Dwayne Johnson is always bursting with confidence. Whether he’s greeting his rabid fans, visiting children in a hospital, or promoting his movies, the hulking actor is one of the most vibrant personalities on Earth. And now he’s also the highest-paid actor on Earth, having pocketed $64.5m last year according to Forbes – more than doubling his earnings from the previous year and bumping Robert Downey Jr from the number one spot, which he had occupied for the three previous years. When informed of the news in August, Johnson tweeted: "Want to say two things about this. I started with $7 bucks. If I can overcome, so can you. Waffle House on me!"
That kind of eternal optimism has served the 44-year-old Johnson well over the years. Twenty-two years ago, after injuries had derailed his pro football career, Johnson found himself rudderless and recalls “crying by myself on my sofa and feeling that my life was finished.” That was when he discovered the virtues of positive thinking in what became an insatiable quest to make the most out of life. He created a massive public following as pro wrestler Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and used the power of his WWF following to help him break into Hollywood with the goal of becoming the top action star in the business.
Today, the 6ft 5in, 250lb Johnson occupies precisely that position – and his career (as well as his biceps) are only getting bigger. In April, he returns to his familiar role as the FBI agent Luke Hobbs in Fast and Furious 8 – The Fate of the Furious. The long-running film franchise has already earned $3.8bn at the box office and industry observers are predicting that this latest instalment could well surpass the $1bn mark on its own.
“We put a lot of time and effort into this movie and it’s big, cool, and epic,” Johnson says. “We wanted to be sure to make an amazing movie but also create some uneasiness and some questions.”
This time out, Hobbs goes up against Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto who is lured back to the dark side. Charlize Theron joins the cast as a mysterious new villain while Scott Eastwood makes his debut in the franchise playing the younger brother of the late Paul Walker's character. (As it happens, Walker and Eastwood were close friends prior to the former’s November 2013 death in a car accident.) The cast also includes returning players Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Elsa Pataky, and Jason Statham.
Johnson admits to being “thrilled” to have a chance to up the ante again in Furious 8, which takes the characters on an epic chase through Cuba, Iceland, and New York City. Says Johnson: “One of the most fun things for me in these films is that I can come up with lines like ‘Daddy’s got to go to work’. We have a lot of lines like that in Fast 8 – we have to deliver!”
There have also been reports that the Furious producers have plans to give Johnson his own stand-alone Hobbs franchise, although discussions are still ongoing.
I hope people can look at my life and see that hard work and ambition can take you a long way
Meanwhile, Johnson has a shot at starting his own film franchise in Baywatch, the R-rated comedy and big budget remake of the long-running TV series. Johnson, who takes over David Hasselhoff's role as Mitch Buchanon, was actively involved in developing the reboot which also co-stars Zac Efron and model Kate Upton as CJ Parker, the iconic role first made famous by Pamela Anderson.
Johnson is not resting on his laurels. Following last year’s Forbes article he was quick to offer a cautionary note on Instagram to his 80 million followers: “And don’t ever forget where you came from. I was evicted at 14 years old and completely broke by 23. Every day I wake up as if that eviction notice is right around the corner waiting for me, which is why I always say, ‘the wolf is always scratchin’ at the door’. He’s scratchin’ cause he’s hungry and never satisfied. We embrace and respect our past (even if it was fucked up), but we never let it define our future. Let’s stay hungry and chase that greatness.” And greatness is something that Johnson has in spades…
Q: Was being ranked the highest-paid actor in the world an important milestone for you?
JOHNSON: It’s exciting and it’s incredibly gratifying. But anything I’ve accomplished is the result of having great self-belief and determination to succeed in life. I had to pick myself up off the floor and work very hard to make my way back in life. Trying to find work in Hollywood, I had that scratch and claw mentality where you just keep pushing and fighting until you get one job, then the next, and keep moving forward. I hope a lot of people can look at my life and see that hard work and ambition can take you a long way.
Q: You’re getting to act in all kinds of movies these days. You had an action comedy with Kevin Hart (Central Intelligence), voiced an animated character in Moana, and now you Baywatch coming up. Are you consciously moving away from just action films?
JOHNSON: I always believed that I needed to do all kinds of movies including comedies and family films – and not just action movies – if I wanted to grow as an actor. I’m also very comfortable doing comedy because I love to laugh, and I love so much being able to make other people laugh. I think it’s important to have a healthy spirit, and I want to be able to share my spirit and enthusiasm with everyone.
Q: You often lend your support to children’s charities. Was your love of children one of the reasons that made you want to do Moana?
JOHNSON: I’ve done family films before and this one was very special. It was great to work with the people at Disney – and be part of a movie that children and families can enjoy. I also embrace the ‘aloha spirit’ that is part of the film and which is very meaningful to me and to Polynesian culture. Whenever I go to Hawaii or other islands in the Pacific I always feel the energy of those places and a movie set in that world resonates very deeply with me. It’s my culture and while I was working on it I noticed the grandmother in the film is very much like my grandmother. That really touched me, and I can tell you that never in my entire career have I ever cried as much as I did making Moana. It was a very special experience.
Q: What were your high school years like?
JOHNSON: I had some hard times. I had a lot of problems with my identity and figuring out who I was and who I wanted to be. I was getting into a lot of trouble early on in high school and I was arrested multiple times when I was 15 and 16. I was mixed up and sports are what turned my life around and gave me something to focus on, and gave me some purpose and direction in life. All kids need that – and I was lucky enough to find that. During my last year in high school I won a full scholarship to the University of Miami and we won a national championship. Thanks to bodybuilding I was able to gain self respect and set definite goals in my life. I tried to model myself after Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, and I knew that one day I would get into acting.
Q: As it turned out, you learnt a lot about the art of performing during your wrestling glory days in the WWE. Were you always thinking about conquering Hollywood at some point?
JOHNSON: It was always my dream to be an actor. Watching Rocky changed my life – and that character became my role model. I got into wrestling because that was a family tradition [his father was a wrestler], and it was a good way of making a name for myself that could one day lead to Hollywood. I actually developed my own Hercules project long before I actually got to play in the (2014) film but no one took me seriously. I had to slowly, very slowly, work my way into the business doing films like The Mummy Returns (2001) and The Scorpion King (2003) and even after that it was very hard for me to get parts. I made it a point to learn everything about how the business works and do whatever it takes to succeed. So I tried doing comedies like Be Cool and Get Smart because comedy came naturally to me and I knew I was good at it.
Q: Do you ever miss your wrestling days when you would appear before massive crowds or is acting a much easier way to earn a living?
JOHNSON: Wrestling in front of a live audience is an extraordinary feeling. You feel such an incredible energy when you’re in the ring. It takes a physical toll, but it’s incredibly exciting. Acting is very different, of course. You need to be able to show a wide range of emotions and create many different kinds of characters as opposed to one. Up on the screen, I get to fall in love, be funny, or be very dramatic. When you’re in the ring, the beating you put on your opponent is the only thing that counts.
Q: You have two children [Jasmine, one, from long-time girlfriend Lauren Hashian and 15-year-old Simone, from his first wife, Dany Garcia, who still works as his manager]. How have you evolved as a father over the years?
JOHNSON: I think it takes time for guys to figure out who they are and what kind of life they want. Gradually you realise, ‘Oh, this is who I am. This is who I’m comfortable being,’ and you begin checking off all those boxes about what you’ve dreamed about achieving and that gives you more confidence. And as you get older, you find that there are more boxes out there and more goals that you set for yourself.
Q: What is the most important advice you could offer to your children?
JOHNSON: The number one thing is to have confidence in yourself. You need to believe that you are good enough and that you can accomplish what you set your mind to do. You’ve also got to learn how to block out all the noise and all the things that distract you from your dreams and ambitions. You’ve got to listen to that little voice inside you that tells you that you are good enough and that you can realise your dreams. The Fate of the Furious is due for release on 14 April. Baywatch is due for release on 2 June.