NEW YORK — For two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, size quite literally matters.
Just look at the poster for action comedy Central Intelligence, in which a gunslinging Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson towers over a panicked Kevin Hart. The cheeky tagline: “Saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson.”
“There’s just something about seeing the visual of us together,” says Johnson, 44, who at a brawny 6-foot-5 dwarfs his 5-foot-4 co-star.
Adds Hart, 36: “We talked about the poster way before we even got into the film. We knew the visual of Dwayne and myself was going to be amazing, so we’re already going to have people’s attention. Let’s just make sure that once we get their attention, we keep it.”
In Central Intelligence (in theaters Friday), the actors play former high-school classmates who meet again two decades later under potentially lethal circumstances. Calvin Joyner (Hart), voted “most likely to succeed” his senior year, is now listlessly trapped behind a desk as an accountant. He’s passed over for yet another promotion, and his stress is compounded by marital strife with his high school sweetheart (Danielle Nicolet) and their upcoming 20-year class reunion.
But his life is sent into a tailspin by a visit from Bob Stone (Johnson), a once-bullied nerd turned rogue CIA operative who still idolizes Calvin and haphazardly wrangles him into a dangerous mission. High-speed chases, office shootouts and a slew of surprise celebrity cameos ensue.
Johnson was the first one attached to Central, directed by We’re the Millers’ Rawson Marshall Thurber and co-written by The Mindy Project’s Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen. Together with New Line Cinema executives, they ran through a list of roughly 10 actors, singers and stand-up comedians whom Johnson could be paired with. Johnson had never met Hart, but he was a fan of his comedy and suggested him on a whim.
“I downloaded literally every (stand-up) album he put out,” says Johnson, who has since co-hosted the MTV Movie Awards with Hart. “I remember starting to hear about his tours and how successful they were, and I was like, ‘Man, he’s really doing things.’ “
For both actors, part of Central’s appeal was that it flips the roles they might typically play in movies: Hart as the uptight straight man to Johnson’s goofy, unpredictable Bob, who first appears wearing a unicorn T-shirt and fanny pack before beating up a rowdy group of trash-talkers in a bar. As parents, they also were drawn to the movie’s pronounced anti-bullying theme as Calvin and Bob move past their teenage glories and scars to more fully embrace their grown-up selves.
“There’s the message of being comfortable with who you are and where you are in your life,” Hart says. “The standards that we create and pressure we put on ourselves is sometimes overwhelming, and both characters have done that in some way, shape or form.” With that through line, “there’s a real partnership that’s formed; it’s a unique ride. We tried to make it as fresh as possible in a day and age where every realm of buddy film has been done.”
Johnson and Hart, now sitting in a disheveled hotel room off Central Park, are jocular and chatty, though visibly worn down by a grueling day of back-to-back interviews. It’s a best-foot-forward attitude that Thurber recalls on the movie’s Boston set last summer. Filming one particular scene, the actors were asked to pretend they were jumping from an office building. That meant being hoisted up in wire rigs for nearly six hours, which caused them excruciating groin pain.
“I’ve worked with a lot actors who would make it worse by (complaining) and moaning, or giving you a lot of side-eye when you ask them to go for another take,” Thurber says. “Kevin and Dwayne took the opportunity to do a dueling Instagram post, where they each recorded a video to their fans while the other was recording another one in the background. They were always using those opportunities to have fun and make fun of each other.”
Together, those two videos earned 1.3 million “likes” on Instagram. It’s just one example of Johnson and Hart using social media to help promote Central, as they continue to share behind-the-scenes photos and videos of the making of the film and its media tour. Considering they have nearly 210 million combined followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, their influence is far-reaching.
“There’s been a question of ‘Do stars really open movies the way they used to?’ For a movie like this, it’s going to be central,” says Daniel Loria, editorial director at Box Office Media. “These are two guys who take their star personas very seriously and work very hard in grassroots marketing of their films — getting out there in front of fans and being very active on their social media accounts to really help a film out.”
Loria predicts Central will open with $52 million against Disney/Pixar’s Finding Dory, on its way to $155 million domestically. That would put the actors’ first joint venture just above many of their recent, separate hits. Since his breakout turn in 2012’s Think Like a Man, movies starring Hart have earned nearly $675 million, bolstered by the successes of Ride Along ($134.9 million) with Ice Cube and its sequel ($90.9 million) and last year’s Get Hard with Will Ferrell ($90.4 million).
Johnson, meanwhile, has had some box-office misses in Hercules ($72.7 million) and Pain and Gain ($49.9 million). But his prominent role in the billion-dollar Fast & Furious franchise, combined with last year’s top-billed surprise smash San Andreas ($474 million worldwide), have proven he is a viable commodity.
With Johnson, “we’re talking about a global superstar where his movies do well pretty much anywhere in the world, and that’s really hard to get these days,” Loria says. “We see movies being built for a global audience, but we don’t see many stars. Sure, we can say that Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is a movie being built for a global audience, but can we really say that about Johnny Depp these days?”
Although they come from different professional backgrounds — Hart, in stand-up comedy; Johnson, in college football and wrestling before transitioning to acting — the two have a shared desire to cultivate their personal brands, and in turn, help motivate each other.
“We look at Oprah (Winfrey), and she’s a billionaire, and a lot of people would be like: ‘What are you doing? Go relax.’ But it’s something in her that just wants to keep conquering,” Hart says. “It’s the same thing you’re looking at here. We have so much more to do.” Hart’s ultimate goal, he says, is “to become a mogul. I look at the word and I understand the definition of it. I’m 36 years old, so I have nothing but time to achieve that.”
Adds Johnson: “We’ve got a very similar mind-set of building, building, building. We can get projects green-lit, we don’t have to read them — it’s a really good position, especially today. It’s a very hard business these days to get movies made and (figure out) what people have the appetite to see.”
Coming up, Hart has lined up more family-friendly fare: Disney’s The Secret Life of Pets (out July 8) and an animated adaptation of the kids’ book series Captain Underpants, expected next year. Johnson, who returns to HBO on the NFL comedy Ballers this summer, has a crowded slate of movies announced or in production, including sequels San Andreas 2 and Fast 8, superhero movie Doc Savage, and remakes of Baywatch and Jumanji.
The latter will reunite Johnson and Hart and is a reboot of the 1995 family adventure starring Robin Williams, about a magical board game. The new film will co-star Jack Black and Tom Holland, and “reimagine the story,” Johnson says. “We want to honor Robin Williams’ character, who will be forever immortalized in our story. We’ve got a really cool way to honor his legacy that should be very entertaining, and I think his family’s going to be proud. We’re excited about it.”