The crowds amassed in the Hong Kong mall for the premiere of the China-set action flick Skyscraper were packed tens, perhaps hundreds deep, a palpable excitement turning into a deafening roar of applause upon the arrival of a certain sunglasses-bespectacled movie star. "I can't even hear myself talk," co-star Neve Campbell shouted with a smile. "Dwayne Johnson is in the house, evidently."
That feeling was very much mutual in the moment. "There’s not a scream, a smile, a tear, a hug, a laugh, more tears, another laugh, another hug that I will ever EVER take for granted," Johnson captioned a photo of himself beaming alongside his screaming, selfie-seeking fans. That is the mentality he's built his entire acting career on. "Our connection is everything to me and I’m boundlessly grateful for this passionate luv," he wrote. "I luv you back."
Part of that luving relationship is that Johnson knows what fans want to see from him. In the past year alone, he's starred as the unbreakable Agent Luke Hobbs in The Fate of the Furious, an "elite" "lifeguard" in Baywatch, the video game action avatar Smolder Bravestone in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and a primatologist with a giant, mutant gorilla friend in Rampage. Now, he's ready to introduce viewers to a side they haven't seen from him.
"He said, 'You're not a superhero. You're a wounded hero and you are a man who's gonna barely survive the entire movie,'" Johnson told ET of the conversation he had with writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber. The night before their premiere, the actor is standing with his "brother" on the banks of the Hong Kong harbor, backlit by the neon lights of the city's many skyscrapers. Thurber chimes in, "People will see him unlike they've ever seen him before. He's so vulnerable. It's his best performance."
The plot of Skyscraper is the sort of ludicrously over-the-top, popcorn-worthy premise you have come to expect from Johnson: he stars as a former FBI agent who must rescue his wife (played by Campbell) and their two young children from the eponymous skyscraper -- the tallest, most advanced building in the world -- after it is taken over by terrorists. After collaborating on the action comedy Central Intelligence, Thurber pitched Johnson Skyscraper as an homage to movies like Die Hard and The Fugitive, and Johnson said no.
"When he pitched me, I said, 'Hey, listen, let me think about it.' I finally called him back and I said, 'I'm so sorry to do this to you. We're already developing a movie based on the world's biggest building,'" the actor remembers. "He goes 'No!' I mean, he was heartbroken. And I was so happy. I hear him just wilt away on the phone. I'm like, 'I'm so sorry, brother. You got a great idea, but we beat you to it.'"
"I was really depressed. I was super bummed out," Thurber continues the story. "And then Dwayne hangs up on me and about three seconds later my phone rings and its him. He says 'I'm in!' So, hook, line and sinker. I didn't know he was that good of an actor. That sold me."
Before you feel too bad for the director, he is getting his revenge now, launching into a bit about how he didn't actually write the role with Johnson in mind but only asked him after everyone else said no. "Tom Cruise said no and then Mark Wahlberg said no and then Kevin Hart said no twice," he jokingly lists off. "Then Melissa McCarthy and Will Ferrell. Arnold Schwarzenegger said no."
"See what I gotta put up with?" Johnson erupts into laughter.
So, the story may be right up the actor formerly known as The Rock's alley, but the role Will Sawyer shows a new side to Johnson; he plays a disabled war veteran who lost his lower leg in an explosion. It's a responsibility Johnson took to heart, doing research and finding inspiration in the Paralympian and first U.S. amputee to climb Mount Everest, Jeff Glasbrenner. ("He told himself, 'It's not gonna be the excuse for me not to do things in my life. It's gonna be the reason why I do do things in life.'") Sawyer is also a family man with the (mostly) realistic skill set that entails. "He has to use his ingenuity to get the job done," Johnson says. "Compared to fighting his way through the building." He doesn't put his life on the line knowing he will come out the other end but does so anyway for the sake of his family. (For the record, Campell kicks her share of ass in this, too.)
While the character is only human, it wouldn't be a Dwayne Johnson movie without some insane stuntwork, including one particular crane sequence that has been heavily teased in the trailers. "Hopefully, fingers crossed, it becomes an iconic moment," Johnson smiles. "Take a friend if you're afraid of heights. Or if you have vertigo, take a friend." When a fire erupts in the building, Johnson must leap from a super crane over the fireline and into the skyscraper, some 98 floors up.
"We built the top of a crane. I was suspended maybe 30, 40 feet in the air," Johnson recalls. "I was wired, but I still did it. Ran, jumped off. One take. I told [Thurber] I only had one take because years ago, I tore the top of my quad and my adductor from my pelvis, so it's hard for me to get a good jump off." To make sure he got the footage he needed, the director set up a number of cameras and Johnson jumped, once. "That's what you see in the movie."
At the end of the premiere's red carpet, after Johnson had met and greeted his fans, he was welcomed with a traditional Chinese dragon dance, with large, colorful felt heads snaking around a stage as confetti fluttered downwards. "For luck and prosperity," he explained on Instagram of the dance's significance. Not that he needs either.
With Skyscraper hitting theaters on July 13, Johnson already has plenty of prosperity on its way, with little luck required: the sequel to the mega-hit Jumanji, set to begin filming early next year; a Fast and the Furious spin-off centered on Hobbs and Jason Statham's Deckard Shaw, with Idris Elba recently cast as the villain ("He and I have been waiting a long time to work with each other"); and Red Notice, about an Interpol agent tasked with capturing the most-wanted art thief in the world, which co-stars Gal Gadot and will be written and directed by Thurber.
"He won't stop calling, 'What do you got next, man? I need it,'" Thurber imitates Johnson, before continuing the bit that he tried to get anyone and everyone else to star in the movie. "Chris Hemsworth, yes," Johnson grinned. "Ryan Gosling."
In true Dwayne Johnson nature, he's happy to joke around, but never at the expense of sincerity. "You know, we had a great time on Central Intelligence. Skyscraper, we had a great time, too," he adds, earnestly, of his connection with Thurber. "Look, I've gotten to a point in my career, and that point is that life's too short and work is too important to, excuse my language, work with assholes" -- and, of course, candy asses -- "So, I refuse to do that."