Yep, He's Big... (news story - about the Rock and Disney's film "Race to Witch M

Discussion in 'Disney News, Rumors and Current Events' started by Sheila Gallant-Halloran, Mar 8, 2009.

  1. WITH his Paul Bunyan physique and Central Casting good looks, Dwayne Johnson, known until recently as the Rock, always turns heads. But as he bulldozed his way down the red carpet at last month’s Grammy Awards, Mr. Johnson — a football player turned professional wrestler turned movie star — got noticed for a less polite reason.

    What on earth was the Rock doing at the Grammys?

    His prime-time appearance, during which he cracked jokes before introducing Justin Timberlake, wasn’t just one part of a slapdash marketing effort for the forthcoming “Race to Witch Mountain.” It was the latest manifestation of a carefully calibrated strategy to transform Mr. Johnson, 36, from meathead action star into family-friendly leading man and a member of Hollywood’s top tier.

    Along with nixing his geological wrestling nickname, Mr. Johnson has moved beyond the he-man roles (“The Scorpion King”) that gave him his cinematic start, branching into comedies (“Get Smart”), family movies (“The Game Plan”) and art-house fare (“Southland Tales”). And he is working hard to sell himself to a wider audience, focusing in particular on children. In the past 10 months he has logged time at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, guest starred on “Hannah Montana” and served as the grand marshal of Hong Kong Disneyland’s Main Street Parade. In 2008 he even popped up at the Academy Awards. (Succeed at the Oscars — as Mr. Johnson did, flawlessly executing his presentation of the visual effects trophy — and you may well leave Mom-Approved.)

    The 6-foot-4 Mr. Johnson, part Samoan and part African-American, sees families as his entree into the most rarefied club in the movie business: leading men who can anchor big-budget, broad-audience blockbusters. Will Smith, Tom Hanks and ...Dwayne Johnson?

    “You never know,” he said, sawing into a chicken breast last month at McCormick & Schmick’s in Burbank.

    But Hollywood is littered with tough guys who tried to be Ahh-nold, who is still considered the industry champ at oscillating among audiences. Vin Diesel’s career sputtered when he expanded too far beyond his action-hero roots; now he’s working on a comeback by returning to the “Fast and Furious” franchise. Even Sylvester Stallone, the 1997 indie drama “Cop Land” aside, failed to make the leap, flopping badly with “Oscar” in 1991. (“Sylvester Stallone is to comedy what Mickey Rourke is to soap — no relation,” Rita Kempley wrote at the time in The Washington Post.)

    A changing Hollywood makes Mr. Johnson’s quest even more difficult. Movie executives increasingly build pictures around prepackaged concepts — superheroes, remakes, talking animals — and less around stars. Big stars not only can be costly, but they also have a pesky habit of demanding creative input.

    And Mr. Johnson doesn’t have much in common with the ascending lead actors in Hollywood, who are either intense and brooding (Christian Bale) or pudgy and dorky (Seth Rogen). Senior executives at two studios said Mr. Johnson lacks an edge on screen — surprising, given his physical stature — and that may have torpedoed efforts like “Walking Tall,” a 2004 remake in which he played an ex-soldier determined to rid his hometown of crime. Yet that hasn’t stopped Walt Disney Pictures and 20th Century Fox from entrusting him with two of their most high-profile entries in 2009. “Race to Witch Mountain,” which Disney plans to open in more than 3,000 theaters on Friday, is a loose reboot of the 1970s-era Disney franchise about two alien children who become stranded on Earth. The budget is an estimated $50 million. And Fox cast him in the $45 million “Tooth Fairy,” in which his hard-nosed hockey player character receives his karmic comeuppance, complete with tutu, wings and magic wand; it will be the studio’s entry in the Thanksgiving marketplace. (Yes, there is spandex involved.)

    “He’s larger than life and has endless charisma but comes across as a regular guy on screen,” said Oren Aviv, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production. “That makes him a very unique talent.”

    In person the soft-spoken Mr. Johnson exudes calm. He looks you straight in the eye and has the confidence to be self-deprecating. He’s polished, peppering his responses with media-training totems like “that’s a really good question.” He calls you “buddy.”

    While Mr. Johnson was eating lunch, a bashful guy in his 20s shuffled up to him and stammered. “Um, I’m sorry to interrupt you while you have a knife in your hand,” the man said, “but I know you’re the Rock, and I would love your autograph. For my nephew.” A little hand holding a tattered cocktail napkin and a pen appeared in front of Mr. Johnson’s face.

    Part of you expects this enormous man to slam down his knife, spit out some gristle and come spinning at the poor guy like teeth on a chainsaw. Instead Mr. Johnson gently patted him on the arm and said he was happy to comply. “Have a good day, and try to stay out of the rain,” Mr. Johnson said as the admirer floated away, beaming.

    “Audiences, particularly kids, seem to love discovering that a guy this big and this good looking is actually very sweet and very funny,” said Andy Fickman, who directed Mr. Johnson in “Race to Witch Mountain” and “The Game Plan.” “Subverting that stereotype is very smart for him.”

    Mr. Johnson, who is divorced and has a 7-year-old daughter, wasn’t always the nice guy. Growing up in Hawaii in a family of professional wrestlers, he was arrested multiple times for misdemeanor fighting and theft. He said his turnaround came at 17, when his mother bailed him out of jail. “My parents were dealing with evictions and repossessions and electricity getting shut off,” he said, “and I just realized that I had to get it together.” ... l?ref=arts

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