Dwayne Johnson is half-Samoan on his mother's side, something he's been very proud to embrace in his film career. However, none of his past movies have been able to include as much of the island nation as Hobbs & Shaw, which positions its explosive finale on Samoa.
During a roundtable interview that included CBR, Johnson spoke about what it meant to him personally to see Samoa represented in a major Hollywood film, and what it was like to bring members of his family to see those sequences filmed.
Reflecting on bringing the narrative to Samoa and filming in Hawaii, Johnson said, "It was very gratifying for me personally to be able to thread that needle… weave that [culture] into the fabric of The Fast and the Furious universe. And personally, what I and [director David Leitch] had in mind... this was the very first time in Hollywood history that a movie of this size and capacity had Samoan culture this showcased, ever.
"There have been a few movies in the past, many many decades ago, very very small movies, maybe a documentary here or there, but I mean really there has been nothing [about Samoa], so it was a real opportunity and a real responsibility to showcase the culture, one of my own authentic cultures, to the world and do it in a way that was still exciting and felt fresh to the audience."
Hobbs & Shaw pits Johnson and Jason Statham's Shaw against the villainous Brixton (Idris Elba), who's trying to steal the super virus hidden inside Shaw's sister, Hattie (Vanessa Kirby). The story's climax takes place in Samoa, with the stakes escalating to the fate of the world over the battle. It's something Johnson was keenly aware of as they were filming.
"It creates a big rush and also does it in a way where the stakes are so big and the juxtapositions about it... the stakes are so big and the world is at stake, [Shaw's] sister’s life is in danger and it all depends upon this little island in the middle of the South Pacific. There was kind of a lot of freedom in that, that we wanted to make sure we were tied up nicely and to deliver for the audience. And also... to shoot it in a way that felt dynamic and felt stylistic and cool with David Leitch’s approach to action filmmaking. He was very ambitious with the movie, which I’m sure you guys saw his ambition. He would do things stylistically action wise that had not been seen before.
"And it all happens in Samoa! Which was very cool. On top of all that I just said, the storyline of me going home to my family and to all my brothers was a very special one and we wanted to be as authentic as possible. We hired all Polynesian actors and were able to hire my own cousin [Roman Reigns] and that in itself is a whole other method of pride.
"The fact that [Roman] was overcoming leukemia at the time, that he came on set with us not knowing how physical he could actually be, and actually then turning into just an animal on set, was all very special. Thank you for being patient with that answer, it’s a very long answer to say, [but] that just gives you an idea just how meaningful being able to showcase the Samoan culture was and really how many deep layers there was to it. And finally, we’re just very happy that it worked while making the movie. Audiences have really been digging it."
Samoa is typically underserved by entertainment, infrequently appearing in any real form within films. Likewise, mainstream cinema does not often feature Polynesian actors in major roles. Getting to film the climax of a massive blockbuster film with a large Polynesian cast was something Johnson was aware of and grateful for.
"There was pride. There was just a lot of pride, working with all these Polynesian [people] Not all of them were actors. Some of them were athletes, some are Polynesian dancers. They are high chiefs of Samoa. There was an extraordinary element of pride. There was a feeling on set that we were all of a sudden in the trailblazing business. There was a feeling on set, not just with the Samoans and Polynesians but with the director David Leitch, with the producers... everyone knew we were doing something that hadn't been done before.
"What had never been done before was showcasing our culture. And for these men and women of Polynesian descent, were very aware of this opportunity and the light that was going to be shined on the culture. There was a real energy on-set. There was a lot of sacred ground where we shot the movie, and we especially felt that when we did the scene... where it was time to go to war. There was a real, there was a constant war cry that you could constantly hear through the night. It was very real and authentic to all of us."
Johnson revealed what might have been one of the most personal aspects of filming the sequence. He explained, "I brought my Mom to set and she was aware we were back in Samoa in the storyline. So she came, and she was sitting off to the side behind the cameras, and I start speaking in Samoan. I'm calling upon the ancestors for strength. When you're saying stuff like that and speaking to God... in our culture, it's more than just a movie."
"You're calling to your ancestors, you're literally on the sacred ground on the island. Then I call on my brothers to stand up, and they all stand up... we're saying things like 'look into my eyes, it's the last thing you see before you die.' When you say things like that, there's a spirit of which we are a part of. It becomes very real, and you can see the emotions throughout. I explained to David Leitch early on, we have to approach this in a very nontraditional way. We would usually shoot for hours and hours and do a hundred different takes. I said you have to be sensitive to all of us [doing this]. It takes so much energy and it takes so much out of you. But it's really intense and emotionally intense. We can't do that many takes. And [Leitch] said, 'I totally understand, brother,' and he totally respected that. He just got what he needed, and then we stopped."
"But as we were doing it... the first time we did it, I looked over right in the middle of it and she's bawling. She was crying so hard. You can see it in this big wide-shot, me and all of my brothers are looking at her and she's just trying to hide her emotions. And then David yelled 'cut.' And all the brothers... they all went over to her and gave her hugs, made sure she was okay. She in that moment, it was crystalized by her tears. The tears of really great pride. It was such a tremendous set of pride on set and it was very emotional.
"All the actors, all the men and the women of Polynesian descent were so grateful... that's the beauty sometimes of culture. It can be so powerful and moving and sacred. But I also find fascinating, my family and I laugh about it all the time, Polynesian are very large people by nature. Just big. I always like to say The men big and badass, and the women are even bigger and more badass but there's also a spiritual side to our culture. I'm really quite proud to showcase it."
Directed by David Leitch (Deadpool 2) from a script by longtime Fast & Furious veteran Chris Morgan, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw stars Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba and Vanessa Kirby.