From jumbo New York Jet to Andre the Large

Matthew Willig first met Dwayne Johnson a couple of decade in the past at an Equinox gymnasium exterior Los Angeles. Willig was a fledgling actor, just a few years faraway from a 14-year profession within the NFL trenches. Johnson was … nicely, The Rock.

The Rock wore a hoodie that day, Willig recalled, surmising the Hollywood megastar needed to maintain a low profile throughout his exercise. They shared a few Nautilus machines, and later within the foyer, Willig pulled him apart and requested profession recommendation, the previous offensive lineman asking the previous defensive lineman about how he might advance his profession in present enterprise.

Willig did not get a bum’s rush — or a bull rush, for that matter. Johnson was gracious.

Greater than 50 film and TV credit later, Willig lastly has a spot on The Rock’s group. He performs wrestling icon Andre the Large within the new NBC collection “Younger Rock,” a biographical comedy that captures Johnson’s life via his adolescence. Johnson’s father was an expert wrestler, so the younger Rock grew up with a number of the sport’s most colourful characters, together with Andre René Roussimoff — aka the Eighth Marvel of the World.

“His persona was one factor, [but] he was such a mild big, which does not shock me,” Willig, 52, mentioned in an interview with ESPN. “I have been residing that life for a very long time.”

PODCAST: Matthew Willig talks about his bond with The Rock

Throughout his NFL profession, which began with the New York Jets in 1992 and included 5 different groups, Willig was listed at 6-foot-8, 315 kilos — one of many largest males in a big-man sport. He got here up the laborious means, an undrafted free agent from USC who hung round lengthy sufficient to win a Tremendous Bowl ring with the 1999 St. Louis Rams (though he did not play a single down).

In a way, he has spent the previous three a long time auditioning, first within the NFL and now within the cutthroat enterprise of Hollywood — eternally a job participant.

“I have been actually lucky,” Willig mentioned. “I’ve labored laborious and I have never taken no for a solution, so to talk. I at all times mentioned, ‘Why not me? Why cannot I be the man that does it?’ It has labored out fairly nicely for me. To have simply as lengthy a profession on this as I did in soccer, I am fairly pleased with that.”

Typically forged as an intimidating muscle man, Willig is ideal as Andre the Large, who reportedly was 7-foot-4 and 500-plus kilos throughout his heyday within the Seventies and Eighties.

It took lots of analysis and lots of consuming for Willig. As massive as he’s, Willig gained 35 kilos in an effort to recreate Andre’s prodigious midsection. (A manufacturing secret: He additionally wore boots with 3-inch lifts.)

To grasp Andre’s French accent, he labored with a dialect coach. To grasp the bond between Andre and The Rock, Willig probed Johnson, asking the star to explain his kinship with the wrestling legend, who died of congestive coronary heart failure in 1993.

“He gave me a very nice, detailed and candy model of his relationship,” Willig mentioned. “He idolized him in a means and bought lots of recommendation from him, which we discover within the present and can proceed to discover.”

Johnson is a co-creator of the present, which premiered Feb. 16 and explores his upbringing in three totally different phases — as a 10-year-old often called Dewey (Adrian Groulx), a 15-year-old (Bradley Fixed) and a freshman on the College of Miami (Uli Latukefu). The Rock stars as himself in a future setting, 2032, when he is interviewed by Randall Park upon asserting his candidacy for president of america. The interview units the stage for flashbacks to his childhood.

Willig has a giant half in Episode 6, titled “My Day With Andre.” In its evaluate of the present, Rolling Stone says this specific episode is a “heat, bittersweet story in regards to the classes that Dewey and Andre the Large have to show each other.” Willig, who will get an opportunity to point out off his appearing chops, mentioned it consists of “some soulful moments, some mushy, tender moments” between Andre and the younger Rock.

This was a ardour mission for Johnson, who grew to become choked up throughout a number of the desk reads, in line with Willig. (Due to the coronavirus pandemic, they rehearsed the script by way of Zoom, with Johnson in Atlanta and a lot of the forged and crew capturing in Australia.) As a result of it is the story of his life, Johnson took a hands-on strategy with the actors.

“Each single one,” Johnson mentioned in an interview with The New York Occasions. “And I used to be capable of spend a while with them previous to capturing and allow them to know what I used to be like throughout that point, what I believed my priorities have been, the instances … that I fell on my ass and needed to get again up. That was surreal, in and of itself.”

In Episode 1, Dewey, surrounded by his dad, Rocky Johnson (Joseph Lee Anderson) and a bunch of his wrestling associates, drops the F-word: pretend. The room goes silent. Andre hoists the horrified boy to eye degree and declares, “Does this really feel pretend?”

Willig stayed in Australia from September to December final yr. By the top of the shoot, Willig’s knees have been aching due to the load he gained for the position, and it reminded him of how he felt close to the top of his enjoying profession. The position was bodily demanding, particularly the wrestling scenes. He bought a bruise on his rear finish as a result of he bounced off the ropes the fallacious means. One scene, a Battle Royal with 25 wrestlers within the ring, took greater than per week to choreograph.

“A man his dimension, along with his look, he positively has a job in Hollywood,” mentioned former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason, Willig’s teammate for 3 seasons. “I am so comfortable for him. It is at all times nice whenever you hear an ex-teammate doing nicely. [He was] a fantastic teammate, a man who labored his ass off.”

Willig, who additionally performed for the Atlanta Falcons, Inexperienced Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers, did not know what to do along with his life when he retired from soccer in 2005. As he mentioned, “I used to be in that tweener time. I performed 14 years within the NFL, however I did not make sufficient cash to the place I might simply retire. What’s a man like me going to do?”

He had accomplished some radio exhibits throughout his enjoying days and at all times felt snug in entrance of a digital camera, so he determined to pursue appearing.

“He at all times had that humorous character and joking nature,” mentioned ex-linebacker Marvin Jones, a former Jets teammate. “I might one hundred pc see him as an actor. Kudos to him.”

Willig has carried out in a number of comedies, together with “We are the Millers” (2013), starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis. Willig performs a Mexican drug lord named One Eye. Within the film, Aniston performs a striptease. Within the authentic script, she’s supposed to bounce particularly for Willig’s character. About 20 minutes earlier than capturing the scene, he obtained a knock on the door of his trailer and was informed that a part of her dance routine had been eradicated.

Willig was bummed, however he nonetheless has fond recollections.

“Jennifer could not have been sweeter to me,” he mentioned.

Willig performed a small half in “Birds of Prey” (2020), starring Margot Robbie. He additionally performed Lash within the “Brokers of S.H.I.E.L.D” TV collection (2015-16). Whereas preserving his appearing abilities recent by showing in commercials, Willig says his future plans encompass extra tasks in a producing position.

Of all his display credit, the one with the strongest emotional connection is “Concussion” (2015), which starred Will Smith. Willig performs the late Justin Strzelczyk, a former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman who battles mind trauma and ultimately dies in a fiery automobile wreck.

It hit dwelling for Willig, who performed faculty ball with Junior Seau and Scott Ross — neither of whom reached their forty sixth birthday. Seau shot himself within the chest; Ross, a part of the concussion lawsuit in opposition to the NFL, was discovered useless in a automobile. Autopsies later found they suffered from power traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

When Willig went for the half in “Concussion,” he cried through the audition. He cast a friendship with Strzelczyk’s household, which strengthened his attachment to the position.

“It was actually an emotional shoot, and I used to be proud to be part of it,” Willig mentioned.

His first NFL quarterback remembers watching “Concussion” for the primary time.

“Once I went to see the film on my own,” Esiason mentioned, “I mentioned, ‘Rattling, that is Matt Willig.'”

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