The WWE legend and star of the May-25 released Baywatch lets us in on the “Lights out, game over, we may have to cancel Christmas” level of “filthy fun” in the big screen reinvention of the classic TV series
by Matt Scanlon, with reporting by susan hornik
Though it’s been 63 years since Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s risqué roll in the waves in the Oscar-winning From Here to Eternity—reminding audiences (as if they needed reminding) that the beach can arouse feelings that have little to do with appreciating scenic vistas—the “beach movie” concept didn’t arrive until 1963’s Beach Party, starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. Its bizarre plotline (Professor Robert Orville Sutwell secretly observing the “wild mating habits” of Southern California teenagers) resonated with audiences, strangely enough (it was the highest-grossing film American International Pictures released that year), and gave rise to no fewer than a dozen similarly tongue-in cheek beach films over the next six years. In the end, the genre managed to blaze the trail for the ’70s surf film movement, teenage protagonist comedies of the ’80s, and the ongoing directorial technique of actors “breaking the fourth wall” by having them speak directly to the audience.
On the TV side of the sand equation, Baywatch exists somewhat singularly—its audience sweep and enduring profitability was such that it steamrolled any broadcast competitors before an analogous genre could be established, and has seen no emulators of lasting note. Premiering on NBC in 1989, it was actually canceled after a single season, but star David Hasselhoff and executive producers revived the fictional account of the lives of Los Angeles lifeguards expressly for syndication in 1991, and it wound up being a mammoth hit for nearly a decade. It also launched cast members like Erika Eleniak, Nicole Eggert, Yasmine Bleeth, Carmen Electra, and, of course, Pamela Anderson into the small screen stratosphere.
In reinventing the Baywatch concept for the movie theater, studio Paramount Pictures, director Seth Gordon, and writers Jay Scherick, David Ronn, Thomas Lennon, and Robert Ben Garant (screenplay by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift) had a tough choice: would they go PG-13 or R for an MPAA film rating? Over the last decade, the safer bet has been to go high-brow; in 2014 for example, R films returned $42 million at the box office on average, while the take of PG and PG-13 movies was roughly double that. Last year, however, brought an interesting shift; of the 30 top-grossing 2016 comedies, PG and PG-13 films rang in at $726 million in gross ticket sales, while R films racked up $651 million—the more adult-themed releases still behind, but coming up strong. These figures were doubtless in the minds of
Paramount executives, but which direction to take never seemed in doubt to the new film’s star, Dwayne Johnson.
“From the beginning, one of my main things was ‘It’s got to be rated R,’” Johnson said in a Paramount interview. “‘Let’s swing for the
fences!’ We wanted to raise the bar in terms of shocking humor. With comedies, there’s ‘fun,’ and above that, there’s ‘awesome.’ I didn’t
expect to have [just that] fun level…but way beyond. At the top of the mountain, there’s ‘filthy fun.’ That’s rarefied air. Baywatch is ‘Lights
out, game over, we may have to cancel Christmas’-level of filthy fun.”
Set for release on May 25, the film tells the take of Mitch Buchannon, who heads the Baywatch lifeguard squad. After a few early internecine dust-ups with other guards, when a dead body is recovered from the water and its possible connection to a drug trafficking ring uncovered, things get serious…sort of. Johnson co-stars with an ensemble cast that includes Alexandra Daddario as new recruit Summer Quinn and Zac Efron as Matt Brody, a former Olympian with a tarnished reputation who approaches his new lifeguard career with a pronounced flintiness.
About his character, Johnson said: “Mitch’s singular goal on any given day is to protect his beach and the people who come there to enjoy it…to the point that the locals have created their own mythology around him. ‘Did he create Google?’ they ask. ‘Did he help launch the first rocket to the moon, even though he’s in his early forties?’ He’s shrouded in mystery.”
“Baywatch is The Avengers of the beach,” the actor enthused. “Everyone is highly proficient at what they do, and has their own area of expertise.”
Hasselhoff has a cameo in the film, and provided inspiration beyond his on-screen performance.
“David gave me one piece of advice when I took the role,” recalled Johnson, a 45-year-old former college football player turned pro wrestler turned actor and executive producer. “He said, ‘It looks like you’re having fun already, but have even more.’ I took that advice every single day.”
“No one else on the planet could have played this role like Dwayne,” said producer Beau Flynn. “I like to think of him as Poseidon, God of the Ocean. He’s so at home in the water, and fills the screen with vibe and energy.”
“They’ve been talking about doing a movie for twenty years,” offered Pamela Anderson, who also has a cameo.
“I actually left the Baywatch series when I was pregnant with my son, Brandon, nineteen years ago. He’s in the movie now, too, which is pretty great.”
Asked about the big screen version’s differing approach, Anderson smiled. “Well, there’s swearing and nudity, which would not have flown back in the day.”
“It’s a fun piece of pop culture; if people know the name, they may also know red bathing suits, Pam Anderson, and slow motion running,” laughed director Seth Gordon. “We had a chance to redefine what the brand is. Dwayne’s character takes himself and the team very seriously, but Zach’s is a bit like the audience’s point of view—an outsider who first thinks the lifeguard setting is so silly. Dwayne and the team’s vision is much more heroic—always being vigilant and watching when no one else is watching.”
The role of hero and the absorption of larger-than-life figures started early for the star. The only child of Rocky Johnson, a pioneering black Nova Scotian wrestler who performed in a tag-team duo called the Soul Patrol, and Ata Maivia, who has ties, through her father, to a legendary clan of Samoan wrestlers, he grew up poor, and has spoken of his family’s eviction from a one-room apartment as one of the
formative experience of adolescence.
Born in Hayward, California, he grew up in a succession of locales (first New Zealand, then Hawaii and Pennsylvania), and racked up arrests
for fighting and petty theft while still a minor. In high school, the young man found football, which helped him find college. Upon graduating from the University of Miami (with a Bachelor of General Studies degree in criminology and physiology), Johnson followed in the footsteps of his wrestling father by joining World Wrestling Entertainment.
Over a seven-year stretch (1996-2003), he regularly broke WWE box office attendance and pay-per-view records, and his character creation of “The Rock” has stuck.
Film roles followed in both action and sci-fi productions, such as Fast Five (2011), Fast & Furious 6 and Empire State (2013), San Andreas (2015), and Central Intelligence (2016). Among his many accolades is being named the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s 2016 Entertainer of the Year, People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” for 2016, USA Today’s 2016 Movie Person of the Year, a member of Time magazine’s 2016 Most Influential People, and placement in the Hollywood Reporter’s Annual “Power 100” list for 2016.
Asked about any risk associated with turning the Baywatch TV drama (albeit with unintentionally comedic components) into a madcap action farce, Johnson paused and smiled. “Obviously, there was a lot about the show that worked,” he said. “We wanted to keep some of the core elements in place, while raising the stakes. The stunts are bigger, the action is more intense, but we’re not taking ourselves as seriously. We worked hard to find the right balance. As badass as the action in this movie is, we’re all in on the joke, [but] we’re laughing with Baywatch, not at Baywatch.”
Currently starring in the third season of the critically acclaimed HBO series Ballers, Johnson also has his own production company (Seven Bucks Productions), a workout line for Under Amour, and his next film turn will be in the December 20-released Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, an action/comedy co-starring Jack Black and Nick Jonas. He might even be considering a run for political office. “I think that it’s a real possibility,” he recently told GQ magazine, after an op-ed in the Washington Post suggested he could be a promising candidate.