How Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson became the people's movie star

What's the formula for reaching the top of Hollywood in 2015? A series of memorable performances and an uncanny knack for social media.

Dwayne Johnson
(Image credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Warner Bros./AP Images)

This is a big year for Dwayne Johnson, the wrestler-turned-actor formerly best-known as "The Rock." San Andreas, a disaster blockbuster in which he stars, arrives in theaters on Friday. Ballers — an HBO series in which Johnson serves as both executive producer and star — premieres in June. Furious 7, which stars Johnson in a supporting role, was the biggest movie of the year by a massive margin — until the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

But don't feel too bad about a superhero blockbuster taking Johnson's number-one box-office slot; he'll make his own, long-discussed superhero blockbuster debut in Shazam!, which is part of DC Comics' big plan to establish its own Avengers-style universe. Johnson is so perfectly suited to the superhero genre that he was actually offered his choice of two starring roles in Shazam! — the titular superhero or his antiheroic adversary, Black Adam. Johnson chose Black Adam, reasoning that the role was "inherently more interesting."

Johnson is absolutely right about Black Adam — but given the same choice, it's hard to imagine many other actors passing on a top-line superhero role in favor of his less famous counterpart. This is the kind of thoughtful, measured approach to stardom that has turned Dwayne Johnson into a household name. The secret to Johnson's rise to global fame as an actor over the past 15 years is simple: He's consistently been the best thing, by far, about a bunch of otherwise middling movies.

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Johnson's filmography is unusually eclectic, pivoting sharply from one movie to the next: big action movies to wacky comedies, weird indie movies to fun little cameos, often playing himself. The only unifying trait is that every role seems to have been carefully chosen to show off another aspect of his talent. Johnson's turn as the villainous Scorpion King in 2001's The Mummy Returns was so much more interesting than the rest of the movie that it spawned an entire spin-off series repositioning his character as the hero. 2005's Be Cool — a Get Shorty sequel that absolutely no one was asking for — only comes to life when Johnson pops up on the screen. He steals the show from Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway in 2008's all-but-forgotten Get Smart reboot.

As far as I'm concerned, Johnson delivers his greatest performance in 2012's distinctly unpromising Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, where he serves as an absurdly overqualified replacement for original star Brendan Fraser, playing every bizarre scene with charming unflagging commitment. Here he is calling his fist a "thunder cookie" as he punches a giant iguana. Here he is singing a Journey 2-themed cover of "What a Wonderful World" in a surprisingly beautiful baritone. Here he is bouncing berries on his enormous pecs (this last one is worth embedding):

But however impressive, the range of talents Johnson has displayed on the big-screen is just one half of the cocktail that has elevated him to superstardom. It's the inherent likability Johnson shows off-screen — which he cannily harnesses on Twitter (8.7 million followers), Instagram (14.8 million followers), and Facebook (49 million likes) — that has earned him such an unusually loyal fandom.

Johnson is one of the few actors smart enough to realize that the endless string of repetitive, controlled, droning junket interviews that greet every new blockbuster is actually a pretty poor way to galvanize fans. Sure, he'll do those too — Johnson is nothing if not hard-working — but it's the other, less conventional PR routes that has won him the love of so many.

Following Johnson on social media feels like an actual window into his day-to-day life: unusually chatty, heavy on pictures, and full of upbeat affirmations about the best ways to live a happy life. (It's a talent he shares with his Fast & Furious costar Vin Diesel, who once revealed that Facebook had actually contacted him to learn how he had managed to harness so many fans.) Johnson spends a lot of his social media platform promoting his various film and television projects — but first and foremost, he's always promoting Dwayne Johnson.

Last week, Johnson scored a huge viral hit by serving as the officiant at a surprise wedding for Nick Mundy — a writer and fan who just happens to have 33,000-plus Twitter followers. This week, he set a new Guinness World Record by taking 105 selfies in three minutes. Those are the recent standouts, but the less flashy posts are arguably more important. A scroll through Johnson's Instagram feed shows how deftly he intersperses his promotional duties for San Andreas with pieces of feel-good advice, cute little anecdotes, and endless expressions of love for his fans.

While they're undeniably successful, I don't think posts like these are calculated or disingenuous; Johnson seems, quite genuinely, to enjoy sharing the details of his life with his followers. But even today, it makes him a relative rarity in Hollywood. There are many celebrities who keep their day-to-day lives private, and who only speak to fans through a team of vetted publicists. Dwayne Johnson is proof that you can maintain a healthy private life while reaching your fans every day — and that they'll follow you from the wrestling ring to the big screen if you do it.

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