Dwayne Johnson was prepared to dig deep for Young Rock. But even he was surprised by the layers the show has uncovered.
After all, how would he have known as a kid growing up broke and bouncing from city to city that he was actually experiencing profound life lessons, when at the time it just felt like everything was going to hell?
"I never would have thought in a million years that those moments would be part of a bigger story to share," Johnson, 49, exclusively told E! News' Francesca Amiker. "The trick is to find these lessons and try to interpret them in a way that the audience will find compelling and interesting. But also, you've got to make people laugh."
Let's just say, they worked the gimmick.
Seamlessly weaving an emotional coming-of-age tale with irreverent, deadpan humor and the colorful world of professional wrestling that Johnson grew up in before getting into the ring himself (which, you soon learn, was not the original plan), the semiautobiographical Young Rock became NBC's most successful digital comedy launch ever.
But while the show—season 2 returns March 15—offers up plenty of LOL moments, fans have also seized on some of the more poignant themes, like the depiction of 18-year-old Johnson battling depression after an injury derails his football aspirations at University of Miami. (College-era Rock is portrayed by 38-year-old Uli Latukefu, part of the running joke that Johnson has looked 40 since he was at least 15.)
"The most touching feedback that I consistently received has been our openness to talk about mental health," Johnson told E! while on Zoom from Hawaii, noting that he was just 20 minutes away from the $180-a-month apartment his family lived in when he was a kid. "It was something that I was unfamiliar with when I had my first bout with depression at the end of 1990. I didn't know what it was. I just felt like, 'Man, I feel like s--t. I don't want to do anything.'"
And it certainly didn't occur to him at the time to reach out for help.
"I grew up an only child, and a dude," he explained. "Dudes have a tendency to hold this stuff in. And you know, it's not in our nature to just talk about it because it makes us feel vulnerable. We don't want to feel vulnerable. It makes us feel weak, we shouldn't feel weak. We should have our s--t together. But that's not life."
When he learned that talking is what gets you "through the sludge of things," it changed everything for him, he said, because once you're out of the sludge, "that's where a different life happens for us. That's where success happens."
And this conversation isn't just for the dudes. As the father of three daughters—Simone, 20, with ex Dany Garcia and Jasmine, 6, and Tiana, 3, with wife Lauren Hashian—Johnson is also acutely aware of the pressures facing girls of all ages. He's made sure to relay to his children that "being able to talk about these mental health issues, that we have struggles," is "not a weakness. It's a superpower."
But while this Rock is a wellspring of wisdom, Johnson is first to admit that he still had a lot of growing up to do when he became a dad at 29.
"I can't speak for all dudes, but for me, when you're in your 20s you're still a baby, still a kid," he said. "When you're in your 30s, you're still trying to figure stuff out. If you get lucky, maybe you'll figure stuff out in your 40s. So, me and my daughter Simone, we grew up together."
Noting his firstborn's "incredible independence" and work ethic, he added, "I have a tremendous amount of gratitude that Dany's there as an influence."
Now a little older, a little wiser—"I still act like a kid sometimes"—he's tackling fatherhood "with a different energy," he said. "Again, I'm not only grateful for the relationship that I have with [Jasmine and Tiana] and that they get this version of me today, but I'm so grateful that they have Lauren as their influence."
She "embodies what I believe are the two most important things in the world, which is love and kindness," he raved of his wife of almost three years. "So, I'm a lucky man, in that I have a great relationship with my daughters, and that they have incredible influences with their moms."
Of course, he's a family man now, but that wasn't always the case. Back in the day, he was "getting in trouble all the time" with girls, he admitted. From cheesy pickup lines to toting that infamous fanny pack (which is full of Pop-Tarts and condoms on Young Rock), "I was always interested, that's very true. And then years later, I loved them a little bit too much, so that's why I got in trouble."
Basically, "I thought I knew everything," he added. "Didn't know a thing."
But keeping him respectful throughout was the actual rock of their family, mom Ata Johnson, who had a cameo as herself in the future timeline but is otherwise played by Stacey Leilua. (Created by Nahnatchka Khan and Jeff Chiang, the show tells Johnson's story in flashbacks while the superlatively accomplished movie star as we know him is running for president in 2032.)
"My mom would always tell me, 'Listen, you can see whomever you want. But always, always, always treat them nice like you would treat me. Always,'" Johnson recalled. "That's what she would tell me, so that's how I was."
And his friends took notice. Johnson "takes great pride in being a gentleman," Young Rock executive producer Hiram Garcia told E! News. "He's always been surrounded by incredible women who are just a hybrid of beautiful assassins—beautiful in spirit, you know, but killers. Dany and Lauren and Ata, they are so strong."
As the series conveys, Ata and his maternal grandmother, Lia Maivia, who made her name in Hawaii as a pioneering female wrestling promoter, were forces to be reckoned with.
"You definitely see the trickle-down effect with these presences in his life," added executive producer Brian Gewirtz, "translating to how he interacts with his family today."
Season two will delve further into wrestling as Dwayne starts to follow in his dad Rocky Johnson's footsteps, as well as include more of the intense experiences that helped shape who he is today.
"His willingness to share everything with us—the highs and the lows—allowed us to embrace the darker moments in his journey," Khan told E!. "The idea that life can be hard for everyone and it's the challenging times that allow us to appreciate the good."
Though the love between Ata and Rocky, who divorced in 2003 after 25 years of marriage, is apparent, Young Rock doesn't shy away from some of the sore spots in their relationship, such as Rocky's long spans away from home on the wrestling circuit and his tendency to put his own wants first. (He sadly passed away in 2020 at 75.)
Seeing this gamut of memories come alive has been emotional at times for Johnson, who called it "wildly surreal" to watch his life re-play out, and for those close to him.
"We're also honoring Rocky's memory and there's a therapeutic aspect to being able to tell these stories and being able to delve into this history," said Hiram, who as Dany's younger brother has known Johnson since he was a teenager. "You just can't help but be moved by the process and feel the emotion attached to it."
In season two, Gewirtz noted, "You really get to see the DNA of Dwayne Johnson come to fruition. But also there are some bumps along the way [for his parents], and he was really open about being able to tell that story."
Take, for instance, an argument Johnson witnessed them having in the middle of Nashville's I-65 highway when he was 15, during which Ata got out of the car and almost walked into traffic before her son pulled her back to the side of the road.
"That was a very defining moment in my life that I will never forget because it scared the s--t out of me," Johnson said. "But then also the most fascinating thing about that moment, and the psychology of this whole thing, is that my mom has no recollection that ever happened. It was so painful that she completely forgot it."
Though the moment is "softer" in the show, he said, "people get the idea that there are some rough times in the family."
And though teenage Dwayne fought his mother tooth and nail about leaving Hawaii after the family was evicted, "life would be just radically different" if he hadn't, Johnson reflected. "I can't think of a version where at that time in our life I let my mom leave on her own."
As he told it, he flew to Tennessee while his mom drove out from California, and instead of his dad picking him up at the airport, a friend of Rocky's met him and dropped him off at the Alamo Plaza motel. While staying there he shared a room with a guy named Bruno Lauer, who ended up becoming one of Johnson's best friends...
"That's a very long way to say it's all taught me that life is so unpredictable," he said, "and when things don't work out, it's OK, because it's gonna lead you down a path that you were meant to go down. Sometimes, the thing we want most in life is often the best thing that never happens to us."
Young Rock season two premieres Tuesday, March 15, at 8/7c on NBC, with episodes streaming the next day on Peacock.
(E! and NBC are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)