Dwayne Johnson's Early Years: See What the Rock Was Cookin'
A photographer looks back at the megastar-in-the-making.
George Holz/Contour by Getty Images
Published July 13, 2018
Published 5 days ago
In both size and star power, Dwayne Johnson is one of the biggest celebrities in the world. He’s wrestled a torpedo in "The Fate of the Furious," battled a mutated crocodile in "Rampage," voiced an honest-to-God demigod in "Moana," and, in the new thriller "Skyscraper" (opening this weekend), raced to save his family from a burning high rise. But back in 1999, Johnson was just a 27-year-old, baby-faced wrestler with the old WWF, best known for his arched eyebrow and the catchphrase, "Do you smell what the Rock is cookin'?" That was around the time Getty photographer George Holz first shot him for People magazine. Holz spoke to FOTO (which is owned by Getty) about his long-ago sessions with the wrestler, who was just about to take a leap into acting. "I don’t think he was really that known to people," says Holz, "so you could get away with something as literal as the Rock with a rock."
George Holz/Contour by Getty ImagesTENDER EMBRACEHolz had actually heard of Johnson before he was hired to shoot him, but it wasn’t because of wrestling. It was because of football: Johnson had been a well-regarded defensive lineman on the University of Miami team in the early 1990s, and Holz was a big college football fan. Holz remembers that the shoot, in a Manhattan studio, was a relatively quick one, and that the Rock was friendly, funny, and up for snuggling stones. "The whole thing with the rocks was pretty clichéd," says Holz, laughing. "But he was game for it, and at that point, game for taking his shirt off. I don’t know if he would be today." He was also, Holz recalls, quite big in person: 6'4'' and 265 pounds. "We were joking around, and he picked me up in the air in some wrestling move and put me down," he says. "I couldn’t believe the ease with which he picked me up."George Holz/Contour by Getty ImagesAMONG THE BOULDERSThe People article from late 1999 introduced the non-wrestling world to the young brawler who had, according to the writer, "legions of female fans swooning on the ropes." Johnson comes from a dynasty of sorts: His father Rocky Johnson was a renowned wrestler, as was his maternal grandfather, the Samoan "High Chief" Peter Maivia. By now, Johnson has spoken often about his troubled, peripatetic youth as his father labored away on wrestling circuits, and his mother struggled to keep them afloat financially. A few years ago, Johnson told The Hollywood Reporter how devastating it was for him when the family got evicted from their apartment in Hawaii when he was just 14. "That was the tipping point," he said. "It was about, 'What can I control with these two hands?' The only thing I could do was train and build my body. The successful men I knew were men who built their bodies."
George Holz/Contour by Getty ImagesTHE ROCK ON A ROCKLooking at the pictures now, Holz, who was 43 back then, wonders what this early photo shoot would’ve looked like in black and white instead of color. "They would’ve had a different feel," he says. "Especially that first one of him sitting on the rock — it would’ve made him and the rock look more interesting."
George Holz/Contour by Getty ImagesBLUE SKIESNearly five years later, Holz had the chance to photograph Johnson again, this time for a more elaborate location shoot around Oahu in Hawaii as part of a 2004 cover package for Men’s Journal. By that time, Johnson was in the middle of his move into acting, having appeared in "The Mummy Returns," "The Scorpion King," and "The Rundown." His love for Hawaii was strong, and the Men’s Journal story was meant to give his insights into the islands. "We were traveling around, out at the ocean and a date plantation," says Holz of the day-long shoot. "He wasn’t one of these guys who was a prima donna and wanted to be fussed with. He’s not going to worry about a few bugs or getting wet or getting cranky because he’s hungry. I don’t remember him being very demanding. He probably wanted to carry our equipment."George Holz/Contour by Getty ImagesMOUNTAIN MAN"I remember him talking about the Samoan culture, and his cousins and his family," says Holz. "Hawaii was kind of home to him. You could tell that he was proud of that being his culture and his legacy." Holz even remembers meeting some of those cousins at a dinner: "They looked like him, but bigger, if you can imagine."George Holz/Contour by Getty ImagesISLAND MUSICAnd at one point, Holz and Johnson were taking a break in a hotel lobby, and a Japanese couple who didn't speak much English came over. "They motioned to me, 'Could I take a picture?' So here I am thinking they recognized him and wanted a picture with him," says Holz. "But I realized they just wanted someone to take their picture. Dwayne was standing over there with them, and they were like, 'Why is this guy here?'"
George HolzDARK AND STORMYThis shot doesn’t appear in the Men's Journal set, but Holz used it in his recent book "Holz Hollywood," which documents his three-decade career capturing such personalities as Mariah Carey, Dennis Hopper, Monica Lewinsky, Cameron Diaz, Jack Nicholson, Michael Jordan, and Madonna. He still works as a photographer and lecturer and lives with his family in upstate New York, on a farm in the Catskills.George Holz/Contour by Getty ImagesTHE EARLY YEARSHolz feels a connection to the stars, including Johnson, that he shot in their early years. "I worked with a really young Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz," he says. "When I look at the photos now, some of them are kind of ageless, and some of them look like babies. I was lucky to capture people in the infancy of their careers."George HolzNEVER-SEEN OUTTAKE: HEADS TOGETHER"We shot this right at the end of the day," says Holz. "We were both very bald. We had the exact same haircut, and our heads were together. Except, of course, he’s enormous."
George Holz/Contour by Getty ImagesTHE ROCK FOR PRESIDENT?Since 2004, Johnson, of course, has become one of the most in-demand stars in the world, with the "Fast & Furious" franchise, the TV series "Ballers," and blockbusters like "Rampage" and "San Andreas." Over the last couple of years, he's set his sights even higher, openly mulling the idea of running for president one day. "I think that it's a real possibility," he told GQ last year. What does Holz think about Johnson's political aspirations? "He's a very smart guy, and he seems passionate. Hey, compared to what we have now, I'd take him in a heartbeat," says Holz. "He's kind of a superhero, you know?"