The hit NBC comedy Young Rock recreates the formative years of the WWE wrestler known all over the world as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. But the show’s breakout star is a wrestling legend from a different era. NFL veteran-turned-actor Matt Willig made his debut as André the Giant during Young Rock‘s first season last year, and his performance so impressed fans — as well as the show’s producers — that he was promoted to series regular status for the currently-airing second season.
“It’s a great thing,” Willig tells Yahoo Entertainment. “This show is obviously first and foremost about Dwayne and his life, but to have my performance as André be so well-received is really nice.”
As the real-life Rock has often discussed, the super-sized André — who was born André René Roussimoff — was a father figure for him during his early 1980s childhood, a dynamic (and time period) that’s recreated in Young Rock. The 53-year-old Willig is frequently featured in episodes that revolve around the elementary school-aged Dwayne, played by 12-year-old Adrian Groulx. (Johnson is also portrayed on the show as a teenager by Bradley Constant and a college-aged adult by Uli Latukefu.)
This week’s episode, “Kiss and Release” explores that father/son dynamic when André takes young Dewey — Johnson’s youthful nickname — on a fishing trip to get to the bottom of why he’s been acting out at school. (Spoiler alert: it involves a first crush.) It’s a sequel of sorts to the Season 1 episode “My Day with André,” which also put Willig and Groulx front and center.
“I was very pleased as well when I found out that we were going to do another episode together with me imparting my so-called wisdom on little Dewey,” Willig says. “We established a nice rapport off-screen in Season 1. I love the kid to death, and I think he’s so immensely talented. It was really a pleasure coming into this year, knowing that we were going to do it again.”
In real life, of course, Dwayne and André eventually took different paths, with the super-sized wrestler becoming a WrestleMania staple during the second half of the ’80s. (Roussimoff died in 1993.) And Willig would love to step into the ring to recreate some of those iconic WWF bouts — particularly those that pitted André against Hulk Hogan — on Young Rock.
“It’s something that I’ve talked to the producers about on occasion, putting that black singlet on,” he teases. “Let’s remember that André could live forever in Dewey’s world, but in reality, he died when Dwayne was a young man that was just getting into wrestling. So he does have a shelf life in that respect. But I would love to be able to bookend [the show] with wearing that singlet, and maybe getting into that WrestleMania III match between Hulk and André. That would be really cool.”
“There’s a big honor in portraying André, there really is,” he continues. “I’m never going to be perfect, but the people who knew him have been really kind to me, and that means more than anything. Also having Dwayne sign off on my performance is key because he lived this relationship.”
We spoke with Groulx and Willig about their off-screen friendship, and the important on-screen lessons fans can take away from this week’s tender-hearted Young Rock episode.
Adrian, take us back to Season 1 when you and Matt met for the first time. What do you remember about that meeting?
Adrian Groulx: We met before shooting because we were all staying in the same hotel. I was amazed at how tall he was! And then the first time I saw him in costume, I was like, “What? Who is that?!” [Laughs] I still can’t figure out how he switches back and forth, especially with that hair. To see him transform into André and then back into Matt is so cool.
Matt Willig: I think we met at the hotel pool the first time, right Adrian? He was so big-eyed at first. Like, “I’m not sure what this guy’s all about. He’s a bit scary.” [Laughs] But we really quickly got into this “cool uncle” dynamic, where I was like: “Hey man, you can rely on me and trust that I’m not going to overwhelm you.” His persona on and off-screen are so right on. He’s such a humble kid and is prepared all the time. We immediately had a great connection.
Dwayne has made it very clear that André was very much like an uncle to him — he was Uncle André. As the show is progressing, you see Dewey’s trials and tribulations with his dad, Rocky [played by Joseph Lee Anderson], and how their relationship is strained at times. There were times when André specifically filled that [fatherly] role and had an impact on little Dewey as he was growing up. It’s really a treat and a tribute to be able to portray that with Adrian onscreen.
Matt, André’s accent is so key to his persona. How long did it take you to get that right?
Willig: I started by learning a French accent, but André also had a huge tongue, so you had to factor in the mumbling part. A lot of times, they couldn’t understand what he was saying! In Season 1, my biggest problem was that I mumbled too much. The producers would be like, “We’re going to have to go back and re-record all these lines.” But I told them: “Look, people will start to understand what I’m saying because that’s the way it was. It’s true to life.” They could have easily said, “No, we need you to speak a lot more clearly,” but they knew I did the research and allowed me to tow that line between having a little bit of that mumble that André had and speaking clearly. So it was a nice mix.
Adrian, you can be honest: does Matt ever lose his accent when you’re shooting scenes together?
Groulx: No, he’s great with the accent! [Laughs] There are always a couple of moments where he shoots out suggestions for André’s lines, which is great because he was some really good ideas. I’m always telling him: “You should be a director.”
Willig: He said that to me this year! That’s really a nice compliment you can get from another actor. It was really cool that he let me know that the things I was doing were in the right wheelhouse for the character.
Let’s talk about “Kiss and Release.” I like that this episode has a strong anti-bullying message as André tries to teach Dewey not to use his size to hurt others. Adrian, is that a lesson you hope reaches kids your age?
Groulx: Yeah, I think that people, in general, will find a bunch of different messages in the one episode. We see that André and Dewey’s mother Ata [played by Stacey Leilua] are concerned because they think that as Dewey’s getting bigger, he’s also becoming this bully. But in reality, he’s figuring out his emotions about this girl at school.
Matt, you’re obviously a big guy yourself. Did you wrestle with that when you were Dewey’s age — that fear that people would see you as a bully because of your size?
Willig: Absolutely. And there have been times where I’ve had to reflect on the way that I treated people back then. I wasn’t always perfect, and I maybe took advantage of my size a little bit. I’ve had a couple people that I grew up with — even in high school — who’ve said: “You know, for being a big guy, you were pretty cool to us.” So that made me feel good because you never know. There’s always little things we all can look back on where maybe we didn’t think were a big deal at the time, but turned out to be pretty emotionally damaging to other kids. I’ve done a lot of reflecting on that, and whether or not I was as good a guy as I think I was.
Because you’re right: as a big guy, I’m coming from a totally different perspective. I’m the guy who could easily bully without really knowing it. It’s always a good lesson to learn, especially today with social media. Bullying doesn’t stop at school anymore: it goes all the way home. I’ve got two daughters, and they’ve been on the wrong end of that. You have to teach those lessons, and this episode does a really good job not only talking about bullying, but the misconception of what bullying is and what it’s not.
As Adrian said, people think Dewey is bullying, but he’s really just trying to get the attention of a girl. One of the basic things that we can all try to learn as boys and girls is how can we make that other person like us in a certain way? And a lot of times we think the easiest way to do it is bad attention. That comes across in this episode, which is neat to explore.
Adrian, Dewey acts out in this episode by playing various pranks on his schoolmates, including letting pigeons loose in class and throwing slices of cheese. Were those scenes fun to film?
Groulx: Yeah, I love doing new things on set, and throwing the pigeon was awesome. I thought I was going to throw a fake pigeon, but then I saw two cages, and I was like, “Hold on — I’m really about to throw this pigeon!” Once I had it in my hand, I felt it shaking and I said: “It’s OK, it’s OK. You’re good.”
With the cheese, I threw it with my right hand because Dewey was right-handed, but I’m left-handed. So there were times where I was missing the kid I was supposed to hit by a mile! And then one time I actually hit him with the cheese. At first, I was like, “Yes,” but then I went, “Oh no, I actually hit him!” I felt pretty bad about that.
This season has been a bit of a game-changer for how I understood Dewey because I got to see what he was like in school and not just around the wrestlers and his family and stuff. And in this episode, he’s gone to this different level of personality, I guess you could say in finding his first crush. When he opens up to André during their fishing trip, it’s a great moment for them.
Tell me about filming that fishing scene. It’s a key moment of the episode for sure.
Groulx: There [were] a lot of mosquitoes, that’s for sure! [Laughs]
Willig: Adrian’s right. For some reason, the mosquitoes were all over him, and they didn’t touch me at all. Poor kid. I was like, “Give me some of the mosquitoes.” [Laughs] We still had a lot of fun doing it. It was literally out in the middle of nowhere by this great little pond area. I think the only thing Adrian and I would’ve wished for would have been sitting down. We had to stand the whole time, so that made for a really long day. But it was really cool, because there were so many emotions to play in the scene.
Groulx: I liked the moment where André is pouring a glass of wine while listening to me. He’s like: “What is this kid talking about?”
Willig: I’m always amazed when we’ll do a scene with André and there’s no wine. Even though it’s PG-rated television, it’s a fact that the real André was always drinking! So bringing the wine was my idea.
Matt, you mentioned that one of the other messages of this episode involves boys and girls learning how to communicate with each other. Is that something you’ve had to deal with with your daughters?
Willig: Oh my God, it’s the scariest thing I’ve experienced as a dad. My daughters go to an all-girls school, and I’ve noticed that there’s even more of a disconnect in terms of how to act with a member of the opposite sex. I mean, with everything being on a phone, sometimes, they don’t even know how to talk to people. I think it’s about learning, how do you approach someone and how do you say yes or no to someone. And those things sometimes are getting lost with today’s youth. I’m sounding old! [Laughs]
In all seriousness, the message of this episode is so important. To learn early on not just how to respect a woman, but also learn that it’s okay if they’re not into me — I can move on. It’s that idea of: “Let’s find the right person for me. If it’s not her, then I’ll find someone else I have a connection with.” Even if we have fun in the episode, it’s a real-life situation we can learn from.
If the show comes back for a third season, what kind of adventure do you hope Dewey and André have next?
Groulx: Oh, that’s a good question. I want to see André and Dewey get to learn more about each other again because we already know they have this strong bond. After “Kiss and Release,” Dewey’s got this new perspective in how he sees some of the things in his world.
Willig: I mean, I can say something silly! Like maybe we cover Dewey’s first drinking experience where I show him that drinking too much is not a good thing. Maybe that’s something we explore in the later years. [Laughs] I think I would be great if it’s something physical like roller skating, where André can fall over and make a fool of himself, and Dewey can make fun of him a little bit and impart some of his wisdom back to me. That would be really fun.
Young Rock airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC