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Escaping The Rock: How Dwayne Johnson Became Pro Wrestling’s Most Successful Actor

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Feb 20, 2013 | 12:19pm EST

The Rock Dwayne Johnson Career

At one point in history, the moniker of jack-of-all-trades was a great compliment. People who could dabble in multiple arenas were highly regarded. Today, crossing over from one professional field into another is not always cause for commendation — at least not in the entertainment world. When a singer or an athlete decides to crossover into acting, we tend to balk at the notion and develop doubts immediately. This is not a prejudice without precedence, as many examples of ill-conceived transitions into attempted movie stardom have left a sour taste in our collective mouths.

The concept of athletes attempting transformation into actors is nothing new. For example, some of the most prominent stars in the blaxploitation movement were NFL stars first; Fred “The Hammer” Williamson was a defensive back and Jim Brownwas a running back. Over the last few years, former WWE wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has successfully crossed over from being “the most electrifying man in sports entertainment” to being a major box office draw.

What is the secret of The Rock’s success?

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As much as we cast aspersions on WWE wrestlers aiming to become movie stars, in many ways they are specially equipped to make the switch. More so than any other sport, wrestling is as much about theatrical performance as it is about athletic prowess. Wrestlers create personas for themselves, characters really, and then move those characters through a series of designated storylines. It’s scripted entertainment much like film. In fact, wrestlers often have to improvise both their dialogue during interviews and movements during matches. From a cinematic performance standpoint, that ability is a valuable asset.

Johnson is hardly the first wrestler to attempt this tricky maneuver. The likes of Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper are among those who had previously tried this with limited success. Hogan made a series of dreadful b-movies in the ‘80s and Piper similarly became a cult movie icon for his turns in films like They Live and Hell Comes to Frogtown. But even Hulkster and Piper can’t boast the kind of mainstream film prominence that The Rock has enjoyed.

The biggest difference between Dwayne Johnson and Hulk Hogan is that Johnson remained focused enough in his film career to fight through the novelty. The draw to any Hulk Hogan movie was that it would just be Hulk Hogan’s in-ring character doing a series of whacky things in different settings. The Rock, on the other hand, made an earnest effort to develop characters within each new project using his previously honed skills, as opposed to just porting over a persona from his wrestling days. This might also explain why he has been so adamant about shedding his WWE nickname and just being billed as Dwayne Johnson.

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That’s not to say The Rock has never had a film that flopped, but he’s also been able to select plenty of projects that amplify his natural leading man attributes. One the hand, he recognizes that the action genre is a natural arena for wrestlers-turned-actors; making fake fights appear real is WWE tradecraft. Where The Rock has the edge on, for example, Stone Cold Steve Austin, who is currently appearing in several direct-to-video action films, is that he also utilizes his innate and wonderful sense of humor. The guy is just plain funny. He’s still the only athlete to ever host SNL twice, and no small part of that is his outstanding comedic timing. This is the reason The Rundown, which combined action and laughs, is the optimal Rock project. Even as recently as Fast Five, he’s adeptly applied this combination.

But above everything else, beyond all the occupational roots that allowed for a smooth transition, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has proven to be a box office draw—with staying power—due to his abundance of charisma. The camera loves this guy, and it doesn’t matter if that camera is shooting a movie or a live wrestling event. He commands the screen for more reasons than just his physical presence. Hulk Hogan may have been blessed with a larger-than-life personality, but Johnson is effortlessly charming in a way that engenders an admiration within a wide audience. It is this charisma that has allowed this former athlete to become an actor who has outlived the gimmick of his crossover, and therefore the reason he has four movies coming out in 2013 alone.

[Photo Credit: Hollywood.com Illustration]

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