by Ed Symkus

There was a time when all World Wrestling Federation superstar The Rock had to do to incite the adoration of 20,000 screaming fans was climb into the ring. These days, it's gotten much crazier. If he so much as appears on a video screen at Madison Square Garden or any of the myriad arenas where wrestling takes place, the crowd goes nuts.

But The Rock (real name: Dwayne Johnson, a third-generation pro wrestler) wanted more. He wanted, for as long as he can remember, a movie career. That started a year ago, when he made a much-vaunted 10-minute appearance in the blockbuster The Mummy Returns. But even before filming was finished, studio executives thought they saw something special. They immediately ordered up a script for a film telling the backstory of The Rock's character, the Scorpion King.

And before he knew what hit him, The Rock was working five days a week on the prequel in the California desert and two days a week being flown around to different wrestling rings. Just as filming wrapped late last summer, his wife gave birth to their first child, Simone.

"And I can change diapers with the best of them," says The Rock. "Poop diapers, pee diapers, whatever."

Then the six-foot, three-inch muscle man, who's quite soft-spoken and thoughtful -- 180 degrees away from the wild-eyed, hot-tempered character he plays in the ring and in the movie -- gets serious about this new direction in his life.

"It's a wonderful thing being a father," he says. "You become selfless in a way, and you start to think about how your decisions will affect your baby. For example, like the next film I'm doing. I'm reading the script, making sure the fundamental elements are responsible, that it's not something that I'll be embarrassed about six years from now when she's able to watch the movie."

But there's also the time involved in his dual careers. Although filming on the contemporary action comedy (currently titled Helldorado) won't be starting for a while, he's still on the wrestling circuit traveling grind.

"I'm trying to be a responsible parent and keep the balance, and now I'm trying to balance two careers, as well as being a good Daddy," he says. "It gets difficult, but I've got some good help, good family support, good people around me to help me and help my life run easier."

His long-term plan is to make an impact in film and lessen his role -- but not leave it -- in wrestling. The question, of course, is whether he can make the crossover. Acting in wrestling is one thing -- there's lots of improvisation between the choreographed fights. But acting in movies is very much another. In wrestling, he's one of the biggest stars in the business. In The Mummy Returns, he only had a few lines of dialogue, and they were in ancient Egyptian.

The Rock addresses his role in wrestling first, referring to the recent Wrestlemania pay-per-view in which he pinned Hulk Hogan.

"It was the best thing that's ever happened in my wrestling career," he says. "I've won the WWF championship more times than anybody, and I've done this and done that. But finally to be involved in a match with Hulk Hogan, who was the icon of the wrestling industry, and to a lot of people still is -- and for him to be in a match with me and for him to pass the torch by letting me beat him, was a great thing. It's like Jordan stepping aside for Kobe.

"But," he adds, "in wrestling, we get one take. That's it. And in the movie business, you have the luxury of doing take after take and having different choices. So when it's 4 in the morning and you're on your 15th take with flaming swords, it gets difficult getting in the mood again. When I worked on The Mummy Returns, everything was brand-new. So the director helped me a lot. But English dialogue is different. I hired an acting coach, Larry Moss, who helped me tremendously through the script and scenes and putting me in those moments where, at times, there was a little bit of poignancy involved. So I had a lot of help."

In the film, he plays Mathayus, an assassin who's hired to kill off the powerful sorcerer who's aiding an evil desert warrior. Mathayus is neither a good guy nor a bad guy, but most viewers will be on his side.

"The vulnerability of the character attracted me," says The Rock. "It was just like what's helped me in wrestling. Always being vulnerable, being flawed, and being in jeopardy was the same thing I contributed to the character. Mathayus had flaws and was vulnerable, even in all the fight scenes."

Concerned parents will want to know that the film is very violent. But almost all of the real mayhem is done just off screen. Men with swords and axes do nasty things, but no one is seen getting cut or chopped. And there is no blood.

"I think the film is very kid-friendly," says The Rock. "It's not gratuitous at all. There are some very beautiful women involved in it, but they're very empowering women. And my character has a great and funny relationship with a little boy."

The Rock can sense that the next question will be about parents' concerns with the violence in wrestling, even before it's asked, and he launches right into an answer.

"As far wrestling, that will be an ongoing concern forever," he explains. "There's no way to eradicate that at all. The best thing I can do as a performer is to try to be as responsible as I can be, and let fans know that the action and the violence that you see in WWF programming is very slapstick, very Three Stooges, that kind of thing.

"And now that I'm a parent, I know that the responsibility falls on my shoulder, too. You have to say, 'You're not gonna watch this and you are going to watch this.' It's very easy. It's a remote control, and you change the channel. Now I'm not knocking these other shows on TV, but you can watch a lot worse than WWF television and me."

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