The Rock flexes his acting chops in `Walking Tall'

Action movie has drama to go with the whompings

Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

April 01, 2004|By Kevin Eck | Kevin Eck,SUN STAFF

When word got out that The Rock, the pro wrestler-turned-actor with the trademark upturned eyebrow, would be playing the lead character in a remake of Walking Tall, quite a few eyebrows were raised.

After all, The Rock, who is of Samoan and African-American descent, isn't exactly a mirror image of Buford Pusser, the white Southern sheriff whose life story is the basis for the movie. Dwana Pusser Garrison, Pusser's daughter, was especially skeptical, as were residents of Tennessee's McNairy County, where the late Pusser, who was sheriff there in the 1960s, still is revered as an iconic figure who stood up for justice.

"I knew that was going to happen, and I was cool with that," says The Rock (a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson), who was the one who initiated talks with MGM about doing a Walking Tall redux. "This is Buford Pusser. This is their legend. That's why I went down to McNairy County, so they could see my passion for the project. And it was important for me personally, as the lead actor in the movie, to get the Pusser family's approval."

Garrison and the people of McNairy County eventually warmed up to The Rock - she has endorsed the movie, which opens tomorrow, and the townspeople recently made him honorary sheriff as part of Dwayne Johnson Day - once it was made clear that this film was inspired by the original, rather than it being an actual remake.

"I loved [the movie]," Garrison says. "I was so proud of The Rock. I just really wanted to run out and hug him and tell him my dad would be so proud of him, because he captured the essence that Dad felt."

The 1973 version of Walking Tall, with Joe Don Baker as Pusser, chronicles the crusade of the Tennessee sheriff, whose weapon of choice was a 2-by-4, against gambling, prostitution and moonshine rings. The remake changes the sheriff's name to Chris Vaughn, the locale to Washington state and one of the evils to crystal methamphetamine. The basic theme remains, as does the main character's penchant for using a big stick to lay the smack down on the bad guys.

"I think once the people who were concerned knew that I was not actually playing Buford Pusser, then they were like: `Oh, OK. He's got the stick? ... All right, it's good then,' " says The Rock, who shares a background in pro wrestling with Pusser.

Trying to win over Pusser loyalists wasn't the only challenge The Rock faced with Walking Tall, his third starring vehicle. While the movie has its share of action sequences, it is more of a drama than his previous films (The Scorpion King and The Rundown), and it required The Rock to flex his acting muscles to a greater degree. There's even a courtroom scene in which his character has to deliver an impassioned monologue to the jury.

"I wanted to try a role like this that tested me dramatically - in my little way," says The Rock, 31. "Not saying that this is Gosford Park or anything like that by any means, but the goal is just to continue to grow as an actor, taking little steps."

It becomes clear when talking to The Rock about his acting career that he doesn't take himself too seriously, but that doesn't mean he isn't serious about becoming a good actor. To that end, he has spent countless hours working with renowned acting coaches such as Larry Moss and Howard Fine and keeps them with him on his movie sets. And even though he has been touted as Hollywood's next big action hero, that's not necessarily a distinction The Rock covets.

"It's very flattering to be compared with guys like Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis and Stallone, but I do not aspire to take over the action genre," The Rock says. "I don't aspire to be the next anything. I aspire to make movies that are entertaining, that are believable, and at the end of the day give the audiences their money's worth.

"Once I made the decision to become an actor, I didn't just want to be a celebrity that made movies," he adds. "I wanted to become a good actor. I want to work with good actors. And I want to diversify. If I just wanted to make movies in the action genre that were just kind of so-so and would make great DVDs or straight-to-video movies, then that's cool. But when you want to excel, that requires a whole other level. That's when it requires you to study your [butt] off in terms of the craft of acting."

The Rock will get more of an opportunity to showcase his versatility in his next film, Be Cool, a sequel to the 1995 comedy hit Get Shorty that is scheduled to be released later this year. In Be Cool, which also stars John Travolta and Uma Thurman, The Rock portrays a gay bodyguard who is trying to break into Hollywood as an actor and singer.

"It's a big departure from anything that I've done," The Rock says with a grin. "I'm playing a bad guy, and gay, and poking fun at myself in the biggest way.

"In one scene with John Travolta and Uma Thurman, I'm like, `Look, look, look [he frantically points to his face and raises his right eyebrow in the exaggerated manner that is familiar to anyone who has caught his act in World Wrestling Entertainment].' And John Travolta's like, `That's amazing.' And I'm like, `Yeah, see. I'm talented!' It's very funny. In another scene, I sing "You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man" by Loretta Lynn."

Wonder what the good people of McNairy County will think about that?

For film events, see Page 39.

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