In this corner, a seismic event that threatens to destroy California; in the other, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Who ya got?
That's the essential setup of “San Andreas,” a modern interpretation of the classic disaster genre that takes full advantage of both cutting-edge special effects to bring a devastating earthquake to the big screen and action superstar Johnson, who plays a dedicated first responder desperate to survive the chaos to save his estranged wife and daughter.
The actor recently spoke with journalists about how the idea of creating a modern Irwin Allen-style epic hooked his storytelling instincts right away, and how spending time with real-life first responders showed him the real definition of heroism.
On knowing right away that he wanted to take on “San Andreas”:
Dwayne Johnson: We were in Budapest shooting “Hercules,” another movie that Beau [Flynn, “San Andreas” producer] had produced. I read the script then. I loved it, read it all the way through at 3:30 in the morning. I texted him and I said, "I’m in." It all came together fairly quickly in terms of the amazing actors who had their hands up, who wanted to come in and play in the sandbox and really, hopefully, play in a genre, redefine a genre that has been around for such a long period of time.
I think, collectively, the group wanted to create something special because it’s been a long time since there had been an earthquake movie – I think ’71 or ’72 was the last “Earthquake” movie – and everyone came together and the script came tighter very quickly, and here we are.
On defining what type of action hero he'd portray in the film, given the needs of the story and his global image:
It’s such a collaborative effort. There are so many different moving mechanisms to making a movie, and I think when you’re trying to construct a heroic character, one that can play a part in being an anchor in a big movie like this, that’s a real-world movie, playing real men and women who live and exist today in terms of first responders, the level of detail and the deep diving that we do is really extraordinary.
I mean, the level of conversations – detailed conversations, detailed conversations with Carla [Gugino], detailed conversations with Alex [Daddario], to understand the relationships. So there’s a lot of detailed conversations, I think because also, too, there’s a side – that you have a responsibility I think when you play first responders which I’ve learned. This is why I say it’s been a life-changing experience for me, this particular role.
But also, there’s an expectation, I think, that fans globally have with what we have been used to delivering, so now we want to take that and then we want to raise the bar – which was why, honestly, everybody came together with the script. The script was very well-written. We had an opportunity to create something that was very special and unique, but also grounded in heart and anchor it with amazing heart and science on that end, with Archie [Punjabi] and with Paul [Giamatti], certainly, and then we have producers, actors, and certainly, a director who is ready to raise the bar.
Again, there’s an expectation, so we want to meet that expectation in terms of heroic characters – across the board, by the way. All of them having the core of heart, but also exceed the expectations too, as well. I think we did it in the movie.
On following real-life scientific projections in pursuit of big action-movie moments:
Just as important – if not more important – is the anchor you have with the scientific side of the movie. We had had the best seismologists, top scientists, earthquake scientists -- Caltech, USC -- pore over the script, challenge the script, and then ultimately walk away from it saying "This could happen. We hope it doesn’t, but it could happen."
On becoming the big-screen action hero he dreamed he could be as a boy, and coming full circle:
I was born in Hayward [California], and raised a lot in Hawaii and down in Miami. Did I ever think I would be in this position? No. When I was 8 years old, I saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in Charlotte, North Carolina. When I walked out of there, I was so inspired – loved the movie, and I wanted to be that guy: charming and cool, kicks ass, cool with the ladies. But I had no connection to Hollywood. To be sitting here today, I’m grateful and very happy. And I will say just for the record, I received a letter from that gentleman who directed “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Very cool. You guys know who that is. I’m not a name-dropper – Steven Spielberg. He reached out and he said a lot of cool, inspiring, motivating things.
When we went into a movie like this, we sat in Budapest and we started chopping things up and said, "Wow, this feels like a Spielberg movie." Then we just had this private conversation, the three of us in a hotel, about how much Spielberg had inspired us. We didn’t write him or call him or anything like that. We’re just such big fans of his movies.
On the physical challenges and new skill sets he had to pick up for the role:
The training part was pretty consistent. The difference was actually participating in something I’d never participated in before. Spending time with first responders. Spending time with LAFD [Los Angeles Fire Department] rescue pilots, operating helicopters, spending a lot of deep dives, drilled-down processes with these guys and girls for pretty good amount of time.
So that was a different part for me. It was exercising a different muscle. I've played characters like this where you’re pretty proficient – you hope to be – at taking care of business, whatever that business is. But this case, it was very different than anything I had experienced before. I spent a lot of time here in LA, and a lot of time in Australia, with those men and women.
[My takeaway was] just how special and unique they are, and it's why so few are able to do it. I mean, they're really, really exceptional human beings. And I was very, very lucky. It was a life-changing experience for me.
On feeling compassion for the recent real-life earthquake victims in Nepal:
I think that we made the movie knowing and understanding the content of it and what we were making. In the world we live in and the life we have today, these things happen. It’s so unfortunate – incredibly unfortunate. Prayers and thoughts continue to go out to everybody in Nepal and everybody who was affected by that.
The truth is, you go into a project like this with everything you’ve got, your heart and your soul, and you just want to make a good movie. I think if there’s one correlating factor, or connective tissue if you will, would be the ideology of family and strength coming together through a tragedy like this.
I’ve been through natural disasters. I was down in Miami – I lived down there for Hurricane Andrew, which was a Category Five. There were members of my family who thought they were going to die. Everybody was in the bathtub. It was a tough, tough thing. So I think the idea of coming together, like we’re showcasing in our story, resonates with people.
”San Andreas” opens tonight in select theaters and Friday nationwide.