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After spending many years working to establish himself as one of the most charismatic blockbuster leads working in the industry, Dwayne Johnson’s big breakthrough year finally came in 2013. Starring in five separate films - Snitch, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Empire State, Pain & Gain and Fast & Furious 6 - the actor was the biggest box office star of last year, and he has never been more popular than he is right now. Sadly, this year will see him starring in far fewer films, but this summer will deliver what could be his biggest role yet, starring as the titular lead in Brett Ratner’s Hercules.
In the film, the wrestler-turned-actor stars as the Greek hero in the years following his epic 12 labors of legend. Teaming up with a band of travelers, he finds himself working as a mercenary sailing from port to port to kill people for money, but his mettle is truly tested when he agrees to help a king and his daughter take down a vicious warlord.
Of course, we’ve seen many different versions of Hercules over the years, from the 1983 movie with Lou Ferrigno to the 90s television series starring Kevin Sorbo, so what makes this version so different? As part of the on-going CinemaCon expo in Las Vegas, yesterday morning I was invited along with a small group of other journalists to sit down for a special roundtable discussion with Johnson to talk about his latest film. So what did I discover? Read on to find out!
Hercules Is The Son Of A God… But It’s A Lineage He RejectsOf all the classic Greek myths, the tale of Hercules is perhaps the best known. Born a demigod as the son of Zeus and a mortal named Alcmene, the hero is a legend for his tremendous strength and his successful passing of the 12 Labors (which basically involved killing, fighting and/or capturing some really bad beasties). It’s been somewhat unclear how the new Brett Ratner movie would be handing these more fantastical elements, as reports have suggested that the film would be more grounded in reality than myth, but the fact is that the movie is staying true in many respects to the tale we know and love.
While Hercules will have what Johnson described during our interview as a more "balanced" approach (paying tribute to the lore while also introducing a new spin), the key elements to the story and the character will still be present – especially his familial connection to the folks living up on Mount Olympus. The trick to the whole thing is how the hero actually feels about his own lineage and legacy.
"When we see [Hercules] and he's introduced in this story, he doesn't care about his faith, and he doesn't care about who he is, who everyone claims him to be," the actor told us. "It doesn't matter to him, because he doesn't have his family… The goal was to strike a nice balance between a unique twist on the story, and yet at the same time make sure that we still paid homage to the mythology of Hercules."
A Lot Of People Were Fired Trying To Leak Hercules’ New LookHollywood absolutely loves to keep secrets about its biggest upcoming projects, and Hercules certainly qualifies in that category. While Johnson repeatedly
"I would say maybe close to 50 people were fired - crew members - all trying to sneak pictures," Johnson told us, reflecting on his time shooting in Budapest. "So there's that. There's mandate, and we all agreed on that." As for an explanation behind the images that he did send out, the star still wanted to let people in on the movie making process while maintaining an air of secrecy. In that regard, it was thanks to the fact that he has become one of the biggest actors in the world that he managed to get the folks at Paramount and MGM to simply have faith in his social media habits.
"I told the studios...’Hey, what I'd like to do is take the audience and the fans on a journey from beginning to end, because it's such a passion project for me. So from the time I get to Budapest, I'd like to take them on a journey in terms of what my diet is, what my training is and on set too.’ They said, ‘Well, how are you going to do that?’ I said, ‘Well, trust me. Somehow I'm going to do it.’"
Dwayne Johnson’s Hollywood DreamIt’s not exactly hard to figure out why so many young people want to become movie stars. While real life has shown that the world of Hollywood isn’t as glamorous as it may seem, at the same time it is a lifestyle that opens the door for widespread notoriety and wealth. In our interview, Dwayne Johnson revealed that he spent many years of his life with that same dream, but rather than having visions of selfish prosperity, his Hollywood goals were actually more about being able to take care of the people he loves.
"When I was a kid at 14 and we were in Hawaii we were evicted out of our little efficiency," the star told us when asked about how he first got into bodybuilding. "We came home and it had a padlock on the door. I saw my mom crying -- it was me and my mom -- and she was tapped out. There was nothing we could do, padlock on the door. I just remember at that time thinking I never wanted this to happen again, so I wanted to become a success somehow so we'd never get locked out again and never get evicted. So in my mind at that time, at 14, the men who were successful were Stallone and Schwarzenegger and guys like that -- Harrison Ford -- who were these men of action. I was like, ‘Okay, they're successful, they're not getting evicted, they built their bodies -- I'm gonna go build my body.’
Was it a lofty goal? Absolutely. But at this stage it’s pretty hard to argue with the results.
Creating Brutality In PG-13As seen in big movies like Gladiator and 300, the earliest years of civilization on Earth were pretty damn hardcore. Blood sports were common, slavery was A-okay, and kill-or-be-killed moments were an all-too common part of everyday life.
For a PG-13 movie like Hercules, this created an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, the titular character is a mercenary with a very violent history, and on the other you have a studio that is trying to make a film that is as accessible to audiences of many ages. Johnson told us that the trick behind finding a balance in this situation was simply creativity.
Because the MPAA tends to care a bit more about blood splatter and the consequences of violence rather than the violence itself, one of the tricks to making Hercules was cutting down on the viscera and focusing on the passion and intention behind the titular character’s action. "The intention to brutalize is high, but we try to keep the blood as minimal as possible. I think you're going to be happy, if you have a thirst for that, like occasionally I do," Johnson said laughing.
Finding Brett Ratner On An UpswingSince beginning his career as a feature director in 1997 with the action comedy Money Talks, Brett Ratner has seen his fair share of ups and downs. Movies like the Rush Hour films and X-Men: The Last Stand were major successes at the box office, but critical reaction to his projects has never been overwhelmingly positive. He has bounced around Hollywood for a long time as a result, picking up an interesting variety of projects. When it came to making Hercules, though, Johnson believed that they had found the man during an important upswing.
Discussing the long history of the upcoming movie and the directors who almost helmed it before Ratner came along (such as Peter Berg), the star talked about how was happy to have gotten the filmmaker during a very important point in his career. "He has had great success, he's been down, he's gotten back up," Johnson said. "It's in that come-up that I was able to get Brett. He knew he had this incredible opportunity."
So what was it that sold Johnson on Ratner being the perfect guy to helm Hercules? It was all about a shared fervor for the material and a matching vision. "He was very passionate about the project, very passionate about Hercules and very passionate about doing something that was very special," Johnson continued. "I got a very hungry Brett Ratner. You guys have known Brett for a long time. You know he's a great guy, he's a talented guy, he's a fun guy. It was good to see him at this level and raise his game."
Hercules arrives in theaters on July 25th.