The emergence of giant-sized wrestler Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, onto the acting scene at the beginning of the new millennium appeared to augur well for audiences clamouring for a new Stallone or Schwarzenegger.
Back then Sly’s career was in the dumpster and Arnie was beginning to focus on politics. Enter The Rock, the man-mountain star of WWE – 6ft 4ins and full of muscle, as the song goes.
He first cropped up in a flashback in The Mummy Returns before landing his very own spin-off, The Scorpion King.
Johnson gave his sword-wielding warrior a wooden intensity. It was acting from the school of minimalist performance and boasted two expressions: an intense frown or wide-eyed disbelief. Arnie would have been proud. In an attempt at emotion he also threw in an eyebrow lift a la Roger Moore as James Bond.
But he got better. In Doom he was Sarge, a hunky hard-man battling genetic mutants. And in Pain & Gain – arguably the dumbest film of 2013 in which knuckle-headed bodybuilders kidnap a millionaire and hold him to ransom – he was a muscle-bound Christian ex-convict.
Willing and able to deconstruct his own image and lampoon his reputation as a tough guy it was Johnson who stole scenes from the likes of Mark Wahlberg and emerged as a clear winner.
Now in San Andreas he’s in full-on heroic mode as a pilot faced with saving his family in the face of an earthquake and a tsunami. What’s more 43-year-old Johnson believes it’s the film he’s been waiting for.
“I’m in a good position now where the scripts I get are quality,” says the veteran of 29 movies.
“It wasn’t always like that in the past. When I first came to Hollywood I had to earn my stripes. I didn’t come from an acting background or performing arts school.”
Indeed he didn’t. But in the same way that Schwarzenegger – and, to a lesser degree, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme – used his physicality to attain box office success so Johnson slogged away at carving a niche.
The performer that emerged was Schwarzenegger-lite. He had the size and the power but lacked the iconic appeal. If Schwarzenegger was one-dimensional he at least had the nous to create a persona. Johnson is still seeking his.
Yet he is genuinely passionate about this disaster movie and its old-fashioned roots.
Back in the 1970s producer Irwin Allen built all-star spectaculars around high-rise blazes, upturned cruise ships, earthquakes and volcanoes. San Andreas, says Johnson, is a 21st century throwback.
“They were our inspiration. We wanted to make a movie that was big and epic but that would hopefully raise the bar for movies like The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, Titanic. In those movies there’s a disaster involved but there’s also great heart and characters.”
So what makes San Andreas a viable entry in the annals of the modern disaster movie? Johnson claims it’s the blend of visual effects and traditional stunts.
Of course he talks up the film and his role in it. But it’s that commitment, and sense of wanting to make his mark, that sets apart the movie (and him) from some of its CGI-heavy predecessors.
“San Andreas was my first opportunity in a genre that I’d never worked in: the disaster film genre. Not many are made. It was my first crack at it and all of us just wanted to make a great movie that stood the test of time. I think we did it.” The practical stunts, he says, “were dangerous”. He adds: “I wanted to be tied in as much as possible to all the stunts because it’s not a superhero movie and we tried to make everything as practical as possible.
“Our goal was to make a movie that felt authentic. You’re dealing with Mother Nature, where the calamity of it is so big and millions of lives are affected, so we respect it. You don’t beat Mother Nature, just manage it, which is why it’s scary and you’ve got to root it in reality.”
In part, the reality comes from playing Chief Pilot Ray Gaines, a man struggling with an ex-wife and with a difficult relationship with his daughter.
These days Johnson speaks like an actor, not a wrestler. He talks about “putting his spin” on a character, of liking the script for San Andreas because there were elements of this man that he connected with.
“It sounds kinda corny but you think, ‘It feels like kismet that I play this particular guy at this particular time in my life.’ Couldn’t have played him ten years ago. Would’ve been a different movie.
“In the past I’ve had some opportunities to play some pretty cool guys and fun characters but this was a whole other level. This guy is very special, made up of different DNA to the rest of us. Where some people run from destruction he flies in.”
But will the film travel? It’s all very well appealing to Stateside audiences on the West Coast and the San Andreas Fault but what about foreign viewers in Hong Kong and Harrogate? Johnson laughs.
“I hope audiences [will say], ‘Wow, that was awesome!’ And after the effects and the tsunami you ask, ‘What would you do? You’d like to think you’d be heroic [but] you don’t know. It sparks a whole new level of dialogue. And then you think, ‘Are we as prepared as we think we should be?’
“And what about the people who aren’t in California or who aren’t in earthquake areas? Are they gonna be entertained? One hundred per cent. What I hope audiences take away from it [is a feeling of] ‘Wow, they raised the bar. They redefined the genre of disaster movie... and the star was pretty good!’”
¶• San Andreas (12A) is on saturation release.