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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Dwayne Johnson talks about ‘Ballers’ and his tough beginnings

Custom local market feed IES 6/8/2015
© HBO

More commonly known as ‘The Rock’, Dwayne Johnson has come a long, long way since his days in the world wide wrestling federation. This year alone, the 43-year-old actor has been seen all over the big screen in movies like ‘Furious Seven’ and ‘San Andreas’. But the hard-hitting Hawaiian native is not only taking over the box-office, he’s also making his mark on TV. In Ballers, Dwayne plays a retired athlete turned financial manager named Spencer Strasmore. The show has just been picked up for a second season so it’s safe to say that Dwayne Johnson’s career is…well, ballin’.

Was there anything that heading into this – because obviously you have tons of friends in the professional sports world – that were players telling you, "We would like to see this story told; we would like to see this element told? The public always gets something wrong, and we would like to have a certain thing come to the screen that seems more legitimate and more real"? Was there any of that coming in where players were after you about that stuff? 
One hundred percent. One hundred percent. I mean, from Antonio Brown to you name it. The main thing with the players that I had gotten in our conversations over the months was just make it real and make it feel authentic and, you know, in our world, if you pull back a curtain to a large degree and showcase what really happens in relationships as players are trying to renegotiate contracts, the pitfalls, the land mines, as Richard Schiff had said in the trailer you guys saw, are prevalent and they're there.

I think for the players, they knew that they were going to get comedy, but I also feel they knew that if any other team in Hollywood, put together with a star of the show, was able to come on and produce the show as well -- and we have great people around us. There was a sense of all right. We're going to jump off this cliff with you, and we're going to believe because of the respect that you have for the game, and so they had that again, to wrap it up, their biggest thing was just make it feel real and really like our lives, and I feel that's what we're doing. 

© HBO

Dwayne, why TV? You're not busy enough with your movie career?

Yeah, buddy. I'm not busy. I'm not busy at all. And yes, and because it is HBO. Look, for a long time in my career I was just looking for opportunities and trying to create opportunities, so opportunities now are plentiful, and I stay busy, and I like being busy. But look. I think for all of us, work begets work and action begets action, and it's not working for the sake of working. In this case, it's working for the sake of quality. And I wanted to partner up with HBO. Known Michael Lombardo for some time, and we wanted to do something and create something, I think, that was cool and special and that had some depth and quality to it and also had fun, which is why it's a 30 minute show.

The idea behind something like this was the quality, was the quality of the show, the quality of my partners, the quality at HBO. And they do it pretty good. So if I was going to get involved in television and throw my hat in the television ring, so to speak, HBO is a great place.

Your, Spencer, has made his peace with going off the field and going behind the scenes. Is that a peace you could ever make, and if it's not, how did you get into the mind set of Spencer?

I appreciate that question. It's one of the biggest reasons why I love doing this show. It's one of the biggest reasons why I feel such a personal connection to the show, is because the life that Spencer Strasmore has was a life I wanted. I wanted that life. Down here, University of Miami, 18 years old, I stepped on campus. I had no money, and we struggled for a long time, but my No. 1 goal was to make it to the NFL just so I can buy my parents their first house that they lived in. I never lived in a house until I was 28 years old. So we lived in efficiencies and apartments.

So the point is it's Spencer's life as a successful NFL player, future Hall of Famer. That was the life I wanted. I failed at that. So to answer your question, which was a great question, by the way, about will I ever find peace with it? I think I found peace with it. I don't know. Maybe a therapist would say otherwise. Maybe I need some work with clearing some issues, but for many years my goal was to make it, and I never did. And then when the game is taken away from you or it's cut short like a lot of players, like it happened to me when I had a run there where I was I had suffered a lot of injuries, five knee surgeries, bad back injury, complete reconstruction on my shoulder. It all happened within my college career. So it sidelined me.

So will I find peace with it? As best I can, but I think and now, because I have my degree in psychology, clearly, I think I'm finding peace with it on the show. And I’ve got to tell you, it's unlike any experience I've ever had. I've had the opportunity in movies to play a lot of characters and a lot of men who have done some pretty good things, and they galvanize some people, and they go on to save the day, and there's bad guys to hunt down. In something like this, the muscle I get to exercise in this is a completely different one that I was never used to. What I mean by that is just living and just every day you're just living and living life. So the experience has been tremendous, and I am fortunate to be playing a guy whose life I wanted. 

© HBO

You said earlier that for a long time, you were searching for opportunities. You said now you have the opportunities. What changed? What happened to change that?

Well, I think what happened for me, I hit rock bottom. I hit a rock bottom. So the rock bottom when the first rock bottom that I hit was out of college where I worked for ten years from the time I started playing football and at 14 years old to the time I was 23, I think, and did not get drafted. Played in the CFL for approximately 200 bucks a week Canadian. I got cut from the team a couple of months later, and I had to close that chapter in my life. Then when I went back home, I couldn't afford to live here in Miami with my girlfriend at the time, and I had to move back in with my parents.

I think at 23 years old, it's pretty sobering, and it's a tough experience when you have to move back in with your parents. And at that time, my parents, like I said, we never lived in a home. So they had a little small apartment in Tampa, Florida, and I had to move in with them. And then you go through the challenges of that. You hit depression. You hit rock bottom.

I was just wondering how many of the stories actually come from real stories? You know, real things that happened to you or your buddies, aside from the big overreaching story.

They're all very real, authentic stories, and that was, you know, one of the most important things for us, I think, just creatively, to make sure that we were telling stories that were authentic and that were derived from real scenarios. We have great players, former players, coaches, by the way, who we have consulted with who come on, agents, financial advisors, a multitude of people who are able to help us, and my own personal experiences, by the way, that I've been able to share too.

All the stories are real stories. They're not farfetched, and I think you see that. And a lot of times the simplistic storylines in the show, and in our show, become the most powerful because they're that real.

© HBO

If you could think back to that 14 year old kid who had a head full of dreams and the 23 year old whose dreams never came true, what would they say if they knew what your life was going to be like today?

They would say holy shit. They would. They would just be grateful. We were evicted out of our efficiency in Hawaii when I was 14 years old and forced to leave Hawaii -- and look from that to sitting here with all you guys talking about a show that's doing pretty good and a career that's doing pretty good, very, very grateful. So I think that I'm very, very lucky, okay, so I've got a lot of good people around me. I surround myself with some really good partners, one of which is on stage right now in Mike Lombardo and HBO. There's a lot of people in my life who commit themselves to our overall success, whether it's the production company of 7 Bucks or whether it's the movie career or other things we want to do. So I'm really fortunate. But I can tell you that the No. 1 thing and I tell this, by the way, to players who are playing in the league, to college players who want to make it to the NFL, to players at the end of their career and they want to transition into media. And I always say the same thing. It always comes like you could strip it all away. You could strip away the lights. You could strip away Hollywood, strip away the glitz, the glamour, the cars, and the money, and strip it all away. It will always come down to the hard work and the commitment you're willing to put in. So for me, this is why I say I'm lucky. So I got a lot of people around me who are willing to work just as hard as I am. And believe me, I push their asses.

Is there room for improvement on the show?

There's room for improvement on our show. Yeah. Sure. There's always room for improvement, I think. That's one of the things that I love about our creative team and my producing partners and the network, that no one is satisfied. And, you know, the show's creator, Steve Levinson, who you guys know pretty well, is a hungry guy, and even after all of his success and after a show like "Ballers," and we're hitting it pretty good right now midseason in terms of ratings and people liking the show and really having this visceral reaction to our show, the guy, I just spoke to him yesterday for about an hour because it's all about getting better; it's thinking about Season 2 and how we're going to improve, where we're going to improve. Because it's a lot easier, I think, and you guys know this, in success to settle and get comfortable in your success, but it's the discipline, I think, that it takes to pause for a second in any type of success and say okay, well, we appreciate the things we're doing good, but now we need to know the things we're doing better. So, yeah. There's always improvement on our show.

And what we'll do, by the way, is I think that's the great thing for me, personally, even producing the show is really having my finger on the pulse of social media and Instagram and Twitter, and the feedback is instant, and people and the response to the show , you know, you start to separate the snark from the quality responses, and in those quality responses, we've been getting some great notes from fans and things that we're going to implement in Season 2.

New episodes of BALLERS premiere same time as the U.S. every Monday at 10am on HBO / HBO HD (Astro Ch 411 / 431) with a same day primetime encore at 10pm. Also watch BALLERS on Astro On The Go.

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