To describe the casting of a show about Dwayne Johnson’s life as a tall order is not just a terrible pun, but one heck of an understatement.
Not only is the pro-wrestler-turned-global superstar one of the world’s most recognizable faces, The Rock, as he is known, was effectively raised by some of the most famous figures in American pro wrestling.
“Young Rock” executive producer Jennifer Carreras, head of television development at Fierce Baby, says, “When I was talking to (series co-creators) Nahnatchka [Khan] and Jeff [Chiang] about casting three Dwayne Johnsons plus the actual Dwayne Johnson, I truly was wondering how we’re going to pull that off. Casting Dwayne is the hardest thing because it’s more than just the look of him — you have to have that charm and effortless talent.”
Casting agents Anya Colloff, Michael Nicolo and Michelle Seamon, who had worked with Khan on “Fresh Off the Boat,” were up for the seemingly impossible task of finding younger versions of Johnson times three to represent different periods of his life. “They truly were never daunted by that path,” says Carreras. “Their attitude was never, ‘This can’t be done,’ it’s, ‘How do we do it?’”
Colloff and Nicolo may not have been daunted, but they were aware of the pitfalls of casting actors to play popular figures in pop culture. “In a world like wrestling, if you’re even slightly off about something, the fans will let you know,” Nicolo says.
Imagine, for example, filling the size-24 shoes of wrestler André the Giant. “Going into it, I thought André the Giant was going to be the toughest one to do just because of the physicality,” says Nicolo. “Talk about larger than life.” To their surprise, Colloff and Nicolo found that the right man was someone they had known for years: actor and former NFL player Matthew Willig. “There aren’t a ton of actors who are that big and the right build and also physically look like [André]. Matthew committed from beginning to end and was so funny,” says Nicolo.
Far more difficult was creating a trio of young Dwayne Johnsons who would come off like a natural progression into the present-day Rock. “Appearance was very important, but we also wanted to find people who represented the essence of him,” says Colloff. “That was challenging: finding someone who looks like him, but also can act like him and who’s a good actor and who’s funny and smart and all of those qualities of Dwayne.”
In discovering 11-year-old Adrian Groulx and 22-year-old Bradley Constant, who portray Johnson at 10 and 15, respectively, the casting directors felt like they hit the jackpot. “You’re rooting for this little kid right off the bat,” says Colloff of Groulx. “You just fall in love with him, he’s so adorable.” At 15, Johnson develops swagger that the casting agents felt Constant embodied perfectly. “Physically, he looked a lot like him, especially when you add the mustache,” says Nicolo. “He definitely had that cool factor to him, and again, was such a sweetheart.”
Casting 36-year-old Uli Latukefu as 18-year-old Johnson might have seemed like a risk, but Colloff and Nicolo knew the Australian actor, who is of Tongan descent, was perfect from the first tape he sent in. “He obviously looks so much like Dwayne,” says Nicolo. “Dwayne has that $10 million smile and Uli has that as well. You’re also rooting for this guy, especially in those years when he’s going through so much emotionally.” The discrepancy in age had been set up in scenes addressing Johnson’s mature look. “The jokes were in the script before Uli was cast,” says Nicolo. “People always thought Dwayne was older than he was, so it worked to our benefit.”
Although Latukefu jumped at the chance to depict Johnson’s more trying years — struggling with a sports injury and depression — taking on the role of a modern-day icon was not without its pressures.
“Everything he touches turns to gold, and I didn’t want to be the first to put the hole in the boat, so to speak,” says Latukefu. His mind was put at ease by Johnson. “We had a video meeting, and Dwayne was really gracious,” recalls Latukefu. “He said, ‘Go have fun. You’re the guy we chose. We think you’re going to do an excellent job.’ That was really encouraging for me to bring what I would normally bring and back my own choices.”
While nailing the title character — all three of them — might seem like the bulk of the job, the family that surrounds Johnson was just as important. For Colloff and Nicolo, the biggest challenge in casting parents Rocky and Ata Johnson was weeding through an embarrassment of riches. “We saw a ton of guys for the role of Rocky, but Joseph Lee [Anderson] came in and nailed it,” says Nicolo of the 28-year-old “Harriet” actor. “He brought little things to it that other people didn’t. He had a way of making it his own while staying true to the real person.” For the role of Ata, New Zealander Stacey Leilua rose above the rest. “There was something about Stacey that felt so authentic,” says Colloff. “I think Dwayne felt that from her and the real Ata definitely felt that. She was strong, genuine and kind at the same time.”
“Young Rock” marks a landmark moment in television history with a modern and nuanced representation of Pacific Islanders. Half of the series regulars and several recurring actors who play key roles are from various Pacific Islander communities, such as Samoa and Tonga. Johnson himself is Black and Samoan, and the three actors who portray him are also multiracial. Because the show portrays Johnson’s family, the entire main cast, including Anderson, Leilua and Ana Tuisila (Lia Maivia), are ethnically diverse.
The rich diversity behind the scenes is equally important. The series is shepherded by showrunners and executive producers Khan and Chiang, who staffed a writers room where more than half are people of color and nearly half are women. The wide range of experiences from the spectrum of diverse talent in front of and behind the camera help bring a deeper level of authenticity to the storytelling in “Young Rock.”
Audiences have clearly taken to the NBC series about how a person is shaped equally by the family they are born into and the family they choose, but there is one judge whose opinion matters most. Thankfully, Johnson approves. “He’s really proud of the representation of his family,” says Carreras. “It’s amazing that his mom got to be in a couple episodes. Watching them on screen was so powerful and emotional. You can see that it affects Dwayne emotionally, which is the ultimate compliment for us as producers, and [Nahnatchka] and Jeff as writers. It’s really resonating with him.”
“Young Rock” is produced by Universal Television, a division of Universal Studio Group, Seven Bucks Productions and Fierce Baby Productions.