Johnson has embraced this blurring of reality and fiction. It’s hard to find the seams between the man and the character who began his arc in a wrestling ring, asking fans if they could smell what he was cooking. But there was a time in 2006, when Johnson was in the nascent stages of his film career, that he was primed to pull at those threads with a movie called “Southland Tales” — a vehicle that could show off his arsenal of classic and oddball acting talents.
Survey a theater of moviegoers and they all might tell you a different interpretation of what “Southland Tales” is actually about. The short version is that a nuclear explosion has gone off in Texas, thrusting the United States into World War III. Taking place in 2008 Los Angeles at the end of the world, the film consequently delves into the post-Iraq War militarization of the country, the rise of the surveillance state and, naturally, rifts on the space-time continuum.
The movie, which would go on to become a critical and commercial failure, contains a who’s who of character actors, as well as once- and soon-to-be notable stars. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a porn star who simultaneously has a hit single (“Teen Horniness is Not a Crime”) and accurately foretells the imminent apocalypse in a screenplay she’s written. Amy Poehler delivers a slam poetry performance in her last seconds on Earth before she is gunned down by a racist cop played by Jon Lovitz. Justin Timberlake, in a confounding, drugged-out dream sequence, lip-syncs the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done.”
To steer his often messy but engaging opus — and eventual cult classic — director Richard Kelly needed a truly magnetic force. Enter Johnson.
“I think Dwayne is one of our most gifted actors,” Kelly tells The Washington Post. “He’s so unique in the sense that there’s no one else like him out there.”
In parts past, Johnson had used his natural talents and physicality to charm filmgoers the way he had pro-wrestling fans the decade before. He debuted on the silver screen — credited as “the Rock” — in a crudely computer-generated, half-scorpion, half-man monstrosity in 2001’s “The Mummy Returns,” before going on to star in some serviceable popcorn action flicks such as “The Rundown” in 2003, and a bit part as a character in “Get Shorty’s” 2005 follow-up, “Be Cool.”
But it took Kelly, the writer and director of 2001’s “Donnie Darko,” to envision a role that could turn Johnson from a novelty into an audacious, capital-A actor.
So what do you do with an Adonis-like figure who oozes charisma like Johnson? Have him play a bumbling, beer-swilling, nervous wreck of a man in search of an identity. The former wrestler was cast as Boxer Santaros, an amnesiac and schizophrenic movie star researching the part of Jericho Cane, the protagonist of Gellar’s film/prophecy.
Johnson “was in this transitional phase of becoming a huge movie star,” Kelly says. “I saw an enormous amount of talent and potential there, and he wasn’t afraid to go and take these wild performance requests from me.”
While Cane is essentially the Rock that fans know and love — a quick-to-action star who has hints of a film-noir detective — Santaros is “like a 10-year-old boy,” Kelly says. And Johnson added his own oomph to the role with visual tics signifying his character’s precarious mental state.
“There’s so much to his performance that’s physical,” Kelly says. “It’s almost like, had Dwayne been born many, many, many decades ago, I think he could’ve been a great silent film star. You think of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and all these great actors who use their bodies and faces in such an expressive way. I just think Dwayne is cut from that same cloth.”
The role also required Johnson to deliver some indelible line readings including the pinpoint pattering of “I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide.” Or as the fragments of his reality come into focus, the line of dialogue Kelly calls the key to understanding the film: “The fourth dimension will collapse upon itself. You stupid b----.”
Needless to say, “Southland Tales” completely flopped. It was roundly booed at Cannes Film Festival, where the movie debuted with a cut roughly 20 minutes longer than its final 145-minute runtime. It grossed shy of $300,000, which Kelly partially attributes to its unlucky promotional schedule, including Johnson’s canceled “Saturday Night Live” appearance because of the 2007 writers’ strike.
“ ‘Southland Tales’ hurt. I took it in the gut. We all went into that movie having so much trust, and a script that was complex and interesting,” Johnson told IndieWire earlier this year in a rare public comment about the film since its release. (Representatives for Johnson did not reply to multiple requests for comment from The Washington Post.)
But it seems like Johnson may be reevaluating his stance on the film as it earns a reappraisal for its bold understanding of its political moment as well as its eerie prescience of today’s. Before Kelly screened the Cannes cut at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in May, Johnson spoke again about the movie — an entry in his filmography also notable for being the first one in which he was credited by his birth name, and not his stage name.
“I’m grateful for the few hard-earned career lessons I learned in Cannes in 2006,” Johnson tweeted to promote the screening. “But art can be a wild and funny thing years later as its perception changes its reality.”
That reality is that as much as the popcorn blockbusters he has carried are a nice summer balm, it’s hard not to wonder if Johnson is squandering his potential. The fact that he once had the curiosity to tackle a role as out there as Santaros means there might be a glimmer of hope that he’ll someday grapple with more off-kilter films.
Maybe the next project on which Johnson takes a leap will be reteaming with Kelly, who says he’s been in discussions to continue the narrative of “Southland Tales” in some capacity, and would be eager to bring his star back into the fold. In his mega-film mogul perch, Johnson is certainly in a spot where he could take a creative risk and not have it be career suicide.
“Jumanji 8” can wait. Filmgoers may want the crowd-pleasing essence of the Rock, but what they need is the slightly bonkers vision of Dwayne Johnson.