Central Intelligence: Hanging out on set with Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart!
Watching Dwayne Johnson get bullied is a thing you probably can't imagine, but watch it I did in Boston one summer afternoon last year: Johnson - 6'5, roughly 266 lbs. - was berated, taunted, put down and basically sent scurrying away like a beaten puppy. Not before meekly asking Kevin Hart - about an entire foot shorter - if it was okay to leave. This was not the Dwayne Johnson I was used to seeing.
But that's the magic of movies, right? They can turn a behemoth like Johnson into a frightened man-child, unable to stand up for himself and looking quite pitiful in the process. I was on the set of CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE, New Line's new comedy that brings Johnson and Hart together in the classic buddy comedy tradition. In the film, Johnson is a badass CIA operative capable of anything... except facing his past. The character of Robbie Weirdicht (say the last name out loud) was an overweight, pathetic loser in high school, a punching bag for bullies. After a traumatic experience at a pep rally turns out to be the last straw, Weirdicht changes his life around and becomes the one-man army you'd expect Johnson to be. But the horrors of high school revert Weirdicht back to that sniveling sad-sack he was back in the day, and that's what I was witnessing on set.
"The joke is that though he looks like Dwayne Johnson on the outside, on the inside he is still the same sort of fat kid from high school that got picked on and bullied. So he still has all those insecurities and all those vulnerabilities even though he has this 250 lbs of muscle armor is built on top." That's how director Rawson Marshall Thurber (WE'RE THE MILLERS) explained the basic premise of the film, which also involves Weirdicht attempting to clear his name over a crime he didn't commit. Weirdicht needs Calvin (Hart), once the most popular kid in school but now a workaday accountant, to help him out of the predicament he's in, and because the dynamics of high school still exist in Weirdicht's mind, he worships at the alter of Calvin, who naturally doesn't know what he's in for when his former classmate comes calling. And, wouldn't you know it, this is all going down as a high school reunion looms just around the corner.
As to who was tormenting poor Weirdicht/Johnson, I cannot say. (Celeb cameo alert!) But the character is crucial to the mission that the CIA agent is on, and his language certainly got colorful at times. (The film is rated PG-13 but we heard some decidedly R-rated versions of this bully's nastiness.) The set was an office building that, in several areas, was covered in broken glass. (Evidently an action sequence had been shot there before my arrival.) And while this verbal smackdown would be the only real action I was privy to, I was assured by Johnson, Hart and Thurber that CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE will have some very healthy doses of explosions, shootouts and chases. Hart put it this way: "My character gets thrown all over the place, thrown out of windows, I'm in car accidents, I'm jumping over shit that I don’t want to jump over but I have no choice. Shot at, sliding under cars... It’s definitely what you want to do when they bring up the idea of doing an action film."
Myself and a handful of other journalists got to talk to Johnson, Hart and Thurber about the high-octane comedy, and below you'll find a bevy of quotes from the participants on what promises to be a very entertaining action-comedy. (Quick fun fact: Approximately six years ago the film was intended to star Will Ferrell and Ed Helms.)
I'm the guy who felt the need to point out Dwayne Johnson
Johnson on returning to the comedy genre and his attraction to this most unusual role:
The idea was, it had been a while since I had gone back into comedy and I was just waiting for the right opportunity to go back to comedy, and hopefully find a script that had some action elements in it. When New Line brought me the script, I loved it and actually wanted to take a crack at the Bob role. It wasn’t necessarily for me, I was going to play the other role. There were other actors who were attached in the past... The idea was, if I was going to go back into the genre of action comedy, how do we bring this to an audience in a way that it’s not something that they’ve necessarily seen? How do we take a model that’s been successful over the years whether it’s been Trading Places or 48 Hours to Lethal Weapon, things like Rush Hour. So how do we take the model that's been successful and kinda flip it in a way and present it in a way that had never been done before. So the idea of playing a guy who was unmercifully bullied in high school, obese, different, and then that guy then becoming who he becomes.
It was actually Johnson's idea to get Kevin Hart involved:
...We were all on the phone and we were going through a list of probably five or six big stars, and we were going over the list and by the end of the list, we were on the phone: myself, New Line executives, myself, Rawson, Warner Brother executives and Toby Emmerich, who’s a President over at New Line. I said, “I have a crazy idea, his name is not on the list, I think it could be really funny and global: Kevin Hart.” There was a long pause. No one said a word. About 15 seconds, Toby Emmerich, classically, says, 'I’ve got an idea. How ‘bout we go out and get Kevin Hart.' (laughs) Kevin and I have known each other for a long time, and now here we are.
Johnson's character has an inability to leave the 90s behind after an incident made him emotionally stunted (here Johnson describes the film's opening, part of which can be glimpsed in the trailer; see it below):
One of the fun parts was, I called Rawson. “What if there was a certain part of his brain was completely stunted when he was thrown out on his dick in front of the entire school?” And I don’t know if you guys know this, there’s a final pep rally, and Kevin is everything, he’s class President, four letter all-American, the whole thing. One of those guys you love. Obviously on the path of success, he’s got this pep rally, he gets down on one knee, he’s going to propose to his girlfriend, it’s a big thing. And I am grabbed out of the shower, because it’s a big school thing, everyone is there and I’m in the shower. So I can shower by myself because I’m weird. I get thrown out on my ass in front of everybody, and my last name is Weirdicht. That’s a lot of fun later. In that, to answer your question. The question was, what if he was stunted in many ways, which allows him to go through life in the CIA and be proficient because the other side of his brain didn't stop, it in fact accelerated, but it allows him to go through life earnest. Tom Hanks in Big was a big reference for us to create this fun character. A little Bill Murray in What About Bob? Where there's this real earnestness in the way he speaks.
About the ‘90s, it’s the fanny pack, he loves Public Enemy, loves 90210. Continuously quotes things throughout the 90s. Never mean, never malicious, but there is a switch when bad guys come around. He gets down to business. There’s so much fun and constructing this thing, working with Kevin, making sure our characters are balanced and fun. Working with Rawson too has been a phenomenal experience. It reminds me how fun the job can be. It’s like, 'Okay what from the ‘90s did we love?' We loved the Ghetto Boys, you name it.
Thurber cites RUSH HOUR as one of the main inspirations:
It is very much in the vein of Rush Hour, at least that is what we are hoping for. The movies that I referenced were Rush Hour had a great balance of action and comedy. Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hrs, Running Scared, the Billy Crystal, Gregory Hines picture, that's kind of where I am heading with it. It's definitely an action-comedy, it's not a capital C comedy, parenthetical lowercase 9pt font action, so we are trying to balance it and we spent a lot of time trying to make the action cool and interesting. I don’t think that it is going to go punch for punch with Transformers or any of the straight, straight action movies, but I think we will give people a good ride.
Originally, the film was about "a fat Jason Bourne":
The character that Dwayne plays, this character named Bob, the joke was Bob was a heavyset guy, kind of out of shape, but he could still kick ass. The joke was, fat Jason Bourne. It's a good joke. But then our producer Scott Stuber said, 'You know who would be great for this? Dwayne. It was such a different approach to the character. But as soon as I sat with it and thought about it for a second it made perfect sense, the former fat kid from high school who got bullied transformed himself into Dwayne, into the Rock. And then the joke is different, and I think it's actually better.
What I think is kind of cool is taking the biggest action star in the world and he is the source of comedy in our movie and then we take one of the funniest people in the world, Kevin Hart, one of the biggest comedians in the world, and he’s our straight man, and I hope that we will be delivering something fresh and interesting for the audience.
Hart, who was at the time also touring the country with his stand-up act (an insane schedule), on allowing his co-star to shine in funnier moments:
I think the beauty of being the straight man sometimes is, it’s not about getting all the laughs, It’s not about having all of the great great moments where people are just like ‘oh my god this is crazy’. It’s about connecting the dots and making sure that the film over all looks good and is good. I revert back to ‘The Wedding Ringer’ and ‘Get Hard’ because these are two movies where i took a backstep because I had co-stars that could take a front step... If you have a movie where two guys are trying to out-funny each other you don’t have a movie, you have an unnecessary yelling and shouting match of unnecessary scenes because everyone is just trying to do what they think the other person can’t do... I can’t make you look good if I am trying to be better and funnier than you in these moments. I gotta make you look funny when I am supposed to. And in return, when there are moments when I am supposed to be funny, I take advantage of these moments.
Amy, goodness, she’s as talented as they get. And I love the fact that she is playing this crazy bad CIA cop. She is scary in it. Like honestly, she is scary. There are some takes where I look at her and I'm like, 'If this what it’s like at home? Jesus Christ.' (laughs) But she's really good. Aaron Paul, I mean goddamn, man... He didn’t come in as Aaron from Breaking Bad, he came in as the character he was playing and nailed it, he goes toe-to-toe with DJ in this movie and it's good stuff, there is good toe-to-toe action.
Part of the engine of the story is you are not quite sure you can trust Dwayne’s character or not, he might be the bad guy, and there are a couple of other bad guys in the story, so if we do our job right at the climax of the film, at least the plot, hopefully the audience won’t be sure if they can trust Dwayne or not. I won’t tell you how it unfolds, but yeah, Dwayne might very well be the bad guy.
Now, I think we all know that will almost certainly not be the case, but hey, it's food for thought. All in all, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE looks like a very fun buddy comedy that impressively utilizes the strengths and talents of its two A-list stars. And if you don't want to see Dwayne Johnson as a WETA-enhanced overweight teenager, I don't know what I can do for you. CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE opens June 17th.
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