It’s hard to imagine Dwayne Johnson as anything other than the gargantuan, musclebound star of the “Fast and Furious” and “Jumanji” movie franchises, TV shows like “Ballers” and the professional wrestling ring, where he first came to prominence as the Rock. But he was once a smaller — or, at least, younger — man.
His history is now the basis for the new comedy “Young Rock,” which debuts Tuesday on NBC. This series checks in with Johnson at three stages of his life: as a preteen, still known by the nickname Dewey (played by Adrian Groulx); as an awkward teenager (Bradley Constant); and as a budding college football player (Uli Latukefu).
“Young Rock” also features Stacey Leilua as Johnson’s real-life mother, Ata, and Joseph Lee Anderson as his famed father, the wrestling champion Rocky Johnson. Dwayne Johnson appears as himself in the series, which was created by Nahnatchka Khan and Jeff Chiang (both of “Fresh Off the Boat”).
And while he’s rarely known for getting taken down, Johnson, 48, said in a recent video interview that the process of creating “Young Rock” was “so incredibly surreal” that it “knocked me on my butt.”
“Unlike anything I’ve ever participated in, it required real specificity and an attention to detail,” he said. “And nuance, to find the comedy and make sure that some of these lessons that I learned a tough way would hopefully help audiences, too.”
Johnson spoke further about mining his life stories for the material found in “Young Rock,” and how the show required him to re-evaluate himself and his father, who died in 2020. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
First of all, is there anyone in your life who still calls you Dewey?
Yes, my mom calls me Dewey all the time. And unfortunately, she calls me that in public. I hated that name when I was young — hated it every time my parents would call me that in front of girls, teachers and my friends. And it stuck.
How did you decide which stages of your life the series would focus on?
It required a lot of hours of sitting down with Nahnatchka, just talking and sharing stories and then walking away, going back home, writing things down, meeting back again, going over more stories. Once we chopped up a lot of years, Nahnatchka and her team went back and they sifted through everything. And they came back with the concept of three timelines, at 10, 15 and 18, which were defining years of my life.
Did you do anything to help resurface these old stories and generate the raw material?
I poured myself a lot of tequilas and I was able to jog my memory. I would leave Nahnatchka these voice notes, after my second or third drink, and say, listen, you’re never going to believe this. But I’ll tell it to you anyway. And then we would talk the next day.
Did you want to be involved in casting the actors who play you on the show?
Every single one. And I was able to spend some time with them, prior to shooting, and let them know what I was like during that time. What I thought my priorities were. The times, more important, that I fell on my ass and I had to get back up. That was surreal, in and of itself. The thing that really pulled at my cold, black heartstrings was finding the actors to play my mom, my dad and my grandmother, and spend time with them. As we’re having these conversations and they would start talking about what they knew of my mom and my grandmother and my dad [snaps fingers], within seconds I would well up.
Did you ever consider a “PEN15”-style approach to the show where you’d play yourself at the different ages?
We talked about everything creatively you could think of. Could I play all three characters? How could we do that? Would we pull in technology and see what we could accomplish there? One of the issues became time and trying to balance out my already very full plate of things that I had to do. One of the original pitches was that I would actually remain in the shadows — do what I would do, promotionally, but otherwise let this live on its own. Then we came back and realized, let’s have you in every episode, talking and reminiscing. This is probably a better way to do it.
We see in “Young Rock” how with the wrestlers of your father’s era, their lives in the ring are glamorous and exciting, but their lives at home are more mundane, even a bit meager. Was that true to your experience growing up?
Oh, yes, we are showing the truth of that generation, of the ’70s and ’80s. Those wrestling stars were adored and they were celebrated. They would wrestle in 5,000-seat arenas or in high-school gyms. And when they left, they always left in a Cadillac or a Lincoln. Always. Everyone. Wherever they would park, you would see a fleet of Caddies and Lincolns. Because that was working the gimmick. And it was important that fans saw them getting into an expensive car. But then when you go down the road, to where they lived, in many cases it was small apartments, like we did. And we would live paycheck to paycheck. I felt like there was value in showing that. This was the commitment that these men had to their business. This, in essence, put food on their table.
Some viewers have already had a glimpse into your awkward high-school years, courtesy of a famous photograph from that era that showed you wearing a turtleneck, a gold chain and a fanny pack. Will we learn the origin of the fanny pack in a future episode?
The fanny pack will live a life, for sure. It’s very, very important. But we all went through that in high school to varying degrees. I was 14 when we left Hawaii and had to move to Nashville. And that’s where everyone thought I was an undercover cop because “21 Jump Street” was on at that time. And we left Nashville within three months and moved to Bethlehem, Pa., and I felt like who I was wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want to be Dwayne, I wanted to be Tomás. I thought that girls would think it was a cool name. They had to think that I had money, and I would steal these expensive clothes. I got arrested twice when I went to Bethlehem, for stealing — which is not in the pilot, either, but it’ll make its way in down the road.
The show’s portrayal of your father is complicated because we see him first as a popular wrestler, and then later when his wrestling career is over and he’s working more quotidian jobs to make ends meet. Was it hard for you to think about him this way?
When NBC said, “We’re in, let’s partner up [on ‘Young Rock’],” it was big news. I called home to my mom and dad and spoke to them both. A few days later, he passed away suddenly. But I believe that he would want that to be shown. He would want to offer that example to help other athletes transition out of their world, with maybe a little bit more grace than he did. He had a very hard time, and he had to find any job. He drove a truck, he did whatever he could do to make a buck. That’s a hard reality shift. My dad and I, we had a complicated relationship — it was very tough love. Let’s show the flaws, but when people aren’t here anymore, let’s show the good stuff, too.
Has your mother seen the show yet?
My mom was my “Young Rock” consigliere throughout. She felt we could showcase the tough [expletive] and the hard [expletive] because we got through it. That’s the lesson. Hopefully, people who are going through some hard [expletive], too, can see that there’s a way out. You can get on the other side of it.