This story appears in the March 2005 issue of Playboy. Subscribe

This article originally appeared in the March 2005 issue of playboy magazine.

There are plenty of over-the-top moments in Be Cool, the sequel to Get Shorty, which transports Chili Palmer (played by John Travolta) from the movie business to the music business. Cedric the Entertainer portrays the ultimate hip-hop mogul, who prefers to live in a white gated community. Vince Vaughn plays a white guy who desperately wants to be black. But it will be hard for either of them to top the Rock as Vaughn’s flamboyantly gay bodyguard; wearing a skintight costume and red cowboy boots, he belts out a version of Loretta Lynn’s classic “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.”

It’s a rare foray into comedy for Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, the wrestler turned actor who has been touted as the heir apparent to Arnold Schwarzenegger after scoring big in The Scorpion King. Scorpion was a surprise hit for the neophyte actor (his first role, in The Mummy Returns, lasted a mere seven minutes), and he made headlines even before the film was released when it was announced he was being paid $5.5 million, the biggest paycheck a studio has given to a first-time leading man. The movie’s success was even more unexpected because the Rock was the top star in the WWE at the time, and show business has been singularly unkind to professional wrestlers who try to make the leap from the squared circle to the big screen.

The Rock’s ring career didn’t follow a normal path either. Although wrestling was in his blood—his dad, Rocky Johnson, was one of the first major black wrestling stars, and his maternal grandfather was the famous Samoan wrestler “High Chief” Peter Maivia—the Rock got off to a lousy start. His early performances in the ring as a “baby face” (good guy) named Rocky Maivia, after his father and grandfather, were failures.

With nothing to lose, the WWE reinvented the Rock as a heel. That’s usually the last stop before being fired, but the Rock made it work with the unusual tactic of insulting the audience with comedic rants from the ring. “I became the Don Rickles of wrestling,” he said. His defiant and arrogant antihero became wrestling’s most popular persona since Hulk Hogan, and his memoir, The Rock Says, became a number one best-seller.

His shaky start in wrestling wasn’t his first brush with failure. A strapping six-foot-four and 220 pounds as a teen, young Dwayne Johnson wanted to be a football player. A high school all-American, he played on the University of Miami Hurricanes’ 1991 national championship team. A short foray into Canadian football ended when he was cut from the Calgary Stampeders in 1995. Johnson returned, to Florida with $7 in his pocket and few options other than trying the family business.

Playboy sent journalist Michael Fleming, who recently interviewed Jim Carrey and Quentin Tarantino, to talk to the Rock. The two met in Prague, where the actor was once again in action-hero mode to film Doom, a movie based on the computer game. Fleming reports, “Like Schwarzenegger, who parlayed his career as a bodybuilder into stardom, the Rock is carefully straddling several worlds. He has put wrestling behind him except for rare guest appearances, but he’s kept the name that made him a WWE icon. Our first session began over dinner at one of Prague’s best restaurants, and the Rock proved to be a complicated subject, sometimes sounding like a guy who wants to be taken seriously as an actor and sometimes coming across as a macho, cocky jock who doesn’t care what anyone thinks.”

In Be Cool you play a Samoan bodyguard and aspiring entertainer. Much to the surprise of many, your character, Elliot, is also gay.
Elliot was in Elmore Leonard’s book. Elmore told me, “I wrote it with you in mind, but I never thought you would play the character if it were ever made into a movie.” We were just doing Walking Tall, and they sent the script, saying, “Just read it.” It was fantastic.

Did you have any hesitation?
Because he’s gay? Absolutely not. It was a great opportunity to work with seasoned actors such as John Travolta and Harvey Keitel in a role that required depth. There is a dichotomy to Elliot. He is a proud gay man, but he’s also a bodyguard who has killed people and wouldn’t mind doing it again.

A wise man once told me that a warm pair of lips is a warm pair of lips.

Dwayne Johnson, Playboy Interview March 2005
The Rock on if he’d ever kiss a man.

What would you have done if the director said Elliot had to kiss a man on the mouth?
It would depend on a few variables. What kind of toothpaste is he using? Is he ruggedly handsome like me? Does he have nice lips? Then he might have a shot. A wise man once told me that a warm pair of lips is a warm pair of lips.

You camp it up in Be Cool, even singing a Loretta Lynn song.
“You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man” is a classic. I suggested it to F. Gary Gray, the director, because I wanted to make the character more interesting. The script had Elliot wanting to be in movies, but I thought, Why not Broadway? Why not sing country? Women sing songs about men. Gary thought it was funny. He even let me do a Polynesian slap dance.

Does part of you think your wrestling buddies will never let you live this down?
They know better than anyone that my goal has always been to entertain. Look, I like doing action—there’s nothing quite like blowing shit up. But I also love comedy and movies with a dramatic tone like Walking Tall.

So far your love scenes have been with beautiful actresses such as Kelly Hu and Ashley Scott. Is that a vicarious thrill for a married man?
I like to think the vicarious thrill that comes with doing love scenes with gorgeous actresses is one of the spoils of being a leading man. No complaints, but it is awkward with 100 people standing around. Most of the crew will look away during love scenes, but you know a couple of freaks will be staring, hoping to see a nipple or something.

Which was more awkward, losing your virginity in The Scorpion King or losing it in real life?
Losing my screen virginity pales in comparison with the real thing. I was 14, in a park in the middle of the night, and right before I was going to show her why they call me the Rock, a cop car appeared, the red light came on, and it was horribly embarrassing.

To borrow a wrestling term, were you able to execute the pin anyway?
Not only did I execute the pin, I turned her into a new woman. It was the best 11 seconds of her life.

You were mature for your age. Were you a stick man, or were you a commitment guy?
Commitment guy. Once, in high school, when I thought I was a pure mac without the roni, I tried to pull off every man’s impossible dream. I took not one but two girls to the prom.

The impossible dream would be to score twice after the prom. Did you?
Didn’t even get to try. I wound up in my room at one A.M., just me and my copy of Juggs magazine.

How many minutes was your screen debut in The Mummy Returns?
Seven, maybe.

You were paid $5.5 million for The Scorpion King, and you’re now making more than twice that. Hollywood is fickle. When Walking Tall and The Rundown didn’t do Scorpion King-size business, were you worried?
It’s disappointing. You want it to do well because you put in so much time and effort. But I believed in those movies. If I make one that sucks, I promise I will tell you.

If I make a movie that sucks, I will promise I will tell you. Otherwise it would kill my credibility.

You’ll warn your audience if you make a bad movie? That would be a first.
Absolutely. If it’s that bad, then I will for sure let people know; otherwise it would kill my credibility. I don’t think I’d say, “This movie is shit. Don’t see it.” I’d probably say, “There are points in this movie that are good and some that are shitty.” I appreciate the value of a dollar, and I have a strong bullshit detector. You know that moment when you’re sitting in a theater—you’re watching and you go, “Oh, bullshit!” I don’t want bullshit moments in my movies.

Have you become a good actor?
Decent. My goal was always to get better with every movie and one day become really good. And always to be honest with myself. It’s a progression in confidence. I’ve surrounded myself with good actors and directors who will help me raise my game. I have driven people crazy by being a complete sponge on the set. I’ve worked with very good acting coaches. I now understand exactly what I want to do with my character in a scene and that I have to execute and own it on the day.

When you were making the transition were you tempted by a big check for a bad script?
This was never about money, because I had a pretty penny by the time the movies happened. Nothing seemed right for me until The Mummy Returns. Small role, little dialogue. I thought, Less chance to mess up.

Were you surprised you dominated the film’s trailer?
I was just so jacked over the marketing campaign. It was my first movie. I went to see The Grinch just to watch the trailer. People responded when it said at the end, “The Mummy Returns. Summer.” That was my dream come true. I’d been a fan of movies since I was a kid. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself starring in them or sitting here with you in Prague doing the Playboy Interview.

Why not?
I try to have clear goals. When I was on television wrestling, film was a fantasy. I didn’t go to Juilliard. I had no connections. I entertained people on television two to four hours a week. I aimed to be in a sitcom, which was why I pushed the comedy in wrestling.

Were movie people dismissive at first?
Never dismissive, especially once I met somebody. Some executives were hesitant. That was fine. I knew I’d prove myself in time.

How did you do that?
I remember speaking to Universal Studios president Ron Meyer right around the time of The Mummy Returns. I said, “Give me a shot. Just give me a shot.” I wanted them to come watch me in the ring. They all came—Ron, Universal Pictures chairman Stacey Snider.

And what did they say?
They were very congratulatory. They had no idea how I performed live. It felt great to hear that.

They thought it was just grunting and groaning?
They did, and a lot of times it is. To me the challenge was coming up with new monologues. There wasn’t much dialogue until old big mouth here came along. That became the part of wrestling I loved most.

Hulk Hogan and other wrestlers failed at movies. Why?
I’m not sure. I know what was important to me—choosing good material, studying, making sure everybody knew I wasn’t in it for the paycheck. I’m not too sure if Hogan and those other wrestlers did that.

You are considered the newest in a line of action stars that includes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Sly Stallone. Besides brawn, what do you guys have that makes women love you and men want to be you?
Women might like the everyman appeal, Arnold’s accent, Sly’s abs, Bruce’s ass. Men find an action hero believable if they can say, “Wow, I believe this guy can really kick some fucking ass, mine included.” I loved Spider-Man, but I’m not too sure Tobey Maguire could kick my or a lot of other people’s asses.

Your ring persona was brash, but you are hardly boastful when talking about your screen work. When you were both wrestling and promoting movies, did the Rock slip out and get you into trouble?
Well, it was awkward when I was asked to compare myself to Arnold and I said I was much better looking.

Did he bust you on that?
Of course. He said [in a passable Schwarzenegger], “Vot do you mean you are better looking? I am much better looking dan you.”

He must like you. He passed you the action-hero baton in The Rundown.
I didn’t anticipate an iconic moment, but he said he knew exactly what he was doing. I’d invited him to the set to have lunch, and my director, Peter Berg, walked up and said, “Hey, you want me to ask him to be in the movie for a cameo?” I said, “Yeah, ask him.” Arnold stood right up and said, “Let’s go.” And within 20 minutes we were on the set. Peter was like, “What do you want to say?” Arnold said, “I want to tell him to have fun.” Arnold knew early on that I wanted to do this, and he was helpful with advice.

You worked with Christopher Walken in The Rundown. Everybody comes away with a good story. Give us one.
We’re on the set, shooting the shit, and he asks me, “You like the Stones? They’re coming to town.” I’m like, “Yes, of course. When are they coming?” He says, “Uh, October 15. They’re coming pretty soon. We should go. Can you get us some tickets?” I said, “Sure.” It’s Chris Walken and I’m excited, so I get on the phone immediately. I hang up, and it dawns on me there and then. I say, “Chris, when did you say the concert was?” He says, “October 15.” I say, “Yes, but today’s November 12.” And this is the genius of Christopher Walken, right? He says, “Oh, November, October, I don’t know. Sometimes you get them mixed up.”

You were Vince McMahon’s biggest star in the WWE. Was there tension during your exit?
Never. By the time this article comes out, I’ll be done with him contractually, but Vince and I are very close. We worked together, my grandfather worked for his dad, and my dad worked for him. He’s been as supportive as a dad to me. He knew I loved being in The Mummy Returns. I told him I wanted to break into films with The Scorpion King but that I’d wrestle as well.

I grew up in wrestling. I am proud that my grandfather and dad wrestled. But when I filmed The Scorpion King I worked through the week, and on Sunday I would fly somewhere to do Raw or a pay-per-view. I had no days off, and it almost killed me. I wanted to give 110 percent to acting, and after that I realized I’d have to choose.

McMahon has parted with many former stars and made them leave their ring names behind because he owned them. How were you able to walk away with “the Rock”?
I was always up-front and honest, never brought in an agent. I sat down with him and said, “This is what I would love to do. This is the deal I would like. It’s just you and me.” He said, “I have 100 percent faith in you, and I am behind you all the way.”

He didn’t add, “Even though you’re destroying my business”?
He didn’t say that to me.

But he did get a fee and a producing credit on several of your movies as a concession.

Did that bother you?
No. It was me saying, “I’m under contract, and here, this is for you. Thank you.” It didn’t bother me. I guess it was money that would have gone to me. I was fine with it.

The documentary Beyond the Mat shows what became of former wrestling greats like Jake “the Snake” Roberts. He, for example, descended into drug addiction and failure.
I was sad to see that.

It made wrestling seem like a bad business to be in if you planned to age. Are today’s stars paid enough to be set for life?
A lot more are. In the days of Jake “the Snake” Roberts and my dad and grandfather, it was a cash business. They’d get the gate and pay the boys in cash that day. My dad got paid in cash a lot.

Why are so many of them broke?
A lot of them didn’t save. There wasn’t a lot of financial planning going on when those guys were on the road 300 days a year. You’d pick up $600 or $700 for the week, but you had to pay all your road expenses and drive 2,000 to 3,000 miles a week.

What did your dad make in a good year?
His biggest years came when he was working for Vince. We were up there for about two or three years, and he made an average of about $100,000 or $110,000. Back in the 1980s that was really good. I’ve got to give it to my old man. I’m half black and half Samoan, and my dad pioneered the way for black wrestlers. Even though the results were prearranged and still are, he was athletic and charismatic enough to be made champion in places like Florida and Georgia. That was quite an accomplishment in the 1970s, working the South in a predominantly white business that catered to predominantly white fans. He won them over.

Was your dad a good father?
Yes, but our relationship went through a very stressful time. He was gone so many years, always on the road from the time I was born. Now I’m lucky to be in one spot, filming on location. My wife and daughter can stay with me. I’m not in a different city every night. Through the duration of his career, he was. All of a sudden he retired from wrestling, he came home, and there was another man in the house. I was 15, six-foot-four, 220 pounds, playing football, coming into my own, very close to my mom. Suddenly he was my dad again. That caused a lot of stress.

Did you square off?
You bet, because at 15 I knew everything, not knowing jack shit. My dad clearly knew more than I did about how he wanted his household run. Yes, we’d square off. Never physically, but it got to that boiling point. Being a dad myself and looking back, I give my dad credit for how well he handled himself. He made it in his business, then went out without a lot to show for it. Then his son became a success. That had to be tough.

He didn’t retire by choice, did he?

Couldn’t get a job?
Basically. And the ones he got were nightly gigs. The wrestling business is a hard one. You saw in that documentary what happens to a lot of those guys. I was fortunate in the sense that my dad was never on coke, never beat my mom. He was an alcoholic, and he beat it. I’m very proud of him.

What was your favorite thing about wrestling?
The fans. They give me as much energy as I give them. They give it right back to me.

When you started out in wrestling you were a guy named Rocky Maivia. For some reason the fans didn’t like you. Did you feel like a failure?
Very much so. I couldn’t understand it. I was thinking, Man, I’m working my balls off, giving everything I have to a business that I love, that I grew up in, and I’m getting this back. So I finally stepped back and said, “Let’s assess what is happening here. I’m Intercontinental Champion, a good guy, a hero, and they’re chanting ‘Rocky sucks.’ ” I asked Pat Patterson, who was my agent and has seen everything. He said, “This has never happened before in this sport.” I was about to throw up my hands. I didn’t know what to do. But I’ve got to tell you, never was I thinking, These motherfuckers!

You never resented the audience?
No. At first I was like, What the fuck? Imagine Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of arenas. You know what it feels like to hear a crowd 22,000 strong chanting “Rocky sucks”? I think I was more pissed that I couldn’t go out there and be myself. When I lost a match I had to smile. When somebody said, “You fucking suck,” I had to wave and say, “Thanks.”

Ron Artest and his Indiana Pacers teammates created a near riot when he charged into the stands to brawl with a fan who had hit him with a beer. Do you understand his reaction?
Only to a degree. You need to maintain a level of professionalism. You cannot go into the stands after fans. It is fucking nonnegotiable. Having said that, I remember when I first turned heel. I became so hated that when I went into the ring I was bombarded with batteries, coins, cans, you name it. I had to leave every night with security covering my head. If I saw somebody throwing things, I made sure security grabbed him and got him out of there. Not only that, I grabbed the mike and talked shit to the guy all the way out. I have been in matches when I went outside the ring and fans have reached over the barricade to grab or try to hit me. At that point it’s open season. I have handed out a lot of ass whippings in those situations. When fans go beyond the barricade or come onto the court, they are in your house. Those fans in Detroit were looking for action. It becomes survival of the fittest.

Artest avoided fighting after Ben Wallace shoved him. But then he came unglued when hit with a beer cup.
Artest should have fought Wallace right then. I’m cool with ass whippings that come after a hard foul, in the heat of battle. But getting hit with a beer while lying on the scorer’s table? Try getting hit with a battery above your eye and having to get stitches like I did. Back in the day, I’d walk in before 22,000 Texas fans, grab the mike and say, “Finally the Rock has come back to Dallas, and he is here to electrify the largest gathering of trailer-park trash the Rock has ever seen.” I’d say that with a big smile. Shit would get thrown. Batteries hurt like hell. But I’d hold it together as I said, “You, fatty, you’re gone. You with the Ray Charles haircut, outta here.” Once, fighting my way through the crowd, I got cut with a knife or an X-Acto blade. I’ve got a four-inch scar on my arm. I also got sliced on my back. I’ve got a cut on the back of my head. When my hair is short like it is in Walking Tall, you can see it in shots from behind.

How long did it take to win over the crowd after becoming a bad guy?
One defining week, after I came back from a five-month break rehabbing my torn-up knee. I was a good guy on my way out, planning to go back to law school. I’d gone from Intercontinental Champion to getting beaten on TV every week. Everybody wrote me off, and even I said, “Okay, I gave it my best shot, and it didn’t work.”

You were a failure as a hero. Did you figure your wrestling career was over?
Absolutely. I try to be real to myself. I was asked to turn heel, and I said I would love to, knowing it was the kiss of death. When you don’t make it as a baby face, they give you a run as a heel, and you get beaten every night by a bunch of baby faces. Then you are gone. But I got one last swing.

How did you turn it around?
I asked for a little microphone time. They were like, “Sure, whatever.” The week after I turned heel, I went out before a packed house in Chicago. The whole place started chanting “Rocky sucks!” But this time I stared them down like you would if somebody talked shit to you on the street. I had about one minute. The story line was about my joining a faction of bad guys who were black and played the race card. I grabbed the mike and said, “I just want everybody to know I may do a lot of things, but suck isn’t one of them. This is not a white thing or a black thing. It’s a thing where if anybody comes in front of me, I’m going to whip your candy ass.”

What did the crowd do?
It reacted. The response was awesome. Suddenly I was on fire. Within two weeks I was the main event. I refocused on entertaining. And it was like somebody had flipped a switch. People were cheering the shit out of me even as I became the Don Rickles of wrestling. The more I insulted them, the more they loved me.

You were in front of a stadium full of fans, wearing tight spandex shorts. Did you ever feel embarrassed?
Well, once my ball popped out of my tights.

Does that qualify, in wrestling jargon, as a foreign object?
In my case a very large foreign object. Print that! It was unbeknownst to me when it happened, until I looked at one of the production pictures of me lying on my back. I looked down, and whoa! I remember calling the office, going, “You guys have got to look at this. Burn that print.”

What’s the worst thing you ever saw in the ring?
Death. My good friend Owen Hart passed away in the ring. He died in a fall. He was being lowered about 80 feet by cable in Kansas City.

Was he one of the guys who helped you make the transition from football to wrestling?
Absolutely. He and his brother Bret. We were very close because they came from a wrestling family too. Owen was being lowered, and I guess he tripped his harness and fell. His match was right before ours. We were backstage warming up. I had all my shit together, and we were ready to go. And then it happened.

The media criticized the decision to continue the matches. What were you feeling?
Panic. I was right there at the monitor, watching with Vince. My first instinct was to go help my friend. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. I remember telling Vince, “I’ve got to go out there.” Vince was looking at me, not telling me no, not telling me yes. Then it dawned on me. If I went out there, everybody would be yelling, “Yeah, Rock.” I didn’t want them to think it was part of the show. I decided at that moment that it was best to allow the paramedics to do their job. When they brought him back, I was right there behind the curtain. He was dead. I saw it in his eyes. They were open.

He was one of your best friends, and you still got into the ring. Why?
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. He hadn’t actually been pronounced dead. They were still working on him. I opened the ambulance door, put him in. Then I had a decision to make. Do I go out there? And then you start to think, I don’t know if he is really dead, nor do the 20,000 people here or the millions more watching at home on pay-per-view. Vince told me, “I’m continuing with the show. People at home have bought it, and there are people here. None of us knows what’s going to happen with Owen right now.” He also told me, “It’s entirely up to you what you want to do.” I said, “I’m going to perform, and I’m going to pray to God he’s okay, pray for his family.” I knew they were watching and going crazy. He had a little boy and a little girl. There was so much going on in my head. I was thinking about my own family. After the match I called my wife, and she was crying, “Owen’s dead.” I didn’t know.

In hindsight, was that the right decision?
I don’t regret it. I did what I thought I had to do. I found out after my match that he’d passed away. Worst night I’ve ever gone through.

You had good times, too. Compare the adrenaline rush of winning the NCAA football title with winning a wrestling title.
There’s nothing like winning the national title like we did when we beat Nebraska 22-0 in the Orange Bowl.

You had anger problems when you played college ball. You once made national sports highlight reels by chasing after an opposing team’s mascot. What would you have done if you had caught the guy?
I would’ve knocked him into next week and whipped his ass is what I would’ve done.

Was the guy wearing a bird suit or something?
No, he was the San Diego State Aztec. We’d just gotten into this big fight on the field. The closest thing to me was this mascot who was on our sidelines, talking stuff.

What did you think when you watched yourself on TV?
I thought I looked like an 18-karat asshole.

What did your family think?
Mom saw it. There’s no bullshitting Mom. I embarrassed her; I embarrassed myself. What am I doing? I’m chasing a mascot. My helmet is off, and I’ve got this big Afro. Thank goodness I didn’t catch him.

Did anger make you a better player?
No. I always had a short temper. Now I’m direct and talk out a problem. Back then I would just get into a lot of fights. In Hawaii I got arrested a bunch of times.

When was the last time you got truly angry?
I almost got into a big fucking fight when I was on Punk’d.

That’s the one when Ashton Kutcher blew up your trailer and then blamed you.
They play it a zillion times now. One guy was talking to the cop and fucking with me, getting in my space. I thought he was going to take a swing at me. I pushed the cop, going after this guy. I’ve been arrested seven or eight times for fighting, so I thought I was going to get the nightstick. I was pissed. The guy claimed I was responsible. He fired a girl right in front of me and then blamed me. I said, “You don’t know me, so just step back.” Then it looked like the guy and the cop were in cahoots. They were actors, so of course they were, but at the time I was thinking, These motherfuckers know each other, and they’re fucking with me. The guy tapped the cop and said, “You’d better talk to him before——” and I said, “Excuse me, before you do what?” It became very real then. I almost lost it. My Be Cool director stepped in and screamed, “No, no, no, Dwayne. You’re being Punk’d!” He was fucking terrified. My man saw his whole movie about to go up in flames. I laughed later when I realized how much it took to pull off the prank. But mostly I was relieved. I’ve got so much to lose.

Was your teenage anger just pure rage?
No. It wasn’t like a blackout. The thing is, I never started trouble, but I had no problem finishing it. And I was with the wrong crowd when I was younger. It’s a good thing we left Hawaii. I wasn’t getting arrested in college, but I kept getting into fights. I fought my own teammates. Kevin Patrick, who I’m good friends with today—I tried to pull his tongue out. I don’t advise that, because tongues are very slippery. You can’t get a good grip.

Also there’s an annoying set of teeth.
Don’t I know. He bit my hand. Look, I’ve still got a scar. Some of it was being an aggressive guy in an aggressive sport, competing every day for your job.

You were close to flunking then, weren’t you?
I had a 0.7 grade point average. You have to work to get 0.7. Not go to class, leave school without taking your midterms—that will get you 0.7. It will also put you in danger of losing a scholarship worth $100,000. And it guarantees a fresh ass whipping from your mom when you get home. I wasn’t playing, because I’d been injured and had surgery. This was after it looked like I’d be the only freshman playing. Then I dislocated my shoulder, tore all the ligaments and was out for the year. I distanced myself from the team and fell into depression. I was homesick, didn’t go to class, hated life, didn’t take the midterms.

Yet you hung in there?
I went back, and it was embarrassing. I had to get notes from every professor to show the coaches that I was in class. I thought of myself as a responsible guy with goals, and I had to show these papers like I was some little kid. But I did okay. I wound up going from academic probation to academic captain and having a decent GPA by the time I graduated.

A shoulder and back injury kept you from being drafted by the NFL. Had you not been injured, could you have made it?
I don’t think so. Once I’d played with Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis and some other guys, I could see they had something special. We were all fast and strong, but they had something extra and instinctive that I didn’t.

But you still tried.
I’d spent six, seven years playing. Going into my senior year I was all-American. I got hurt, and Warren took my place. I had a dismal fucking year, and I didn’t get drafted or get a free-agent contract. But the CFL came calling. I figured I’d use it as a stepping-stone to the NFL. It was horrible. It was hands down the worst period in my life.

I’d left home at 18, and I was the first in my family to graduate. My parents were proud. Friends like Warren Sapp were playing football for millions of dollars. I wanted to take care of my girlfriend and buy my mom and dad their first house.

Was your father finished with wrestling by then?
Out of the business. My parents had a cleaning company, cleaning whatever they could—office buildings, toilets, whatever. And I went up and was making $300 Canadian, not enough to send money home to parents who were struggling like a motherfucker. I was living with five guys in two bedrooms, sleeping on piss-stained mattresses. Then I got cut two months into the season, and I realized football was over.

So you tried wrestling?
I called my dad in the middle of the night and asked him to pick me up. I had $7 in my pocket. I moved back into their two-bedroom apartment, and I was lying on the couch when it hit me: Shit, I’m 24 and I’m moving back in with my parents.

What did your father think of your new career plan?
He was adamantly against it. He said to me, “Look around. Look what I have. I have been where you want to go, and this is where it got me. Is this what you want?”

You were newly married. Your wife, Dany, had a job and stayed in Miami while you paraded around the country in tights. Women were probably throwing themselves at you in every city. Did she ever get jealous?
No. I never gave her reason to be. When I was on the road I never saw the city. I flew in, drove to the building, performed, left and got right back onto the highway.

So you were a heel in the ring and a baby face in real life.
I’m saying I was very focused. The only awkward times came when she and I would go to restaurants together; the forwardness of women surprised her.

You weren’t out there being a hound dog all over the country?
No, no, no. I would never put myself in that position. My priority was to stay out of trouble, which the guys knew and respected. I’d drink with my buddies, but I mostly sat in my hotel room, ordered pizza and wrote what I was going to do in the ring.

Do you have to work hard to look the way you do?
Absolutely. I get up at 5:30 every morning and train for an hour or more. I love that. I watch my diet, too, though I am a big junk food junkie. I don’t fuck around. One day a week I’ll eat two large pizzas and two dozen doughnuts. But to do that you have to train religiously so your metabolism is conditioned enough that when you eat that stuff, the carbs, fat and sugar get absorbed. If I kept eating pizza and doughnuts on the second and third days, that would be trouble.

Have you ever done steroids?
Once, in college, for a month and a half. I had no idea what I was taking, which is the idiocy of college kids. I thought I was taking steroids. For all I know it was Tylenol. It didn’t help me on the field.

Wrestling went through its own steroid-cleanup campaign when some of the stars were impossibly muscular. Were steroids prevalent?
A lot of guys were doing steroids back then, and some guys still do them. TV audiences aren’t blind. They can look at a wrestler’s physique and tell the difference. I was lucky to be blessed with genetics, and I never wanted to be the biggest guy out there. Bodybuilding doesn’t interest me as much as athletic training does.

Could you see yourself getting plastic surgery to stay youthful?
Well, I couldn’t touch my face. It’s too pretty, too ruggedly handsome. I don’t see it happening, but I might feel different in 20 years, and I’d tell you if I did. I hear a lot of actors popping chops about how women shouldn’t get plastic surgery, shouldn’t get their boobs done. Shut up. If a woman or a man wants to get a nip or a tuck to be happy, do it. I have.

You have? Where?
I did a live show in the ring in 1997, and I went home and watched it later on tape. There’s a tight shot of me sauntering in like I’m as cool as the other side of the pillow. I looked closely and said to my wife, “What the fuck is that? I have man titties hanging off the sides of my pecs.” I had a quick procedure, and then I could saunter with full confidence.

As a fitness symbol, what do you think of the supersizing of America, especially among kids?
Don’t blame McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC. Without getting too political, I say the beauty of this country is that, much as you can say anything you want, you can eat anything you want. Here’s a novel idea: Put down the Big Mac and have a salad. Get on the treadmill. I am concerned about how available fast food is to kids in school cafeterias. That should be regulated.

I’m a fiscal conservative, but I’m very liberal on some issues—like you can be gay and you should be allowed to marry who you want to marry. Who are we to judge?

When you were wrestling’s biggest draw in 2000, you appeared at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Who got your vote in 2004?
I voted for Bush, just as I did in 2000.

I believe in working hard and taking care of your family, giving thanks to God, having fun. And in supporting your troops and the president in power. I believe in Bush’s leadership. Had John Kerry won, he’d have gotten 110 percent of my support. But we have to be thankful every day and not forget our troops fighting for our freedom, guys who’ve agreed to pay the price if necessary.

Are you a Republican?
I’m a fiscal conservative, but I’m very liberal on some issues—like you can be gay and you should be allowed to marry who you want to marry. Who are we to judge? The paramount issue, in my opinion, is the defense of this country. I also feel that under no circumstances should anybody who’s an American speak against America. I am passionate about that.

Not long after you had your first child you put a traditional Samoan tattoo on your arm. Did fatherhood lead you to embrace your heritage?
I’m sure it did. My daughter inspires me like nobody else I’ve encountered. I was always very proud of being half black and half Samoan, but only recently have I wanted to grasp the culture on my mom’s and my dad’s side. My grandfather had a body full of traditional tattoos. I wanted to tell the story of my life with them too.

Was this something you had planned for a long time?
I’d always thought about it. In Polynesian culture tattooing is a big emotional and spiritual thing. This is not some anchor with my wife’s name wrapped around it or a heart with a dagger through it. It’s meaningful because you’re telling your story. I have a Polynesian warrior’s face that covers my heart. My life, struggles, loyalties and family are here. My daughter is here, my ancestors. God is here.

How long did it take?
Sixty hours, three sessions. The first was maybe 18 hours. It’s all done freehand. I sat with this guy who is an amazing artist. His name is Po'oino. He lives on the beach—no house.

Did he also do your grandfather’s work?
No, another Samoan tattoo artist did my grandfather’s work in Samoa in the 1970s. My grandfather had it done with a bone, tap-tapping. That was very painful, and he almost died.

Ink poisoning and the fact that the process typically takes about a week and my grandfather had to get it done in two days. He had to get back into the ring, so it was done around the clock. He ended up in the hospital.

What about you? Are you finished with tattooing yourself?
Nah, I’m going to get my face done.

That will be a first for an action star. Do you fear you’ll be compared to Mike Tyson?
Here’s what I really fear—getting that call from Ron Meyer at Universal, and he’s screaming, “What are you doing? You’ve destroyed your career!” That’s why I’ll never do it.