On the NBC series Young Rock, the childhood story of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has a profoundly delightful guest role turned in by actor Matthew Willig – who is playing real-life legend, André the Giant.
As it happened, André the Giant had an equally memorable effect on Young Rock and is featured on the upcoming March 30 episode, My Day With André.
Matt is a former NFL player and hails from the vast USC Trojan family, who took on acting once his football career ended. Those viewers paying attention will remember him in Birds of Prey, Marvel’s AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D, Concussion, We Are the Millers, Dexter, Grimm, and more.
Willig’s immediate hook is his undeniable physical presence, but viewers stay for the thoughtful scene-stealing moments he gives while mentoring Young Dewey with nuggets of wisdom that only a pro wrestler could. This man of the world—who André the Giant was in reality— is given great due as he delivers life lessons that stuck hard with our Dwayne Johnson.
Willig is a diamond in a cast of many gems, and hopefully, producers see the impression his turn as André the Giant among larger-than-life big men of the pro wrestling ring leaves on the fans of this fun new series.
Rock As a Young Man
Some celebrities transcend, and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson is one of them. So was the late great André the Giant, a colleague of his pro-wrestler father Rocky who had a lasting influence on Dwayne, affectionately referred to as Dewey.
NBC was smart to realize this magic and the talents of Fresh Off the Boat showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, who created this Roman a Clef series about Dwayne Johnson’s humble but fascinating beginnings.
Rock gives us a look backward as he employs entertaining flashbacks. First, we meet him as a 10-year-old [Adrian Groulx], actor Bradley Constant plays him at 15, and actor Uli Latukefu is cast as the Rock from the ages of 18 to 20 in his early years at the University of Miami in the early 90s.
The series begins, tongue in cheek, as the real Dwayne Johnson is seen in 2032 running for POTUS. His flashback stories are from the campaign sit-downs with journalist (and former actor) Randall Park. The narrative visually dramatizes real events in Rock’s early family life.
His legendary father, Rocky Johnson (Joseph Lee Anderson), grandmother and wrestling promoter Lia (Ana Tuisila), and mother, Ata (Stacey Leilua), struggle to stay afloat in Hawaii. Their colorful friends from the pro-wrestling world often share their dinner table and fellowship.
Things financially are tough for the Johnsons, and the family heads to Nashville, and then Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
But it is the snapshots of a tender André the Giant giving Dewey some guidance that shine, or the conversations with Junkyard Dog, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and the Wild Samoans that make this part of the series the moments to savor.
As André, Willig gets to show a range and his ability to command scenes and get inside the viewer’s heart and mind in ways many if not most actors could ever hope to achieve. Willig has a large man’s physicality similar to André and the intelligence in his craft in portraying such an iconic person to make it believable and make his performance resonate.
Born and raised in Southern California, Willig never set out to become an actor; his passion had always been sports.
In high school, his athletic abilities afforded him a football scholarship to the University of Southern California. He lettered all four years and was voted “Most Inspirational Player” his senior year.
During his college career, he had three Rose Bowl appearances, winning one in 1990. Through a fortuitous connection, he was cast in his first acting role for the independent film, Full Contact.
Interview with Matthew Willig of NBC’s Young Rock
Monsters & Critics spoke to Matthew Willig ahead of his excellent work on NBC’s hit series, Young Rock.
Monsters & Critics: You’ve taken on André the Giant, and the performance was arresting…
Matthew Willig: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate it. That’s a great way to start.
M&C: Were you and Dwayne Johnson friends ahead of this series?
Matthew Willig: Friends? No. Acquaintances. Yes.
I live in the Valley above LA and he used to be around here and we worked out at the same gym together.
I had my first big movie coming out, Year One, back in the day with Jack Black. I remember just pulling him aside and asking him for a little bit of advice. We worked out together a few times and anyway, it’s a long way to say that I knew him a little bit.
I had been trying for years, obviously to get involved and work with him on the screen somewhere. And, so this was the first time it’s happened. It seems like everything sort of led to a perfect role for me and something that I could help him out with as well. So it’s really nice.
M&C: Talk to me about the wizardry of weight gain, wardrobe and makeup, just to emulate the distinct look André had?
Matthew Willig: It was a concern for me. I knew a height-wise, it was…you never know how they can adjust the cameras, it’s crazy these days. I figured being around 6’8″, it was close, but not close enough. I actually chose to gain weight for the role and I gained about 35 pounds, which is not an easy thing and not the smartest thing to do, health-wise, but I did.
I think it was really important to get that look of just being such a big man. I think it worked for the role and it was crucial to kind of giving that André look because I typically try to stay lean as much as possible. It was a total transformation for me over a couple of months to gain that weight.
M&C: I would imagine, officially about 14 years being a professional football player, you’ve got to guard your health like a lion…
Matthew Willig: I do. I typically go, and this sounds like a lot, I’m typically around 290 which sounds like a lot, but my, 6′ 8″ eight frame, I can have an athletic look.
But to be back up at that range and then past the range where I was when I played ball was a little scary. I was gluttonous for sure. Because I was able to just eat whatever I wanted and I was eating late at night doing just about anything I could to gain.
And by the time we were done shooting, I was anxious to get home and get in shape. I’ve dropped about 20 of the 35 that I gained. And, with the idea that that hopefully—knock on wood—that we have the opportunity to go back and do it again. Then I will have to put that weight back on.
M&C: How much do you know about André?
Matthew Willig: I’ve heard different things about that. Some people say he was 6’11” and some say 6″8″, it’s all in that same ballpark. I wasn’t too worried. They put lifts in my shoes when I got out there to shoot, which was a pain in the butt.
These lifts were put inside of my shoes and it was like I was wearing heels. I quickly gained more respect for the average woman who wears heels during the day.
So we had to adjust it, but it was kind of funny when I immediately complained and all the women looked at me like, okay, now you understand!
But truthfully, not a ton. Candidly I was not a big wrestling fan. Obviously, everyone has heard of Andre and his ring escapades that he was involved in and his drinking and things like that. But I dove way into finding out as much as I could about him.
And, the biggest thing early on was learning sort of the accent and just trying to figure that out a bit and to have that sort of feel. I thought that was a big part of it. Just over and over, listening to tapes of him and interviews and things like that.
By the end of it, I thought I learned a lot. The most important thing I learned just before shooting was talking to Dwayne [who] sent me a really long and specific detailed message about [André] because I wanted to know and I asked, ‘Hey, tell me your relationship with Andre and what was it really like?’
The honesty of that. [Dwayne] left me a great message and sent me something that I still have… and kind of cherish actually.
He thought that I could study this to kind of, hopefully, get who he was and refer to it. And it was a great help in understanding how much André was around for a while and how he called him Uncle André.
And there was a reason that Dwayne really believed that André had taken a real liking to him. So that was more important, I think, than anything else was just [helping me] in understanding their relationship and how it really was.
M&C: Is there anything that you can share, an anecdote ahead of your March 30 episode, My Day With André, is there a particular story that resonated?
Matthew Willig: I think Dwayne’s been vocal about that relationship and it’s been humbling to see him promote my character a little bit during the show… because they’ve done a really nice job with that.
And I think he’s talked about it, and just the fact that André really loved kids and he understood. And it’s funny because, for my personal life, I understand it as well, being so tall that kids have this look… when they look at you and you’re someone who’s large and tall, that can be scary.
I think understanding that that André appreciated that and made it a point to really connect with kids and not scare them, so to speak.
But Dwayne’s just shared with me the fact that he loved him. He really did. And when he had issues with his father growing up and maybe his father wasn’t around as much as he wanted him to, so guys like André specifically were ones that took the time to give him a few kicks in the a** and teach a few lessons along the way.
We explored that in the first episode where André tells little Dewey that wrestling is not fake and that was something that really happened.
And we are going to see later on in the season, that it’s more of how does little Dewey find his way through life and how does he find out who he is?
Then in response, Dewey sort of helps André have an understanding of his place in the world. There’s kind of a back and forth between them, which is really nice.
M&C: Now, does your character interact with Bradley Constant who plays the 15 year old Dwayne?
Matthew Willig: He will not be in the scene together now. You know, it’s interesting because of the character of André… it’s a little bit of a tease.
I am only a guest star on the show, and so I kind of come on in every other episode. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to have that episode featuring André.
I think that’s sort of the climax for me. But I think that for the most part, the wrestler intertwines with the ten-year-old Dwayne.
And then, later on, you’ll see us in several picnic scenes where we’re all hanging out with the family and then we get together sort of at different times with Dwayne’s mother, and sort of help support her a little bit while Bradley is playing the high school character, as well as college aged-Dwayne.
M&C: What’s on the horizon for you. Have you got any other projects cooking?
Matthew Willig: Managing my weight is number one [laughs]. Luckily the world is opening up a little bit as far as productions. I’m getting used to the new world of auditioning at home.
Right now it’s a lot of auditioning. I’m starting to get some offers and things that are happening down the road, which is really nice. But Hollywood is just sort of starting to come back. So, nothing right now on the immediate horizon.
M&C: Last question for you, let’s talk football. You played for a lot of pro teams and you’re a Trojan from California, but which pro team has your heart?
Matthew Willig: That’s a really good question. It’s a couple of different teams. I really enjoy the [San Francisco] 49ers. I had a great time there.
I think it’s all about the perspective of the times when I was playing. I would say that the 49ers were number one and also the Carolina Panthers. I just love the people and the relationships that I had back when I was there, were really pretty special.
Young Rock airs on Tuesday at 8/7c on NBC.