Dwayne Johnson

He's called the Rock. His real name is Dwayne. He is Hollywood's biggest box-office action hero. So what's he afraid of? Ariel Leve gets to grips with a giant and his fears.

"A guy walks into his bedroom holding a duck. He sees his wife lying on the bed and says... "

The cinema's biggest scrubbed-clean action hero is telling a dirty joke, but because he's telling it with all the enthusiasm of a naughty schoolboy, we're laughing before the punchline. Just looking across the table at him makes me, the waitress, and other diners around us, smile.

Interviewing film stars can be a laborious, arid affair: frail egos and zeppelin-like self-importance easily pricked. But this mountain of a man isn't hiding anything: drugs, his parents' divorce, his marriage, even his toilet humour.

In the smog of Hollywood vanity that surrounds us, he's more than a breath of fresh air - he's a cleansing gale of honesty. The "new Arnie" has gusto. He's big - bigger than the original at 6ft 4in and 17st - and brimming with laughter.

In fact, everything about Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson is big and happy. In this diner in Venice Beach, where local body builders work out under the sun, big and happy seem to be the specials of the day. His smile is the size of my foot. Even his muscles look happy. His toffee-coloured skin glows and, with his hands clasped together, his forearms rest on the table like tree trunks - but it's hearty, freshly scrubbed timber, not wood that's gnarled and steroid-induced.

When the Rock is not "happy", he's "lucky", and when he's not "lucky", he's "blessed". Except this isn't a rehearsed publicity pitch or a Scientology training seminar. He is that rare species: a sincere movie star.

The Rock has been on a roll this past year. Suddenly, from playing bit parts - window- dressing movies with his muscularity - he's become box-office dynamite. And the critics are taking his acting seriously too. Everyone, it seems, loves the Rock. When he goes to the loo, the waitress whispers conspiratorially: "I just have to tell you, out of all the stars we see come in here, he's our favourite." He asks about them, he looks them in the eye, and he listens to what they have to say. Then she tells me not to say anything because he'll be embarrassed.

In the late 1990s, America's self-styled World Wrestling Federation (WWF) became a global television event. Wrestlemania was a redneck obsession, as honoured a tradition as beer and corndogs. Out of a bone-crunching sideshow emerged a theatrical, choreographed spectacle of heroes and villains - slick, engineered and marketed goliaths that spawned billion-dollar merchandising and viewing audiences around the world.

Everyone knew that the raging, foaming beasts spewing forth threats of evisceration in the ring was a mockery - high-octane commercial showbiz engineered for a Nintendo generation; mega-adrenaline, melodramatic comedy for kids with too much testosterone and no idea what to do with it. But the Rock intrigued the mums and dads, and the grandmothers as well. And not only in the trailer parks, but in the neat suburban homes. It wasn't just his fierce athleticism - he was also strikingly handsome and endearing because he never seemed to take himself too seriously. He could shout, "Why don't you drink a big, tall glass of shut-up juice!" and somehow make it sound dignified.

He "won" the WWF belt six times and helped turn professional wrestling into a pop-culture phenomenon. With his trademark left eyebrow raised in a quizzical arch, he would plant his hand on his chin and pose like a pumped-up Rodin sculpture. "Can you smell what the Rock's got cooking?" Winking at the audience, he was a gladiator with heart. He proved to be so popular that in 2000, his autobiography, The Rock Says..., went straight to No 1 on The New York Times bestseller list.

It was inevitable that with such a following, Hollywood would seek to capitalise. In 2001, for his first film, The Mummy Returns, he was given just a few minutes onscreen and paid $500,000 to show off his muscles. It worked. His name pulled in unexpected box-office bucks for what was a matiné family movie. The studios reacted immediately.

In the prequel, The Scorpion King, he was the star and earned $5.5m - the highest sum ever paid to an actor in his first lead role. He was hailed as the new Schwarzenegger. More star parts in action movies followed, including Walking Tall, which co-starred Johnny Knoxville. Soon the Rock was out-billing a Hollywood great, Christopher Walken, in Welcome to the Jungle. And then came the movie Be Cool, with John Travolta and Uma Thurman. The film was savaged by the critics but the Rock was praised for his performance. All of a sudden, he wasn't just an action hero, but a skilled actor with spot-on comic timing, dance moves and depth. Who knew how far he could go? If an Austrian body builder can become the governor of California, why can't a wrestler named Dwayne, who prepared for bouts by slathering himself in baby oil, get the critics talking about Golden Globes?

To understand exactly how Dwayne Johnson transformed himself from a failed football player into a millionaire Hollywood superhero, we need to dig a bit deeper than "happy, lucky and blessed". And when we do that, very soon the huge smile begins to fade.

But first, we order. Or rather, the Rock orders. Two meat patties, a plate of egg whites, three multigrain, banana and chocolate-chip pancakes. And a plate of broccoli. It's "good for the colon", he says. And the side order of peanut butter? Well, he's not one to deprive himself.

His voice is deep and gentle, and as he talks about growing up, there is an omnipresent sense of amazement that indicates even he can't believe what's happened to him. Born in San Francisco in 1972 and raised in Hawaii, the only child of a black father and Samoan mother, Johnson has been, as he says, as low as one can be.

"We didn't have much at all. My mom would be on the phone crying to the repo people, begging them not to take our only car, not being able to get into our apartment because we were evicted and unable to pay rent."

As a teenager he was arrested for theft and for fighting. He uses the "lucky" word again to explain how he stopped the rot. "Okay, here's how I was lucky. When I was 18 years old - the last time I was arrested for fighting - my parents came and bailed me out. And it dawned on me when I saw my mom and how embarrassed she was. Even though we didn't have anything, they're proud people and it's not very dignified getting your kid out of jail. So that was the moment I focused on playing football and I got my aggression out on the field."

He was accepted at the University of Miami, and the plan was for him to graduate and play professionally in the National Football League. But his career was cut short by a back injury. At 23 years old, his hopes and ambitions crashed, and he moved back in with his parents. He looks me right in the eye; it's convincing, there's no hint of self-pity, just shame.

"I felt like such a failure. At 18 I was ready to tackle the world, with a full scholarship at the University of Miami, and then I was moving back in [with his parents]. Wow, I'll never forget, it was October and the O J Simpson trial was going on. And I remember watching the trial and cleaning my parents' apartment. The walls, the floors... I cleaned the entire apartment.

I don't get depressed too much. But I was depressed then. The last time I felt like that was when my mom divorced my dad two years ago. They were married for almost 30 years."

For someone accustomed to performing moves, there is a disarming lack of manoeuvring. Where's the wriggling out of a tight spot? The monkey flip? He's half-Samoan - what about a Samoan drop? Nothing. Instead, Johnson just responds, quietly, directly - nothing cagey or thinly veiled. It's like talking to a regular guy who's happy that you're interested, not a movie star with an agenda to push, and it begins to materialise why his popularity is infectious; he may be big, he may be successful, but I've met waiters with more arrogance than him.

"My parents' relationship was an abusive relationship. Not that he hit her - but verbally. What I realised growing up was that words hit harder than a punch in the stomach."

He has perspective, too. It's an unusual trait in the normally self-obsessed movie industry to hear a star saying "but everyone struggles" or "mine was no worse or easier than anyone else's". Even when he talks about being depressed, it's not so much a bid for sympathy, it's because he enjoys being candid.

After quitting professional football, Johnson took the predictable path. He had been an athlete, and wrestling was in his genes - both his father and his grandfather had been in the business. He capitalised on that, and his father's connections. His father, Rocky Johnson, was a professional wrestler in the 1970s and 80s. It was a different business then, more of a travelling carnival, and he didn't encourage his son.

"My dad was always on the road. There were wrestling organisations in every state - and we moved around like gypsies. It grew more difficult as I got older - 10, 11, 12 - coming into my own. There was no financial foundation. We lived week to week, and once he got out of the business, there were no savings. When I was 12 years old, my dad was home all the time. We had argued because he didn't want me to do it. He said, 'Look around. This is all I have after 20 years of professional wrestling.'"

But he managed to convince his father: "The first pay cheque I got was $500. For wrestling. It was the most money I'd ever made for one week, and I was over the moon."

He was living in Memphis at the time. Driving hundreds of miles every week on the circuit - Nashville to Louisville - wrestling in barns. "They would set up a ring in a barn. People would sit on hay - 40, 50 people in a little town. They would put up rings anywhere."

He mentions eating spaghetti and canned tuna every day, getting his mattress from the local sex motel, and wrestling for $40 a night.

"Every day I think, 'What can I do to make sure I never go back to the way things were?' Really. I just remember I never want to see my mom cry again about a car. I never want to see another eviction notice. I have a little girl now. I'm always aware of where I came from."

Johnson does not mix in the Hollywood scene at all, choosing to keep to himself and an intimate group of friends. His agent is his best friend, and his wife, Dany, is his college sweetheart. They have a four-year-old daughter, Simone. They make a formidable team, and Hollywood has already noted his indifference towards the women who throw themselves in his path.

There have been headlines on the subject of how he met his wife - "The Rock Finds Love on his Way to Nine-in-a-Bed Orgy!" When this is brought up, he laughs: "Okay. We met in college. I was on my way to shoot a gay porno." He pauses for full effect and it works. I stare blankly. "Nah, I'm kidding!" He enjoys having fooled me, and keeps going, "Prior to going out, my buddies told me it would be just the three of us, and six of them [girls], and we were all going to hang out afterwards. Naked Twister. This was the night. We were going to make history. So we go to this bar and the place is jam-packed, and football players could drink free. I was a freshman, 19 years old, with no money. I had five or six girls that I was talking to. I thought I was so cool."

The waiter has now placed Johnson's order down, laid out in a row on five different plates. Johnson picks up his fork and pauses before he eats: "All of a sudden, I feel a tap on my back and I turn around, and it's Dany. She was 22, and she just introduced herself. She said, 'I see you around all the time.' And we sat and talked for about 45 minutes, and then she said she had to get going. I was so blown away with her."

So blown away that when his friends reminded him of the "orgy" that they were about to attend, he made his excuses and left: "I said I had to go to class in the morning. When I said that I had to go to class, they knew something was up. I'd never gone to class before."

He starts eating now, beginning with the patties - and it appears he will do one dish at a time, left to right.

Johnson and Dany have been together since 1991. Dany, who has been by his side all along, is a businesswoman who does very well with her own company, a successful hedge-fund business.

Johnson is a refreshingly solid guy. But everyone has secrets - right? He looks perplexed: "Like freaky animal sex? Rockin' a llama? Is that what you mean?" No, they say he plays classical guitar."Oh, that!" he laughs: "I was trying to think of something more sexual - my mind's always in the toilet.

"My stunt double on The Scorpion King inspired me. I told him Crazy by Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline was my favourite song. He came back the next day and played it and sang it." So Johnson picked up his own guitar. "I played with him for about a year or so."

People are rooting for him to do well. They want him to succeed, and in the film industry, that alone is something of an accomplishment. The role in Be Cool opened doors, and now more serious roles beckon.

The dishes are cleared and he excuses himself, taking his Blackberry with him to the bathroom. There is indeed something accessible about him. His fans don't feel he is above them which, when you consider his size, defies logic. When he returns, he informs me that he's pushed back his wardrobe fitting and that we now have plenty of time. He e-mailed them on his Blackberry from the loo to say he would be a bit late.

The conversation turns to the subject of the use of steroids in the wrestling world. The term they use is "juiced up". Johnson does not feel the guys should have to be tested. "Wrestling is not a sport," he says: "It's a television show. Amazingly gifted athletes are in wrestling, but I don't think they should be tested. Much like any other stunt guy shouldn't be tested."

He admits that he tried steroids in college when he was 19. "Me and my buddies down in Miami... there were these little white pills, we weren 't quite too sure what they were, but it didn't do anything. I didn't see any change in my body. And that's why I think it's all bullshit."

Because he is such an amiable guy, you start to wonder if he has a hard time saying no. He is nodding his head vigorously. The question seems to have struck a chord with him.

"For a long time I was always saying, 'I'll do it.' Maybe it was the mix of wanting to be the hero and not wanting any of it to go away. Not miss an opportunity. But it dawned on me after The Scorpion King... because I was wrestling and shooting the movie at the same time... the hours, I just wasn 't sleeping. And after that, I changed."

One thing he rarely says no to, however, is people who ask for his autograph. Even when he's out with his family, he says he'll take care of it. While we've been seated, he has paused several times when people of all ages have approached. He's signed his name, given a handshake and, of course, a big smile. "I try to break down what they're thinking. I would assume it's like, 'Holy shit, there's the Rock. Is that the Rock? Yeah, man, that's the Rock. Oh my god, I gotta get his autograph.'

I'm sure they're not saying, 'Oh, no, he's with his family, he doesn't want to be bothered.' But they work themselves up and come over, sometimes they're even shaking a little bit. So I mean, signing my name on a piece of paper - c'mon." But he does miss his anonymity: "I used to wear a fisherman's hat down over my face, and one day we were going out somewhere and my wife said, 'What are you doing? You look ridiculous. You're 6ft 4in. You just look like the Rock wearing a stupid hat.'"

Then, characteristically, he adds that the burden of fame is as small as "a frog's hair split four ways" when he considers he'll never see an eviction notice again.

A playful look crosses his face and he widens his eyes. "Know any good jokes? I just love jokes." Gleefully, he launches into a series of dirty jokes and shifts in his seat with excitement.

"A guy walks into his bedroom holding a duck. He sees his wife lying on the bed and he says, 'This is the pig I've been f***ing.' His wife looks at him and says, 'What do you mean? That's a duck!' And he says, 'I was talking to the duck.'"

He cracks up, looks sheepish for a second, and then tells another. And another. He confesses to feeling apprehensive at the start of the interview. "For a while there I was like, man, where are those pancakes?!" But he adds that he's enjoyed not talking about his movies and digging deeper.

But things are winding down and he has to get going. So before he leaves, one last question. Now that he can afford whatever he wants, what was the first extravagant gift he bought himself? A few seconds pass.

"A Rolex watch. When I was 12 years old, I saw a Rolex - the one that has all the diamonds. I went to the flea market and I bought myself a fake one. I used to tell everyone it was real. At 13 years old I equated it with making it in the world. So in about 1999, I bought my wife a watch and she convinced me that I should buy it for myself. And you know what? I never wear it. I don't know why. It just doesn't feel good [wearing] $30,000 on my wrist."

As he is about to get up and leave, he hesitates. "Okay. I'll leave you with just one more," he says. " So this penguin is driving along, and..."