A Conversation With The Rock

Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken has an exclusive one-on-one interview with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
| By Marvin R. Shanken | From The Rock, January/February 2021
A Conversation With The Rock
Photo/Peter Yang

He’s larger than life, figuratively as well as literally, a man who seems to have endless energy and never appears to slow down. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is truly everywhere.

A blockbuster pro wrestling career opened the doors to Hollywood where he has starred in one hit film after another, including five movies in the Fast and Furious franchise. A television show about his early life debuts on NBC in February. Johnson is one of the new owners of the XFL pro football league and last spring he launched his Teremana Tequila brand, one of the hottest spirits creations in recent memory. By many measures he’s the biggest star in the world, a man with more than 200 million following his every move on social media. 

His rise to fame and fortune was anything but assured. His was a troubled youth, moving town to town, getting arrested. A career in football was his original game plan, but when his NFL dreams failed to pan out, he found himself in his early 20s without a job and virtually no money. He became a pro wrestler—a job once held by his father and grandfather—and after a rough start he emerged as The Rock, the biggest star in the red-hot WWE universe. A small film role in 2001 quickly turned him into a movie star, and his fame has grown every year. 

Johnson won a scholarship to the University of Miami, and played for the Hurricanes. (Photo/Miami Collegiate Images via Getty Images)

On December 11, The Rock sat down in front of his computer for a lengthy conversation with Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken about his amazing life.

Marvin R. Shanken: I’ve never done an interview like this, over the Internet. It’s a new world. I understand you and your family had the Coronavirus. I’d love to know what the experience was like, how serious it was and how your recovery went.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: Yes, my family did have the Coronavirus, we were kicked in the gut with it back in August. First my wife tested positive, then our eldest daughter who was four. And at that time you realize very quickly just how insidious of a virus this is. The transmission rate is so incredibly strong. In a 24-hour period, it had spread so quickly to our nanny, our nanny’s teenage kids, her husband. Myself and my two-year-old daughter, we were the last ones standing until the very end, but of course we both tested positive. We were on the fortunate end for something that has been so traumatic to the world. We got through it. Our symptoms were on the milder side. It was a tough one.

Shanken: Yesterday, the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine, so let’s hope that in the next few months we’ll all be smiling, because the last year has been pretty miserable for everybody. 

The Rock: I hope so, too. From your lips to God’s ears.

Shanken: You’re 48, you’ve been in 62 movies, you’re a world champion wrestler, some say the greatest in history, you’ve hosted “Saturday Night Live” five times, you were part of the 1991 national champion Miami Hurricanes, you’re about to become a Tequila mogul, you bought the XFL, I hear you put out unbelievable workout videos. Your Wikipedia bio is 44 pages long. What am I missing?

The Rock: [laughs] Well, No. 1 sexiest man alive, Marvin. That’s the most important. 

Shanken: How does one person accomplish so much? It’s unbelievable, all that you’ve done. 

The Rock: I think it’s done with a little bit of ambition, certainly a little bit of luck, and one of the critical factors is surrounding yourself with the best possible team. I have been fortunate over the years to have accomplished some pretty cool things.

Shanken: Did you have an agent in the beginning of your movie career? Because your first movie was The Mummy Returns. If I had an agent that put me into The Mummy Returns, I’d kill him. 

The Rock: [laughing] I did. For a little bit of context, I’m a firm believer in work begets work. The Mummy Returns [which came out in 2001] was my very first foray into acting. It was, at the time, a very successful franchise. 

My foray into Hollywood was unique. I was coming out of the world of professional wrestling. At that time pro wrestling was on fire. It was this new combination of sports and entertainment and reality television. We were on Monday nights, we were pulling some ratings from Monday Night Football at the time, so there was a lot of sizzle. [But] to make that transition from wrestling to Hollywood was a little bit of a challenge. The opportunity for the Scorpion King [his Mummy Returns character, which led to his staring in The Scorpion King in 2002] was one I couldn’t pass up. Similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who I know you know—who started off with Conan—that was my Conan. 

Shanken: The next movie is one of my all-time favorites—Walking Tall. You were brilliant. You were so into that role, to do good and to fix the problems of the town. I’ve got to believe that was an important step in your development in the movie business. I’ve watched that movie many times.

Joined by an ensemble cast (from left: Kevin Hart, Karen Gillian and Jack Black among others) Johnson plays the ultimate hero in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. (Photo/AF archive via Alamy Stock Photo)

The Rock: That movie was my first role that had a little dramatic underpinning to it. The story of Walking Tall is a true story. I happened to be lucky enough to do the remake of an original, and that man—his name was Buford Pusser—he had his run-ins with bootleggers and guys who were running moonshine, running drugs and opposed his value system. They had actually left him for dead, and when he came back, he ran for sheriff and he vowed to clean up that town. So it’s a very inspiring story, and he had that big-ass piece of lumber.

Shanken: I want to go back. I’ve read a lot about your youth, and the fact that you used to get into trouble often. Your family moved virtually every year, you were arrested routinely—can you speak to your childhood? Because from the troubled childhood to who you are today is a long trip.

The Rock: I think I had some angels on my shoulder who were really looking out for me. We lived on the road. I lived in multiple states, 13 or 14 states, by the time I was 10, 12 years old, traveled around the world following the career of my dad [Rocky Johnson] who was a professional wrestler as well. In the ’70s, and in the ’80s, professional wrestling wasn’t the global conglomerate that it is today. It was made up primarily of very small territories. For example, we would move to Dallas, Texas, and my dad would be part of that regional Texas promotion. And he would wrestle four to five to six times out of the week, and work all of the small towns in and around Dallas, and about a year later his run would be up and we moved on. So that was the lifestyle we had growing up. 

When you’re on the road, there’s very little stability. You’re making some good money, a lot of it is cash, a lot is paycheck to paycheck, you’re living in apartments. I did know that my parents loved me and did the best they could, but by the time we go to Hawaii, and I was a budding teenager, that’s when things started to get a little sideways for us. I started running around, doing a lot of things I shouldn’t be doing, hanging with the wrong crowd. That’s when I started getting arrested and getting into trouble. The dumb shit that I was doing—from theft, fighting, truancy, skipping school—looking back I was one of those kids who was always playing angry, because of the situation that I was in. I didn’t realize it at the time.

Shanken: As a kid, did you aspire to go into professional wrestling? 

The Rock: I loved it and I always saw myself in a ring because I idolized my dad. And I idolized these men. But when I was eight years old, and living in Charlotte, North Carolina, I went to the movies one weekend when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, with Harrison Ford. It was sold out, the only two seats left were the very front row.

Shanken: The worst.

The Rock: Right, it’s the worst. Even as uncomfortable as it was, with my head jacked back like that, in that moment I fell in love with what that could be, that kind of feeling. I’ll never forget it. The world of action movies opened up for me: Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone. I thought “I want to do that.” I want to be that guy who’s cool, kicks ass, is kissing these beautiful women.

The Rock starred as legendary lifeguard Mitch Buchannon in the 2017 remake of Baywatch. (Photo/Alamy Stock Photo)

Shanken: The other night I watched Rock and a Hard Place [the HBO documentary about troubled youths rehabbing via boot camps in which Johnson appeared and was executive producer]. And at the very end, I had tears in my eyes. And I’m wondering what motivated you to be involved in that? 

The Rock: I could easily have been one of those kids. I was on that road. That boot camp, if you will, is out of Miami Dade. And they really do phenomenal work. To my knowledge, that particular boot camp is the most successful in the country in terms of the recidivism rate being extremely low. I was shooting a movie with Michael Bay and Mark Wahlberg called Pain and Gain, and we were shooting next to that particular prison boot camp. The officers of the boot camp asked if I would come over and say a few words to the kids who were incarcerated. I had never seen anything like that in my life. The level of discipline: strict, all standing in line, perfect uniform. They all sit at the same time, they begin eating at the same time, they stop at the same time, and what you realize when you walk in is your witnessing a real resurrection of kids who were on the path to go to prison. And a lot of these kids, they are up for some pretty heinous crimes. The judge had shown leniency in giving these kids one more shot. And I was blown away by what I saw. So when I witnessed that, in my head I immediately knew if we can create something, find the right partners, which we did with HBO, we can produce something and illuminate this incredible program.

Shanken: In doing my research I called Richard Plepler [former chairman and CEO] of HBO and he said, “you’ve really got to watch this documentary.” I recommend everybody to watch it. 

The Rock: At the end of the day, kids are going to be kids, they’re going to fuck up, have a hard time, sometimes you have to deal with things that go sideways in life, sometimes you hang with the wrong crowd and make the wrong decision. But there’s the opportunity to give these kids a second chance—and they want a second chance—and they meet the judge and they meet these conditions as well and they put in the work, and when these kids put in the work, then they can change.

Shanken: I’m going to change to a happier place. What the hell are you doing creating a Tequila brand, Teremana? Have you been drinking Tequila most of your life? Where did this come from?

The Rock: Tequila has been in my family for a very long time and it’s something I’ve always enjoyed. And as I got a little older and I had more than seven bucks in my pocket, I just tried more and more. So it was exactly 10 years ago that I thought it would be a good opportunity to get into the spirits business, particularly the Tequila business. But I don’t like to rush into anything, so I took my time with this one. I took years.

Shanken: You launched it in March. You have shipped over 300,000 cases, and in the first year it will be 400,000 cases—that’s a staggering amount. I don’t know of any brand, any spirits brand, at a premium price, that has done anything remotely close to that, including Casamigos. What was the secret sauce? How did this happen? It’s got to be the power of your name, and your incredible social media reach. Because they are buying a product they didn’t know. They had to trust you!

The Rock: That’s right, you just said it. It’s trust—that’s the operative word. I think that’s our anchoring word.

Shanken: Were you involved in the development of the product and the packaging and everything else?

The Rock: From day one. From the idea, to the partners, to going down to Jalisco and spending time in Mexico, to spending time with Wayne Chaplin [CEO of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits], to my partners at Mast-Jägermeister [the importer]. The packaging, the bottle, the label, the taste, the cork, the sustainability of our agave fields, everything. But there’s an old saying—I’m sure you’ve heard it—to win, you have to do anything like you do everything, which is all out and all in. So, with something like this that’s so incredibly important for me, and a legacy play—that was my intention, to do a legacy brand for my family and for generations. You have to be in it from the ground up, and you have to know every detail and what may come across as minutiae. Yes, the devil is in the details, but great success is also in the details as well. 

You also said they had to buy something new. At that time, consumers only wanted what they were familiar with. Money was uncertain, and the future was uncertain. I felt at the time of launch that the best thing for us to do is actually pivot, and not do anything traditional in terms of marketing. I didn’t want to create any kind of ads that looked like they had polish and production behind it. 

Talk about trust, this is an equity that I have been working on with consumers and an audience for over 20, 25 years—from my days in wrestling, from my days at the University of Miami. When you put on that helmet, there’s a lot of trust in that, that you’re going to represent the school—

Johnson’s biggest hit ever, Furious 7 was the first movie with The Rock to break the $1 billion. (Photo/Pictorial Press Ltd via Alamy Stock Photo)

Shanken: [puts on a University of Miami hat] When you put on the what?

The Rock: [laughs] There it is. So you know, there’s a lot of trust in that. So what I decided to do at that time in March, was let me break open a bottle of Teremana, once a week, twice a week and maybe share it with people on Instagram and on social media. 

Shanken: I went to Instagram two weeks ago and you had 200 million followers. Now let me repeat that: 200 million followers. Two weeks later it’s 205 [million]. Now hugely successful movie stars have a fraction of that. I mean you’re the guy who got booed at Madison Square Garden. How do you go from being booed in Madison Square Garden to having 200 million followers. I don’t get it [laughs].

The Rock: [laughs]

Shanken: What was it like when you got booed when you were wrestling?

The Rock: It was devastating! Because I came in as a good guy, what our wrestling terminology calls a baby face. I was told at that time by Vince McMahon [chairman and CEO of WWE], dear friend of mine, my mentor for many years in the world of business, he said, “I want you to smile. You can’t smile enough.” I would go out, I would smile, sometimes I would get beat, I would still smile—and that’s a hard thing to reconcile with the audience who has paid their hard-earned dollars. 

Shanken: So how did you go from boos to cheers? 

The Rock: Great question. By being me. By being real, and by being authentic. Now those earlier boos as a rookie, they weren’t the right kind of boos. Because I realize that fans weren’t booing me because they didn’t like me, fans were booing me because I wasn’t being real. No one who is getting their ass kicked is smiling afterwards. And as I’m walking out of these arenas like Madison Square Garden I would hear guys say, “You fucking suck,” and I would smile and say, “Thank you.”  No one responds like that. That was killing me. So I get injured, the summer of 1997, go back to Miami, do my rehab for my knee. Now keep in mind, I left and I was being booed and getting beat all the time. Now if you’re a good guy in the world of wrestling and you’re getting booed, and the fans do not like you, your next option is to turn bad, become a bad guy, and if that doesn’t work, then you get the pink slip, get kicked in the ass and go have a nice life. I was one step away from that.

When I come back from my injury, I had very little company value at the time. So Vince McMahon said, “How do you feel about turning [bad]?” I said, “I would love that.” We have a live TV show, it’s called “Monday Night Raw” and it’s two hours of programming. And I said [to him], “I know this is asking a lot. Can I have two minutes on the microphone to address the fans?” He goes, “That’s a lot of time, man, in a two-hour program.” I said, “One minute. If I suck, you never have to give me the microphone again.” He said,  “You got it, one minute.” I showed up, on “Monday Night Raw” that night, I grabbed the mic and they were booing me, saying, “Rocky sucks.” I said: “I may be a lot of things, but sucks isn’t one of them.” And I went on and said basically I’m going to earn this respect by kicking ass. Then I had a conversation with Vince McMahon—now I just want to express myself. So if I wanted to smile, I smiled. If someone said something to me and I wanted to respond, I responded. When the real me came out in the world of wrestling, [snaps fingers] that’s when it changed overnight.

Shanken: Was there a moment in time, that you can recognize, when you went from a bad guy to a hero?

The Rock: Yes. When, as a bad guy, fans started chanting my name. I was the Don Rickles of wrestling, I would insult, I would talk shit, and it eventually got to a point where the fans would love it. They just started chanting my name every night as a bad guy.

Shanken: Where did the Rock name come from? Is it from your father Rocky Johnson? 

The Rock: I come from a lineage of pro wrestlers. In the ’70s, my grandfather was the very first Samoan professional wrestler who was really able to put the islands of Samoa on the map. He wrestled for Vince McMahon’s dad in the ’70s. His name was High Chief Peter Maivia. My dad came along in the ’80s and wrestled for Vince McMahon. His name was Rocky Johnson. So when I got to the WWE [McMahon] said, ‘I got your name. Rocky Maivia. It’s a combination of your dad’s first name, your grandfather’s last name, and I want you to take this name out of respect.’ And I hated the idea, because it went against everything that my gut was telling me, because I didn’t want it to seem like I was riding on their coattails. The fact that they wrestled for the company allowed me to knock on the door. I didn’t want to take their name. So we went back and forth a little bit, and I realized very quickly, of course, [he’s] the boss, and I’m going to give this thing a shot and I’m going to embrace it with earnest ambition. And I became Rocky Maivia. When I came back in 1997, we shortened that name to just The Rock.

The Rock’s Teremana Tequila brand launched in 2020 and has been selling at a furious pace.

Shanken: It’s a great name.

The Rock: It’s a cool one. It’s better than asshole.

Shanken: So what is the Rock doing with a bankrupt professional football league that has never made it to first base? [In August, 2020, The Rock and a group of partners bought the XFL for $15 million.]

The Rock: Big opportunity. Big opportunity for players to live a dream. This is an opportunity that never came to me. When I was 16 years old, I realized that if I built my body, if I learned the game of football, I had an opportunity to be the first one in my family to go to college on a full ride, and I had an opportunity to play in the NFL. Now while as a kid I had this fantasy I would be an action star I had no connection to Hollywood. That wasn’t real. Pro wrestling at that time, we lived paycheck to paycheck, we never had a house—ever. I didn’t live in a house till I was 28 years old. My parents’ first house that they lived in was one that I had the blessing enough to buy them in 1999. So we always lived in apartments, efficiencies and trailer parks. So wrestling, while I loved it, wasn’t going to pay the bills for me. Football, especially at the University of Miami, continuously pumps out these NFL opportunities for players, especially on the D line. Russell Maryland, Cortez Kennedy, Warren Sapp—I knew I had a shot.

My dreams of playing in the NFL never happened. Look, Warren Sapp beat me out for my position, I had a lot of injuries, none of those mattered. At the end of the day I wasn’t good enough. What the XFL will provide is an opportunity [for future players] to play. If the XFL was around for me in 1995 and I didn’t get drafted into the NFL, you can believe I would have got on the XFL field. Instead I went up to the CFL [the Canadian Football League]. 

Shanken: So you really think there’s a good opportunity for you to develop a league? I mean, it’s probably going to take a lot of patience and a lot of money.

The Rock: It takes a lot of patience, a lot of consideration, a lot of money, it takes the right broadcast partners—who we are getting ready to cross the finish lines with now. 

Shanken: Do you have a plan in place? When are you going to launch?

The Rock: The spring of 2022. It’s an exciting time.

Shanken: There’s a show coming out on NBC about your life. 

The Rock: The show is called “Young Rock,” and it’s a retrospective show, we go back and we illuminate timelines in my life, living a very on-the-go lifestyle. In the world of pro wrestling, there was such an intersection of worlds that I had, meeting professional athletes, from Muhammad Ali—my dad would spar with Ali, my dad was also a boxer, he would spar with George Foreman. The world of wrestling at that time was certainly interesting in the ’70s and early ’80s. I lived a very Forest Gumpian lifestyle as a kid. You can imagine what my dinners were like, with Andre the Giant and these wrestling stars. 

Shanken: So where does this show begin in your life?

The Rock: It begins at about 10 years old, then 15 years old, and then 18 years old. Ten when I’m living in Hawaii, 15 when I’m living in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I almost got into a fight with the head football coach of my high school. I was such an asshole to him when I first got to that school. I had no intention of playing football. I get suspended the first week of school because I hit a kid, I hit a student, so they kicked me out of school. So basically, I didn’t want to use the student bathroom when I first got to this school. I was always angry. I was a big kid when I was 15 years old, I was six-four, 220 pounds. I use the teachers’ bathroom— 

Shanken: Of course you do! You’re The Rock! [laughs]

The Rock: Of course I do [laughs]. I‘m the new kid, I stand out like a sore thumb, I have a Magnum P.I. mustache, I’m 220 pounds. The coach comes in, and his name is Jody Cwik, he goes, “Hey, you can’t be in here.” And I’m washing my hands, and I turn and I say OK. He goes, “I said get out of here!” I said, “I will when I’m done,” and I continued to wash my hands. His head could have exploded. He hit the wall. “I said, get the fuck out of here!” he screamed. I calmly wiped my hands off, and I walked by him, I gave him a little shoulder brush—he was steaming. I was a real asshole. 

That night I went home, I felt bad. The next day, I came back, I looked for him, I found him, and I went to his class, and I said, “Can I speak to you for a second?’ He said, “What do you want?” “I just want to say that I was a real jerk yesterday, and I just want to say I’m really sorry.” And I held my hand out. He didn’t shake it, he just looked at it. I went to pull away, and he [slaps hand] grabbed my hand, and he said “Thank you.” He was a real rough guy. And I go to pull away and he held on. And this scene feels like a movie, and he says, “I want you to do something for me.” This was in November of 1987. He said, “I want you to play football for me in the spring.” I didn’t even think twice. I said OK. [Snaps his finger]. That changed my life.

(Photo/Peter Yang)

Shanken: Have you been in contact with him at all? 

The Rock: I was in contact with him for a very long time. He passed away a few years ago. He changed my life, because I was angry all the time. The only discipline I had was working out. That’s the only thing I wanted to do. So I played football for him, and he was responsible for calling all these schools, Penn State, Nebraska, you name it. They all flew in to see me, they all offered me scholarships. He was so proud. And when I signed with Miami, he became Miami’s biggest fan. He’s a good man, and I’m so grateful to this day that he shook my hand and he wouldn’t let it go. He just saw potential in me. Think about it—he doesn’t know me. I was 15 years old, I had just got suspended for knocking a kid out, and I gave him a shoulder brush, and I really treated him like dog shit. And he said I want you to play football for me.

Shanken: You’re half Black, half Samoan. Growing up were you ever discriminated against?

The Rock: All the time.

Shanken: In what way?

The Rock: The majority of my growing up was all throughout the South. When I was a kid, up until I was 10, 11 years old, we were in Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, so it was predominantly throughout the south, where racial prejudice was pretty prevalent, pretty strong.

Shanken: And you knew it.

The Rock: Yeah, I knew it, and I would want to fight everybody.

Shanken: Did you ever reach a point where you were able to move on and get over it? 

The Rock: That was one of the challenges of living, if you will, a gypsy lifestyle on the road, where you couldn’t settle down and create sustained relationships as a little boy. So everywhere you went I was always the new kid in school who looked much different than everybody else.

Shanken: I can picture you with a chip on your shoulder and having a really tough life, ’cause you never had roots, you never had the same friends. So then you go through this career, and we’re now in 2020—and you know who you are, you know where you are. I’m sure there are moments when you’re alone and you pinch yourself because you can’t believe your good fortune. True?

The Rock: That happens to me. That happens to me. 

Shanken: Looking out 10 years from now, where do you think you’re going to be? You’re already at the top. What’s next? 

The Rock: There’s still a few things to do. What’s important to me now, and what will be important to me five years from now, eight years from now, 10 years from now, is legacy. January 15 [2020], my dad died suddenly. Gone. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to him. That’s a tough one to reconcile. We all lose our loved ones, but when we don’t get a chance to say goodbye, that’s tough. So this idea of legacy and what that means, not only leaving a legacy, but sustaining it, and how much more can we push the legacy along, how much more can you expand it, where you can take it. Legacy. Does that make sense?

Shanken: So my final question is, I know you’re not a cigar smoker, but I have to ask you: one day when we’re together will you have a cigar with me?

The Rock: Oh absolutely [smiling]. It goes without saying. I tried it. My dad used to be a pipe and cigar smoker—my problem is I tried it when I was too young [laughs]. I’d be happy to sit down with you, and pour a drink. I’ll pour some Teremana, we’ll pour you whatever your favorite is.

Shanken: I’ll have a Teramana with you.

The Rock: Perfect, I would love that. 

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