Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s new television show, “Young Rock,” isn’t just a chronicle of his early years, it’s also, he says, a “love letter to professional wrestling.”
That’s because many of the iconic wrestlers from the 1980s and 1990s are characters in the new NBC comedy.
“I learned some of my most valuable lessons coming out of the world of professional wrestling,” Johnson says during a Zoom conference. “These men were, in essence, my superheroes. They didn’t wear capes when I was a little boy.”
Stars like Andre the Giant, Randy “Macho Man” Savage and the Iron Sheik were friends of his father, Rocky Johnson, also a pro wrestler. They’d hang around the Johnson household and offer more than a little life advice.
In the series, Johnson is shown at several key ages – 10, 15 and 18. Three actors play the different “young” Rocks and show how he didn’t always lead an exemplary life and often had to work twice as hard to achieve half as much as others.
At 10, he says, he was an innocent boy “who just needed guidance but who loved the world I was in.”
At 15, he was a teenager “who had some anger issues but also thought he was really cool. Clearly, I had an identity crisis.” Instead of telling others he was “Dwayne,” he called himself, “Tomas.”
“Girls used to call the house and ask for Tomas and my mom would go, ‘I’m sorry, there’s no Tomas here,’ and I would run, ‘No, no, no. That’s me.’ And she’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’”
At 18, Johnson was a star on the football field. He was a defensive tackle at the University of Miami and was a star on the 1991 national championship team. After graduation, “I did not get called up to the NFL. That was a pretty big loss because when you’re done with your college career, you’re done. You don’t get another shot at it. Instead, I went to the CFL (Canadian Football League) and that was a tough time, too. I was cut from the CFL. And then, that’s when I had the infamous seven bucks in my pocket.”
Nahnatchka Kahn, who produces “Young Rock,” says those “roller coaster” moments make for great storytelling. “We’ve all been there in some shape or form,” she says.
Dad leaves an impression
Of all the actors in the series, Johnson says, Joseph Lee Anderson comes closest to the real deal. Anderson plays his father and, “if you’ve known my dad or had an inkling of the world of pro wrestling and my dad, you know Joseph’s portrayal is so uncanny and so incredible. I spent a lot of time with Joseph just talking about that complicated, tough-ass relationship that I had with my dad. And that’s the tricky thing about this – to find that balance of who he was as a man and the tough love he raised me with.
“He had a lot of friends. He had a lot of enemies. But he had this unique ability to make you feel good the moment you come into the room.”
Johnson’s father died last year and “would have loved this,” he says of the series. “He would have been so proud because, for the first time, we are showcasing this world that he and all of his brothers of the ring gave their life to.
“A lot of time, the world of pro wrestling isn’t always looked at through that lens in a positive way. And there’s a lot of positive that we can take out of this.”
Wrestling with fame
After those football years, Johnson moved into professional wrestling, making his World Wrestling Federation debut as Rocky Maivia (a combination of his father’s and grandfather’s stage names). That name got shortened to “The Rock” after he built a reputation that made him one of the biggest stars in the business. Despite a “bad guy” reputation, he was clearly a fan favorite. All sorts of drama followed his character (including wins, losses and contested battles) which helped him move into films and become one of the leading box office draws in the world. While he announced his retirement from wrestling in 2019, Johnson hasn’t said goodbye to the sport. He still turns up at events and stokes the fires of fame.
Kahn says there are stories in the series that will show The Rock’s vulnerable side and reveal just how key family and friends were to his success.
“It was important for us to be real and authentic,” Johnson says.
In the opener, the young Rock gets in trouble for shoplifting, lies to authorities and tries to pretend he’s something he’s not. During the two-and-a-half years it took to get the series made, Johnson shared as much as he could with writers and encouraged them to craft something that was entertaining, but also had a bit of a takeaway for younger viewers.
“My life was incredibly complicated,” he admits. “It was incredibly tough growing up. I lived in 13 different states by the time I was 13 years old. I also lived in New Zealand. There was so much breadth to this life that I had.”
Sharing with others, Johnson adds, could encourage young fans to soldier on during adversity. “Sometimes when we’re going through tough times like this, (we’re) in the bubble. Sometimes when you see somebody else going through it, it just gives you a different perspective. It’s just like a kaleidoscope. You click it a few times and you see something a different way.”
"Young Rock" premieres Feb. 16 on NBC.