Talking about his new film and dropping the line on Spy Hunter

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson flexes his acting muscles in the gritty coming of age drama, Gridiron Gang. Based on a 1991 documentary, Gridiron Gang is the story of California probation officer Sean Porter and his attempt to reform the juveniles in his prison camp through football. The boys in the camp face death on the streets or a lifetime behind bars once released. The story is a bit clichéd, but the sheer human drama does have its effect. The Rock does a nice job here and differentiates himself from the brainless action films of his past.

How did this part come to you?

The Rock: Neil Moritz, the producer of the movie, gave me the documentary as well as the script. He said, "The only thing I ask you is that you watch the documentary first before you read the script." I watched it that night and I was moved to say the least. I called my agent and said, "I would love to do this." That's what happened.

This story has been around for a while. Why did it take so long to make it to the big screen?

The Rock: It happened in 1991. Neil had told me, "I've had this project that I've held onto for a long time now for many reasons." He said, "Number one I don't feel I've found the right actor to portray this in a reality sense and the guy who you would be portraying, if you decide to do the movie, is still alive. You can meet with him and speak with him. And number two there's just been a lot of football movies that happened since '91." So it's been around for some time.

What aspect of the story drew you in?

The Rock: I work a lot with young kids. This movie reaffirmed a feeling that I had. It's just so nice to see there are people out there who really, really care. A guy like Sean Porter is in a thankless job. He's a selfless guy. He still works to this day at a prison for kids. He just really wanted to change their lives. It's just motivating to see that type of person.

You played college and professional football. Do you the credit the game with helping to achieve your success?

The Rock: One of the reasons why I was moved by the material was that I had my own Sean Porter. By the time I was fourteen; I was arrested six times. By the time I was seventeen; it was nine. But I had a guy, he was my arresting officer, and he said basically, "You're going to stop fucking up right now and you're going to go out and you're going to go play football." So I had that guy who cared about me in my life. I played football for ten years from fourteen to twenty-four and you realize the invaluable tool that coaches have is to be teachers. I've come across a lot of great coaches who are still friends today.

Hollywood has an interesting history of portraying young, black, urban men on screen. What do you think about the way these urban kids are represented in this film?

The Rock: I think its great and it's true. It's real, this is their life and this is the way that they live. We got a couple of kids in the movie, who were from Watts, South Central, never acted ever. Came onto the set terrified, petrified, had no idea what this world was. And all of a sudden, just like that, (snaps his fingers) they're on a set. Phil [Joanou, the director] just said, "Listen, you're living the life that we want to portray like it's you, so just have it come from here." It was important. It was important to shoot at the prison with the kids. There were a hundred and thirty inmates there watching us every single day and it was important to get it right. It was important for me to get Sean right, his empathy that he has for the kids, his desire, and it was important. These kids did change their lives around. They all know they did bad. Nobody wants to be in jail and they all hoped for a second chance.

Do you think the story becomes a bit too cliché? How do we know that these programs are really working?

The Rock: I think we continue to do what we do. Number one, I think, is care. For example, there were kids that got out of the prison, when they got out nobody was there to pick them up. Nobody was coming to pick them up and the state just put them right back in jail until they had to decide what to do with them. So it's this vicious cycle that they go through and they live a life of neglect, hopelessness, and failure. But at the same time this program changed lives like a lot of these programs implemented in these youth prisons change lives. That's what sports does, and as a former athlete, I can attest to that.

The camera angles and football action are highly stylized. Did you have any input on the shot selection?

The Rock: I knew that we were going to be cool because Phil is such a big fan of the NFL. We had the NFL camera guys come in there and shoot NFL style multiple cameras. As far as the grittiness of what football is, I thought they were on point. That is what it is, but not only what football does. It teaches you camaraderie, teamwork. It reminded me of what it was for me back then at fourteen, really not caring, having no respect for authority, certainly not for myself.

What do you miss most about your football playing days?

The Rock: The camaraderie with the guys and the team. You know I played a lot of great players, Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis, just to name a couple. I had some really, really good professors at Miami and they always get pissed when I say this. I couldn't tell you thirty-five things that I remember out of their classes but I do remember sacrificing. Getting up at 5 am and practicing for two hours before we went to class and then going to class trying to apply yourself to become a better student.

This is really your first purely dramatic role. Did you also feel the need to branch out, prove your versatility?

The Rock: It was the story. It was great. I love doing action movies and if a great script comes along, not Doom. (Laughter)

Did you have any doubts about your ability to do the hardcore emotional scenes?

The Rock: I just wanted to be prepared. And number two was just to make sure that I did right by Sean Porter, who is a guy who is very astute and keenly aware. He's not interested in the fanfare of Hollywood. He's a very big supporter of the movie, but at the same time he's a real hero and he inspires a lot of kids so I just wanted to make sure that the heavy responsibility was seen through.

Which kid in the film did you identify with the most?

The Rock: I would say Junior's character, just "I'm tired of being an fuck up" and in the documentary, that's what he says. He says "I'm tired of fucking up and making a mess of everything and not making my family proud." Even though we didn't have much growing up, I always had a proud family, but I was that guy who was screwing up. And Kenny Bates, you know, here's a kid who, and I'm happy that Phil inter-cut those scenes at the end where you see that this kid just cried and said, "I just want my mom to love me." I have a great relationship with my mom but that moved me too.

Was there a distinct reason to cast a person of color as being the coach? Was there a reason for that?

The Rock: You're talking about Sean being white.

Yes...

The Rock: No, I don't think so. When I sat down with Neal, he didn't see color. We just talked about the role, talked about the movie, talked about how it moved me, why it did, why I thought that I could relate. So, no, it really wasn't an issue.

Can you talk about the reception Richard Kelly's Southland Tales had a Cannes earlier this year. He really took a beating.

The Rock: We all did, but no, you're right, him more.

Why do you think it was so poorly received?

The Rock: It felt a little personal to me. Considering we're all in the business together and love movies. It's tough to make movies. It's like different flavors of ice cream. Everybody likes chocolate, vanilla, or whatever, but some of the reviews I read, it felt personal, like, wow, I wonder if I did something happen? Why all that anger? It's a movie.

Can you comment on all the Spy Hunter rumors?

The Rock: The ongoing saga of Spy Hunter, they were writing the script, then we had the new Bond, then "Mission Impossible" came out. It's one of those scripts that you just can't screw up. The elements are so good, you've got the interceptor, you've got a guy who chases spies, so conceptually it's great, it's just you kind of want to get it right and if it's not right, you can't spend a hundred million dollars and get it wrong.

Are you looking at it as a possible franchise?

The Rock: Sure, I would love to. I mean, why not? Fingers are crossed with that.

Gridiron Gang is in theaters this Friday, September 15th and is rated 'PG-13' for some startling scenes of violence, mature thematic material and language.

Cinemark Movie Club
Julian Roman