Earlier this year, Dwayne ‘The Rock' Johnson returned to the small screen with the sitcom Young Rock, which tells the story of Johnson's days as a 10-year-old, a high school student, playing football in the University of Miami, and all the important life lessons he learned. The show debuted as NBC's biggest comedy since 2007, drawing over 5 million viewers, and it will also return for a season 2. Fans indeed smelt what The Rock was cooking when it came to Young Rock, and while there was a lot to enjoy about the show, one of the standout elements came in its refreshing exploration of professional wrestling.
The series firmly put the spotlight on Johnson's time watching his father wrestle across the country alongside some of the most iconic wrestling stars of the ‘80s, including Andre The Giant, Macho Man Randy Savage, and The Iron Sheik. Young Rock spotlighted the family element that exists, particularly then, in professional wrestling and created authentic-looking wrestling matches while ensuring each wrestler was presented as accurately as possible. So with this in mind, the series allowed new faces like Brett Azar, who plays The Iron Sheik, to step through the ropes and become a breakout star.
Azar was previously known for being the motion-capture model for Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800 in Terminator Genisys. But with a big role in Young Rock, he was able to show his physique, face, and more importantly, his acting chops as he perfectly brought Sheik's eccentric personality to the screen. So as season 1 of Young Rock was drawing to a close and Azar was fully embracing The Iron Sheik character when attending various conventions, FilmHounds' Humza Hussain had the opportunity to speak with Azar about his breakout role in Young Rock. In part one of this exclusive interview, Azar discusses playing The Iron Sheik, his relationship with Young Rock writer/director Nahnatchka Khan, passing out during wrestling training, and so much more.
Young Rock has populated the phrase “working the gimmick,” and that's exactly what you have been doing. You're working the Sheiky gimmick all day, every day. Did that phrase inspire you to take this character and run with it?
It did, in a way. It got me in trouble because I apparently worked the gimmick too much, outside the boundaries of the show (laughs). But it gave me a whole new respect for the wrestlers that do it for their living. Like, to create a persona that makes people either hate you or love you and be a totally different person on the outside to those who know you personally – that's an acting gift. I mean, if you're looking at the Sheik specifically, I personally hated him growing up. I was never a fan of him, and then to learn who he was as a person (Sheik accent) on the real. It was quite special to know that he was such a lovable guy. He's just a crowd pleaser even though he was the ultimate heel.
How has it been for you at these various conventions when fans see you? Do they almost perceive you as the Iron Sheik?
Oh, no, no, no. I'm going to the conventions as Brett Azar, the actor that plays The Iron Sheik on Young Rock. The actor who was Arnold Schwarzenegger's body double on Terminator Genisys and Terminator: Dark Fate. But there is a special connection I have with the wrestling fans that I didn't expect to get out of being the actor playing The Iron Sheik because he is such a lovable guy and has a huge fan following. It brought me into the wrestling world in a way that I didn't expect. More than just being the actor, and it was very humbling. To use the term of Sheiky, I was very humbled by the reception I got. The fans of the Sheik are diehard fans, you know, and to get their acceptance playing their hero is a really big deal for an actor, and even taking that to a whole new level, getting the acceptance of the Sheik as the actor playing the Sheik is more than I could ever ask for. I was talking to him, I was talking to his daughter Nicole, and they were like, “We love what you're doing. We love the show. You look great, you're nailing it, and you're mannerisms are on point.” To hear that from the source, it makes me happier than I can express.
What was it like for you preparing for The Iron Sheik compared to past roles?
I'm a real nerd. I love to study, and I love to learn. So when there's a role that I have to actually study, I'm so obsessed with it, and I love it even more. So to study a human, who I know is still alive and is going to see this, to study his mannerisms, his voice, his promo attitude versus his real-life attitude and bringing that all together for the show was a dream come true for me. Plus the character himself, you know, people always ask me what my ultimate role would be as an actor, and I tell them, either the baddest bad guy or that lovable goofy sidekick. If I could do that for a living, I would. And the Sheik is kind of both wrapped into one because he was the most hated heel, but in real life, he was this lovable, goofy, eccentric guy that everybody was like, “Ah, Sheiky,” and that's exactly what I want to be. He took both of my dreams of an acting role and put it together in one character, and he's a real-life guy. So it was like the epitome of a role that I could ever play. It was the dream role.
Were there any nerves playing such an iconic figure, especially in the wrestling world?
The nerves were more – I knew that I would perform right. The nerves were about getting the approval of the Sheik and also the director and writer Nahnatchka Khan. She's Iranian, and her family grew up huge fans of the Sheik, and she came up to me before we started filming and said, “You know, my families only watching this show because of the Sheik character,” and I was like, oh, no pressure. You know, the boss just told me that I'd better not mess up. A little pressure may have been under my butt right after that moment.
But as far as the look, I was fine with. I had an extra confidence going into filming because when they flew us over to Australia, and in Australia, the government takes you and quarantines you for two weeks. They lock you in a room, and you don't leave for two weeks. So you're naming the walls, you know, you're stuck there. You're not leaving your room. But, they put a 300-pound weight set, and they put an exercise bike in my room, and so, for two weeks, I had nothing to do except read, learn my lines, and workout. I came out of quarantine after two weeks, ten pounds lighter, shredded, and I was like, “Oh, I'm ready for camera.” You could've put me in those little wrestling banana hammocks. I'm good.
Did you just walk out and say, (flexes muscles) “Camera, look at me. Look at me?”
(Laughs) I did, absolutely. Um, and the other guys, when we all met up after quarantine, they were like, “Ah, Sheik, what the hell, man.
Were they actually calling you Sheik?
“It was back and forth. I mean, I loved being called Sheik, Sheiky because I would stay in character for most of the filming. I was always joking around saying, “Yes, baba,” because he's such a fun guy. You always had that good feeling when I was playing the Sheik, and we would barbecue as a cast, as a family up on the roof. It was, “Lamb, baba. Yes, come here. I serve you lamb. I bring lamb. I slaughter it right here.” It was fun to just stay in that character while filming. But yeah, then all the guys were like, “Brett, we're going to the gym with you.” So every morning when we were filming, if I was going to the gym before filming, I'd write in the group message like, “Sheik to gym,” and then in would crawl John Tui and Fasi [Fasitua Amosa], and Matt [Matthew Willig] would be there, and they'd all be like, “Alright let's get it done.” We busted our asses for the show.
It's funny you mentioned Nahnatchka Khan, because understandably, everybody talks about The Rock. The show is called Young Rock, of course. However, Nahnatchka Khan is a big part of the show as the writer/director. So when did you first meet her and what was she like as a writer/director?
“I knew her from [Don't Trust] the B—- in Apartment 23 because I worked with Krysten Ritter. I did an episode of Jessica Jones. I knew Krysten Ritter's career, and I knew the B—- in Apartment 23, and then I knew Natch through that. Meeting Natch was cool, she's a little self-reserved, and she's just cool. She's very witty, very smart, and the conversations you have with her, every word counts. Like every word she speaks has meaning. There is no small talk. But the conversations I had with her were really special to me because with her brother being president of WWE, and she was telling me how her brother would record on VHS, the WWF events, anytime the Sheik was on. Then the family would sit down and watch it together. It was cool to have that Sheik connection with her, and that was the biggest part of it with her and I that I really appreciated.
She would walk through set after filming a take, and she'd be like (gives a thumbs up), “You got it, that was on point.” She was a great director. She made everyone – we were all happy to be there with her, and then, she had to go out to fly to America to film The Rock's part because he filmed his part separately. She threw us a big party as her going away party, so the whole cast was together. She was like, “Alright guys, I gotta go to bed,” and she went up to the restaurant and she was like, “Yeah, just let them keep going, do whatever they want.” So she was awesome.
Was there anything that surprised you, if anything, about the show itself and about Rock's life?
I didn't realise how many people are related in the WWE. I didn't realise that every Samoan character is basically a cousin. Like, Roman Reigns, I had no idea was related to The Rock, and with The Wild Samoans and all that connection. I just met Jacob Fatu, and you had High Chief [Peter Maivia] and all that. It was funny to learn just how family orientated that is. So that was cool. But then, I guess the other thing that surprised me, which was not so much storyline, but what surprised me and made me really excited was that it was an NBC gig, so usually it's very textbook – take no chances on your actors kind of thing. They're very protective of their actors, but we got to do all of our own stunts. None of the wrestlers had stuntmen, and for me, that was a dream come true because I personally want to take the Tom Cruise career. I want to do all my own stunts kind of thing, and if I can't do it, then I feel I shouldn't be the character.
When we got out of quarantine and we met Chavo [Guerrero Jr.], a legend in himself, and he was like, “Alright, wrestling 101, here we go. Bounce off the ropes, do your somersaults, learn how to take a fall, take a bump.” The other guys were like, “Wait, we're doing all this?” and I was like, (excited) “Yeah, we're doing all this!” Then, the more we got used to it, and the more advanced the moves were – we got into it, man. Chavo was great in keeping us safe at the same making us look really great on camera. That was a cool surprise.
I guess that's great for you as well because to go in the method route of acting, to actually feel, to an extent, what the Sheik was feeling in the ring only helps, right?
Yeah, and I got a whole new respect for wrestlers on the daily grind because, you take something so simple, running and bouncing off the ropes – if you bounce off the ropes on the wrong part of your body, you're walking around with a bruise across your back. It's just a simple thing. We did somersaults on day one, just to learn how to take a bump, take a fall. My first somersault, I somersaulted, I stood up, I blacked out, I fell down. I was like, “What just happened?” and Chavo was like, “Wow, really? Do it again.” Somersault, stood up, blacked out, fell down. He was like, “Dude,” and I was like, “Dude, I haven't done a somersault since like third grade.” So then the ongoing joke with the cast was like, oh, big Sheiky, who benches 400-500 pounds, can squat 4-500 pounds, can't do a somersault without passing out. So it was humbling. But my brain finally adjusted to being upside down, and we got through that day one.
Everyone who trains in wrestling always says something like that because that's when they truly realise how difficult it is, and the wrestlers, they're doing it 200 or 350 days a year.
When they say wrestling is fake – yeah, plotlines are fake, stories are written. It is an acting gig. But the physicality is no f'n joke. They bust their asses, and there's injuries that you don't even hear about that happen, and they work through it. I remember Triple H tore his quad in the middle of a match and finished it. If that happened in the NBA, that guy would've been out in the first second after he hurt himself, and he wouldn't have come back for a month to play in a game. Triple H went on for like a half-hour match with a torn quad. You don't get that anywhere but in wrestling.
To give props to the guy who plays Sgt. Slaughter in the show, Wayne [Mattei], we were in rehearsals, and he tore his hamstring. So we had to modify his scenes a little bit, but he stuck it through. We weren't at filming yet, we were still rehearsing, and he pushed through filming and everything with a torn hammy.
He was working the gimmick too. But credit to him, that's great. Obviously, it's well known that The Rock wasn't there for the filming, but he was still very involved via Zoom…
We did script reads as a cast on Zoom calls, and he was on them all the time, and it was cool because he would have, like one on one talks with the wrestlers. Kind of like describing what they actually meant to him growing up. His connection with Andre was really big, so he and Matt Willing had really good, in-depth conversations about just how much they meant to each other and there was one point where we finished a script, I forget what episode it was, and The Rock was kind of getting emotional. DJ was like, “Guys, I just want to tell you how much this means to me. These are my stories, and you guys are really doing them justice and bringing it to life.” He was starting to get that, you could feel the tears were coming, and I went, “It's okay to cry, baba. Sheiky baby love you, we all love you,” and he goes, “Oh, Sheiky baby” (laughs). You felt this, you know, you felt that family vibe – just with the whole cast.
Was there any piece of advice that he gave you that helped shape your performance because he was, I imagine, explaining the dynamic of a young “Dewey” and Iron Sheik?
It was more The Iron Sheik who helped me realise the character. I was studying all summer, his promos, his YouTube, his documentaries, and the more research I did, the more I realised it's the behind-the-scenes real-life guy, not working the gimmick Sheik that we were going to be filming. So when I talked Khosrow [Sheik] personally, and he's a sweetheart, you know, he's an introverted guy. He's a great actor is what he is to throw that improv all the time, and every day, the guy's an acting genius, more so than a crazy man on camera. I learned more from him and more from his daughter on just how to be the real Sheik, the Sheik that everyone knew behind the scenes.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview with Brett Azar.
To stay up to date with Brett Azar, follow him on Instagram at @brettazar.
Young Rock will return for season 2 on NBC.