Thesp returns to WWE ring as his star rises in film

Nearly nine years after Dwayne Johnson left WWE and retired “the Rock” name to make movies, the former wrestler is bucking the conventional trajectory for thesps by returning to the ring just as his film career is hitting new heights.

Johnson’s co-starring role in last year’s “Fast Five” helped make the actioner the top-grossing entry in Universal’s “Fast and the Furious” franchise. He headlines New Line’s “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” which has outgrossed “Journey to the Center of the Earth” since its release last month, opening doors for a third. This summer, Johnson takes over Paramount’s “G.I. Joe.” And he just signed to star in Brett Ratner’s “Hercules: The Thracian Wars,” which Johnson shoots after wrapping Michael Bay’s comedy “Pain and Gain,” Dito Montiel’s heist pic “Empire State” and “Fast Six.”

All of this comes as WWE is celebrating the return of the Rock, Johnson’s grappler alter ego. Johnson headlines the main match at “WrestleMania 28,” in Miami, on Sunday — a homecoming that both the company and Johnson have loudly promoted on everything from TV to Twitter since his involvement was first announced a year ago after he hosted “WrestleMania 27″ in Atlanta.

At a time when new actors are thrust into the spotlight and turned into stars overnight or sent packing after a handful of films fail to perform, Johnson is trying to manage his longevity by changing how he oversees his career with his ex-wife Dany Garcia and a newly formed team of reps that include WME, business manager Howard Altman and PR firm Rogers and Cowan.

For WWE, having the Rock back in the ring for its most high-profile pay-per-view event is an incentive for fans to shell out as much as $60 for the three-hour show. WWE hopes the event will top the 1 million sales mark, a benchmark it has reached just seven times, including last year.

In addition to personal appearances on WWE’s “Monday Night Raw” for five weeks in various cities around the country, Johnson’s been hyping his return to “WrestleMania” on the talkshow circuit while promoting his pics. He’s also the focus of WWE’s one-hour special “Once in a Lifetime — Rock vs. Cena,” which NBCUniversal will air tonight on USA Network and on 11 of the conglom’s other channels leading up to Sunday’s PPV event.

When Johnson left WWE in 2003 (after a small role in “The Mummy Returns” led to “The Scorpion King”), he was flooded with advice, which included slimming down to look more like a traditional Hollywood leading man, and dropping the Rock nickname because it was considered a stigma from the WWE days.

Johnson struggled with “the adjustment of leaving something where you are so successful to start in an industry where there are raised eyebrows to who you are,” Garcia said. She operated her own wealth management business in Miami before handling Johnson’s career full time after their divorce as “the manager and CEO of Team Rock,” while Johnson serves as “chairman of the board,” she said.

After taking on starring roles in mid-budgeted actioners like “The Rundown” and family fare like Disney’s “Race to Witch Mountain,” as well as supporting roles in comedies like “The Other Guys” and “Get Smart,” to hone his acting skills, Johnson “wanted more,” he told Variety.

“I didn’t have a lot of choices when I first started acting,” he said. “I was grateful for the projects that were coming in, but they were all action (‘The Mummy Returns,’ ‘The Rundown,’ ‘Doom’).” It took five films before he got his chance at comedy with MGM’s “Be Cool,” which helped transition him into the family genre, including Fox’s “Tooth Fairy.” “I was hoping I could do these action movies and do well enough where I could get more opportunities (in other genres). I knew doing action would get old for me.”

Yet it was action that led to his most recent success.

Starting with CBS Films’ gritty R-rated actioner “Faster” in 2010, the bulk was back. In February 2011, the Rock officially returned to WWE. “It’s a nickname he can’t get away from,” Garcia said. “It’s a great nickname he wanted to embrace.”

The new career strategy was “less about how do we fit in and change in order to fit in with Hollywood and more about this is who we are and let’s go after what we want,” Garcia said. “He said, ‘I’m going to let Hollywood make space for me.’ It drives all of our decisionmaking.”

Johnson and Garcia consider “Faster” important because it was a departure for the actor. Though the film earned just $23 million Stateside, “It was indicative of a switch,” Garcia said. “He was a much bigger man; his head was shaved. It was a visual image of an internal decision to go in a different direction.”

What Garcia calls “a gamble” has since paid off with a string of offers to star in a number of big-budget studio tentpoles.

Johnson credits much of the success to lessons he learned while at WWE: listening to his audience in and out of the ring. “When you strip away all parts of the business, it all comes down to entertaining the audience,” he said. “It became part of my DNA. Every night I would go out and talk to the audience and listen to them. When you listen, the audience will tell you where they want to go.”

Johnson knew that with little acting experience, it would take time to land more expensive studio projects.

“I knew it would take some convincing to get studios to invest in me,” he said. “Through small steps we were able to accomplish big things throughout the years. But a point came a few years ago that I felt there were bigger movies to be made that entertained a much bigger audience than I was entertaining.”

Johnson’s next move with Garcia will be to develop film and TV projects they want to produce through their 7 Bucks Entertainment shingle.

“It’s a nice next step for us,” Garcia said. “We’ve gotten more serious about it in the last year.” “Producing is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Johnson added. “I felt like now the time was right.”

But first, there’s the return of the Rock.

The reunion with the WWE falls in line with Johnson’s desire to help make something “bigger and better and make a large impact for an industry that helped raise him,” Garcia said.

“I’m back for no other reason than to entertain the fans that had been so good to me over the years,” Johnson added. “It’s not about the dollar. I’ve been very fortunate. When you go out there and you perform, it becomes really magical. So to be able to go back and create the biggest match of all time for them means the world to me. I took the biggest risk of my life by leaving WWE when I was on top. To be able to go back means the world to me.”

Rock’s solid B.O.

The 15 films Dwayne Johnson has starred or appeared in have earned $2.2 billion worldwide to date since 2001.

Following are the top five moneymakers globally:

1. Fast Five (U) $626 million

2. The Mummy Returns (U) $433 million

3. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (WB) $304 million

4. Get Smart (WB) $231 million

5. The Other Guys (Sony) $170 million

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