A funny thing happened on the way to "supporting roles only" in Dwayne Johnson's movie career: kids.
The struggling action star did The Game Plan, a comedy for Disney, and all of a sudden he's big box office and every child's best bud. He did Cory in the House on the Disney Channel. He's starring in Disney's Race to Witch Mountain, opening Friday, and has an animated film (Planet 51) and another kid-friendly comedy (Tooth Fairy, with Ashley Judd) due out this year. He's hosting Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards at the end of March.
"He doesn't take himself seriously," says AnnaSophia Robb, one of his teen co-stars in Witch Mountain.
"He's a dynamic personality with this self-deprecating sense of humor," says another co-star, Carla Gugino. "Kids respond to that."
Johnson laughs at the notion. But he owns it. The former wrestler is as canny as anybody in the biz about finding a niche. He's not wrestling anymore. He's no longer going by "The Rock." And he didn't really discover his big-screen appeal to kids until he tested those waters.
"I started to examine family movies, what makes them work, what makes them not work," he says. "I realized that when a family movie is done right, everybody in the family has some character they can relate to on screen. If they're done right, the lead character in the movie becomes a better person by the end of the movie and makes everybody around them better, too. That's what family is all about — struggle, perseverance, staying together. And that's what a family movie has to have going for it, too."
Johnson, 36 and the divorced father of a 7-year-old, knows what kids like, which might be why he's fast becoming Disney's go-to guy for kid-friendly action. Johnson, like Disney, knows "branding."
"Disney gets that," he says. "It's a cool thing when you can make movies that everyone can go see. I love the partnership I have with Disney. I recognize the power that the brand has, its impact on families all over the world. We had great success with The Game Plan, and when they came to me with this, I was ready."
"This" is a reboot of one of Disney's popular franchises from the '70s, the Witch Mountain movies about kids with mysterious powers. Race to Witch Mountain revives the series, with Johnson playing an ex mob "wheel man" now driving a taxi, a regular guy named Jack Bruno who finds himself transporting two alien teens on their quest to find their way back home. The film ratchets up the action to a level not usually seen in a family film. And it lets Johnson show off his timing, his way with a funny line. That was evident even back in his days in the ring.
"As far back as when I was 8, I used to memorize monologues from Rocky II, Indiana Jones movies. And I'd memorize these Richard Pryor monologues. I know I was too young to listen to them, no business at all listening to what he was doing. I'd sneak the tapes off and commit these long, vulgarity-laced monologues to memory. You memorize Richard and you learn timing."
Johnson is the first to admit that in making his family-friendly move he hadn't taken into account the old W.C. Fields maxim about the perils of working with children and dogs. He's done just that — twice — now.
With child actors, "you have to be super-efficient in your planning, so that you do your scenes with them in the short day that they're allowed to work," he says. And dogs?
"It is a humbling experience, working with animals," Johnson says, laughing. "You have to remember that no matter how poignant your acting is in a scene or how great you think you are in the scene, if you're in that scene with a dog, you have to know that all eyes are on the dog. You could be doing Gone With the Wind. But if there's a dog and Vivien Leigh, nobody's watching Vivien."