Full circle with the action star.

Dwayne Johnson reflects on his local upbringing and why Hawai‘i is his current film’s greatest special effect

Entertainment / When celebrities stand at 6 feet 5 inches tall, weigh 275 pounds and are a 16-time WWF/E wrestling champion, people want to know they’re not invincible.

Last month, when actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson flew into Hawaii to promote his latest film Journey 2: The Mysterious Island–a PG rated family-friendly adventure story shot on-location around Oahu, currently playing in theaters–common questions from the press included: “Anything that just grosses you out, like spiders?” “Were there injuries on set?” “Did you trip on anything creepy out there in the jungle?”

“No, not necessarily,” Johnson says, “you know, I grew up here in Hawaii, so…”

While Journey may take place on a mysterious island, for Johnson, Oahu itself isn’t so mystifying. His Hawaii ties extend to attending McKinley High School, where he spent half his time on the campus’s football field and in the weight room, the other half getting chased down by local police for “a multitude of things” on the streets of Honolulu. Safe to assume then: No, Johnson isn’t invincible, and wasn’t then anyway. (For the record, he isn’t exactly now either. In the back of the room sits his bodyguard, just a few inches taller than him.)

I ask if during his time here, going from place to place around town to publicize his, um, family-oriented movie, he noticed all the places he was getting arrested at 14 years old. He laughs. “I did, yeah, and it became my reflective moment as I’m driving through town and looking at all the places I got in trouble,” admits Johnson. “I was very fortunate at that time. I had great parents who were patient, a couple of coaches who believed in my potential when I didn’t. That’s an admirable thing to be, any coach or adult figure in someone’s life for a kid who’s getting in trouble, to say as we take the handcuffs off, ‘I still see your potential.’”

Now I can’t speak for the other reporters present, but being a local kid myself who like any other ‘90s kid was once obsessed with the WWF/E, I can tell you when The Rock answers your interview questions, you feel like you can lift the Naha Stone. There’s just something about the patriarchal deepness of his voice and the self-assured way he looks you in the eye combined with the stock positivity of his responses that leave you feeling like you just went to the gym with The Rock . . . in your mind. Minus those biceps with the Second Amendment written across them, I think every local kid–with a healthy sense of adolescent delusion, of course–saw themselves in Johnson, especially during those early years of his career, because he mirrored what so many of us are, but didn’t see often in entertainment media at the time: Polynesian and/or mixed race. We didn’t have our own NFL football team; instead we had The Rock, a lone man in a wrestling ring. To watch him compete was to cheer for ourselves in a way.

That part-superhuman, part-touchable mystique continues today, as displayed during Johnson’s unannounced visit to McKinley the day prior. Word spread quickly as students fiercely gathered around him in a school courtyard where he had a quick word with them. “I told the kids after all these years it’s amazing to come back and the weight room still looks like shit,” he says, jokingly, “but I told everyone to keep up the great work, keep chasing their greatness and I was very proud of them.” He crosses his broad arms across the chest of his probably designer cotton tee, smiles widely before moving on to another line of questioning and–Wait, sorry. Is this the part of the celebrity profile where I mention how white the action movie star’s teeth are? Because they’re really, really white.

Journey is full of moments that’ll make him all the more relatable to local audiences–his on-screen vocal renditions of “Aloha ‘Oe” and Israel Kamakawiwoole’s “What a Wonderful World” and versatility on the ‘ukulele to name a few. But it’s his campaigning to have the 3-D action-adventure shot here (“ . . . there’s just a texture, the rainforest and those mountains where Jurassic Park was shot, that you really can’t simulate on a soundstage . . . ”) and ultimate humility that reminds us what this rock Johnson grew up on means to him. “I was a kid here, getting in trouble, getting arrested and finally to get to come back and bring a movie in the tens of millions of dollars for locals and local businesses is really special.”

Not sure if that was an interview or a motivational seminar, but it’s not until I’m driving around later in the week and catch my own high school campus through my windshield that I remember what I really wanted to ask him: What of those rumors about Johnson being tapped to play King Kamehameha the Great in a big-budget feature film? Were those even true or just the fantastic byproduct of hyperactive middle school boys attending Kamehameha Schools, more of that self-fulfilling prophecy of wanting to see people like us projected in a movie?

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you because I forgot to ask. But at the same time, I’m also kind of glad I didn’t. If I had, there would’ve been a concrete answer from the man himself for me to then mechanically transcribe. By not knowing, I can partially keep this wide-eyed idea of him as a minor local legend intact.