Tall Boy

In the ring and on the screen, The Rock is Walking like he talks it.

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The Rock lights up a brand-new catchphrase.
The Rock lights up a brand-new catchphrase.
As a professional wrestler, The Rock faced down giants like Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker, and the seven-foot-four Big Show. As an actor, he's held his own onscreen -- over a relatively brief period -- with the Oscar-nominated Michael Clarke Duncan and Oscar winner Christopher Walken (whom he describes as "geniusly insane"). Behind the scenes, in his home life as Dwayne Johnson, he's been dealing with the challenges that come along with being a new father.

Today, however, he's going to face a new challenge. The Rock is going to have to answer a series of tough questions posed to him by . . . wrestling T-shirts.

Unlike the merchandise available at many pop-culture spectacles, wrestling shirts do not necessarily feature images of the star -- or even the name of said star. More often, they sport a catchy slogan or double entendre, frequently phrased, Jeopardy-style, in the form of a question. Today, we're going to see whether the coolest wrestler in the world has the answers.

A Hulk Hogan shirt demands to know: What'cha gonna do, brother?

The Rock responds, "I'm'a slap the lips right off your face, if you ask me that stupid question again. And don't ever call me brother."

A shirt for Al Snow, who's known for wielding a mannequin's head, inquires: Got head?

"Yeah. Got balls?"

One of the most popular Stone Cold Steve Austin shirts ever sold simply says: What?

"Come a little closer, I'm gonna box your ears and dot your eyes real quick, and you won't ask me 'what' again."

Last up, a shirt for five-time world champion Booker T wants an answer: Can you dig it, sucka?

Finally, The Rock breaks character and cracks up. "That's my boy!" he laughs, referring to Booker, the Houston wrestler best know for a breakdance-like maneuver called the spin-a-roony.

The Rock's latest film, a remake of the 1973 action-drama Walking Tall, has more ties to wrestling than just its star. The original film's protagonist, Joe Don Baker's Sheriff Buford Pusser, was a retired grappler known as The Bull. This fact made a big impression on eight-year-old Dwayne, the son of wrestler Rocky Johnson. "When I was a kid, that's a big reason I loved the movie, like, 'Wow, he's one of the wrestlers,' you know what I mean? Especially when I was a kid, wrestling was such a closed business -- it wasn't global. So it was like, 'Wow, big movie, this guy's a wrestler?' It was awesome."

Fans of '80s wrestling product are also familiar with the notion of a righteous hero taking on rule-breaking miscreants with a big piece of wood -- "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, inspired by the original film, always had a trusty two-by-four in his corner. "He's very, very proud, by the way," says The Rock. So on the set, did the star ever cut loose with Duggan's trademark "Hooooo!" yell? "Oh my God, never, ever. I think I'd be put in a straitjacket or sent to jail . . . Plus, that's called gimmick infringement. I can't do that, that's his deal." Even the signature piece of wood is now a four-by-four, to avoid having the exact same dimensions as Duggan's enforcer. Director Kevin Bray suggested an aluminum baseball bat, which was quickly vetoed by the star.

The Rock soon got comfortable wielding the plank -- too comfortable, on one occasion, in a scene where he was supposed to smash the taillight on the villain's car and ended up costing the studio 70 grand to replace the rented vehicle. "I dented it badly, and then we kept doing take after take where I would hit it, but when you're trying to hit the taillight in the scene, you're hitting the bumper, you're hitting everything. So they just wound up getting it, and I think a producer's driving it now."

Much was made of the scene in last year's The Rundown where an unbilled Arnold Schwarzenegger essentially passed the action-hero torch to The Rock, but despite being every bit as built as California's governor, the man known to WWE fans as The People's Champion is looking to establish a less Terminator-like persona. "A lot of times, when the writers write, their initial instinct is to be just straight-on ass-kicking barrel-through-everybody, whereas, in reality, it's important to showcase the vulnerability." Unlike certain prima donna wrestling stars of today, The Rock proudly notes that he always lost more matches than he won and cites the '70s movies of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Steve McQueen as his favorite actioners. "They take time in telling the story, and it's not just action for the sake of action," he says. "In movies, it's important to me to show jeopardy, and there are moments when I get whupped."

In The Rock's next movie, however, he won't be getting whupped; in fact, he says, there's no action at all. It's Be Cool, the sequel to Get Shorty, written by Elmore Leonard with The Rock in mind. The character of Elliot Wilhelm is described as Samoan, 30, able to raise one eyebrow, trying to act, wanting to sing . . . and gay. Yes, fans, if you were wondering why he sported that slightly effeminate-looking goatee when teaming with Mick Foley at WrestleMania XX, now you know. Some jocks might have a problem with such a character stretch, but not The Rock. "It's fine, you know? I'm a liberal guy anyway, so for me, I just thought, 'Wow, it's a great opportunity to work with these other actors [among them John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, and James Gandolfini], and I get to play a character where I poke fun at myself -- and gay too, something nobody would have ever thought about. Sure, why not?'"

Beyond that, there's the video-game adaptation Spy Hunter (of his role, he says simply, "It's a hunter of spies, hence the title") and the Hawaiian historical epic King Kamehameha, which he describes as a more violent version of Braveheart and a change of pace from the PG-13 fare he generally tries to stick to so he won't disappoint his younger fans. In between projects, he hopes to return to the ring, as time allows. "A lot of my [acting] buddies, they go back to theater, and I understand that, because they go back to get that live interaction. The ring is my stage, and I always have a lot of fun."

If and when he goes back to Vince McMahon's arena, he won't be going unprepared. The Rock keeps up on current ring events and maintains sufficient attachment to the story lines that when this reporter tells him that former arch-rival Triple-H will not be traded from the Monday night Raw show to the Thursday night Smackdown show as promised, he dramatically knocks an empty bottle off the table. "I bet the Raw guys are throwing a celebration now," he adds sarcastically, apparently displeased.

With The Rock off making movies and Stone Cold Steve Austin forcibly retired by repeated injuries, wrestling is undoubtedly suffering. Minnesota behemoth Brock Lesnar was officially dubbed "The Next Big Thing," only to quit last month to try out for the NFL ("It's a ballsy move, and I admire that," says The Rock). So does The People's Champ see a potential successor on the horizon? "If there is, I haven't seen him yet, to be honest with you, and it sucks to say, because I love the business. But I think someone will surface. I believe that. It might be someone who's already there, like it happened with me, because I was on my way out as a babyface [good guy]. I was teaming with Flash Funk, fighting the Headbangers, I was doing jobs [losing matches], I was done. Then, all of a sudden, I turn heel [become a villain]: Boom, boom, bang!" He notes that new Smackdown champion "Latino Heat" Eddie Guerrero, whose career followed a similar arc, might have some mainstream-crossover potential.

Asked to finish the interview with his latest catchphrase, Dwayne Johnson pauses. The newest phrase, he explains, is always slightly improvised, depending upon the situation. "Hold on . . . Okay, this is off the cuff. If I get through this, it's gonna be awesome." He inhales deeply, as if smelling someone's imaginary cooking. Then he lets fly. "It's the jabroni-beatin', pie-eatin', trail-blazin', eyebrow-raisin', not-small, always-walking-tall, teamed-with-Mick, carried-a-big-ass-stick, People's Champ, The Rock!" Then he busts up laughing at himself -- that the chuckles come so easily is a big part of why he is, indeed, the Great One.

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