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How Stacey Leilua And Joseph Lee Anderson Really Feel About Playing Dwayne Johnson's Parents On Young Rock - Exclusive Interview

The beating heart and soul of NBC's feel-good sitcom Young Rock are Dewey's parents, Ata and Rocky Johnson. The two have a natural chemistry that suggests years of backstory, a testament to their skills. This is the biggest role either of them have taken. Johnson has appeared on TV in smaller roles for years. Leilua, a New Zealander with an accent distinct from her character's, worked almost entirely on stage in her home country beforehand and this is her first American production.

Looper interviewed Leilua and Anderson together not long after the airing of the episode titled "Don't Go Breaking My Heart." They spoke about what it was like having three actors play their son, what the Rock is like in person, and how the cast bonded during quarantine. We also learned how involved the real Ata Johnson was in the casting process, and how much fight coordinator Chavo Guerrero Jr. taught the wrestlers.

Rock fans and advice from Ata and Rocky

Were either of you wrestling fans before this?

Joseph Lee Anderson: I was.

Stacey Leilua: Me, not really. You go, Joe.

Joseph Anderson: Yeah, growing up. I was in high school and things like that. Loved watching the Rock, Hardy Boyz, Stone Cold, and all of that.

So you were already a Rock fan coming into this then?

Joseph Lee Anderson: Of course. Who isn't?

Do either of you have any favorite Rock movies?

Stacey Leilua: I really enjoyed Hobbs & Shaw. The newer one they did with incorporating all the Samoa stuff into it, I really liked seeing that, liked seeing our culture on the screen.

Did either of you get a chance to meet the Rock's parents? I don't know if you had a chance to meet Rocky Johnson, but I'm guessing you both got a chance to meet Ata.

Stacey Leilua: Yeah, just on a Zoom call, though, for both of them. Obviously, we were filming in Australia and they were filming in the States, so there were COVID restrictions. We just had a chat over a Zoom call. So I got to meet them both on a Zoom.

Joseph Lee Anderson: I sadly didn't get to meet Rocky, but I got to meet Ata.

Did either of them give you any particular advice?

Stacey Leilua: No, there was no advice. It was just talking and getting to know each other, and sharing stories. She grew up in the wrestling world with her parents and then married into it, and then had a son who went into it. So she's spent her whole life being a part of that world. And so she was really just sharing a lot of stories about it in her experiences. But no advice, she sort of trusted me, I guess. [Laughs]

Working with the Rock

One bit everybody I know who watched the show loved was in the last episode where you yelled, "It doesn't matter what you think!" Was that based on something that happened or was that just a fun line they wanted to write?

Stacey Leilua: [Laughs] You are going to have to ask Dwayne about that. I think from what I've seen online, people are speculating like, "Did that really come from his mom?" I think they just made it up for the show that it was where it originated, but you'd have to ask him about it. I don't know.

So I interviewed Matt — you know, André the Giant – and he said that the Rock actually met with every single one of you and took time to get to know you a little bit. What was your relationship with the Rock like?

Joseph Lee Anderson: He made me feel like he was like a really good friend. I wasn't worried. I didn't feel like I was talking to my boss, I felt like I was talking to an older brother in a sense, and now it's great, it's a great relationship. It's amazing how humble and giving he is. Really good person.

Stacey, what was your relationship with the Rock like?

Stacey Leilua: Just the same, really. I was so nervous in the lead up to meeting him because you see him onscreen and through his social media, and so you sort of have an idea of who this man is, so you're incredibly nervous — and then meeting him, all that went away pretty quickly because he's so just genuine and down to earth and the conversations around... You just quickly come to realize that we're all here for the same reason. And we all want to make this show and tell the story as well as we can. So I just felt really supported by him — it's really hard to describe him as normal, but he's just like a normal person.

Three actors, same son

You had a different actor playing your kid over the course of three different time periods. How do you keep that straight? Do you approach them all as one person, or do you see them as three different characters?

Stacey Leilua: It made it easier that we filmed chronologically. So for the most part, you were only really dealing with one at a time. So we filmed Adrian's stuff first and then Bradley's and then Uli's last. So that definitely helped because they are individual. I think the way that I — and it's the same — I'm a mom. I think about how I was with my daughter when she was two is very different to how I am now that she's five and it will be different when she's a teenager. So you do sort of approach them differently. Uli actually asked me while we were filming his stuff. He said, "has this been hard because you've got these three different actors as your sons?" And I said, "Well, no, because they have the same energy." And like I said to him, they're just a loveliest bunch of guys, very open and generous actors to work with. Well-mannered, polite, really good guys. So that made it a lot easier, they felt like they were the same person in a way. Joseph?

Joseph Lee Anderson: Yeah, I agree. It's kind of weird to think about how they are different people. It felt like they were the same, they just got older. So yeah, it was great work with them.

The script and the design and the makeup all do a great job differentiating the time periods — as does your acting, of course — but how do you approach handling each time period? I know you said you did it chronologically. Did that help?

Stacey Leilua: Definitely, because it just helps you to be sort of in that head space. I think as well, relationship-wise, Ata is very, in terms of her marriage, as well as the motherhood aspect, that was very different from being the wife of this wrestling superstar and everything felt a little bit kind of glamorous in Hawaii and they were staying in nice hotels and they had a bit of money compared to down the track with Bradley and they'd literally be kind of scraping and doing what they can and Rocky's out on the road, but she sort of stepped back and she's cleaning houses. It definitely helped the way that they sorted the filming in those blocks, because you're able to really sit in that time period in that frame of mind of where they would kind of be at.

Joseph, would you say the same thing?

Joseph Lee Anderson: It didn't really bother me none, as far as I didn't... I won't say it didn't help, but it didn't hurt, if that makes sense? As Rocky, I just wanted to be as charismatic and as funny as possible throughout everything. That's all I was mostly thinking about while filming.

Chavo Guerrero, coming off the top rope

You worked with Chavo Guerrero to help coordinate the wrestling. What's Chavo Guerrero like?

Joseph Lee Anderson: Chavo is one of the boys. He's so dope. Chavo's real dope.

Did he teach you how to do the dropkick?

Joseph Lee Anderson: He had to teach me everything. Taught me the drop kick. I'd never done a somersault in my life, he taught me that. The sunset flip. Everything you saw was taught by him.

Well, he did a great job because I never would have known. Those are very slick moves you guys were able to pull off.

Joseph Lee Anderson: I had no idea I was going to be doing that. I thought I was going to have a stunt double. They're like, "ah, you're doing it all."

I was looking when the scenes were going on like, "okay, is there a different face in there?" I'm like, "no, that's the same guy!"

Joseph Lee Anderson: Yeah, all of us did our own things! Yeah!

What was the Battle Royal scene like for you?

Joseph Lee Anderson: That was a long day. I mean, physically, it was just brutal. It gives you a new respect for all those wrestlers. It's tough.

First American production, Australia, and natural chemistry

Stacey, if I'm not mistaken, this is your first project for an American production company.

Stacey Leilua: Correct.

You've mostly worked in New Zealand before this. Is there anything different about working for American productions compared to New Zealand productions?

Stacey Leilua: Well, apart from the accent, I think it's in terms of the production, it wasn't so much the fact that it was American versus New Zealand. I'd just never done anything on this scale before. I come from a theater background, so I'm used to working in the theater and working that way in terms of script work and character and stuff. So it was just a slightly different process, and coming onto a set and having your own trailer and things like that were all things I had to get used to on the job and just be like, okay. And they became like normal parts of the job, being in hair and makeup and stuff like that. We just don't do that in theater, so there was more of that aspect of things, but you know, more plays. I really loved it. It was cool.

When I was speaking with Matt, he mentioned that you all had to quarantine for two weeks when you first came over to Australia. Do you think that helped you bond as a cast?

Joseph Lee Anderson: Me, Stacey, Uli, Bradley and Adrian, we were all cast kind of around the same time. It's not like I was the first one cast. So when I found out Stacey booked it, then I was like, "Hey, Stacey, what's up?" And then when I found out Uli got it, like, I was kind of... we were kind of reaching out to each other before then to help build that relationship up before we actually started. As far as quarantine goes, we weren't all in the same room,but our rooms were right next to each other. So we'd go out on the balcony and just kind of like, "Hey, what's up guys?" You know, little balcony chats. [Laughs] Yeah.

You two have a great chemistry on the show. Did you do anything to develop that or do you feel that just came naturally?

Stacey Leilua: It's natural. Isn't it, mate? [Anderson nods] But I think, just going off what Joseph said, like connecting, through social media and little things like that differently, helps so they're not just showing up on set and I'm like "Hi" but everyone was kind of chatting and had Zoom calls and stuff like way before we even saw each other in person, so that was cool. And I think the fact that we're all there and we're working on Dwayne Johnson's show, it's such a... That alone is something that it ties everyone together because everyone's kind of collectively going, "Oh my God, Oh my God, we're on this project." So those vibes plus, in the pandemic, it's COVID, there were so many aspects of this project specifically that really helped to bring everyone together. We're away from our homes and our families for an extended period of time. On the other side of the world for some of these guys. Us who came from New Zealand were sort of familiar with Australia, had been there many times, I had family there. So there were a lot of things that helped us all kind of connect as a big family, which was nice.

Casting and guiding production

I have to imagine that the Rock was involved, especially in your casting and given how important his parents are to him. How involved was he in your casting decisions?

Joseph Lee Anderson: I heard an interview of him saying that he had to give the green light on everyone. So yeah, he wasn't messing around.

Stacey Leilua: Yeah. That's funny because when I did it at the time, I kind of didn't really think about it, and then my partner actually said, "You know what, he's probably looking at your audition tapes, like personally, it's like you're playing his mom" and that's what I kind of went, "Oh yeah, maybe I guess so." And he was like, "Nah, he would, definitely." And it wasn't through until we were sort of cast and kind of got to know him, and after that — I actually had a Zoom with NBC a few weeks ago and they said that they'd had spoken to Ata and they said Ata actually went "That's her, that's the one that I want to play me!" And I was like, "Oh my gosh!" I just didn't even know any of that, and so I go, "Okay, cool, that's awesome!" But it makes sense, I guess, it's not a normal casting process, but I guess if not only is he an EP, but it's his life story and he is who he is, of course he'll be handpicking the people closest to him. It's important.

So what was it like working with all the other actors who were playing wrestlers? Because they had two levels of being in character as wrestlers.

Joseph Lee Anderson: Yeah. They were great. All the rest of them were pretty dope. We were all quarantined there kind of for a long period of time. So I think we bonded most with those group of guest stars more so than the others, but yeah, it was a fun time.

Given that you're there for pretty much the entire show, did you watch cast members come and go as you were doing this?

Stacey Leilua: Yes. Yes. I think early on Joseph was the one who said to me, "I think it's like me, you, and Ana — who plays Lia. I think we're there from beginning to end and everyone kind of comes and goes." And I was like, "Oh, okay." [Laughs] I guess from the beginning I was like, "Oh, okay that's fine, and that makes sense," but it's not until you actually going through it, and as time goes on and there were things like, "Oh, there's Thanksgiving" and then it goes, and then it's Christmas and then it goes, and then it's New Year's and it goes, and you're still there. But I did like the fact that it felt like we were able to kind of lead the way in terms of welcoming people and sort of letting them know how things went, and this is Alex Perry, the hotel where we were, all that sort of stuff being on set. So that was nice to be the ones to show them around the new school.

Accent work and favorite scenes

You mentioned it earlier, but now that I've been talking to you for a while and hear your New Zealand accent, what was it like to get an American accent out of this?

Stacey Leilua: In my original auditions that I put down on my self tape, that was one of the notes that came back, they were like, we just need you to work on your accent, and I was like, "Yeah. Okay, cool." So I worked with a dialect coach here in New Zealand for a few sessions and then went over. But then when we were there, we had an awesome dialect coach on set with us, Christy Taylor, who was literally there every day that we were filming. So we'd have all the sessions with her beforehand, and then while we were filming, she was literally there with us every day, listening in her ear and just saying, "Hey, just watch that letter" or "Watch that sound," so that was really helpful, 'cause I can't hear it sometimes. It's just a foreign sound. It should be like, can you hear what that sound is? And I'm like, "No, I can't hear it. Just tell me what to..." Kind of mimicking things, but got through it.

So were there any particular scenes or episodes that you count as favorites? It could be something that already happened, or it could be a hint of what's coming up.

Joseph Lee Anderson: The one that I really enjoyed was this past one with Uli when he was going through his little tough time, and where I got to have some real talk with him at the gym. I know that scene when I was reading it, I was like, "This is a pretty heavy scene, and it's going to be challenging to make sure that we stay in that sitcom round, but still give that scene the respect it deserves," and I was really glad at how that turned out.

Working the gimmick

I know almost everything in the show is at least emotionally true to what happened to the Rock, but I know a lot of it's literally true. I know that his school thought he was an undercover cop. Did you have a chance to actually find out which parts were the most true?

Stacey Leilua: Yeah. Some of it, and some of it's surprising, like the stuff around Waffle, the homeless guy and the crackhead in the boot of the car, all that was real. And you know, it's surprising, 'cause some things you think are obviously made up and then they're like, no, no that really happened. I'm like, okay. His love of country music — you'll see a bit of that coming up. I was just like, "Okay, it's surprising," and I think that's part of the reason why the show works so well, because you're sort of like, "I don't know if that's real or not." Like all this stuff about him running for president. You see people kind of online going, "I'm pretty sure this is the beginning of his bid for the presidency" and other people are like "No, no, it's made up" and they're like, "Well, I don't know. "And I think it's part of the aspect that kind of keeps the audience on their toes, like what's going to happen next? It's unpredictable. And it works.

Yeah. As he says in the first episode, "I'm working the gimmick."

Stacey Leilua: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly!

Catch Young Rock on NBC, Tuesdays at 9PM/8 Central.