In the late 90s, he was a major part in the resurgence of "sports entertainment" known as professional wrestling, when he could captivate audiences with just a single twitch of the eyebrow as "The Rock." It wasn't long before his mammoth build and electrifying persona took him into the world of regular entertainment, i.e. the movies, where he now goes by his given name, Dwayne Johnson. After a stretch of successful family-friendly movies such as Race to Witch Mountain and Tooth Fairy, Dwayne Johnson is making a glorious return to the action genre with Faster, which will be released in theaters on November 24.
Back in March, I was one of a select few press members who was invited to the set and, wouldn't you know it, one of the first people we ran into was Dwayne Johnson. I had never met this enormous man before, although I was told by several colleagues that he was one of the nicest guys in the biz. Sure, he stands 6'4" and has arms the size of my head, but I knew just after a short exchange with him, that all those stories were true. "The Rock" really is one of the nicest guys I have ever met. We were set to speak with him later in the day, but he made it a point to welcome us to the set, which was very cool indeed.
If you're not familiar with the movie up to this point, let me bring you up to speed. Dwayne Johnson plays "Driver," who wasn't exactly your model citizen. He goes in to pull a bank heist job with his brother, which goes horribly awry and lands Driver in prison for 10 years and his brother six feet under. As the years pass, Driver only has one thing on his mind: revenge, both for his brother's death and for the decade he lost inside. Upon his release, through his various contacts, he holds a list with four names. Four men responsible for his brother's death. Four men who must die. As he sets out at a breakneck pace, he finds himself being pursued by two men: an aging cop on the brink of retirement (Billy Bob Thornton) and a stylish assassin (newcomer Oliver Jackson-Cohen), both of whom are only known as "Cop" and "Killer." However, with the stakes being raised at every turn with this "Cop" and "Killer" tracking him down, "Driver" begins to realize that his list may be incomplete...
Producer Robert Teitel told us that, besides the 70s throwback elements of having nameless characters, there are also many 70s-style car-chase scenes. He said these chase scenes were shot in a much more practical (i.e. real/non-CGI) way, which meant they had to take their cast to driving school:
"What we did was we sent Dwayne Johnson and Oliver Jackson-Cohen to driving school. It was like a boot camp throughout the movie, actually for every character. They were meeting with a Rampart police officer for the driving and the shooting."
"We always considered this a contemporary Spaghetti Western, so instead of The Good the Bad and the Ugly, this is The Cop, The Killer and The Driver. Let's see, Bullitt, Vanishing Point. To me, that was the best time for American movies, especially these kinds of movies. We loved the taciturn, no-named character and the writing style of the script, too. We wanted to be very sparse and lean, so it's definitely a throwback, we hope."
When we spoke with director George Tillman Jr., he also listed love of 70s cinema as one reason he came on board, particularly how movies of that era were more grounded in reality than today's movies. He also said those reasons are why Billy Bob Thornton signed on, and how the unconventional ending could lead to a sequel:
"It started with the script but, for me, it really started when I met with Billy Bob Thornton. He told me he hadn't done a film in a couple of years and he wanted something he could sink his teeth into. When he first came out, his first day on the set, he was playing in the grey area. He's a heroin addict, he's a cop. He's not black or white. As soon as he came in, you're looking at the Driver, who has not more than 20 or 25 lines throughout the whole movie, you're looking at guys like in the everyday world today, that are not clear-cut. That's what I've been more attracted to. Even with my last film, Notorious. Everybody had this perception of The Notorious B.I.G., who he was, but there was a different side to him. Everything was in grey and I liked that about all these characters, The Killer, The Driver. The movie has a very un-Hollywood ending and, at the same time, it helps you for a sequel too. Those are the things that are attractive, there's more to real life that people can identify with and it grounds it to a certain degree.
After we watched a brief rehearsal of a scene with Dwayne Johnson, we were able to speak with the "Killer" himself, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who you may have seen in the fall comedy Going the Distance as Damon. That movie was his first American role, a trend that will surely continue after audiences get a glimpse at him as "Killer" in Faster. Here's what he had to say:
Does your character have a lot of backstory at all?
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: Yes. I think the whole thing is this is catching him just as his whole life has changed. The backstory, that was one of the first things that George asked me about, where he was from. We went back and forth with a lot of ideas, but fundamentally, a lot of his problems stem from when he was a child.
Are you one of the characters that kills Driver's brother?
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: No, no, I'm completely separate. I'm hired to come in and I find myself in this chaos. All three of us, we all have our own demons that we're dealing with and the whole situation of what happens, makes us have to deal with it. All of the stuff in the past is coming up, right from the beginning of the film. It's fascinating to draw on that.
Do you have a connection with one of the female leads?
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: Yes. Maggie Grace plays my wife. Basically, it's just me and her in our own little world and that's basically it. We don't have any connection to anyone else. We're all in our separate lives and we all meet.
We heard you went to driving school. How did that go for you?
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: Oh, that was amazing. When I first got the movie, that was the one thing that I said, 'When do I go to driving school?' They took me out for a day and, I mean, I'm 23 and I've never driven a car that, when you go past 60, it doesn't start to shake.
What did you get to drive?
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: I got to drive a Ferarri.... it's the silver one (Laughs). No one really knows which one it is. No, driving school was incredible. The stunt coordinator brought in this guy who spent years and years driving them. It was incredible.
What about weapons training?
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: Yeah, I've been doing that still, eight weeks of training. At the beginning, it was every day. I mean, I'm from London and we don't have guns there like you guys have here. They've got this guy named Chic Daniel, who's incredible and one of the consultants on the film. Everyone has been very, very patient. We did it indoors and you learn how to hold it, because at any minute you could shoot yourself in the foot because we were using live rounds. Then it got bigger and bigger and we started going out to a range in Santa Clarita and then shooting from a moving car, shooting on the run.
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: Oh, of course. Every single day I think I'm going to get fired. I couldn't really ask for a nicer bunch of people to be working with. When I met the producers and George Tillman Jr. for the first time, we sort of got together with Dwayne and did this mock-up scene. He was just one of the nicest people I think I've ever met, and Billy Bob as well. I was so nervous meeting him. It's incredibly nerve-racking when you have to hold that up. It's three stories and they all run consecutively and you don't want your story to... suck. It's going well, hopefully.
How was the audition process like for you?
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: It was great. I was sent the script by my agent, but I had just moved here. I had been here for like two weeks, so I got here and it was one of the first couple of scripts I read. I remember someone saying to me, 'It's about a hitman,' and I thought, 'Oh, all right.' But right from the beginning, what Tony and Joe have done was given these characters heart and made them people you can actually relate to. That's what really drew me to it. There's this man and he's falling apart and you can't not have compassion for him. I read it and I went in to meet George and the first audition was awful. He didn't say anything to me, and he's brilliant like that because he'll just sit there. He just said, 'Thanks,' and I left, thinking, 'What am I going to do?' I drove home in a real panic and I called my girlfriend and said, 'Baby, we're going to tape it. We're going to tape it and send it off.' I got home about a half-hour later and I got a call saying I'm coming in tomorrow. I went back in the next day, and then I went back in again. Then I went back to London and I got a phone call - this was over Christmas, so Christmas was nice and tense. They called me and originally said they wanted me to go to Miami, to go meet Dwayne. I ended up flying back to L.A. on New Year's Eve and we did screen tests. So, I spent New Year's Even on the plane, but it was totally worth it.
Now, you're this killer but you're also a bi-polar character. How much research went into that?
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: Oh, there was a huge amount. When I first got the script and started to audition for it, I started researching. There's another thing he has which is a leg deformity, from when he was a child. Someone in my family actually had the same thing. When you have a trauma that bad, it affects you in certain ways, so I started reading about that. There's so much to him and his mind races so fast that there's quite a lot of hurt and quite a lot of stuff that he's trying to keep bottled up. I think, in order to understand that, you have to throw yourself in and understand it yourself, so I made a point of it, of trying to get a grip on this stuff.
You said you were nervous when meeting your co-stars. Could you take that energy and apply it to your performance at all or are they two separate things?
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: I think they're totally separate. I used to be so laid-back and so easy-going and this kind of character has sort of... I get home and I find myself counting, I'll count grapes. Then I'll go switch the lights on once and switch the lights on twice. It's completely different, but it sort of creeps in.
You're going to need therapy after this.
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: I'll probably turn into an alcoholic.
Last, but naturally not least, we were able to sit down with the Driver himself, Dwayne Johnson. Take a look at the full interview below, where he talks about his return to the action genre and so much more:
A lot of people are excited about you getting into the action genre. What was it about this project that got you back into this kind of film?
Dwayne Johnson: The script spoke to me right from the beginning. It came across my desk about a year and a half ago, maybe a little bit more. I read it, I loved it and I loved the character. I'm excited to get back into this genre. Getting back into the action genre is like going back home. It's great. I loved the script. I loved that the characters were well-written, against a simple backdrop and simple storyline. It's about, 'You took something from me, and now you're going to pay.'
What can you tell us about the scene you just shot?
Dwayne Johnson: Prior to this scene, the second individual who I track down and kill is an older guy who is a pedophile. I wind up killing him and through the gunfire and all the noise that you heard, the little girl that you saw today just comes out.
So there are four people that you go after, and this was the second?
Dwayne Johnson: Yes. The next one will be a bouncer at a strip club and the last will be an Evangelist.
What would you say your ratio is, of words spoken to bullets fired?
Dwayne Johnson: Good question! Words spoken to bullets fired is 1 to 25.
Does your character have a lot of back-story in the beginning, or does it just start with you in prison?
Dwayne Johnson: Correct. It starts with me in prison, and the back-story will start to unfold as the movie goes on. You'll start to see it when we start doing flashbacks. You will start to understand why the Driver has become who he has become.
What was it like to work with Tom Berenger as the warden?
Dwayne Johnson: It was a pleasure. I've been such a fan of his for a long, long time now. I found out that he wanted to play the warden, loved it and we shot that scene in about half a day. It was great. That's the very first time that we see the Driver with the warden and he's quoting the prophet and saying, 'I want you to get help. Do you have any questions?' And, my answer is, 'Yeah, sure, where's the exit?' Working with Tom was great. Not only is he a great talent, he's a great storyteller too. He's had stories for 15 or 20 years, or longer in the business and outside of the business. It was a treat for all of us to sit around and talk shop. It was guys being guys.
Since you went to driving school to learn various maneuvers, do you actually get to use anything that you learned in the film?
Dwayne Johnson: Sure, yeah, in a big way. There are a lot of shots that we're setting up, that we're getting ready to do in a couple weeks from now. I'm going 80 or 90 mph, doing 45's on a dime, doing 180's, doing reverse 180's. We'll do all of that. It was important for me to learn as much as I can in the limited time we had in order to not cut away and have the audience know that it's me in the car. That was really cool. We had a stunt driving specialist who's responsible for teaching a lot of actors how to drive in these big car chase sequences. I spent the day with him and his guys and it was a lot of fun. My character is pretty proficient at driving and behind the wheel.
What's tougher to handle, a Chevelle SS or Billy Bob Thornton?
Dwayne Johnson: It all depends on what day you get Billy Bob. He's such an interesting, intriguing guy. He's very talented and he's very passionate about what he does, especially when he locks into a role that he really loves. He read the script, loved it, sat down with George Tillman Jr. and Robert Teitel and they met for an entire day on the script. This was a character that spoke to him. His character has a lot of layers of complexity. He plays a cop. I've been a fan of Billy Bob for a long, long time. We both have an infinity for traditional old school, outlaw country music. If I wasn't in Hawaii then I was all throughout the south living in Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta, Charlotte and Tampa, so my country roots were pretty strong ever since I was five years old. We had that to talk about. And, he's another great storyteller. He's a talented guy who's very intriguing and very passionate about his acting and certainly about his music. He's a cool guy. He's really, really cool.
Why is your character in jail and why has your brother been killed?
Dwayne Johnson: We were involved in a robbery and the robbery went awry.
You were committing the robbery?
Dwayne Johnson: That's right. Yeah, we were. We weren't being robbed. They'd be pretty foolish people to try to rob us. We were involved in a robbery and the guys who we were involved with turned on us and they execute my brother and shoot me in the back of the head, but I live. Through that, we get busted and that's why I have to go away. I get busted, my brother gets killed, but the guys wind up getting away. Now, 10 years later, they have families. One is a telemarketer, one is a bouncer, one is a pedophile and one is an Evangelist.
So the scar on the back of your head and on the one on your cheek is from being shot?
Dwayne Johnson: Correct. I was shot in the back of the head and it exited out my cheek. There's a metal plate in my head now.
Is this purely about revenge, or does the money matter to this guy as well?
Dwayne Johnson: The money is of no concern to me whatsoever. I started out with nothing. In terms of the character, my brother was the only thing I had. My only interest and my only thought is to make the individuals pay. I really loved my brother dearly. You'll see as the story starts to unfold in the movie that the money is of no interest at all.
How is George Tillman Jr. as a director, and how does he compare to some of the other directors you've worked with?
Dwayne Johnson:George is great. He's a very smart, passionate director, but we often hear those words about directors. George is very studious. As an actor you can have your own back-story and prepare all the details that you need to know for your character. George is one who will give you pages and pages and pages of notes and back-story as well. The one thing that I find really satisfying about working with George Tillman is getting into specific details about character and spending hours talking about it. When you're in sync with the director on the type of movie you want to make, the arc of the characters, how the characters intertwine and interact, plotlines and story, and things like that, it really makes a difference. George is one of those guys who comes from a very articulate, studious background. He cares about his material. Oftentimes in movies the art always reflects the artist, but his filmography is pretty diverse, to writing and directing Soul Food to Men of Honor and then to Notorious and some of the other various projects that he's produced as well. I love working with the guy. He's got a producing partner Robert Teitel. I've really enjoyed the process. If I can work with those guys again I certainly will.
Are there shades of good and bad, in each of these characters?
Dwayne Johnson: There is, yeah, sure. There are a lot of layers to all of the characters. That's why it was really so well-written. When you talk to the writers, they'll say it's Bullitt meets The Good the Bad and the Ugly. When those guys write, they write '70s style, movies like that, especially with the main character having one main driven focus. It doesn't get over-intellectualized. It doesn't get too complicated. While the characters can be complicated and well-layered, the main point of the story is very straight-forward.
Is this the beginning of you doing more action films? Have you already lined up what you're doing after this?
Dwayne Johnson: Yeah, I'm going to hang out in this space for a little while and do movies that are a bit more dramatic, intense and physical. There are some things that we're developing.
What does the recipe have to be for you to say 'This is an action movie I want to do,' versus all of the rest of the scripts?
Dwayne Johnson: The truth is, if I like it, if I think the character is going to be fun and I think the story is good, it appeals to me and hopefully it appeals to an audience too. It's tough to nail down specifics but I look for characters that I'm going to have fun playing. By the way, whether that's drama or sci-fi, action-comedy, family movies, I just want to have fun doing it.
You're reunited in this with Carla Gugino. Do you have much screen time together?
Dwayne Johnson: Not at all, no. Unfortunately, no. She, along with Billy Bob, tracks me, but we don't have a lot of time together. But, she's nailing her stuff. She's such a great actress. She does very well in this role, in this space, where she's pro-active, smart, taking care of business and kicking ass where she has to. She doesn't play weak well at all because it's not in her DNA. So I was thrilled when she was able to step in and do the movie.
Did you have a lot of say in the car that you had in this film? Are you a fan of certain muscle cars?
Dwayne Johnson: The Chevelle, for sure. But, I've always been a pick-up truck guy. I drove a pick-up here to the lot. A whole bunch of my buddies were always into muscle cars. But they presented me with this particular Chevelle they gave me the background on it and told me why it was a muscle car and why it was cool. They also put Nitrogen boosters and things like that in it where I'm able to go up against a Ferrari and I think there's a Porsche in the movie as well. As long as the car was fast and bad-ass and you gave me that big gun that I have that's all that I needed.
How is it to shoot that gun?
Dwayne Johnson: It's awesome. It's a Ruger Super Redhawk: Alaskan. It's one of the biggest revolvers made. That thing is huge.
What caliber is it?
Dwayne Johnson: It's a .454 Casull. It's big. It's nicknamed Bear Stopper. A lot of hunters take it when they go hunt big game because they're able to pull it out quickly if big game attacks them, instead of using their rifle. You could stop a bear, if you put that bullet right in the skull. It does a lot of damage.
Now that Spy Hunter is getting started up again, are you still involved with that?
Are you still looking to play the Hawaiian king, King Kamehameha?
Dwayne Johnson: We're developing that now, yeah. That's very exciting. It's a true story. King Kamehameha was the ruler of Hawaii and it's almost like shades of Braveheart with him. He was responsible for uniting all the islands of Hawaii. It's an amazing story.
Dwayne Johnson: I love Peter Berg. He's my buddy. I love Peter. I would love to do that. We essentially started our careers at the same time around 2000 or 2001. He had that great movie Very Bad Things. That was fantastic. I had just done "The Scorpion King." And then we went apart after The Rundown. I wanted to work in other genres and become a better actor. He wanted to work in other genres and become a better director. So coming back and working with Peter Berg would be awesome. I would love to whether it's The Rundown or whether it's anything else. We're constantly looking for something to do together.
That about wraps it up from my day on the set of Faster, which will arrive in theaters on November 24. This looks to be one high-octane thrill-ride that just won't let up and I can't wait to see it on the big screen. Peace in. Gallagher out!