SPOILER ALERT: This interview includes minor details from the pilot episode of Young Rock, which premieres tonight on NBC.
In the new NBC family comedy Young Rock based on the life of global superstar Dwayne Johnson, there is a scene where a teenage Dwayne purchases a clunker of a car from a sketchy guy for about $100. While driving the car, he discovers that there is another sketchy person living in the back of the car. When Deadline talked to Nahnatchka Khan, co-showrunner, creator, and executive producer of Young Rock, we assumed that this was just a funny, wild story to fold into the true story of Johnson.
Turns out the story was true.
“That was the story he told us,” said Khan. “We were like, ‘This is amazing,’ but the ending in the episode isn’t how it went down. … I don’t want to give it away, but he absolutely bought a car from a crackhead.”
Based on what we already know about Johnson and the delightfully famous pic of him wearing a black turtleneck and fannypack, viewers are expecting a wild ride when it comes to Young Rock. Sure, Johnson has had a wild life in the WWE and has been in many blockbusters, but he has seen and witnessed some stuff. His family is as loving as it is eclectic, and his road to superstardom was quite a journey. With Khan and co-showrunner Jeff Chang at the helm, Young Rock spills all the tea when it comes to Johnson’s upbringing.
Ultimately, Young Rock is a family comedy, and Khan is no stranger to that world as she created and executive produced the groundbreaking sitcom Fresh Off the Boat (side note: Randall Park is featured in Young Rock). Khan’s work in comedy also shined in the criminally underrated Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 and her feature directorial debut Always Be My Maybe starring Park and Ali Wong. With an exclusive overall deal with Universal Television, Khan has the talent, and to partner with a powerhouse like Johnson for a series about his life, we can expect nothing but fun and heart.
For the new series, which was shot this past year during the pandemic in Queensland, Australia, Khan said that they didn’t want Young Rock to be a straightforward bio-series about Johnson. “He’s had such a big life that, to me, just telling a linear story is sort of doing a little bit of disservice,” she admitted. “I kind of wanted to jump around [in time], and he’s got the experiences to justify that.”
She continued: “He’s one of those famous people on the planet. Even if you don’t really know that much about Dwayne Johnson, a lot of people have a cursory passing knowledge of who he is and what he’s done. But there’s so much that people don’t know about how he got to where he is. I think that’s what we’re interested in exploring … the surprising moments and the times where it was really tough for him and his family.”
The pilot sets up the entire series by showing Johnson in various stages of his life. There’s young Rock, which features Adrian Groulx as 10-year-old Dwayne; teen Rock, played by Bradley Constant; and football Rock at age 20, played by Uli Latukefu. It is all anchored by 2032 Rock, who is running for president and serves as a chorus of sorts for the entire series.
The first episode gives establishes these timelines, but each of the nine episodes between now and the finale will focus on one specific era. “So it’ll always be 2032 Dwayne running for president and on the campaign trail, and then he’s going to throw back to a story that he’s telling from his life,” Khan said. “So it’ll be three full episodes in Hawaii, three full episodes in Pennsylvania and then in Miami.”
Khan talked to Deadline more about Young Rock, future seasons, the representation of Pacific Islander culture in the comedy and her fandom for classic wrestling.
DEADLINE: What was your first reaction when you were approached with Young Rock?
NAHNATCHKA KHAN: I was introduced to Dwayne through mutual friends, Melvin Mar and Jake Kasdan, who were executive producers on Fresh Off the Boat. Jake directed Jumanji, and Dwayne was saying that he’s always wanted to figure out a way to tell his life story, but he could never figure out kind of how to crack it. So I went to Jeff Chiang, and we came up the multiple-timeline idea. We pitched it to him, and he was a thousand percent in.
DEADLINE: Considering his father was a wrestler during a very specific era of the sport and it was a huge part of Johnson’s upbringing, what was your connection to this wrestling world?
KHAN: Oh my god. My family were huge wrestling fans when I was a kid. I’m Persian, my whole family’s from Iran, and my uncle would tape WWF wrestling and everybody would watch it together on Saturdays. We would all root for the Iron Sheik, because he was from Iran, and he was the only person that we saw that had accents like everybody in my family had. It was our version of representation at that time. He was like he was a villain to everybody else, but in my house he was a hero! (laughs) We loved him … and my brother was really into wrestling. He’s now working with Vince McMahon as the President of WWE.
DEADLINE: It’s coming full circle!
KHAN: Yeah, isn’t that crazy?
DEADLINE: Outside of wrestling, how did you personally connect with Rock’s journey?
KHAN: It’s funny. Starting with the wrestling era, I think Dwayne experienced it on a much different level than we did. His dad was very much involved, and he grew up around those guys and they were sort of his extended family. It’s almost like a theater family, you know what I mean?
They were traveling on the road, and before WWF became a sort of global phenomenon, it was in local territories. So he was very much immersed in that world. I have a very strong sense of nostalgia for that era and for those wrestlers, and it’s almost emotional for me. Because I do remember my family sitting around, and my grandmother, aunts and uncles — and a lot of them didn’t speak English — and they were just enjoying themselves so much. There’s something just very visceral about those memories for me, so I connect to the idea of family, especially in that era and being a little kid.
We talked about the pandemic that we’re living in and these times, and I’m excited for audiences to see how Dwayne kind of goes through these rollercoasters — because he ends up OK. We know Dwayne Johnson ends up all right in the long run. I think we can sit in some of the emotional moments a little more, and experience the ups and downs with him. His family went through a lot of struggle, and I also identify with that. I think a lot of people do — or I would imagine they do, anyway.
DEADLINE: I’m glad you mention your cultural identity and how you connected it with Johnson’s own journey. His mother is of Samoan descent, and his father was Black. In the pilot, we see representation of this — specifically with Pacific Islander culture. How important was it for you, Chiang and Johnson to incorporate his family and identity into this narrative?
KHAN: I think it was very important. We want audiences to feel like they know this family, and that this family is real — these are based on real people. So, for us, when we get into crafting the scenes, sets, wardrobe, casting, even the props — every element, we want it to feel legit. I think that you don’t really get to see characters like this on television that often and so when you do, it’s important that they feel authentic. Even if you’re not Pacific Islander or not Samoan, you still feel the authenticity of his life, family and how they lived. You’re welcomed into this family in a way where you’re like, “Oh, I believe it.”
It’s interesting because Dwayne is such a strong presence and obviously his dad was a huge influence on him, but his mom and his grandmother were really powerful influences on him as well. He was around a lot of strong women, and I’m very excited to showcase that in the show — especially his grandmother. She was the first female wrestling promoter ever, after his grandfather passed away, and that’s a character you don’t see on television. The strong Samoan widow, basically, who is now the boss and is in charge, and we get into that in the Hawaii eras.
DEADLINE: A lot of people see Dwayne Johnson just as “The Rock.” He’s this pop culture entity. At the same time, he has a cultural identity, and I’m glad we get to see it here. It’s not one of those situations where we dive deep into his heritage for just one “very special episode.” It’s just present throughout.
KHAN: Yeah, me too. I think it’s important because he is such an icon, but then we get to rewind the clock and see him as a little boy and to see how he grew up and see his influences. We’re not making a “very special episode” — this is just baked into the narrative. This is how these people lived and I can tell you from experience, even the actors who are playing these roles are so emotional about it because of the opportunity they have to represent their culture in a way that you don’t get to see.
DEADLINE: It seems that the first season is mapped out and it may or may not get a second season. That said, when you create a show, how do you manage the expectations of what this show is, what it’s going to be and what it could be?
KHAN: I think that’s a great question. I think we try to live in the moment as much as possible, just because we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, in terms of storytelling. We really want to focus on the stories that we’re telling right now and this format is a little bit different. The individual episodes will be focused on a specific era and will be serialized, so we’ve got three episodes dedicated to Hawaii, and we’re going to tell a story that arcs to those three episodes. And the same thing with Pennsylvania and with Miami.
When you jump back and forward in time, there will be things that you see in Pennsylvania when Dwayne’s 15, that, if you’re paying attention, will have been set up when he’s 10 in Hawaii — and the same thing with Miami. You’re sort of jumping back and forth in time, so there’s things to keep track of way to create the best experience for the audience, hopefully.
When we sat down with Dwayne and he started telling us a million stories about his life, we homed in on these three eras for Season 1 and if there are more seasons — knock on wood — there are so many other eras that I really am excited to dive into. We haven’t even touched on him deciding to go into professional wrestling. That’s a whole thing … he bombed at first! Audiences did not like him, and Vince McMahon almost cut him. Also, when he was like 13, his family moved to Nashville. He wanted to be a country-western singer. I was like, “Oh my God. I had no idea.” Of course, we know about the wrestling, but there’s a lot we don’t know.
DEADLINE: Wow, really? He has had quite a life.
KHAN: I know, isn’t that wild? He’s like Forrest Gump.
DEADLINE: Ultimately, we know he is “The Rock” and a huge pop culture icon and one of the biggest movie stars ever, but why do you think his story is worth telling?
KHAN: Well, I was just going to say I think that, for all the reasons just what you said, the show answers the question to “how did this kid get to this level of global superstardom?” What is the path to success? I think that, for me, the interesting elements are it wasn’t typical. He was a good student, he went to college, he played football, but it’s not a straight line with him. He really went through it and they struggled financially. He thought he was going to play professional football and that was going to be his dream and how he was going to take care of his family, and then those dreams get taken away from him.
I think that struggle is very relatable. Even if you think you know Dwayne Johnson, there’s so much that you don’t know. There’s an optimism to that. I find, there’s a hopeful quality, even in the darkness, because he comes through. Those moments are all the more interesting. If this was a completely fictionalized little boy, you’d be like, “Oh my God, is he going to be okay? Like what happens?” But because it’s Dwayne Johnson, you’re like, “Oh, wow. How did he get to this place? How did he find football? How did he grow up around these wrestlers? What did he learn from them? What would that like? And how did that affect him and how did that change him?”
DEADLINE: I want to go to the future of the series. If you were to have multiple seasons, do you envision an ending to this story or even an election episode?
KHAN: If we’re lucky enough to run multiple seasons, I think that that would be something that we would discuss. Depending on where we’re at in the world, I’d be interested in doing it. I mean, Dwayne Johnson in the White House? I’m not mad at it.
Young Rock also stars Joseph Lee Anderson, Stacey Leilua, Ana Tuisila, Fasitua Amosa and John Tui. Khan, Chiang and Johnson serve as executive producers alongside Dany Garcia, Hiram Garcia, Brian Gewirtz and Jennifer Carreras. The comedy premieres at 8 tonight on NBC.