Dwayne Johnson has graduated from “Franchise Viagra”—the nickname bestowed upon him for being able to enter an established movie franchise and inject new life into it—to the pitched-tent foundation of new tentpoles. The highly charismatic actor has a seemingly endless amount of reboots and fresh adaptations slated over the next few years, from Baywatch to Jumanji, Rampage, Big Trouble in Little China, Shazam, Jungle Cruise, to a shared Robert Ludlum universe and a potential Doc Savage adaptation from Shane Black. Before all that comes there’s the curious case of Central Intelligence. Curious because it’s one of the only items on his plate that is an original script, is a comedy, and is wholly built around just the appeal of a Johnson-Kevin Hart pairing. In a way, it’s his biggest gamble.
Collider was invited to the Boston set of Intelligence last summer and I had the immense pleasure of meeting the actor formally known as The Rock in person. We were present while he shot a scene with Hart and an actor who’s cameo role we cannot reveal. What was unique about watching this particular scene is that Johnson, despite being a hulking presence, was playing someone who was being belittled harshly and didn’t feel capable to stand up for himself.
Johnson plays a C.I.A. agent, Bob Stone, who’s returned to his hometown for a high school reunion. When Bob was in high school he was Robbie Weirdicht, an overweight geek who was tortured by most of his classmates—with the exception of Hart’s popular and kind(!) Calvin. Bob still has his geeky and fun-loving sensibilities except he’s now in the massive body of a killer. To try and impress the popular guy that he always really liked Bob enlists Calvin on a top secret mission that gets them into shootouts, but also crosses the paths of jerks that they both used to know. Jerks stuck in the past who’d still like to humiliate Weirdicht—despite his new skills.
Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball) told us that he’d been following the turnaround status of the Ike Barinholtz (Neighbors) and David Stassen (The Mindy Project) action-comedy script for years. After the success of We’re the Millers he told Warner Brothers that he’d like to make a play for it.
Before the project went into turnaround it was set up as a Will Ferrell–Ed Helms comedy, but the set-up was very different from what the film is now. “The joke was that Bob was a heavy-set guy; out of shape but he could still kick ass. So the joke was a fat Jason Bourne,” Thurber said. A producer floated the idea of Johnson being Bob, and it became “such a different approach to the character,” Thurber said. “But when I sat with it and thought about it for a second it made sense to make the former fat kid from high school who got bullied but transformed himself into Dwayne Johnson. The Rock. The joke became different and actually better because… we could keep all the insecurities and vulnerabilities inside this 250 lbs of muscle armor.” Thurber noted that the shift to bullying made the Bob character sweeter and more endearing. “Even though I laughed at the idea of a fat Jason Bourne, it makes no sense, so to refashion the character for D.J.—who’s so underrated at comedy—was a great idea.”
After seeing the set and his 250 lbs of muscle but still insecure scene, we got the chance to sit down with Johnson. And what a delight. We were a small group of journalists, but I would like to point out that our asides into 90s culture, particularly Beverly Hills 90210 was my most personal moment with the man. Oh and I did offer my shirt to him, which would be torn to shreds.
Johnson talked about his particular favorites from the 90s, how Tom Hanks and Bill Murray informed his role, the action aspects of the comedy, how Intelligence differs from other buddy action-comedies, how this could help Hart get a larger global following, and he closed the interview by bringing up porn. With a smile.
Here’s what the Rock was cookin’ in summer 2016.
Question: So what we saw in that scene, is that kind of indicative of who your character is when we meet him?
DWAYNE JOHNSON: Right, when we meet him [in high school], he’s incredibly shy. Bullied unmercifully, he has a lot of quirks and idiosyncrasies. So that’s who we meet in the beginning of the movie. Because he was bullied, he quit high school after this one particular event, that [unnamed cameo] mentions in that scene we just shot. He decides to change his life around. He works for the CIA and becomes very efficient as a CIA operative. And, like a lot of things in life, when it’s time to pay the piper and you face your greatest fears, sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t go well. In this case, he’s my greatest fear and it doesn’t go well.
He’s a different character for you, I mean we’re used to you being this kind of alpha male guy, always very confident.
JOHNSON: And handsome. [laughs]
Seeing you be unconfident is very odd.
JOHNSON: The idea was, it had been a while since I had gone back into comedy and I was just waiting for the right opportunity, and hopefully find a script that had some action elements in it. When New Line brought me the script, I loved it and wanted to take a crack at the Bob role. It wasn’t necessarily for me, I was going to play the other role (Kevin Hart’s). There were other actors who were attached in the past.
The idea was if I was going to go back into the genre of action comedy, how do we bring this to an audience in a way that it’s not something that they’ve necessarily seen? How do we take a model that’s been successful over the years whether it’s been Trading Places or 48 Hours to Lethal Weapon, and Rush Hour? [We wanted] to take the model and kinda flip it in a way and present it in a way that had never been done before. So the idea of playing a guy who was unmercifully bullied in high school, obese, different. And then that guy then becoming who he becomes. When the script came, I loved the script, met with Rawson [Marshall Thurber], I think we had a good shot to create something that was going to be different. I’d play a character I had never played before with these interesting quirks and layers. And within that, create a story that could be pretty interesting to people depending on the pairing.
So we were all on the phone and we were going through a list of probably five or six big stars, and we were going over the list and by the end of the list, we were on the phone: myself, New Line executives, myself, Rawson, Warner Brother executives and Toby Emmerich, who’s a President over at New Line. I said, “I have a crazy idea, his name is not on the list, I think it could be really funny and global: Kevin Hart.” There was a long pause. No one said a word. About 15 seconds, Toby Emmerich, classically, says, “I’ve got an idea. How ‘bout we go out and get Kevin Hart?” [laughs] Kevin and I have known each other for a long time, and now here we are.
So he has you to thank for getting on the project.
JOHNSON: He doesn’t have me to thank. Don’t start that. [laughs] No. It was always a very appealing idea to work on something with Kevin; we’d met, seen each other out. Just in the visual of seeing he and I together, people will like it. There were a couple of pictures I saw of us talking backstage at MTV that when I saw the pictures, I thought, “That’s a great movie poster right there.” I’ve always enjoyed his comedy, I have everything he’s ever put out—in terms of his comedy albums. And yeah, it wound up being something really special. You kind of never know, you can put two guys in a room with a great director who’s coming off of a big movie, We Are the Millers, and a studio who does these very well but you never know. And this being our last week of production, I’m pretty confident. I think we got something pretty good.
Rawson said your character was sort of stuck in the ‘90s and I’m sort of wondering what sort of makeup of the ‘90s your character has and whether or not you were able to sort of insert your own favorite ‘90s things into it?
JOHNSON: He is. In the construction of this character, the fun part is that. We know the big bones of it, but now we can add meat and layers.
I called Rawson and asked, “What if there was a certain part of his brain was completely stunted when he was thrown out on his dick in front of the entire school?” There’s a final pep rally, and Kevin is everything, he’s class President, four letter all-American, the whole thing. One of those guys you love. He’s obviously on the path to success. He’s got this pep rally, he gets down on one knee, he’s going to propose to his girlfriend, it’s a big thing. And I am grabbed out of the shower, because it’s a big school thing, everyone is there and I’m in the shower. So I can shower by myself because I’m weird. I get thrown out on my ass in front of everybody, and my [given] name is Robert Weirdicht. That’s a lot of fun later.
[Using that as a segue] to answer your question. The stunting allows him to go through life and be proficient because the other side of his brain accelerated, but it allows him to go through life earnest. Tom Hanks in Big was a big reference for us. To create this character. A little Bill Murray in What About Bob? He’s earnest in the way he speaks, “Wow, where’d you get that shirt, man?”
I don’t remember.
JOHNSON: I love it.
You can have it. [Laughs]
JOHNSON: With the ‘90s, it’s the fanny pack, he loves Public Enemy, loves 90210. He continuously quotes things that happened throughout the 90s. But there is a switch when bad guys come around. He gets down to business. There’s so much fun in constructing this thing, working with Kevin, making sure our characters are balanced. It reminds me how fun the job can be. It’s like, “Okay what from the ‘90s did we love?” We loved the Ghetto Boys, you name it. So it was fun to throw all these quotes (and references) out.
Going back to taking the model that’s worked in the past, these buddy cop movies, these two handers, that’s worked very well [but we did want to both reference it and] flip it. When you have movies like this, you always have two characters who are totally contradictory, one wants to go this way and the other wants to go this way. But they have to work it out because they’re stuck together. For Kevin, if he wants to go that way, I’m going to go that way too because there’s a big level of hero worship there. I love this guy. I worship him. I wish so badly I could be him. I’m still that guy. There’s this interesting dynamic where he wants to get the fuck away from me but I love this guy. There’s this one scene where I’m so excited that we’re even together and he’s like, “We’re not together,” and I’m like, “Oh, no, no. We’re like Taylor Swift and whoever she’s dating now.” I might age myself here, with Beverly Hills 90210…
Let’s talk about 90210…
There’s this one scene where I’m like, “We’re like Brandon and Brenda. No. Dylan and Brenda.”
Oh, yeah. Dylan was the one. So tortured but soft.
JOHNSON: We’re having a lot of fun. There’s a lot of 90s in it.
It looks like there’s a lot of ad-libbing on set.
JOHNSON: There’s a good amount. Well, Rawson does a lot of the writing. We make sure we lock the script and then, you can’t fuck with a director that much who does his own writing. He’s been great, by the way. I jokingly knock him. So there’s a good amount of ad-libbing but there’s also a good amount of trust. If we have the ability to do it, great. If ad-libbing isn’t your thing, that’s fine.
The WWE really helped me with [knowing when to ad-lib]. But there’s a lot of trust to know we’ll always bring it back to where it needs to go. You guys have been in the business a long time too and it doesn’t always work out that well [unless] there’s a lot of chemistry. It’s a hard thing when you’re trying to elicit laughs from people and you have the most successful, hottest comedian on the planet who can easily take control of a room if he wants to. We’ve been having a blast. A lot of fun, man.
It’s an interesting mix of you and Kevin because you have very different backgrounds. And you’re right that he’s one of the biggest comedians, but he hasn’t really broken out outside of America compared to you, who’s huge overseas. Do you see how it’s going to play in other places where Kevin hasn’t really been seen yet?
JOHNSON: From a business standpoint, he’s got a little work to do in regards to international appeal. And he understands that, by the way. He’s already started to layer in trips over there. I think he went for The Wedding Ringer. He’s got an international tour prior to this film coming out.
It takes time to build. He’s built an incredible business [stateside]. I think that this movie has a lot of potential to travel globally. We do have different sensibilities but have similar sensibilities in terms of business and in terms of growth and connecting with audiences. Kevin understands the potential, we all do, by the way, of what this movie could be. Because it’s the type of comedy that can travel. I believe in it, and where I go in terms of promoting this movie, he’s going. We’re both going, buddy.
Could you see yourself playing this character again?
I would love to. Yes. I think about whether films have global potential, I wonder if people are going to like it, if they’re going to enjoy seeing me in it, and my dancing partners. And from the initial wave of Kevin Hart, Rawson, we’ve got a good shot in terms of it getting global. In terms of franchise, I think it does too. It depends on the fans, the reactions. In terms of what we do, in terms of success. It’s that funny combination of box office success and your Cinemascore. For me, that’s what I like to pay attention to.
It has potential. I would love to play this character again. Love it. Because it’s rare, man, it’s rare. It’s like Bill Murray in What About Bob? it’s like Tom Hanks in Big. It’s rare when you’re an adult but you can have fun and you can be very childlike in your ways and in your thought process, and still be successful in what you do and still have this really cool earnestness. It’s rare that you get a shot like this as an actor. I’d love to play again. It’s up to the fans though.
What was the level of prosthetics for the flashbacks?
JOHNSON: We have WETA. Those guys are going to come out. No prosthetics. We have a great Robbie Weirdicht at 18. He’s running around here. He’s a great dancer, too. Robbie can cut a rug, the guy can dance. So no prosthetics. We’ll use WETA and their incredible technology [to insert his face on his 18-year-old counterpart]. What they did in Captain America, it’s really going to look fantastic.
We heard you were singing in the shower, is it actually going to be you singing in the shower?
JOHNSON: Did you hear?
Rawson told us.
JOHNSON: It’s me. I’ll be singing. An egotistical actor. Show me an opportunity, of course I’m going to sing. [laughs] Naked in the shower singing En Vogue. It’ll all come full circle, the scene you saw with [cameo actor], of course he’s going to get his comeuppance in the end. But there’s a very cool moment at the end which is, we hope, going to be a cool message: the most important thing you can be is yourself. There’s a nice moment where Bobby shows the world the real him.
I have to ask about the action…
JOHNSON: Fantastic. Allan Poppleton who is a tremendous fight coordinator, stunt coordinator, he worked with us on Hercules, San Andreas. He always comes to the table with fight sequences that are different and cool. We have a great shorthand now so he understands my strengths and the things I look really shitty at doing so he does not present them. But [audiences] are going to be happy with that. And that’s a really great question because you think Rawson you think comedy, you think of me, you think porn. [laughs]
How could you not?
JOHNSON: I know you guys, this is a room of guys. [laughs] But, what’s going to be really really cool is the action set pieces because Rawson wanted to come as a director and really elevate the game of action in a comedy. He really wanted to make sure we were rooted in some “holy shit” type of action. That was music to my ears. I’ve got a great stunt double—who’s my cousin—who puts it on the line every day for me, so I don’t have to get cut up, and I’m good to go.
Central Intelligence opens in theaters nationwide June 17. Aaron Paul, Amy Ryan, and Danielle Nicolet co-star.