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Young Rock Star Matthew Willig Reveals What It's Like Playing A Legendary Wrestler - Exclusive Interview

Matthew Willig has had a decidedly nonlinear career path: he spent 14 years as an offensive tackle in the NFL, appearing in two Super Bowls and winning one before going into acting upon his retirement. He's made prominent TV appearances in Dexter and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., played doomed football player Justin Strzelczyk in Concussion, and now can be seen as Andre the Giant on Young Rock. He even managed to nab an episode entirely about Andre's relationship with young Dewey, "My Day with Andre."

Willig spoke with Looper in a wide-ranging interview, covering everything from Young Rock to his NFL days. He broke down how his time in football influenced his portrayal of Andre, explained what it's like having the Rock as your boss, and walked us through that thrilling battle royal in "My Day with Andre." He also told us how the WCW expressed interest in him while he was playing for the Atlanta Falcons — almost certainly a bullet dodged, all things considered.

Learning how to play Andre

I saw elsewhere that you did not grow up watching wrestling.

Guilty as charged.

But you were obviously aware of Andre the Giant, as are most people. So how did you prepare to play a role you didn't really know all that well?

Well, I think in this instance, with Andre, just because I wasn't aware of the wrestling per se, I knew of Andre. I knew of his persona. I knew of some of his more popular stories. And so I just dove right into doing a lot of research for it. I really did. I watched his wrestling. I watched every interview probably a million times. Obviously, getting the voice down and trying to have that sort of persona was important, so it was a lot of study and lot of watching videos, a lot of the stuff on YouTube, and I went from there.

How did you get the voice down? Because you get his accent down pretty dang well.

Thank you. It was a kind of a process. I worked with a dialect coach, a French dialect coach, to just get the French-isms. And then Andre has a really big tongue, like he has marbles in his mouth, and so I kind of had that sort of mumbling aspect to him. It was tricky, there were times when you can't understand Andre, but obviously for television, that doesn't work. So it was kind of a tricky thing to be able to sound authentic like him, but yet have everyone understand what I'm trying to say.

The benefits of an athletic background

So a lot of wrestlers come from football backgrounds. The Rock is an obvious example, but you also have Goldberg. You've got Roman Reigns. I could go on. Did your own football background help out with preparing for this role?

I obviously had an idea of the physical illness that is required to wrestle, but you never quite know until you get in that ring and you start bouncing off ropes. The precision and timing of things is so important. And then on top of that, you have to have the showmanship. So I think it starts with the physicality, there's no question. And it definitely didn't hurt. I'll tell you that.

I know there were a couple of guys — I won't mention their names — that jumped in the ring that aren't necessarily athletes per se, that struggled at first. They really had a hard time, because it does take a lot of physicality.

It reminds me – Ronda Rousey recently did an interview, and she obviously did fight sports, and she still said wrestling was hard because you can't just lay on your back when you're done with it. Did you have the same problem?

Fortunately, Andre's wrestling style wasn't as upbeat or as physical, per se, as the other guys. Andre doesn't run around. He's not bouncing, and he's not jumping off things. Andre has a few key moves. He's Andre. He didn't need to do that much, so that helped me a little bit. Because I played 14 years in the NFL, my knees are pretty shot. And so there were times when, like at the end of the end of a wrestling day, I was like, "Okay, I'm done. This is enough." So it was pretty crazy.

You mentioned the knees thing, and that actually leads to my next question, which is Andre was in a lot of pain as time went on. Did you find any kinship with that, between your own experiences post-NFL and this?

I did, I did. Interesting story. We were only starting to dive into the later years with Andre, and you'll see some things coming up later in the season with that and just me with the shorter hair that Andre had when he was a little older. But anyway, we did one scene where... Specifically, it was longer in the day, it was the end of the day. We'd already shot a lot, and I was walking on set. And I had a producer later on say to me, "You looked like you were in pain." So I did, I used that sort of momentum, to have that sort of... "Okay, this is older Andre. He's in a lot of pain." And I kind of used that a little bit and sort of channeled my own pain in my own knees. So it definitely helped.

Working with Chavo Guerrero Jr.

If I'm not mistaken, the fight coordinator was Chavo Guerrero Jr.?

Yes. Correct.

What's it like working with him?

Okay, he was outstanding. Number one, he's an outstanding guy. And we got along offscreen. All the wrestlers really kind of bonded together, and we hung out after the day was over. But Chavo has... he's been doing it for a long time. His energy level was incredible. He would, every now and then, be talking to us and just go into a few moves where he would jump on the rope and do a flip or do something that was like, "Whoa." And he's not a young guy. So he still has the energy. He still has the moves, and it was pretty impressive.

On top of that, his love for the sport, his love for the wrestling community is still amazing, and that sort of energy. If you ever kind of got in the ring and you weren't really ready to go, or just were warming up and practicing, his energy sort of brought you up.

I was given a preview of your big episode, "My Day with Andre." Very sweet little episode you had right there.

It was a lot of fun. Obviously, for me, it was kind of the pinnacle of the season for me. I got to know little Adrian, who played little Dewey, and had a kinship with him early on, which was genuine. I love the kid. It made it really nice to be able to have that, going into shooting that scene. I think that was really important to show. And in talking to Dwayne about the real relationship, that was key. Those moments were key to Dwayne understanding some things about life. It was really important to kind of show that side of things. And I did get a sneak peek of it as well, so I'm really happy with the way it came out.

Meeting with Dwayne Johnson and real-life parallels

There's a bunch of stuff I want to get into there. But first, let's start with Dwayne Johnson. He says he was very involved in production, talked to everybody. Obviously you share no scenes, but what was it like with him?

Well, I know Dwayne a little bit, I've had a little bit of interaction with him over the years, and yeah, we get to see him on the Zoom calls, when we're doing the scripts and going over them. And his love for it came out. He would talk to us about how appreciative he was of all of us, in our time and our energy and our skill sets.

I specifically wanted to ask Dwayne about his real relationship with Andre. He gave me a real detailed answer about how he loved Andre and how it was "Uncle Andre" and the respect that he had and the respect that he showed Dwayne how to act and things like that. It was pretty special. Just before shooting, he gave it to me, and it was really key to finishing off my character.

I was going to say, because that episode is a very vulnerable episode for Andre, how he talks about, even indirectly, things he feels inadequate about or feels self-conscious about. How did you tap into that?

Well, obviously, first and foremost, the words are there. You have to have the script, and you have to have the words, to put you in that spot. But look, I'm 6' 8". I'm not seven feet tall, but even 6' 8", growing up, being that biggest kid all the time, there is a sense of that. I have lived that a little bit, on a smaller scale, so that part was easy.

It was easy to understand the frustration or the sadness a little bit and being the one who's always noticed, or the one who can't sneak in anywhere or slide in anywhere. And so, being my height and my stature, that was easy. And then when you talk to kids, it puts you in that innocence of things. And I don't want to get too dramatic about it. But yeah, I mean, just talking to Adrian in the scene and understanding what that must've been like — and again, understanding Dwayne's perspective of it and having him see that, how important that was for him. All those things put you in that mode of being the teacher and then being taught. It was kind of cool.

Bonding with Adrian Groulx, the Youngest Rock

You talk about Adrian, who's very good in this show. Tell me a little bit more about your relationship with Adrian.

I didn't want to force it, but I just thought it was important to kind of get to know Adrian really well and have that little bond. And by the way, it was easy, because the kid is... Number one, I think he's super talented. I think he's going to become a star. I really do. The kid walked on set and knew his lines. And if he messed up a line here and there, which didn't happen very often, he was one of those kids that just went... It was like no big deal. There was no stress to him.

Now, I'm sure behind the scenes, he was nervous about things, but he just had this amazing ability around all of the adults. He was the one making everybody feel really comfortable, which was amazing. And we had a time when we were off-camera and we went to the Gold Coast, outside of Brisbane, Australia. We were there with his mother a couple of days when we weren't shooting.

We had the opportunity to go to the beach every day, him and I, and hang out. And just little things like that, hanging out. We did rooftop barbecues together. All these things socially that enabled us to have that relationship and have it not be fake to begin with, so that part was really cool. But I can't say enough about the kid. I think he's really sweet. We text each other every now and then and just say, "Hey, I miss you." We're looking forward to the day that we can get back together again.

Which reminds me, I obviously haven't seen too far ahead, but if there's a second season, are you looking forward to coming back to this thing?

One hundred percent. Yeah, I really am. Even though Andre's story is just a small little piece of Dwayne's story, I really hope that I get to come back. And I hope that gets explored. I hope that we get to see sort of the evolution of Andre. Even though there's a ton of people out there that know of Andre the Giant, there are a lot of people that don't, and I would love to have them see the evolution of Andre and the struggles that Andre went through. Like you said before, Andre's life at the end was a tough life. He really struggled. So yeah, the answer is yes, I'd love to come back.

Breaking down the battle royal

The Battle Royal, I got a look at it. It's a very impressive Battle Royal. And it only has a couple of minutes of screen time, but walk me through what that was like in real time.

Yeah. That could have been a whole 'nother episode, I feel. It was amazing that they got in as much in it as they did. But yeah, it's like preparing for game day. As an athlete, it's that excitement of, "Oh s***. Here we go." I had never done anything like it. We had rehearsal things, but never really rehearsed with the extra guys, the jobbers as they call them, the guys who were going to get out real quick. So we did that in basically... a little more than half of a day, we shot that. And to do that, and nobody really get hurt, to go off without a hitch and have 25 guys in a ring, most of whom you met literally a couple hours ago, and to have pulled that off again — kudos to Chavo and what he did for us. And then I got to do things like pick up a guy over my head and throw him out of the ring. You look over and you get to see Macho Man jumping off the ropes. Just things like that. It was such an amazing day.

And you also got hit with chairs.

I did. Yeah. To be honest with you, that was a lot of fun. People were worried. I remember the Wild Samoans were worried about hitting me too hard. And it really is one of those things where if you hit a guy in the right place, it doesn't hurt too much. I said, "No! Go, man! Let at it!" So they really hit me pretty hard. It was a lot of fun, and that was just part of it.

A lot of wrestlers say the real trick is to make sure you get as much of it on the person as possible, so it's a flat, dull hit.

Yeah. If you get it right in the meaty part of your back, then you can hit someone pretty hard without it hurting you.

We touched on this a little bit earlier, but how did it feel when you were done with that compared to how it felt after game day for you?

It was very, very similar. It's funny, because I posted... In between when we got done with the major part of it and we went to lunch, I went in and iced my knees. I got some acupuncture. So I was literally preparing like it was a game. By the time we were done, we were pretty spent. We had a really fun evening after that. A lot of the wrestlers and Chavo got together and toasted each other with what a great day it was. Thankfully, nobody got hurt, and we pulled it off — that kind of thing. So we had a lot of fun afterwards.

So what was it like interacting with all the other actors playing wrestlers in that case?

It starts with quarantine. We all went over there in quarantine for two weeks. So there was sort of this bond already. When we got out of quarantine, we were like, "Okay, we're a band of brothers." We ate together, we worked out together, because we all were in our own little workout regimens. We worked out together, and we just really bonded. We went out and had drinks together. There was this bond that was like, "we're out here kind of in a foreign land, and we're doing this, and we're excited about it." And it was pretty special. These guys, I still talk to them a lot. We still look forward to doing Zooms every now and then, whether it's with the cast or a few of the wrestlers. We're pretty close, so that makes it even more special.

Football career, winning a Super Bowl, and working on Concussion

So if I have my timelines right, you've been an actor, I think, around the same amount of time you were a professional football player at this point.

Yes, that's correct.

How do the two careers compare for you?

Well, first of all, let me just say, I'm pretty humbled and aware of the fact that I've been able to do two careers that are what I call 1% type careers. Very few people have the opportunity to do what I've been doing. I really feel fortunate. It's only recently that I discovered, like you said, that I've basically been acting as long as I played ball.

I mean, it blows my mind. It really does. I knew that I had a little bit of talent coming into this, but it's such a crazy business that being as tall as I am, I'm already sort of behind the eight ball. And I've just been thrilled that I've been able to break in and have a little bit of success, continue to work throughout most of my tenure. And again, I'm just humbled and thankful that I've had the opportunity.

And you were fortunate enough to have a Super Bowl victory under your belt. What's it like just continuing with any kind of career after you play in a Super Bowl?

Well, for me, it's just part of that process. I don't think of it as the "wow, end of all days" type moment. It was definitely a thrill. I've told this before, but I think I had more enjoyment going to the Super Bowl with the Carolina Panthers and losing one in 2003 than I did winning one with the Rams, which is strange to say. It's all about circumstances and where I was at that point. But it's about the camaraderie. And I look at those seasons and the Super Bowl season and all those things about who was I with and the guys that I was hanging out with and the camaraderie that we had.

Don't get me wrong. With the Rams, there was a great bunch of guys that I loved, but I was just a little step removed. I got to that season a little late. But winning a Super Bowl, man, I'm telling you what, especially the way we did it. If you're familiar at all, we won with one yard to go, where a guy caught a ball and if he had scored, we would've lost. And he was one yard short and we won. What an amazing, crazy way to win that. That was so special.

To veer away from Young Rock for a second, you were also in the movie Concussion and had a very vulnerable, important part. Did that change the way you watched football at all?

No, but I will say... that performance and being in that, just like we talked about, how does Andre fit in, how do I fit into that? I know guys. I've known good friends who have died. I was a roommate of Junior Seau. Two or three other guys that I went to school with at USC have died early, a couple from suicide and one or two others that had gone through depression and drugs and alcohol and things like that, where I've seen it.

So to be in Concussion and kind of have that, I brought all those feelings and personal experiences with me. I got to meet Justin Strzelczyk's widow and his family and his son. So that all kind of led to being a really very emotional and again, it was a humbling experience to be a part of that.

Little Chino on Dexter

And I also have to throw this in: You were on Dexter, and you were the first big bad of season 2.

I was the first character that got away from him, that's what I like to say. But yeah, it was Little Chino. It was an awesome role to have. What a great show, and it came with the time, like kind of season two, where it was just starting to really take off. And that gave me a nice little bump in my career, but Little Chino was an awesome character to play.

I remember watching it. When I was going back and looking into what you did, I'm like, "Oh, that was him." And I remember being very intimidated by the way you were on the screen, because you're just so much bigger than everybody else, and he managed to get you. What was that show like?

Yeah. Again, a lot of fun. You could feel, like I said, that coming into season two, they were just really excited about what they had. It was an intense thing, but again, you could feel that excitement brewing for the season and how that was going to go. I became a huge fan of the show and watched it all the way through. And I guess they're doing a reboot. I don't know exactly what's going on. Are they?


Everybody's involved?

Michael C. Hall's involved. Yeah.

Okay. Yeah. That's amazing. I look forward to that. And Michael was amazing to work with, a true professional. I remember he was just one of those guys that was just a true professional. It was really fun to work with him. But yeah, that was a great role. It really was.

It's funny, because I look back at that time where my body was in really good shape, and I was just really toned and everything coming off... And now I look at where I've gotten now, and I'm about 45 pounds heavier than I used to be. It's amazing.

Gaining weight and getting recruited during the WCW days

I saw you mention that in other interviews that you had to gain weight for the role of Andre. How did that affect you?

It's still affecting me. I was able to lose about 20 pounds of the original 35 that I gained. I just knew it was important. I typically go around trying to be pretty fit even for my age, so I don't have that Andre belly or that size that he has. I knew I'm never going to get up to seven-foot, but I wanted to have at least the dimensions, so it was really important for me to gain a little bit of weight. I just did it periodically, leading up three months or so prior to shooting. The last ten of it, probably through quarantine, just sitting in my room, eating and doing nothing. It was great, and it worked really well.

I told people vanity goes out the window, man. You just have to look at yourself as I am Andre, and that's what I do. So it was good, and it really works well onscreen. The toughest part was getting back and losing some of it right away. But again, I don't want to lose too much, because I know that hopefully if everything goes well, we go back and do another season, but I don't want to have to gain another 35. I'd like to keep it down to maybe 20.

Do you see a future in wrestling for you outside of this?

Absolutely not. No. Maybe as a younger man. Twenty years ago or more, a little more than 20 years ago, I was approached about doing wrestling. I was living in Atlanta, playing for the Atlanta Falcons. And that was where a lot of the wrestlers used to live, and that was their hub back in the day, so I would do things. We used to go bowling with some of the guys, and they'd say, "I'm telling you, Matt, right now, you could do a six-figure salary. You could start being a wrestler."

And I thought about it for a little bit. But again, knowing the physicality that those guys have to go through, I think in some ways it actually is harder than football, because of the fact that it's just... It's like if I was to do a play in football for 10 minutes straight. So like I said, I have a lot of respect for them, but I'm too old to be doing that now. So there's no future as far as wrestling goes.

Do you remember any of the guys you went bowling with and talked to about this?

That's a great question. Wow. I haven't thought about who exactly it was. Because at the time, again, because I wasn't a huge wrestling fan, I don't remember exactly who all it was.

Did you ever run into Bill Goldberg at any point? Because he played for the Falcons.

He did. He played for the Falcons. I had met him once or twice, yeah. It was just after he was there. So he was just kind of getting rolling, and I did happen to meet him. So yeah, he was one of the guys.

Closing thoughts

Is there anything you want to talk about that I haven't brought up yet?

No, not really. Like I say, I'm humbled by the fact that people are enjoying not only the show, but my performance. That means the world to me. That's kind of always the goal. I'm thankful. I hope people continue to watch. Selfishly, I'd love to be able to go back and create more things with the character. But I just think like unique to working in this industry, this cast and crew have been amazing. People say that all the time, but truly being out there in Australia, sort of in a little island, it was a great cast. We still love each other. We still get together. We still talking to each other. I'm hoping that sort of transfers onto the screen and that people understand that this was done with a lot of love.

Well, I can say having caught most of it so far, it is made with a lot of love. It's a nice, positive little show, which we could absolutely use. Well, it's not even "a little show." It's a big show, but —

Yeah, I know what you mean. Yeah. Network TV these days seems like little TV to a lot of people, but it is. It's a big deal. But again, it has that small sort of family aspect feel, which again, we don't get much these days.

Catch Young Rock Tuesdays at 8PM on NBC.