The Rock, Malin Akerman talk friendship between a man and his gorilla in Rampage

William Mullally

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Why do audiences connect so easily with Dwayne Johnson? For one thing, both on screen and off, he seems like a friend, both to many people of many backgrounds, and, at some point in the future, maybe to you as well. While Rampage is a smash-‘em-up monster movie big screen spectacle based off the 80s arcade game of the same premise, what makes the film click is, surprise, another Dwayne Johnson friendship, this time with a gorilla named George.

On set, a large painting was hung that inspired the original pitch for the film—a picture of Dwayne’s character Davis and George the gorilla.

“It reflects the Rampage game, in which you played as monsters and rampaged through cities, crushing everything in your way,” Johnson explains with a smile.

“But just as important was the story’s heart, which sparked my interest because it spoke to the relationship between Davis and George. The heart makes Rampage a little more special.”

“Don’t get me wrong – this is a big movie,” he continues. “But it’s great when you can anchor the action and spectacle with emotion.”

Sadly enough, Johnson has yet to make friends with a real-life gorilla. He tried, of course, but nothing really clicked.

“The first thing I learned—and it surprised me—was that you can’t have much contact with gorillas. When we started prepping the film, I thought, well, I’ll go to the San Diego Zoo and spend time with the gorillas there. There was respect, though no direct contact,” he says.

To fill that gap, Johnson drew from his relationship with his dog Hobbs, also known as Bruce Wee.

“He’s my best friend, and we have a bond that’s special and awesome.”

To prove just how awesome Hobbs is, Johnson pulls out his smartphone and plays some home videos of him romping around with Hobbs.

“Here we go…we sass each other…it’s the same relationship Davis has with George…Hobbs loves to grab me by my toes, which are pretty strong, so I can hold onto him with them…we really love each other.”

While Hobbs wasn’t available to stand-in for George due to scheduling conflicts, actor Jason Liles played the gorilla opposite Johnson in most scenes. Johnson’s co-star Malin Akerman, who plays the villainous Claire Wyden, the woman responsible for the mutant infection that turns George from a BFF into a prolific destroyer of public property, didn’t have the luxury of Jason Liles around in her scenes with George.

“My experience with the ape was a tennis ball on a pole with a green screen. That was really effective. A lot of acting came through there. There wasn’t much of an animal. Dwayne and some of the others got to work with Jason Liles who was doing the motion capture for it, and so really he’s our unsung hero because all the emotion behind George the gorilla in the film is the actor behind the eyes,” Akerman tells me.

Trademark humor

In addition to the film’s emotional core, Johnson contributes another one of his trademarks to the film—humor.

“I’m cracking up on the set all the time; I’ll give you an idea of the fun tone we have,” Johnson says. “The city of Chicago is going down, thanks to the rampaging creatures. Kate [Naomie Harris] and Davis get in a helicopter, he starts flipping the switches but nothing’s happening – Davis is a little rusty at this. So, Kate asks, ‘You sure you know how to fly this thing?’ Davis replies, ‘It’s coming back to me….’”

Of course, as this is a monster film, the monsters must monst. In one scene, Akerman is, to her horror, grabbed and flung upwards by the now-giant George.

“That was actually all wire work,” Akerman tells me. “There was a man literally dressed in a green suit who caught me, and then up I went in the wire and on a separate day when I was coming back down, it was a separate day of wire work and green screens and mattresses. A lot of imagination was necessary.”

Akerman confirms that Johnson’s friendly attitude and never-ending work ethic held true for the duration of their filming together.

“He’s everything you could imagine and wish for,” Akerman says. “He’s got so much charisma, and he’s a big teddy bear, truly. He’s a massive man, but he’s absolutely lovely and has an infectious smile, and is a hard worker. I only had two days with him on set, but I really enjoyed my time.”

Playing the evil CEO

Akerman, who also currently stars in the hit show Billions, plays a villain for the first time—something producers were skeptical she could handle before seeing her audition. To her, playing the evil CEO of a malicious company is all about quiet confidence.

“I hope she was charismatic enough that people hated her. What I found, just in life, when you find people that sit in places of power, they’re quite calm because they’ve got everything they need. It’s always the frantic ones that are in search of something. I just thought, it’s more intimidating to play someone very cool and devoid of emotion, and that’s how I got her. She always felt that she was one step ahead of the game, and she had everything in control, until she didn’t,” she says.

What happens when a person like that gets in control of the wrong technology?

“THIS is what happens,” Johnson says, pointing to the art on the wall of the supersized George.

Rampage is now in theaters across the Middle East.