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When Will America Accept The Rock as a Real Actor?

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Jul 21, 2014 | 2:20pm EDT

HerculesParamount Pictures

The Rock has quite a lot cooking at the moment. In addition to recently wrapping on the seventh installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise, he’s got an epic starring vehicle in Hercules hitting theaters on Friday, and he’s all but confirmed that he’ll soon be donning the golden cape of Shazam onscreen soon (via TotalFilm). Between the blockbusters, the action-packed period pieces and an upcoming tenure as a superhero, there’s no doubt that Dwayne Johnson is a bona fide box office star. But even though he can bring people into a movie theater, people still seem reluctant to view The Rock as a legitimate actor.

After all, the first time that the public got to know Johnson, he was vamping in the wrestling ring and earning dramatic close-ups with the lift of his eyebrow. When he first began branching out into acting, via goofy action films like The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King, people were understandably reluctant to accept this giant goofball as a real thespian. But it’s been almost a decade since Johnson left wrestling behind for movie sets, and despite racking up dozens of credits and hit films, he’s still more closely associated with the ring than with Hollywood.

But Johnson is a talented actor. Despite a few early cinematic disasters, he’s steadily delivered entertaining, compelling, layered and even moving performances. He’s charismatic and appealing, both on and off-camera, and his resume of characters is more diverse than you might realize at first glance. He’s got basically everything he would need to become a major movie star, and yet we’re still hesitant to give him that title. We had no problem with Channing Tatum’s transition from dance films and rom-coms or Terry Crews’ growth from an NFL player to one of the funniest character actors in Hollywood. So why can’t we see Johnson in the same light?

Is it because he was so well known as an athlete that we can’t help but associate him with sports (or whatever pro-wrestling qualifies as) rather than movies? Or is it because his first forays into acting were characterized by box office flops and cheesy kid’s movies? Can we just not see the man who made Tooth Fairy as a legitimate actor, despite the numerous successful films he’s made since?

It could be that we, as an audience, need to see Johnson in a completely different light in order for us to really let go of his wrestling past. Matthew McConaughey was just the Southern guy from those bad rom coms until the one-two punch of True Detective and Dallas Buyers Club, and people didn’t start taking Tatum seriously until he teamed up with Stephen Soderbergh for Magic Mike and let his comedic talents shine in the Jump Street flicks. Perhaps Johnson needs to find a more serious project with a prestigious director in order for us to really appreciate his talents. Meanwhile, his next two features, Hercules and San Andreas, are more likely to be perceived as mindless action movies he can add to a long list of blockbusters.

All of this puts a lot of pressure on his potential performance as Shazam. While many of the performers who have taken on superhero roles are highly-acclaimed character actors, like Robert Downey Jr., Christian Bale, or Mark Ruffalo, the genre has a long history of casting people who look the part, even if they can’t quite act it. If the Shazam film doesn’t do well, both Johnson’s athletic background and hit-and-miss film history will likely be blamed for the flop, and it could erase a lot of the goodwill that he’s earned over the years as an actor.

However, if it does well, it could be exactly what Johnson needs in order to be seen as a legitimate actor and movie star. Before he set off after John Connor in The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger was best known for being a body builder, but after that film became a hit, he was regarded as an actor first and foremost (even when he became a politician). Shazam could do the same thing for Johnson, and finally help the public see him as more than just the goofy wrestler with the eyebrow and the catchphrase. Considering DC has had a patchy track record when it comes to superhero films lately and the fact that Shazam isn’t as well-known to the general public as Batman or Superman are, audiences probably won’t have very high expectations for the film, which should make it easier for Johnson to exceed them, and reintroduce himself to the world as an actor.

And if that doesn’t work, there’s always True Detective Season 3, right?

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