Long before he became The Rock — when he was merely The Pebble, perhaps — Dwayne Johnson was a freshman at President William McKinley High in Honolulu, Hawaii’s state capital. Fast forward 30 years, and Johnson is driving a flame-throwing motorcycle through a jungle half an hour north of his old school, filming the new Jumanji movie as the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. “To be able to come back like this,” he beams, “on a movie of this size, to put a lot of good people to work, it’s very cool.”
Johnson is speaking from Kualoa Ranch, Hollywood’s ‘Hawaii backlot’ (it’s recently played host to Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island and Jurassic World). This is the jungle we’ll be welcomed to for Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, the follow-up to 1995’s Robin Williams adventure movie. This time the board game has been upgraded to a video game, with Johnson as the lead in-game avatar of a new set of hapless high-school kids (Jack Black, Karen Gillan and Kevin Hart).
Later that night, Empire ventures on set. Surrounded by monkey pod trees, flaming torches, in-game henchmen known as ‘dragoons’, and the base of what will become (in post-production) a giant jaguar statue, we see the 5’4” Hart try and fail to fight his 6’2” co-star, Bobby Cannavale. “It’s because he’s so small,” notes Johnson, never missing a chance to rib his co-star.
Despite punishing days, the cast are having a blast. Indeed, at the mere mention of his character name, the delectable Dr Smolder Bravestone (“the best name of any character I’ve ever played!”), Johnson bursts into a hearty laugh. In fact, one of the cast wonders if they’re not having too much fun. “Some of the best movies ever made were fucking horrible sets, filled with turmoil and strife,” jokes Black. “Maybe I’ll cause some strife, to make sure it’s one of the best films of all time.”
First published in Empire, November 2017.