example, a Sean Porter, the guy who I played - but to do right by the kids too as well. And you're talking about kids who are locked up, and they make that defining decision that they're not going to be called losers even though they're locked up. So, you know, we wanted to keep it as authentic as we possibly could.

COX: Let's talk about Jade Yorker, the terrific young actor who co-starred as the troubled gang-banger turned athlete that your coaching character really connected with. Here's the scene, by the way, where you both break down about forgiving people who hurt you, especially your fathers.

(Soundbite of movie, Gridiron Gang)

Mr. JOHNSON: (As Sean Porter) I know how you feel, Willie. You get to the point where you expect to screw up, you expect to fail. If we want to win, we got to let them go. Forgive him and move on.

Mr. JADE YORKER (Actor): (As Willie Weathers) Forgive him?

Mr. JOHNSON (As Sean Porter): Forgive him. Otherwise we give them too much power over us and they don't deserve it.

Mr. YORKER (As Willie Weathers): Well, how long did it take you to forgive your dad?

Mr. JOHNSON (As Sean Porter): Until just now.

COX: That was quite a scene, and that looked like some real tears coming out of your eyes.

Mr. JOHNSON: You know, they were. And that's a scene we had both, myself and Jade, prepared for for a long time. You know, and that scene embodies the movie. It's about redemption; it's about forgiveness. And, you know, the thing that was most impressive I think just about the character who he played is, you know, he's a kid forgiving his dad. That's a big deal.

You know, any time, again, kids do special things like that I always think they should be commended.

COX: Final thing. What was the response of the people, the actual people who were part of the real situation at Camp Kilpatrick, having seen the movie and how it turned out and how they were portrayed on screen?

Mr. JOHNSON: Tony, it was hugely gratifying for us. And finally getting the nod from Sean Porter, that was the one person who I just wanted to please and make happy.

COX: We should tell the audience Sean Porter is the person that you portrayed who was the coach, who actually did put together the gridiron gang.

Mr. JOHNSON: Exactly. Yes, Sean Porter is that amazing man, and I'm proud to tell you still to this day he oversees five prisons for kids. So he's on the grind and he's one of these guys who truly cares, who's a real hero, not a celebrity, doesn't care about being a celebrity.

He saw the movie a month ago, he cried afterwards. And I wasn't there, but Lee Stanley, who is responsible for shooting the original documentary, said what do I tell Dwayne? He's waiting. And he wiped tears away and he said just tell Dwayne I said thank you, and now after seeing the movie we win. We win. Like regardless of what the box office does or doesn't do, his point was we win now because I know with this movie we're going to help kids. And it was great to hear that from him.

COX: The Rock, it's great talking to you.

Mr. JOHNSON: It's a pleasure, Tony. Thank you, sir.

COX: Dwayne The Rock Johnson stars as Sean Porter in Gridiron Gang. The film opens nationwide today.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) …the deeper the roots. The blacker the (unintelligible) the deeper the roots…

COX: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium

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