Dwayne Johnson comes on strong in Hercules

Dwayne Johnson plays Hercules and Reece Ritchie is Iolaus. Pic: PA

Dwayne Johnson plays Hercules and Reece Ritchie is Iolaus. Pic: PA

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AS a wrestler-turned-leading-action man, Dwayne Johnson is no stranger to keeping his body in peak condition, so his preparation to play Hercules is a little unexpected.

“To prep as a demigod, in my opinion, it’s the occasional glass of tequila,” says Johnson. “Sipped, not a shooter, we’re not back in college,” he adds, grinning.

The 42-year-old, a 6ft 5in hulk in grey suit trousers, patterned shirt and waistcoat, had his heart set on playing the man born with the strength of a god when he first arrived in Hollywood.

That was a little over a decade ago, and while he’d already amassed a legion of fans as pro wrestler The Rock, he didn’t, as he puts it, “have the juice or power to make it happen back then, but I kind of have it today”.

That’s thanks to fantasy movies like The Scorpion King (a film created just for him after his brief appearance in The Mummy Returns), comedies including The Other Guys and action dramas such as Pain & Gain, along with the hugely successful Fast & Furious franchise.

“I’m drawn to roles where the central character will have something to overcome, may fall down, but will get better in big ways by the end of the movie and then galvanise everyone else around him to get better,” says Johnson, who makes for charming company, even if his answers veer towards the cliched, something he acknowledges himself at one point.

“I hope people watching Hercules will walk away incredibly entertained, but I also hope they walk away (and it sounds a little cheesy) with a sense of power,” he explains.

“One of the reasons I wanted to take this role is because there’s such great value, not only in this character, but also me and you relating to it, that when we embrace the person we were born to be, we become so super-powerful.”

Cheesy it might be, but Johnson has become something of power player, solidifying himself as a global box office success with film revenues grossing in excess of $1.5 billion worldwide - Forbes ranked him as the top-grossing actor in 2013.

The father-of-one (he has a 12-year-old daughter with ex-wife Dany Garcia) wasn’t destined for the movies though. Born in San Francisco, he lived briefly in New Zealand before moving to Hawaii, where he excelled at sports.

In 1996, after graduating from the University of Miami, he decided to follow in the footsteps of dad and grandfather and join the world of the WWE. Within seven years he had became one of the industry’s most charismatic characters.

Given the showmanship required in wrestling, the big screen wasn’t such a huge leap, but Hercules is the role he’s been waiting for.

This version, inspired by Steve Moore’s comic book series Hercules: The Thracian Wars and directed by Brett Ratner of the Rush Hour movies and X-Men: The Last Stand, sees Hercules as a man struggling to live up to his own legend.

“When we meet him, he’s in exile suffering with regrets, fighting only for gold,” says Johnson. Only when a warlord threatens peace is he forced to stand up and embrace who he really is.

As soon as the project was green-lit, Johnson decided “the best thing I could do was really get to know the graphic novel, get to know the script and spend a lot of time with the director”.

He also re-watched the classic 1958 movie and its sequel Hercules Unchained, starring bodybuilder-turned-actor Steve Reeves in the title role.

“I used to have one of those old posters of Reeves that looked painted when I was growing up,” Johnson reveals. “There’s that iconic moment when Hercules breaks the chains from the pillars and screams, ‘I am Hercules’. For me, as a kid, that was mesmerising.”

The team decided to retain such iconic moments in this new retelling - “There are only so many ways you can shoot that,” Johnson notes, “so we approached it as, rather than make it different, embrace the power of what it is”.

Hercules is released on Friday