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Tuesday, March 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wrestler-action hero the Rock enjoys giving a good whoopin in 'Walking Tall'

When the Rock stopped in Seattle last week, we tried to provoke him.

The wrestler-turned-actor, aka Dwayne Johnson, was doing a promotional tour for "Walking Tall," his remake of the 1973 exploitation hit about a real sheriff who cleaned up a corrupt town with a really big stick. In the update, the hero is changed from Buford Pusser to the fictional "Chris Vaughn," and the action is moved from the moonshiners of Tennessee to the meth pushers of Washington state. The nattily dressed star greeted our challenger — ah, interviewer — in a sporting mood at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel.

You're from a big wrestling family.

Yeah, my grandfather wrestled, my dad, big wrestling family.

What are holiday dinners like?

We usually talk about stock market and world issues, play board games.

Are you just screwing with me?

Yeah.

I don't think most people realize you're only 5'3".

2-½.

Did you decide that "Pusser" was going to be too icky a name for marketing purposes?

Aside from taking myself out of all the obvious jokes. That's a funny sounding name: "The Rock as Mr. Pusser," like a "Saturday Night Live" skit. Actually, the truth of the matter is it's out of respect. And I was familiar with Buford Pusser, and not only that, but the original "Walking Tall" and what it meant. And I spent a lot of time with the Pusser family. So I thought it would have been an injustice to try and be Buford Pusser.

Not only that, but coming from an honest standpoint, I didn't want the Hollywood stretch of things, where it's like "Yeah, the Rock's Buford Pusser!" Well no, Buford's white and I'm not, and it's just not real. And this is an adaptation anyway, so I thought as long as we could just take the essence of, ah, Mr. Pusser (laughs).

You can't even say it without laughing.

You're laughing too, see?

Your character's more invincible than the one played by Joe Don Baker.

Honestly, we were just trying to capture what made that movie a classic. To me, what made that movie a classic was the realness, the intensity of all the fight scenes. And, of course, the biggest element I wanted to keep was the stick. Whoopin ass with that stick, that was great. So there could be guns all around, but when the sheriff pulls out the stick, but there's a lot of ways you could go with that.

Who in real life would you like to work over with the stick? I'll start us off: Donald Trump. You could dislodge that hair-turban.

Yeah, sure, and it could be like, "Say that again?" He's like, "You're fired!" Pull out the stick. (His voice turns grim.) "Say that again." "You're fi-" And as soon as that "f" comes out, POOOOSH!

The "Just Say No" people never understood that the best way to spread their message was to show some righteous beatings. This is really an anti-drug movie.

Yeah. And we would have gotten a lot further, I believe, with Nancy Reagan many years ago had we just shown Chris Vaughn showing all-day-long country ass-whoopins with the stick.

In the new "Walking Tall," you become the Kitsap County sheriff. Do you know where I can score?

Some meth?

Whatever you got.

Yeah, I'm going to call my boy up, Bubba.

What I mean is, did you ride around with cops to prepare?

Oh yeah, spent what, a week and a half with a sheriff. Spent time with former soldiers as well, who were able to help. Little things, those little details mean a lot — how a soldier walks, how he reacts to things, even how a soldier turns his head.

Your handlers told me there would be no wrestling shenanigans because you were cultivating an image as a serious actor.

I mean, I'm always poking fun at myself, so it's always like that. I think once you become too serious, you miss out on having a good time. I take what I do seriously, don't get me wrong.

Does that mean you're finished with wrestling?

No, I love wrestling. I actually went back and had a match a couple of weeks ago, Wrestlemania. I had a blast.

OK, let's have some quick responses to some other wrestlers in movies, a rasslin' Rorschach. Rowdy Roddy Piper in "They Live."

Classic lines. "I've come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass ... "

(Both at once) "... and I'm all out of bubble gum!"

Hulk Hogan in "Mr. Nanny."

Never saw it, but I heard he sported a tutu.

Chyna — actually a woman?

Far as I know.

Who were your action-movie idols?

Clint Eastwood for sure. He's my all-time favorite actor. All his movies. I like old-school movies like your "Walking Tall," your "Billy Jack." Steve McQueen, Paul Newman in "Cool Hand Luke," movies of that genre, that was awesome.

Your last movie, "The Rundown," got some good notices. Can you tell me the finer points of fighting Pygmies?

(Laughs.) Well, stay low to the ground, number one, and cover your groin.

That's sound advice just for walking around.

It's very important.

Tell me about the action in "Walking Tall."

I did everything, basically. If I had to jump out of a building, then that would be different. That's why stunt doubles get paid a lot of money. When it's just like ground-and-pound and that type of crap, I love that. It was like a throwback to the simpleness of all those other movies we talked about, you know, where there were real people getting into real fights and it gets real ugly.

I don't think that people making movies like "Walking Tall" or "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" or "Dawn of the Dead" in the '70s figured on multimillion-dollar remakes a generation later.

I don't think they thought that. I'm actually going to meet Joe Don Baker on Monday.

You can take him.

Oh yeah. You bet. I'm gonna.

He's old and slow. Coming up for you: "Spy Hunter."

That'll be my biggest project just in terms of budget, big summer movie, 2005. It's an adaptation of a video game — hunter of spies. (Notices interviewer laughing.) What?!

It's accurately named.

I am indeed the hunter of spies! If you aren't familiar with the video game, it's this cool-ass car that's called The Interceptor, changes into a boat, changes into a motorcycle, GM's making it. The thing's going to be awesome. But before that, I'm doing "Be Cool." Did you know about that?

The sequel to "Get Shorty."

Yeah. I've got about a week left. Play a villain. Samoan. Trying to break into acting, trying to convince John Travolta I can sing, I belong in Hollywood. I can raise my eyebrow to him. And I'm gay.

Will there be another "Scorpion King" movie?

I'd like to. We never really talked about it. And the good thing is that from the end of "The Scorpion King" to the beginning of "The Mummy Returns," there's a block in there that we can write something. We've never talked about that. I'd like to.

Why does the Rock speak in third person?

Ah, that was one of those things that we came up with, man.

I'll tell you where I got that from. It was like five or six years ago, I was watching Deion Sanders talk. He was doing this interview and he was referring to himself in the third person, and through the course of like two or three minutes he's like, "Deion, he's just gonna have to go out there on the field, and Deion's gonna catch the ball and Deion's gonna ... " It blew me away. I was like, "Is he actually talking in the third person?" It annoyed me so much — and at that time in the wrestling business, I was a bad guy, I was a heel — and I was like, if that annoyed me that much, and he's not doing it on purpose, I gotta pick this up. Then that's when things just went nuts. 'Well, the Rock says' 'This is what the Rock would like to do' blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Do you believe in destiny?

(Laughs warily.) Yeah.

This question is your destiny: What is the Rock cooking?

Cooking up all-day-long fresh country ass-whoopins.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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