AS he has appeared in front of 80,000 New Yorkers wearing just his pants, one of Dwayne Johnson’s acting ambitions shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. “I’ve always wanted to get into a loin cloth,” he quipped.
It’s a desire that has lasted for more than a decade, since Dwayne was taking his first steps in film having already found superstardom as WWE wrestler The Rock.
He came into the business with three ambitions. The first two, to be successful enough to be able to buy his parents a house and that audiences would forget his sports entertainment past, were quickly attained.
The third has taken a little longer to achieve.
“I grew up admiring Hercules and it was the first project I talked about doing when I first broke into Hollywood,” Dwayne told me on a visit to London earlier this month. “At that time, I didn’t have the ability to green-light anything but I’m very grateful that it has come around again years later.”
Such is the 42-year-old’s marketability now he’s not only able to pick and choose projects but confident enough to make a brief return to the wrestling ring without damaging his image as a serious actor.
He starred in WWE’s showpiece event, WrestleMania, in New York last April, but any hope the training for the bout would help get him into shape for his Hercules role went out of the window when the The Rock cracked.
An x-ray revealed two tendons had come off Dwayne’s pelvis, or as he puts it “basically dangling off my body.”
“I had about 25 minutes left of the bout,” he expanded of his match with fellow wrestler-turned-actor John Cena. “I knew something was wrong but continued. It was WrestleMania, and we had an attendance record of 80,000 people. I think I was running on adrenaline.”
Dwayne underwent surgery to repair the damage and began work on Hercules a month later. Despite the operation, Dwayne didn’t hold back.
“I had a poster of Steve Reeves (a bodybuilder who played Hercules twice in the late 1950s) on my bedroom wall as a kid and I was always inspired by it,” he remarked.
“I remember that iconic moment in the film where Hercules breaks the chains from the pillars, and screams, “I am Hercules!” which was mesmerising. “I was only going to get one shot at playing Hercules, so I wanted to make sure the version I had in my head was the version audiences would see on screen. And that was an experienced beast of a man, which I knew would require hard-core strength and conditioning, training and really hard-core dieting.
“Creating and maintaining that physique requires astute attention to detail. Sometimes you have to back off on cardio or add cardio, or bump your calorie intake to 8,000 a day or back off calories.
“And when you reach that physical peak, it’s the most difficult thing to maintain over a six-month shoot. So it was a big challenge, but it should be a challenge to play Hercules.”
Dwayne’s incarnation of the muscle-bound demigod has him as a travelling mercenary, notorious for his completion of the “12 Labours” the most harrowing tasks in all of ancient Greece but haunted by events in his past.
“We wanted to give audiences a Hercules they’ve never seen before,” explained Dwayne. “When we meet Hercules in this movie, he’s an exile suffering with regrets, fighting only for gold. He has to overcome his demons and find his heart to become the man people want him to be.”
Along with a brash group of loyal followers (including Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell) he undertakes a bold campaign to end the bloody civil war in the land of Thrace and return the rightful king to his throne. But the task will test his mythical powers to their limit.
Ultimately, Dwayne thinks the effort was more than worth it. “It was amazing,” he smiled. “Stepping on set for the very first time, with the full hair and make-up and armour, was an incredible feeling.”
Hercules is at cinemas now.
Our Verdict 3/5
Hercules has its strengths it doesn’t take itself too seriously, the mythical element is played down to give it an unlikely believability and, in Dwayne Johnson, it has a leading man who is one of the most charismatic actors around today.
However, you can’t escape the feeling the film will appeal most to an age group who probably shouldn’t be allowed to see it, as the club-wielding Hercules smashes his way through every skull that a 12A rating will allow.
Director Brett Ratner is probably congratulating himself for getting away with that but also deserves praise for demonstrating how a movie like this should be made.
It’s naff, but at a smidgen over 90 minutes it doesn’t have time to become mind-numbing. Michael Bay, who gave us the two and a half hour Transformers movie last month, take note.