Say what you will about a film like Southland Tales, the second film from director Richard Kelly, but for an actor to take on a role in a film that’s best described as a satirical comedy about the end of the world with a narrative that features the mind bending surrealism of his debut Donnie Darko and a sense of humor as black as the night sky, it’s a little bit gutsy. With a cast including names like Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar and even a small role for an actress like Amy Poehler, the film is remembered for its polarizing otherworldliness, but it has seemingly fallen by the wayside that it’s actually one of the earliest starring vehicles, and easily the most interesting role to that point in his career, for one Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Taking on the role of action star turned screenwriter Boxer Santaros, Johnson had gone from pro-wrestler [more on that in a moment, and likely throughout the following handful of paragraphs] to pop culture icon, using his rise in fame to jockey for a handful of bit parts on TV. Following one-off appearances on shows like That ‘70s Show and even Star Trek: Voyager, Johnson took supporting and ultimately lead roles in a handful of action films like The Rundown and The Mummy Returns. However, beginning with a supporting turn in Be Cool and ultimately this role in Kelly’s underrated masterpiece, Johnson would firmly cement himself as not only a great on screen action star, but a film actor whose presence is undeniable and oozing charisma.

What makes Johnson’s performance in Kelly’s film so special is its perfect distillation of all that makes him truly a great movie star. There’s a moment in the film, where Johnson’s character is speaking to one of the dual roles played by Seann William Scott about the power of memory in keeping track of the different people he posits exist within each person, which proves to be one of the smarter character beats in the entire film. Johnson’s performance here, and all the best performances throughout his career on the big screen, can jump tones and moods at the drop of a hat. Be it flashing that bright white smile or being the embodiment of a paranoid schizophrenic, this performance sees Johnson flexing numerous different muscles that we truly hadn’t seen him wrestle with, pun not entirely intended. 

It’s also a performance that proves Johnson’s talent at understanding how to modulate his tone to fit the picture he’s shooting. Properly off-kilter just enough to mesh perfectly with performances like Jon Lovitz’ dirty cop or Justin Timberlake’s war veteran, Johnson’s character is constantly on edge, giving the film a superbly chaotic center from which to further its narrative. Boxer is a former action star turned screenwriter who has written a script that is not only about a man who can see the future, but itself is a screenplay that tells the future. It’s a film that goes from cop procedural to drawing room whodunit at the drop of a hat, and Johnson’s ability to keep the uncertainty about what exactly is going on is something to really be commended. 

An actor with incredible instincts, Johnson’s performance is one of his first true experiments with film acting, leaving the world of brainless action pictures behind for something far more challenging. However, it’s a type of experiment Johnson wouldn’t take to again following this film’s 2007 release. Far more interested in working in various forms of comedy, Johnson would go to experiment more with either his larger than life persona or the control he has over his body in what would be some of the better slapstick turns of recent memory.  That being said, this is one of the great highlights of a career that is only expanding with each new picture. But where exactly did this career start? Where has it gone to this point? Here are five highlights from what is one of the great modern Movie Star careers:

Early Days In WWF/E [1996-1997]

For most actors, the beginning takes place through a small, bit part. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turn in a direct to video release or a special one off performance on a B-grade cable TV series. However, for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson it began in his second home. A third generation pro-wrestler, Dwayne Johnson would try out for the WWE [WWF at the time], only to be signed to the same promotion that his grandfather High Chief Peter Maivia and father Rocky Johnson would call home. Drawing from this lineage for his moniker of Rocky Maivia, Johnson would debut at the pay-per view Survivor Series in 1996. Built as what wrestling fans call a “white meat babyface,” the initial “blue chip” nice guy gimmick only garnered him “Die Rocky Die” chants, despite being pushed into main title contention. But one night on their Monday broadcast TV series, Raw, WWE brought back a previously injured Rocky, only to turn him “heel,” aligning him with the heel faction, Nation of Domination. There, and this is the particular performance worth noting from this early run [his first interview as part of the NoD], he would cut interview segments and promos that would cement him as one of the wrestling world’s greatest icons. Full of unflinching, unwavering confidence and whip smart word play, Rocky Maivia would evolve into The Rock, a cocky and arrogant performer whose verbal jabs were as juvenile and catchy as his suplexes were crisp and powerful. You still see threads of this throughout his work, particularly the confidence, which has turned Dwayne Johnson into an actor who is as effortlessly charming as he is unwaveringly charismatic. He’s utterly assured in his own abilities, and the almost improv nature of his delivery and energy makes him a presence on screen that’s more than just a big body and gorgeous face. He’s undoubtedly got the look of a A-list Hollywood star, but more so than any pro-wrestler before and after him, the energy behind his eyes and his ability to wield both his uncanny physicality with his iconic charisma in perfect unison has turned him into a movie star on a level that has seemingly disappeared from today’s film landscape. 

The Rundown [2003]

And here’s where all that began on the big screen. While he had had parts in films prior to this lead turn, Dwayne Johnson truly launched his film career with this underrated Peter Berg action film. Taking on the role of a chef-turned-bounty-hunter, tasked with bringing back the son of a mobster, sending him to the Amazon in hopes of finding the said son. Instead however, a revolt against a town operator sidetracks Johnson’s Beck character, as does a treasure hunt that turns the film into as much an action picture as a buddy comedy, pairing Johnson up with partner Seann William Scott. Much has been made about the cameo made by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and while it is absolutely a proverbial passing of the torch moment, one can see within this very film the miles of road already between the two actors. Where as Arnold has become an icon of a certain type of testosterone oozing cinema where the catch phrases hit even harder than the right hooks, Johnson has, particularly through his work in WWE, into an actor who has the same confidence as the previous generation’s icon, but has a level of nuance accessible to him that Schwarzenegger seemed to never really have. Be it his ability to play off a pure comedic talent like Scott or his ability to tap genuine emotions, Johnson isn’t a method actor, but gives off such a presence that makes any character he’s playing seem like a logical extension of his own psyche. Like the wrestling adage goes, the best characters are the performer, just turned up. And The Rock seems to get that it’s an idea that transfers nicely into Hollywood blockbuster cinema.

Fast Five [2011]

One of Dwayne Johnson’s many forays into the realm of Hollywood franchise films, Johnson’s work in this series is the perfect distillation of what makes Dwayne Johnson “The Rock.” Taking on the role of Luke Hobbs, Johnson embodies unquenchable machismo. While he’s not the sarcastic, often times arrogant character that we saw as “The Rock” during his wrestling days, Johnson’s work in this series is the closest the actor has come to making good on the aforementioned Schwarzenegger torch passing. Full of confidence and a crystal clear worldview, Johnson turns what is admittedly a bit part in a franchise seemingly past its expiration date, but it’s partly due to his addition, the addition of a big and brutish moral center, that has helped change the series from street racing B-serial to an A-list action franchise meditating on the importance of family in today’s world. Perfectly manifested in a single moment in the last film, Furious 7, where Johnson’s character flexes himself out of an arm cast, it’s this type of seemingly campy moment, rooted in classic action cinema, that ultimately plays out as a genuinely rousing and cathartic beat. It’s this film, and this series, that proves Johnson to be not only a magnetic and talented actor, but a genuine on screen presence ripped out of classic ‘80s action cinema.

Pain And Gain [2013]

Where does one begin with this film? Maybe Michael Bay’s masterpiece, this 2013 gem of an action/comedy is a rare achievement for an actor like Dwayne Johnson. Taking on the role of Paul Doyle, Johnson plays a recently-released convict who has gone from coke-addled strong man to a far more pious person. However, when he turns violent against his priest, a recent offer to join a team of men from a local gym with eyes on robbing a new member that one of the team members has begun training. While the film has become a critical hit for director Bay, it’s Johnson who turns out to be the film’s strongest aspect, taking his big, brutish frame and even bigger personality, only to subvert every aspect of his Alpha-male status. Inhaling enough cocaine to make Tony Montana blush, Johnson’s Doyle is a man unhinged, offering up Johnson’s most interesting experiment in comedy. As seen in even his earliest days in pro wrestling, Johnson’s control of his body is second to none, particularly his use of facial expressions. Like Harold Lloyd on proverbial steroids, Johnson uses his body to not only build a character, but has a willingness to use it for slapstick laughs that’s rare in today’s world of action cinema. A complete subversion of the type of strong armed and dead-behind-the-eyes action template, Johnson’s turn here is full of such life and vigor that it truly stands as one of his greatest performances to date.

Ballers [2015]

And here’s the evolutionary moment. Where he began as “The Rock,” one of HBO’s recent hit series has seen him return once again to being best known as Dwayne Johnson. The closest thing we’ve seen so far in his career to an actual auteur statement, the former football player takes to the world of professional athletes for a major entry into the world of serialized television. Taking on the role of Spencer Strasmore, a former star NFL player who has taken his life “second act” into the world of financial advising. Within this series, Johnson is flexing different, more intricate acting muscles. Instead of being the muscle bound strong man or the absurdist comedic relief, Johnson is still oozing charisma, but allows himself to fully embody a flesh and blood character. Often compared to Entourage, Ballers is a far more engrossing show, and that’s due primarily to the charm and depth given to the character of Spencer. It also helps that the show doesn’t simply focus just on that character. A true ensemble narrative, Spencer’s tale is given room to breathe thanks to the large cast, and it is this depth of character that sees Johnson doing some of his best and most nuanced work to date. Again, this is the moment where “The Rock” fully evolves to Dwayne Johnson.