His Seven Bucks Productions found financing through WWE Studios and Britain's Film4 to make the scrappy, relatively low-budget comedy inspired by WWE wrestler Paige's life story. Johnson makes a cameo appearance, as he did in Paige's real-life rise from a small English town to the top of pro wrestling.
"Every studio passed on this, regardless of if I was attached," Johnson said in an interview. "They were like, 'No, no. The subject matter.' And, and also too, you know, generally the tapestry of pro wrestling as it's been shown in film hasn't always been done in the greatest of ways certainly that would make us proud, coming from that world. (Darren) Aronofsky did it beautifully in 'The Wrestler,' but before that and since then, it hasn't really been shown. So there was a lot of challenges with this."
Johnson, 46, says that while he knew Paige through WWE, he didn't know her back-story — including a brother and parents who shared her passion for pro wrestling — until a serendipitous night filming "Fast & Furious 6" in London. Unable to sleep, he was flipping channels and came across a documentary about the performer (real name: Saraya-Jade Bevis).
"I immediately identified with this crazy wrestling family who was very loving, loved the world of pro wrestling," he said. "And I come from a crazy, at-times-dysfunctional wrestling family — my dad, my grandmother and grandfather, uncles, cousins, you name it."
Johnson's "Tooth Fairy" co-star Stephen Merchant was hired to write and direct. Florence Pugh signed on to play Paige, with Nick Frost and Lena Headey as her parents. The underdog story opens wide in U.S. theatres on Friday. It got a warm reception at its Sundance Film Festival premiere, which Johnson attended alongside his producing partners Dany and Hiram Garcia.
Sitting alongside each other at a Park City, Utah condo, the three finished each other's sentences and were quick to laugh together. Dany Garcia, a former bodybuilder and investment banker, was married to Johnson from 1997 to 2007 and they have a teenage daughter. When talking about Johnson, she sometimes reaches out to touch his forearm or thigh. They have other life partners now, but have flourished as business partners, founding Seven Bucks Productions together in 2012. Hiram Garcia, Dany's younger brother, has long consulted with Johnson on his career. He was named the company's president of film production in 2017.
They offered a preview of four of Seven Bucks' many upcoming film projects, all starring Johnson: HOBBS & SHAW Johnson won't appear in the next "Fast and Furious" movie, set for 2020, but hopes this spin-off with Jason Statham and a villain played by Idris Elba becomes its own franchise. They tried to also bring "Aquaman" star Jason Momoa on-board, but it didn't work out. "Maybe on the next one," Johnson says, while promising "belly laughs" alongside the explosions and shootouts: "I've never gotten more joy than making Jason Statham laugh in every scene, to the point where he can't actually say words." It's set for release in August.
JUNGLE CRUISE Based on the Disney theme park ride, Johnson says the Jaume Collet Serra-directed adventure film, also set for 2020, is "'African Queen' meets 'Romancing the Stone.'" Hiram Garcia says Emily Blunt plays "a young Indiana Jones type female ahead of her time ... looking for an unbelievable artifact (who) has to go to the river and needs the best captain there is. ... Hijinks ensues and romance ensues."
THE KING "Sacred, epic, thoughtful," is how Dany Garcia describes the planned biopic of Hawaiian King Kamehameha. Johnson told an interviewer at age 29 that it was his "dream role" in Hollywood. "I didn't have life experience to play it then. So the time is right. ... It's a special one," he said. Robert Zemeckis will direct and "Braveheart" screenwriter Randall Wallace has been researching the story in Hawaii for the past two years, Johnson said. "It's the telling of King Kamehameha, from his birth to how he came to unite the islands and unify Hawaii as one ... and the introduction of the white man to the Hawaiian islands, and what it meant to the people," Hiram Garcia says. Production is expected to begin next year.
JOHN HENRY AND THE STATESMEN Hiram Garcia pitched Johnson on the idea of folklore heroes from various cultures joining together to "right the wrongs and save the planet." Johnson's wrestler father Rocky Johnson used to sing the folk song about the "steel-driving man" to him before bed, on the rare occasion he was home. "It was very personal to me because there was oftentimes quite a disconnect when me and my dad were growing up, because he was always on the road. So that would always be a very special time for us," Johnson said. The movie is set for release on Netflix.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Ryan Pearson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ryanwrd