STORY WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For Digital First Media
Dwayne Johnson attended Freedom High School in Bethlehem and Kevin Hart matriculated only 65 miles away at George Washington High School in Northeast Philadelphia — but their experiences as teenagers were light years apart.
Johnson, 43, was a troublemaker who was arrested on several occasions for a number of petty crimes while Hart, 36, was a popular kid who worked hard to make sure he was well-liked by all of his classmates.
“I was not the best student but I was a people person,” recalls Hart. “I was a person that got along with anybody and everybody. I think that’s what made high school special for me. There was no segregation, from the athletes to the non-athletes to the people who were all about education to the people who played hooky, I was around them all.
“To get embraced by everybody is a good feeling and it kept me out of trouble. I didn’t get in fights. The funny guy doesn’t fight. The funny guy stops the fights and makes people laugh about wanting to fight. … Everybody walks away saying, `Kev’s right.’ They’d give me their lunch tickets and it was all over.”
“He was a good girl, a good girl,” teases Johnson.
“Good” was never a word used to describe the wrestler formerly known as The Rock.
“In high school, Kevin was who he is now, as advertised,” says Johnson. “But high school was different for me. My freshman and sophomore years, I spent a lot of time trying to get back on the right track. I was arrested multiple times by the time I was 16 so I had a little harder time trying to adjust.
“Like a lot of us do in high school, it was not until I really got involved in sports and athletics that I found a focus. … So it just took me a little while [to come around]. But by the end of my high school years, by the time I was a senior, I was ready to go to college. And I was lucky; I got a full scholarship and I was the only one in my family at that time who had gone to college.”
Johnson and Hart’s high school days have been on their minds a lot lately thanks to their new movie “Central Intelligence,” which begins at a high school reunion and includes plenty of teen-year flashbacks.
In the film, Johnson plays a CIA agent who recruits an accountant (Hart) to help him save the world. But back in high school, the characters led much different lives. Hart’s character was a popular kid and winning athlete while Johnson’s character was nick-named Fat Robbie and continually picked on by the other kids.
In one of “Central Intelligence’s” funniest moments, Fat Robbie is performing a song-and-dance number in the shower to the En Vogue hit “My Lovin,” only to be dragged out of the locker room and into a pep rally wearing no clothes.
(For the record, the filmmakers achieved the trick by superimposing Johnson’s face on the nude body of viral-video star Sione Kelepi.)
“I think, for everybody, the high school years are very defining years,” say Johnson. “I think you’re … really starting to understand yourself and who you are and accepting yourself, hopefully. If not, then like me, it takes a little while to accept yourself and become that person you are.”
Self-acceptance is one of the film’s key themes.
“I think the overall message that we’re giving in this film is, regardless of where you are and who you are, be happy with the person you are,” says Hart.
“At the end of the day, there’s happiness in everything, and that’s what these two characters have to realize and find within themselves. I’m hoping that people in real life can get that same message, and understand that, because it’s an important message.”
By the time he reached high school, Johnson was already a big guy. Or, as he says half-jokingly, “I looked like I was 48.”
But as an 11-year-old in his native Hawaii, Johnson wasn’t quite as brawny. Even though he was from a family of wrestlers, he remembers being bullied endlessly at summer camp, much like his character in “Central Intelligence.”
Finally, Johnson had enough: “I stood up for myself and, after a whole summer [of being teased], I hit this kid so hard,” recalls the actor.
“Then, I ran home. … I actually ran out of my shoes. So I came in, and my mom was like, ‘What’s going on? Where are your shoes?’ I [told her] and she said, ‘You ran?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘Come with me.’
“She made me get in the car and she drove me back to summer camp and made me go find [this kid]. She made me basically work it out with him. So the moral of the story is, [even if you] get in this situation, don’t you ever run away from anybody. She was like, ‘Stand up for yourself and communicate.’”
Even though Johnson and Hart look like the ultimate mismatched pair, they had a blast working together. Johnson says he’s in awe of Hart’s handling of social media as well as his willingness to work hard.
“I was impressed with Kevin, and I told him this,” explains Johnson. “I was following him on social media before we even met, before this movie ever came about.
“When we all sat down for our first meeting, I told Kevin, ‘I’m really impressed with something about you. The success is one thing, but you make people feel good and that’s a cool thing. It really is.’
“It’s cool to make people feel good and laugh, but then also, Kevin is [willing to do the hard work].
“Sometimes with the glitz and the glamour of Hollywood, the [notion of hard work] is easy to forget. But Kevin is always leading by example.”
Hart says neither he nor Johnson ever tried to outdo the other on the set, preferring to share the jokes and action 50/50.
“There were no egos,” explains Hart, whose next movie, “The Secret Life of Pets,” hits theaters July 8. “I came on the set knowing where D.J. was in his career, what was going on with him, and I celebrated that. I was excited to work with him, as he was with me.
“The fact that there were no egos, and we approached [our scenes together] with 110 percent [energy] made it that much easier, and I think it shows in the movie.
“You can see that there’s a happiness within the characters. I think the actors wear what [happened] on the movie [set] on their faces and there’s nothing but smiles on these guys’ faces throughout this film.”
If Johnson admired Hart’s social media skills and work ethic, Hart was in awe of Johnson’s remarkable success overseas.
“When I met Kevin, Kevin was like, ‘Dude, I want to go global. Take me with you,’” says Johnson, who recently announced he’ll play the title role in Shane Black’s “Doc Savage” actioner.
“Kevin literally said that, ‘Take me with you. Let’s work together. Let’s do this.’ All jokes aside, I can’t say enough great things about the guy.”
Johnson and Hart had such a good time making “Central Intelligence,” in fact, that they’re reteaming for a forthcoming reboot of “Jumanji,” the Robin Williams fantasy from 1995.
“I’m so excited to work with D.J. again,” says Hart. “We’re going to keep this train rolling.