For Dwayne Johnson, starring in “San Andreas” was a chance to make a childhood dream come true.
When he was 8 years old, and living in Hawaii, the actor discovered “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” for the first time. He can still remember how instantly smitten he was with the idea of playing a wise-cracking hero.
“I was so inspired that I thought, `I want to be that guy! He’s charming! He kicks ass! And he’s great with the ladies.’
“When we started working on `San Andreas,’ we thought it felt like a Spielberg film, and talked about how we were all huge fans of his movies.”
After hosting “Saturday Night Live” for the fourth time in March, Johnson received an encouraging letter from his filmmaking idol.
“I got a note from Spielberg, who said a lot of motivational things to me,” Johnson said. “So I sit here today, blessed and very happy.”
Much as “Jaws” tracked the effect of shark attacks on the community of Amity, so “San Andreas” looks at the aftermath of magnitude 9-plus earthquake in California.
Johnson stars as a search and rescue helicopter pilot who teams up with his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco to save their only daughter (Alexandra Daddario), who’s been missing since the quake.
The special effects are jawdropping. Get ready for a decimated Hoover Dam, a leveled Los Angeles and a submerged San Francisco. But Johnson insists it was the film’s theme of family togetherness which initially convinced him it was the perfect follow-up to his turns in the back-to-back hits “Hercules” and “Fast and Furious 7.”
“I like the theme of family coming together [and finding strength] through tragedies,” said Johnson, 43, who has a 13-year-old daughter with ex-wife, Dany Garcia. “I’ve been through things like this. I grew up in Miami, and I’ve been through Hurricane Andrew, which was a Category 5. It was a tough thing.
“I think, in the movie, the idea of this family coming together will resonate with a lot of people. “
While Johnson’s other 2015 movie – “Fast and Furious 7” – is pure popcorn thrills, the actor sees “San Andreas” as both a thrill-ride and a chance to honor first responders.
“You have a [special] responsibility when you play first responders,” he said. “This has been a life-changing experience for me. “
While shooting the movie in Australia, Johnson trained with many search-and-rescue personnel, learning how to, among other things, rope down from a helicopter.
“I spent a lot time getting the processes [right] with these guys and girls,” Johnson said. “This was a different part for me, exercising different muscles. We all hope to be taking care of business but, in this case, it was very different from anything I’d experienced before.”
Another priority for Johnson was making sure the science in “San Andreas” was accurate.
“We had top scientists challenge the script before finally saying that this could happen,” said Johnson, once known by his wrestling handle, the Rock. “We hope it doesn’t but it could.”
When production began on “San Andreas,” there was no way of knowing that a real-life earthquake would devastate Nepal just weeks before the film’s release.
According to the New York Times, the distributor, Warner Bros., changed the marketing to emphasize both relief efforts and the ways that people can prepare for natural disasters.
“I think that we made a movie knowing and understanding the content in it,” said Johnson who resides in Florida with his girlfriend, singer/songwriter Lauren Hashian.
“And in the world we live in, these things happen. Prayers and thoughts continue to go out to everyone [in Nepal]. But the truth is, you go into a project like this with your heart and soul and just try to make a good movie. “
The idea for “ San Andreas” began with producer Beau Flynn, a fan of classic disaster epics who was hoping to update the genre with today’s 3D capabilities and cutting-edge technology.
Flynn, who worked with Johnson on “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” lived through the Northridge Earthquake of 1993, which rocked Los Angeles a mere three weeks after he moved to the city.
“Like Dwayne, I’m from Miami so I’m very familiar with hurricanes, but with those, you get a warning,” Flynn said. “You don’t get a warning with quakes. So Northridge was very scary. It was a sobering experience.”
Flynn was responsible for hiring scripter Carlton Cuse of TV’s “Lost” and director Peyton, who also worked with Johnson on “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.”
“For the last 20 years, [the project] has been percolating,” the producer said.
For his part, Johnson said he was an instant proponent of the project.
“We were shooting ‘Hercules’ in Budapest at the time, and I read the script and loved it,” he recalls. “It all came together fairly quickly in terms of the amazing actors who wanted to play in the sandbox.
“Hopefully [it] will redefine a genre that has been around for a long period of time.”
Over the course of the last decade, the actor has made no secret about his tough road to success.
“At 14 years old, hard times befell us and we couldn’t pay the rent,” he said recently at a ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood where his hands and feet were immortalized in cement. “We had been evicted and our car repossessed.”
After a move to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania from Hawaii, Johnson became a star defensive tackle at Freedom High School. He continued to play ball at the University of Miami but, after graduation, he wound up in the Canadian Football League instead of the NFL.
After getting cut from the CFL, Johnson hit rock bottom. He moved back home with his parents, who were by then living in Miami. He had $7 to his name. (7 Bucks is, by the way, the name of his production company).
Wrestling proved a life-saver. After six years or so in the ring, Johnson made the transition into movies with “The Scorpion King,” which led to turns in “The Rundown,” “Gridiron Gang,” “Get Smart,” “The Other Guys,” “Snitch” and “Pain and Gain.”
More than a decade into his movie career, Johnson seems to be growing more popular with each passing film. The actor recently announced plans to reprise his role in the next chapter in the “Fast & Furious” franchise.
Also upcoming from Johnson is the Kevin Hart comedy “Central Intelligence;” a big screen adaptation of TV’s “Bay Watch;” “The Janson Directive,” a spy yarn about an ex-Navy SEAL turned corporate security consultant; two more “Journey to the Center of the Earth” pictures; the animated “Moana,” in which he’ll voice the demi-god Maui; and the superhero epic “Shazam” as Black Adam.
First up from Johnson is “Ballers,” a project which marks his reunion with “Rundown” director Peter Berg. The HBO series is about a recently retired pro football player who’s trying to make a living managing money for his one-time teammates.
Since morphing from a the WWE wrestler into a movie star whose films have grossed in excess of $2 billion worldwide, Johnson said he has learned to take fan reaction seriously.
“There is an expectation globally that fans have with what we’re delivering,” he said. “We always want to raise the bar.
“This script, for instance, was very well written. We had an opportunity to create something very special and unique that was anchored with heart and science.
“We had producers and a director who were ready to raise the bar… There are expectations [of me] and we have to meet those expectations across the board with all the characters. And I think we did it with `San Andreas.’ ”