How Dwayne Johnson overcame tough upbringing to become Hollywood star

Rocky beginnings: How Dwayne Johnson overcame a tough upbringing with his ‘bad dude’ wrestler father, arrests for theft and fighting as a teen and depression at 23 to become the world’s highest-paid actor

  • Dwayne Johnson, 48,  first rose to fame as wrestling personality the ‘The Rock’ in 1996, aged 24
  • Became Hollywood star, appearing in likes of ‘The Scorpion King’ and ‘The Fast and the Furious’ franchise
  • New NBC series Young Rock depicts the upbringing of the star with his dad, late pro wrestler Rocky Johnson
  • Recalled he had an ‘incredibly complicated’ relationship with his father, who died in January 2020 aged 75
  • Dwayne told how aged 13, he started to veer off the tracks and by 23, he began suffering with depression 
  • In 1994, Dwayne joined the WWE and became The Rock, before going on to pursue and acting career 

Dwayne Johnson rose to fame as wrestling personality the ‘The Rock’ and became a box-office star, appearing in films including ‘The Scorpion King’ and ‘The Fast and the Furious’ franchise – but while many know the actor for his tough exterior, few are aware of his rocky road to stardom.   

The star, who parlayed his WWE fame into an A-list Hollywood career, had a tough upbringing – and at the tender age of thirteen found himself arrested on at least eight or nine times for everything from fighting to theft. 

Johnson, who has admitted he was ‘angry’ but thought of himself as ‘cool’ growing up, would join in friends in targeting high-end clothes and jewellery, before selling them on to make some money.    

And things went from bad to worse, when he ended up playing in the Canadian Football League, where he made just $250 (£180) a week, before eventually getting cut – something which he has described as his ‘absolute worst time.’

Spiralling into a deep depression aged 23, he admitted he had holed himself up in his parent’s small apartment, hiding out and cleaning as he gave into the dark thoughts.

But by the following year, he decided to follow in his father Rocky ‘Soul Man’ Johnson’s footsteps – who had made history as a professional wrestler, becoming, along with Tony Atlas, the first Black champions in WWE history when they won the tag team titles in 1983, when Dwayne was just 11. 

His father wholeheartedly disagreed with the star’s decision at first, telling him: ‘You’re throwing it all away… You’re ruining your career.’ But when Dwayne asked his father to help him train he rose to the occasion, making for what he calls ‘one of the greatest chapters of my life.’ 

The first third-generation superstar in WWE history – who became renowned for signature moves like ‘The People’s Elbow’ and ‘The Rock Bottom,’ went on to win seven WWE Championships.

This resulted in him kicking off a career which also includes hosting Saturday Night Live, publishing a best-selling autobiography, and starring in box office hits such as The Fast and the Furious franchise and San Andreas – the latter films making his lifetime worldwide box-office gross to over $5.9 billion – even before the release of ‘Baywatch’ and ‘Jumanji.’

Dwayne Johnson (pictured, aged 15) told how he started to veer off the tracks aged 13, and started getting arrested for fighting, theft and ‘all kinds of stupid [stuff]’

Catalyst: The superstar dealt with depression when he was 23, after getting passed up for the NFL and after being cut from Canadian Football League team the Calgary Stampeders (pictured at practice for the Stampeders)

Dwayne’s life took a turn for the better when he decided he wanted to follow in his father Rocky ‘Soul Man’ Johnson’s footsteps – who had made history as a professional wrestler. Pictured, as a child with his dad

Career-defining: His success as ‘The Rock’ led him to host Saturday Night Live, release a best-selling autobiography, and launch his wildly successful film career; here he is seen in 2012

The Scorpion King is a 2002 American action-adventure fantasy film directed by Chuck Russell, starring The Rock (pictured)

New NBC series Young Rock depicts the upbringing of the wrestler-turned-actor, 48, with his father, late pro wrestler Rocky Johnson, and mother Ata Maivia, through the ups and downs of his childhood in the 1980s and early 90s.

The elder Johnson passed away suddenly in January 2020 at the age of 75, with his famous son, who was born on May 2, 1972, in Hayward, California, opening up to People about his ‘bad dude’ father and his upbringing.

‘I thought, well, let’s not take the easy route,’ Johnson said during NBC’s TCA winter tour panel, along with Young Rock creator Nahnatchka Khan and writer Jeff Chiang.

‘But it was incredibly complicated and it was incredibly tough. Growing up, and you know we specifically went with these timelines in my life that were very defining times at 10 years old, 15 and 18.

There’s a lot of things in between those years that took place … but it was complicated and the relationship that I had with my dad was incredibly complicated — that was fueled by tough love,’ he said of his father.

Those complications were born from his father’s unconventional upbringing, with Rocky’s father kicking him out of the house at 13. 

‘My dad was kicked out of his house at 13 and he was homeless, so that then shaped the man who then raised me,’ Johnson said.   

Dwayne Johnson, Lauren Hashian and daughter Jasmine Johnson attend a ceremony honoring him with a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame on December 13, 2017 in Los Angeles, California

Sharing a throwback snap to promote ‘Young Rock,’ Dwayne Johnson penned: ‘…A little bucked tooth, afro’d 10 year old ‘Dewey’ played by the lovable @AdrianGroulx. Taking Hawaii by storm and trying to sneak a nip of tequila at the dinner table whenever I could This is where my wild life all began..excited to share @NBCYoungRock with you all in TWO WEEKS on @NBC!!’

Dwayne (pictured as a young boy), who was born on May 2, 1972, in Hayward, California, has spoken of his ‘bad dude’ father and his upbringing

Dwayne Johnson also shared this snap alongside the caption: ‘* swipe left to see the world’s first 15yr old who looks 48 and was constantly mistaken as an high school undercover cop. True story. The awesome @BradleyConstant takes on my wild, unpredictable and DEFIANT high school years – redefining the rules of puberty for generations to come @NBCYoungRock premieres in TWO WEEKS on @NBC!!!’

The Ballers star described himself as ‘a kid who had some anger issues but also thought he was really cool.’

Johnson said he ‘clearly had an identity crisis’ as he was growing up.

‘I didn’t want to be known as Dwayne when I moved from high school to high school. I called myself Tomas.

‘Girls used to call the house and ask for Tomas and my mom would go, ‘I’m sorry. There’s no Tomas here.”

The series also depicts his dad’s career as a professional wrestler in the territory systems of the 1970s and 80s, before Vince McMahon and Wrestlemania brought a high-profile toward the form of entertainment. 

‘And in that complication came an extraordinary life that was full of travel. I lived in 13 different states by the time I was 13 years old, also lived in New Zealand,’ Johnson added. 

And by the age of 23, Johnson found himself battling depression.

NBC series Young Rock 

NBC has released official cast photos recreating some of the star’s most nostalgic looks, ahead of the launch of a show about his childhood, Young Rock.

Playing Johnson’s 18 to 20-year-old self on Young Rock, actor Uli Latukefu posed dead centre with his arms crosses, while sporting the tight fitting top and a pair of high waisted jeans.

He also donned the same glistening gold chain and leather fanny pack that Johnson donned in the original snapshot, which was taken in 1996.

Latukefu posed alongside Joseph Lee Anderson, who plays Dwayne’s father Rocky Johnson, and Stacey Leilua, who plays Dwayne’s mother Ata Johnson.

Many of the Young Rock cast snaps released featured Adrian Groulx, who portrays Dwayne’s 10-year-old self.

For one of the photos, Groulx can be seen wearing a graphic tee featuring a cartoon image of Johnson’s father Rocky who worked as a professional wrestler during Johnson’s childhood. 

Nostalgic: NBC has released a slew of official cast photos from the upcoming sitcom Young Rock (Pictured Stacey Leilua as Ata Johnson, Uli Latukefu as Dwayne 20yrs, Joseph Lee Anderson as Rocky Johnson pictured)

Young Rock: Many of the Young Rock cast snaps released on Tuesday featured Adrian Groulx, who portrays Dwayne’s 10-year-old self; Stacey Leilua as Ata Johnson, Adrian Groulx as Dwayne 10yrs, Joseph Lee Anderson as Rocky Johnson pictured

Role model: Adrian Groulx as Dwayne 10yrs and Joseph Lee Anderson, who plays Johnson’s pro-wrestler father Rocky (pictured, left) and some of the vital people who helped inspire and shape his mind and body into the athlete-turned movie-star-turned entrepreneur (right)

To showcase Johnson’s high school years in Pennsylvania, actor Bradley Constant steps in as his 15-year-old version.

On Saturday, Dwayne shared the first official teaser trailer for Young Rock, which gave fans a taste of Adrian, Bradley, and Uli’s portrayals of the Jumanji Star.

Young Rock takes viewers on a journey of his humble beginnings as a school boy that cleverly gives a nod and a wink to his future endeavors that includes his venture into the tequila business.

‘I really wish my dad was around to see this one. Maaaaan he would’ve been proud. And yes, I was clearly kicking puberty’s a** at 15yrs old and becoming a tequila tycoon by the time I was 10.’

With obvious excitement in his voice, he added, ‘I can’t wait to make you and your families laugh a little and share some life lessons I’ve learned along the way.’

A taste: Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson shared a teaser of his upcoming sitcom — Young Rock — which chronicles his early years before fame and fortune

The Rock actors: Adrian Groulx plays the 10-year-old Rock; Bradley Constant portrays the 15-year-old version of star, and Uli Latukefu steps in as his 18-20-year-old self

‘Every hero has an origin story, but not a full mustache at age 15,’ the narrator begins as clips of the actor’s action hero exploits are shown.

The teaser then transitions to shots of Bradley Constant playing the aspiring star in high school: ‘It’s The Rock’s true life story… from then to now,’

‘When you dream big — the sky’s the limit.’

Stacey Leilua plays his mother Ata Johnson.

On Instagram, Johnson has teased the series will include parts of his life he hasn’t shared with anyone, including his ‘therapist, or even Oprah.’

‘From growing up in the crazy world of professional wrestling to being a broke 14-year-old kleptomaniac with a full mustache to being a trouble 15-year-old country/ western singer,’ he listed, before noting his voice once had ‘the raspy honestly of Willie Nelson and the soul of an outlaw.’

While reflecting on his life, he continued to speak about becoming a college football player and the ‘wild days of the early ’90s.’

‘In my show on NBC, we’re going to explore all of that and more,’ he promised, before taking a shot of Teremana Tequila.

According to Deadline, Johnson will ‘appear in each episode’ of the series.

Young Rock is set to premiere on NBC February 16, 2021.

Role models: Fans meet some of the vital people who helped inspire and shape The Rock’s mind and body before he became a global star

Dream big: ‘When you dream big — the sky’s the limit,’ is one of The Rock’s mantras 

How it began: The actor’s life in middle school and high school are depicted

Laughs coming: Young Rock is set to premiere on NBC February 16, 2021

‘I found that with depression one of the most important things you could realise is that you’re not alone,’ he previously noted. 

The Ballers star explained that the depression stemmed from being passed over by the NFL and then cut from his team – the Calgary Stampeders – in the Canadian Football League at the age of 23. 

‘The dreams I had, they’re dashed,’ he later recalled to Hollywood Reporter. ‘There is no more football. My relationship was crushed. That was my absolute worst time.’ 

Speaking on Oprah’s Masterclass, The Rock got a little emotional as he said: ‘I wish I had someone at that time who could just pull me aside and [say], ‘Hey, it’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.’ 

He also said of his battle with depression: ‘You’re not the first to go through it, you’re not going to be the last to go through it and oftentimes you feel like you’re alone and you feel like it’s only you and you’re in your bubble.’

Dwayne Johnson’s dad (pictured), late pro wrestler Rocky Johnson, passed away suddenly in January 2020 at the age of 75

World Wrestling Federation’s Wrestler Rock Poses June 12, 2000 In Los Angeles (pictured)

Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock previously shared a Nineties throwback photo (pictured, left) and a snap with a young fan after a wrestling match at the flea market in Memphis, when his ring name was ‘Flex Kavana’ (right)

Dwayne also shared advice for those going through a similar time, since he had wished someone had shared such wise words with him.

‘You’ve just gotta remember, hold onto that fundamental quality of faith. Have faith, and on the other side of your pain is something good,’ he advised.

And it certainly paid off for him. Six weeks after he was cut from his football team and fell into his depression, the coach called asking to bring him back.

However, he turned it down, saying his ‘gut told him he was done’ with that and that he’d like to get into the business [of pro wrestling], and follow in his father Rocky Johnson’s footsteps. 

Dwayne Johnson, left, and Jason Statham in a scene from ‘Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw’ (pictured)

Dwane Johnson stared in gritty and inspirational movie ‘Gridiron Gang’ based on a true story about a group of teenage delinquents given a second chance to redeem themselves by playing football

Dwayne Johnson hosted the Titan Games – an American sports competition reality series which premiered on NBC on January 3, 2019

Dwayne Johnson has starred in box office hits such as The Fast and the Furious franchise and San Andreas – the latter films making his lifetime worldwide box-office gross to over $5.9 billion – even before the release of ‘Baywatch’ and ‘Jumanji.’ Pictured, Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, and Karen Gillan 

Johnson initially spent time in the WWE’s minor leagues, before making his debut on TV at the 1996 Survivor Series using wrestling name ‘Rocky Maivia’ – a combination of the names of his father and grandfather.  

He went on to make his first film debut in 2001’s ‘The Mummy Returns,’ where he played a villainous ruler, before going on to reprise the role in ‘The Scorpion King’ – making $5.5 million, the most any actor has made for a first leading role, according to Business Insider. 

With his film career in full swing, he decided to drop ‘The Rock’ from his name, telling Los Angeles Times: ‘The Rock’ was a name, a character I created in TV,’ he said. ‘When I made the transition into film, I knew eventually I was going to be billed as my given name.’ 

And according to Forbes, Johnson became the highest-paid actor in the world in 2015, beating the likes of Robert Downey Jr.

The following year, he joined Kevin Hart for the comedy ‘Central Intelligence,’ before playing the voice of Maui in Disney hit ‘Moana.’ 

Johnson shares two daughters; Jasmine, five, and Tia, two, with wife Lauren Hashian who he married in 2019.

He also has daughter Simone, 19, with his first wife Dany Garcia – who he met at the University of Miami and married on May 3, 1997. The two separated after 10 years but have stayed close, with Johnson previously saying to Essence magazine.:  ‘Since our divorce, we’ve become pretty good at working together, and we are also raising our beautiful 11-year-old daughter, Simone.’

Dwayne posted this snap on Instagram alongside his father and penned: ‘Bought my dad a Christmas gift and surprised him. He’s had a hard life. This one felt good. My dad, Rocky Johnson is a minimalist. Always has been. Never asks me for much and over the years his needs are always the barest’

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson often gushes about his special bond with his daughters in a new Instagram post. Pictured, with Tia

In 2019 Johnson discussed having three daughters as he talked about his eldest Simone meeting boys as she embarked on college.

Speaking on Live with Kelly and Ryan, he said: ‘I like to think, and it’s what girls do, they measure the men they meet in their life by their father.

‘I like to think whoever she brings home is going to be a good quality person. And if they’re not … bang!

‘As men, you know, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah I’m going to raise my son’ but having all daughters, it’s the greatest blessing I’ve ever had … It’s just the best thing … I have a house full of just strong, bada** women. 

As for the future, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has revealed he would not rule out a presidential run, if ‘the people’ wanted him in politics. 

The wrestler-turned-movie star first mused over a run for the White House in 2017, when he claimed he would go against former President Donald Trump in 2020, yet after shelving last year’s plans he seems to be replenishing his idea. 

He told US Weekly: ‘I would consider a presidential run in the future if that’s what the people wanted.  Truly I mean that, and I’m not flippant in any way with my answer. That would be up to the people… So I would wait, and I would listen.’ 

Dwayne is in the midst of plugging his new show Young Rock, set in 2032 and depicting his run for presidency, and during the promo trail he has revealed the next move in his wide-spanning career. 

Speaking of his plans, he revealed he would be keeping an eye out for plans from fans: ‘I would have my finger on the pulse, my ear to the ground.’ 

In 2017, Dwayne entertained the possibility of challenging Trump for the White House during an appearance on The Tonight Show. 

Alongside a sweet snap of his daughter posted on Instagram, Dwayne Johnson wrote: ‘Our sheltering at home, pre daddy’s shower ritual Before my showers now, Baby Tia (mama mia) demands I sing the rap portion of my song ‘You’re Welcome’ from MOANA, while I wash her hands. We realised a few weeks ago that the rap portion of the song is perfect timing when getting your little ones to have fun washing their hands. Stay healthy and safe, my friends’

Dwayne Johnson takes a shot of alcohol and sings during the coronavirus quarantine in a photo uploaded to Instagram (pictured)

At the time, he had been left astonished and flattered at the public’s reaction to a statement he made in which he said he would consider running for the president.

He said: ‘I’ve been really been blown away. And it’s so flattering. And I think you have to question why. I think it’s because, you know, a lot of people want to see a different leadership today — I’m sorry, not different, but better leadership today, right?’

Dwayne said that he was surprised by the way an off-hand comment he made to a journalist at GQ magazine about perhaps running for president has reverberated.

When asked what qualities make him fit to be commander in chief, he said: ‘I think more poised, less noise.

‘And I also think that over the years I’ve become a guy that a lot of people kind of relate to: get up early in the morning at a ridiculous hour, go to work and spend time with the troops, take care of my family.

‘I love taking care of people. And I think that kind of thing really resonates with people, especially today. I love coming here to ‘The Tonight Show’ crowd.’ 

At the time, he said he believes he has what it takes to rule the US and has been considering the idea of moving into politics ‘more and more’ over the past year.

He said: ‘A year ago, it started coming up more and more. There was a real sense of earnestness, which made me go home and think, ‘Let me really rethink my answer and make sure I am giving an answer that is truthful and also respectful.”  

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