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The Rock plays the name game


HERE'S A news flash: The Rock is no more. It's not even Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson but merely Dwayne Johnson, plain vanilla, regular guy, would-be action-hero for the text-message set.

For us mere mortals, it's always slightly mystifying to watch celebrities and their names mutate. Madonna Ciccone to Madonna. Fabio Lanzoni to Fabio. Prince Rogers Nelson to Prince to The Artist formerly known as Prince to the unruly acronym TAFKAP.

And let's not forget Sean Combs, who seems to shuffle his handle with each new business incarnation. Just last week, he posted a bizarre video on You Tube, explaining that despite rumors to the contrary, he hadn't changed his name . . . again. Staring at the camera, he ranted, "But if I wanted to I could call myself anything I want because I have lived this life . . . By the way, I'm rich. . . . I would say that to any of my names."

A few years back, I was asked by a women's magazine to interview Jennifer Lopez (in her early J-Lo days) while she was getting a manicure. We were supposed to get them together in a totally faux-women's-bonding moment, but she came with a very large posse, and there weren't enough manicurists to go around. So they got their fingers buffed while I stood and watched. Anyway, it was around the time she was dating Combs, a.k.a. Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy, Diddy, Sean . . . I had no idea how to refer to him so settled for "your boyfriend." (I don't think Lopez noticed much -- she was busy ripping pages from a fashion magazine and handing them to an assistant/publicist/hanger-on and asking her to find the pictured item.)

Opting for a solo one-word stage name is like grabbing for the brass ring in celebrity-dom. It's a naked bid for icon status, a way to brand yourself like Kleenex or Xerox or Liberace. Going the other direction, however, is rare. It connotes artistic seriousness and the versatility needed for true art. Dana Owens to Queen Latifah and back to Dana Owens (but only when she's singing jazz). Marky Mark to Mark Wahlberg. John Cougar to John Cougar Mellencamp to just John Mellencamp.

I asked Johnson about his moniker change recently, which is being touted in "Get Smart," where Johnson plays suave Agent 23, the ultimate in spies -- or in Johnson's rendition, a suavely amusing send-up of the uber agent. I guess it's hard to take an actor seriously who bills himself as The Rock (The Rock stars in Hamlet!), and the former wrestler is clearly intent on transforming himself, if not into John Gielgud exactly, at least into a family-friendly movie star.

He recently jetted back from Las Vegas, where he'd been shooting the Disney remake of "Race to Witch Mountain," in which he plays a Vegas cabby charged with helping a pair of kids with paranormal powers escape to the Luxor, where they make gobs of money in 30 seconds flat. Just kidding. They actually are fleeing the usual array of government and alien evil-doers.

Johnson was perennially genial, though I suspect he keeps a Power Point presentation of his career plans in his head. "The Rock was a name, a character I created in TV. When I made the transition into film, I knew eventually I was going to be billed as my given name," he said via telephone. Real actors have real names, not just brand monikers. "I wanted the transition to happen naturally. Ten years ago [when he went into films and television], I didn't want to make an announcement or a statement, 'From this day forward, I'm an actor.' I didn't want to make a big deal about it. There was just a natural and easy way for the transition to happen."

Flash back 10 years, and Johnson was strutting around in black wrestling shorts, taunting opponents with his signature eyebrow move and boisterous trash talk. The seven-time WWE champion liked to refer to himself in the third person, as in "The Rock says," and add un-Disney-like comments such as "Keep bangin' on that door and The Rock's gonna lay the smack down on your candy ass."

Even then, "The Rock" wasn't his first incarnation. The 36-year-old, part African Canadian and part Samoan, had done a stint as a college football player for the Miami Hurricanes and had been a short-lived pro player for the Calgary Stampeders. He first tried wrestling under his given name, then with a stage name of Flex Kavana. He later morphed into a baby-faced good-guy wrestler called Rocky Maivia.

"My father and grandfather were professional wrestlers," Johnson said. "Rocky's my dad's first name, and Maivia was my grandfather's last name. The company thought it was a good idea to merge the two names together out of respect for my father and grandfather," and all the marketing possibilities.

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