May 06, 2002 12:00 PM

Dwayne Johnson knew his pecs and punches were ready for the big screen. And when The Scorpion King director Chuck Russell suggested that he take a few classes to buff up his acting, Johnson readily agreed. But getting the pro wrestler known as The Rock to emote was another matter. “You have to bring yourself to a place that’s truly heartbreaking in your life,” says Johnson, “so I was thinking of when I made my way to Dunkin’ Donuts at 3 a.m. and they were closed. I’m like, ‘What, no glazed?’ Tears just fell like rain.”

Poor lad. Truth is, The Rock doesn’t have much to cry about these days. His eyebrow-cocking bad boy persona helped turn the World Wrestling Federation into a top-rated TV sensation. And now The Scorpion King, which smacked down box office competition with a $36 million opening weekend, has made Johnson a big-screen champ as well. Supporters see Johnson, who turns 30 on May 2, as a successor to middle—aged musclemen such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, 54. “He’s 6’5″, 270 lbs. of solid muscle—I don’t have to use wide lenses and low angles to make him look like an action hero,” says Russell. And his acting? “His learning arc was very sharp,” Russell says. “For his first Scorpion director Russell says Johnson packs “charisma and a sense of danger.” leading role, he did a fantastic job.”

Even so, Johnson has a lot to learn about being a movie star. For instance, he’s still honest enough to admit having had liposuction three years ago to remove a small bit of flab around his ribs. “Aesthetically, I didn’t like it,” he says. “I went in and showed the doctor, and he said, ‘Are you crazy?’ and I’m like,

‘No.’ ” Then there was his not-so-suave approach to Scorpion King‘s love scenes. “He had this little fart machine that he hid under the pillows—I’d lay down and there’d be this fart sound,” says costar Kelly Hu. “He’s just a little boy in that big old body.”

That little boy is now a new father whose soft-spoken demeanor is a far cry from his in-your-face wrestling schtick. Last August Johnson’s wife of nearly five years, stockbroker Dany Garcia, 33, gave birth to their daughter Simone Alexandra. “Holding my baby, I realized that there is one thing I can unequivocally guarantee, and that is, I will take care of her and love her for the rest of my life,” he says.

Between moviemaking and wrestling, though, he hasn’t been able to spend as much time as he’d like at the family’s three-bedroom lakefront house in Davie, Fla. “I change the diapers whenever I’m home, but it’s hard being away from them,” he says. To cheer up Garcia while he was shooting The Scorpion King in L.A. last spring, Johnson sent an Elvis impersonator to her office in Miami. “She was crying because I told him to sing ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ ” says Johnson, who likes to play blues and country on his guitar. “It’s my favorite.”

Johnson turns to his long-wed parents for support—and the occasional reality check. “He’s still like a little kid around his mom and dad—’Yes, sir’ and ‘Ma’am’ all the time,” says Scorpion costar Michael Clarke Duncan, a close friend. Wrestling is in his blood. Rocky Johnson, 57, one of pro wrestling’s first black stars, and Ata, 53, the daughter of the Samoan wrestler “High Chief” Peter Maivia, raised their only child in California, Hawaii and Bethlehem, Pa., following the wrestling circuit. Johnson, who notched several arrests for fighting as a teen, admits he was a handful. “It was just youth and stupidity,” he says. “My mom handled me with a belt. People say, ‘Where did you learn to lay down the smackdown?’ and I always say, ‘Just ask my mom.’ ”

At Bethlehem’s Freedom High School, Johnson calmed down and focused on winning a football scholarship “to be the first one in my family to go to college,” he says. Recalls buddy Nick Tsamoutalidis, 29: “I’ve never seen any teen work as hard as he did working out.” Or sprucing up: “Lotions, the do, the clothes,” says Tsamoutalidis. “Even back then it was all about appearance for him.” (Johnson says he tried steroids briefly in high school but not since.)

Johnson got a ticket to the powerhouse University of Miami, where he soon met Garcia, a senior business major, at a nightclub. “It was free drinks for football players, and I had, like, six girls around me,” he says. “Here I am being the mack without the ‘roni. Dany came over and said, ‘Hey, excuse me, I’d like to introduce myself. My name’s Dany.’ It’s like, ‘Wow, here’s a girl with no b.s.’ ”

Dany encouraged the criminology major to hit the books, and he lifted his GPA from 0.7 his first semester to 2.9 when he graduated in 1995. On the field, though, the second-string defensive tackle made his biggest splash during a 1992 brawl, when he chased San Diego State’s mascot, a man dressed as an Aztec warrior, into the stands.

He soon found a more suitable arena for his antics. After a season in the Canadian Football League, Johnson decided to try his luck in the family business. Initially, his good-guy character, Rocky Maivia, failed to take off. But Johnson caught on in 1997 as the put-down-bellowing bad boy The Rock—and before long his fame spread beyond the half-nelson set. His autobiography was a New York Times bestseller for 20 weeks; he nabbed Saturday Night Live its top ratings of the ’00 season as guest host. “The guy’s like a freak being that big and that good-looking,” says SNL‘s Darrell Hammond, “but it turns out that he’s got comic timing, a good sense of theater and a pretty good singing voice too.”

His performance in a small role in last year’s The Mummy Returns persuaded Universal executives to offer Johnson his own flick. It won’t be his last. “I’m absolutely having fun, although I’m completely inundated,” says Johnson, who plans to continue with the WWF between films. Next up: Helldorado, an action flick—of course. “When you look like that,” says Hammond, “you’re not going to play Rain Man.”

Samantha Miller

Julie Jordan and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles, Linda Trischitta in Miami Matt Birkbeck in Bethlehem and Jennifer Wulff in New York City

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