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Maybe you know him as an action star. Maybe you know him from his wrestling days, as the love-to-hate-him heel with one eyebrow perpetually cocked. Maybe you know him as a singing demigod from a certain Disney movie. Maybe you know him as that unflinchingly positive guy in your Instagram feed, live-streaming from the gym at 4 a.m. like some sort of impossibly buff motivational speaker. Regardless of how you know him, you know him — and you almost definitely like him. In a world where movie franchises are king, he’s his own franchise. And everybody likes the Rock.

Whether he’s blowing up the box office or just your social media feed, Dwayne Johnson has earned a reputation as Hollywood’s happiest and hardest-working leading man. Now, he’s spreading holiday cheer as the star of EW’s new cover, opening up about his past struggles, current triumphs, and future plans.

“I’ve realized that the No. 1 thing that keeps me motivated and positive is operating like my back’s against the wall,” Johnson tells EW. “Because when my back is against the wall, I feel like there’s only one way to go: You’ve gotta go forward.”

Up next is the action-comedy Jumanji: Welcome the Jungle, which picks up more than two decades after the beloved Robin Williams original. Johnson stars as the heroic adventurer Dr. Smolder Bravestone — or, more specifically, as a nerdy teenager named Spencer who’s been sucked into the jungle world of Jumanji and trapped in Smolder Bravestone’s body. It’s a role that both embraces the movie tropes Johnson’s known for playing and inverts them; in short, he gets to punch some bad guys, but he also has to lead his classmates (who are trapped in the bodies of Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black) through the jungle, all while trying not to break down in tears.

It’s been a while since Johnson has had to tap into his inner awkward teen, but that anxiety isn’t foreign to him. Between playing a high school student and shooting in Hawaii — where he spent some of his own youth — Jumanji found Johnson reflecting on his own adolescence. Sitting down with EW, Johnson opened up about his unlikely path to stardom, from multiple arrests as a teenager and getting cut from the Canadian Football League to wrestling for $40 in Memphis and finally getting cast in his first movie. Even then, it was years before Hollywood knew what to do with a 6-foot-5 wrestler.

“I feel like these days, having lived a bit, I’m on my fourth level, and I have a little bit of experience underneath my belt,” he says now. “There’s a greater level of self awareness that I have. Who I present to the public and who I am at home, I try to make sure they’re as closely connected as possible because I realized some time ago that the greatest and most important thing that I can be is just me.” And when you’re The Rock, that’s a pretty good thing to be.

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