Dwayne Johnson puts on even more muscle to portray the demigod 'Hercules'

When Freedom High School graduate Dwayne Johnson first began making movies in 2001, he was hellbent on getting two projects into production. One was a remake of "Walking Tall," which was released in 2004. The other was "Hercules," which is finally flexing its muscles in theaters on Friday.

"I grew up admiring Hercules and it was the first project I talked about doing when I broke into Hollywood," recalls Johnson, a Hayward, California native who spent his high-school years in Bethlehem. "So this is a movie and a role that has been many, many years in the making for me.

"Plus, I've always wanted to get into a loin cloth."

Johnson isn't alone in that desire. Hercules has been a cinematic staple for years, ever since 1933's "The Warrior's Husband," a comedy starring actor Tiny Sandford as the strong man.

Even though Arnold Schwarzenegger took a crack at the role in 1969's low-budget "Hercules In New York," the most famous portrayal of Hercules remains the one delivered by former bodybuilder Steve Reeves in the 1958 hit "Hercules" and its 1959 sequel "Hercules Unchained."

In 1997, Disney got into the Mount Olympus business with "Hercules," a cartoon about the behemoth featuring the voice of Tate Donovan.

On TV, Kevin Sorbo enjoyed a four-year run on TV's "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," which ran from 1995 to 1999. And Ryan Gosling starred as the titular hero in "Young Hercules," a 1998 series for Fox Kids.

Earlier this year, Kellan Lutz of "Twilight" fame played the warrior in "The Legend of Hercules," which received bad reviews and fared poorly at the box office.

Johnson is the first to say that one of the stumbling blocks to bringing "Hercules" to the screen was finding a fresh take on the legendary character, a demigod renowned for his mighty deeds and valor.

Johnson says that in adapting Steve Moore's Radical Comics book, the problem was solved right from the start.

"[Moore's] comic book was a unique take on Hercules that grabbed all of our attention," says Johnson, 42. "They took all the cool mythologies of Hercules and tweaked them in a way that gave the story a contemporary power. It was a Hercules audiences aren't yet familiar with."

Directed by Brett Ratner ("X-Men: Last Stand," "Rush Hour"), "Hercules" explores our hero's struggles to live up to his own lore in a world filled with villains of all sizes and shapes. The cast includes Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Rebecca Ferguson ("The White Queen"), Joseph Fiennes , Peter Mullan and John Hurt.

At the beginning of the movie, Hercules is something of a scoundrel who, accompanied by five faithful companions, travels the empire selling his services for money and using his fearsome reputation to intimidate his enemies. But when the kindly ruler of neighboring Thrace and his daughter seek Hercules' help to defeat a terrorizing warlord, Hercules can no longer skate by on the myths surrounding him. He needs to man up and become the hero people believe him to be.

"Hercules is … a character who over the centuries has been an inspiration to many, myself included," says Johnson. "But this time, we wanted to give audiences a Hercules they've never seen before. When we meet Hercules in this movie, he's an exile suffering with regrets, fighting only for gold. He has to overcome his demons and find his heart to become the man people want him to be."

Ratner believes that the film's high-energy approach as well as Johnson's determination to spotlight the man beneath the myth makes "Hercules" unique.

"What's different about our Hercules is that he is a regular man who has disavowed the fact that he's the son of a Greek god," says Ratner. "Every legend starts with a true story and when I read the script based on the graphic novel 'Hercules: The Thracian Wars,' what blew me away is that it was so grounded in a reality you could feel. That's what I wanted to bring to the screen."

Even though Johnson compares "Hercules" to both "Gladiator" and "300," he says that the film is far from wall-to-wall bone-crunching.

"For me, the tone of 'Hercules' had to be right on the money; it had to find that balance between humor, heart, and big, epic action — and I think we were able to do that and ground the story in characters who are a lot of fun," says Johnson. "I wanted Hercules to have a cool charm, and to be everything physically that people always imagined he would be."

As soon as the project was greenlit, Johnson, a professional wrestler with an extraordinary physique, began an eight-month training program designed to beef up and sculpt his physique as well as boost his fighting skills.

"In my mind, you only get one shot at the iconic Hercules, so I really wanted to make sure that the version I had in my head was the version that the audiences would see on screen," says Johnson. "And that was an experienced beast of a man, which I knew would require really hard-core strength and conditioning training and really hardcore dieting.

"Creating and maintaining that kind of physique requires astute attention to detail. Sometimes you have to back off on cardio or add cardio or train three times a day or bump calories to 8,000 a day or back off calories. It's a big challenge, but it should be a challenge to play Hercules!"

Johnson is used to challenges. This is a man, after all, who morphed from a professional wrestler known as The Rock into one of Hollywood's most sought-after leading men.

As far as Ratner in concerned, Johnson's unusual back story made him ideal casting for the role of an ever-transforming hero endowed with the strength of a god.

"Dwayne was born to play Hercules," says Ratner. "And his dedication to embodying him was amazing. He trained from the crack of dawn every day. Of course Dwayne has done many big action movies before but I don't think he's ever played a role quite like this one. This has the big spectacles, the fighting and the fun, but it also has incredible emotion and heart."

Up next for Johnson are two more big action movies. On April 3, he'll reprise his role as a police officer in "Fast & Furious 7," which once again stars Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster and Paul Walker, in his last film before he was killed in a car crash. Jason Statham, Djimon Hounsou and Kurt Russell are also featured.

Two months later, Johnson toplines "San Andreas," a disaster movie set in the aftermath of a massive California earthquake. Johnson plays a rescue-chopper pilot who makes a dangerous journey across the state in search of his estranged daughter (Alexandra Daddario, who made her starring film debut in the Lehigh Valley-shot "Bereavement.") The film hits theaters on June 5.

Amy Longsdorf is a frelance writer.

Jodi Duckett, editor

jodi.duckett@Mcall.com

610-820-6704

'HERCULES'

What: Fresh take on Greek demigod renowned for his mighty deeds and valor. Based on the graphic novel "Hercules: The Thracian Wars."

When: Opens Friday

Where: Area theaters

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt, Ian McShane

Rating: PG-13 for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity

Running time: 1 hr. 38 mins.

•Info: http://www.mightyhercules.com