'Young Rock' Star Uli Latukefu on How Dwayne Johnson's Success Was Foretold in College Football

“Adversity doesn’t really shake him; it actually fortifies every conviction that he comes in with,” the oldest “Rock” says

NBC/Mark Taylor

Thursday’s episode of “Young Rock,” the first centered on the oldest of the show’s three Dwayne Johnsons, gave the future Hollywood star (and presidential candidate?) his first major life hurdle, an injury that nearly derailed his career before it even began.

“We are all aware of what a huge icon he is now, but at that stage of his life, it was really important to me to strip away what we know him as now and just get back to him as an 18-year-old trying to navigate his way through life,” Uli Latukefu, the actor who plays the college-aged Johnson on the show, said in an interview with TheWrap.

Two previous installments showed how Johnson was shaped by a childhood growing up in Hawaii with his mother’s family and an adolescence in Pennsylvania where he struggled to impress his peers. Latukefu’s episode picked up with Johnson as a rising college football player, seemingly destined to become the University of Miami’s newest star until a shoulder injury benches him for an entire season.

“When he went to college, it was very much, ‘I’m going to be the biggest thing, the best I can be,” Latukefu said.

But after his injury, the lack of purpose sends the Young Rock into a deep depression that extends for months. It’s not until a heartfelt conversation with his father (in the “safe space” of a crowded gym) that he’s convinced to get back into the “fight” and not give up on his entire future because of one setback.

As the eldest Johnson explains later in the episode, it wasn’t the concept of fighting back against mental illness that got through to him, but the show of support. According to Latukefu, that kind of tough but attentive love defined much of Johnson’s relationship with his father.

“He adores his mom. His mom went through the trenches with him, been his number one support throughout his whole life. Every decision he’s made, she’s backing him 100%. But with his father — and he’s mentioned that before — it was a tricky one,” Latukefu said. “His dad came from a professional wrestling background, and he was extremely hard on Dwayne. He hasn’t made that any secret.”

“And I’m familiar with it too,” he continued. “Growing up in the islands, I grew up with some tough love. But you know deep down inside, they would stop the world for you. It’s just the way that they display it is a little a little different.”

Having that kind of support system — having family who would relocate to Florida to be closer to their son when he moves away for college — is what enabled Johnson’s future success.

“Adversity doesn’t really shake him. It actually fortifies every conviction that he comes in with,” Latukefu said, pointing to the fact that Johnson was cut from the Canadian Football League in 1995 only to buy his own league that’s now exploring a potential CFL partnership 25 years later.

“At that time, Miami was the best college football team in the world. They had back-to-back championships, they just have such a strong legacy at the college. And so him coming in as a freshman, trying to fit into that is daunting for anyone,” Latukefu said. “When he kind of went in there, he was up against all these challenges, but that never deterred him. It only put more fuel under the fire.”

“Young Rock” airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on NBC.

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