Michael Bay Recalls How He Stopped Dwayne Johnson From Quitting Pain & Gain Shortly Before Production

When Dwayne Johnson has a new movie coming out these days, one generally has a pretty good idea of what to expect. Whether it’s Hobbs & Shaw, or the Jumanji sequels, or Skyscraper, or Jungle Cruise, Johnson typically plays a muscly hero who bursts with charm and charisma. Back in 2013, however, director Michael Bay got a very different kind of performance out of him. Pain & Gain begins featuring the star as a weight-lifting man of faith who is dedicated to living a good life, but by the end he is snorting pounds of cocaine and grilling human hands in a backyard barbecue.

The based-on-a-true-story crime thriller is among Michael Bay’s best movies, and it’s easily one of the greatest turns of Dwayne Johnson’s career – and keeping that in mind, it’s crazy to know that Johnson actually tried to get out of making Pain & Gain a week before the start of principal photography.

Personally speaking, Pain & Gain is my favorite Michael Bay movie, so I felt compelled to bring it up last week when I had the chance to sit down with the filmmaker during the Los Angeles press day for his latest thriller, Ambulance. I mentioned my specific appreciation for Dwayne Johnson’s work in the film, and Bay told me the story of how he stopped the actor from backing out of the project:

He literally quit the week before. And he goes, 'I can't do this.' And I'm like, 'Dwayne, you are my secret weapon on this movie.' And I wrote him this long letter of all the actors I worked with who said they were scared to do something and how it turned out. And he goes, 'Ok. Ok. Alright.' He was brilliant in that movie, and it really is an amazing performance.

In Pain & Gain (which is written by Avengers: Endgame screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), Dwayne Johnson plays Paul Doyle, and the character is really the opposite of all the family-friendly blockbuster protagonists that we regularly see him as today. It’s one of only two R-rated films that Johnson has made in the last decade, the other one being 2017’s Baywatch.

Dwayne Johnson was first attached to make Pain & Gain in December 2011, and while he got cold feet a few months later when production started in March 2012, Michael Bay makes it sound like the cast and crew ultimately had a blast during filming. As the director explained, this was partially because he had a real passion for the project, and also because he was shooting right in his own backyard in Miami, Florida. Said Bay,

I read this story. It was a very long, screwed up crime. And it was always a passion project of mine. I made it for $22 million. We did it all around my house in Miami. I would drive a moped to the set; that's how close it was. I mean, we would do things, 'cause all the cops know us in Miami.

Based on Michael Bay’s comments, it sounds like there was a fun fast-and-loose-ness in the making of Pain & Gain, with Dwayne Johnson joined in the cast by Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie (one of his great pre-Captain America roles). Recalling his time making the 2013 movie, Bay continued,

Mark Wahlberg – we'd get in a van, and I got Dwayne, we got a dead body, we got Anthony Mackie, and I got a camera and just a sound man. We are laughing, and Mark is driving illegally through the city, alright? And then like a cop would see him, and he goes, oh, 'Hey, sweetheart.' I mean, that's fun's. That guerrilla filmmaking, and I had a great time doing that.

Pain & Gain is one of the smallest features Michael Bay has made, and that’s actually something that it shares in common with his latest. Ambulance was shot during the first year of the pandemic, and it is a very stripped down cinematic experience as an extension of that – the story set over the course of a single day and the story mostly unfolding as a feature-length car chase. As I note in my review of the film, it’s also another one of Bay’s best movies.

You’ll be able to check it out yourself when Ambulance – starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Eiza Gonzalez – hits theaters everywhere this Friday, April 8. Head over to the movie’s official website to learn about showtimes near you, and discover all of the films heading to theaters and streaming in what remains of the year by checking out our 2022 Movie Release Calendar.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.