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Filming The Rock

Even the Rock can get COVID: He’s handling it well, and based on the time I spent with him at Gold’s Gym, I’m not surprised

If you didn’t see the news, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was one of the latest big names to test positive for COVID-19. He released a video last week (end of August) announcing that he and his whole family were sick with the virus. Like pretty much everything he does, the video was powerful. In it, Dwayne spoke with honesty and thoughtfulness. He said his main concern was the health and safety of his wife and kids. He also stressed the importance of social distancing, personal health, and wearing a mask. Dwayne used a tough situation as an opportunity to spread a positive message, which says a lot about who he is as a person. It reminds me of a memorable interaction I had with him back in the day, when he used to frequent Gold’s Gym. A time when I, of all people, was assigned to be… his cameraman.

The story begins shortly after my move from Powerhouse Gym to Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, California, in 1999. It was a big deal for me. Gold’s Venice was (and still is) considered to be the most famous gym in the world. I got the job after my good friend Maurice Murphy set me up for an interview with Andy Lambert, the current manager at the time. Andy’s from South Africa originally, and I remember him as a calm, well spoken, pleasant man. The interview went well, and afterwards Andy offered me a position in membership sales. Even though I’d be leaving a manager position at Powerhouse, I gladly accepted the job at Gold’s, figuring I was taking a small step backwards in order to move forward by ten. I just felt I could grow more with Gold's, not to mention working at The Mecca would be an amazing experience.

I wasn’t wrong. The move lead to huge opportunities and countless memories. I also learned a ton, especially from coworkers and bosses who had been with Gold’s for years. One of those people was my buddy Derek Barton. Derek worked as the Marketing Director of Gold's Gym, and in my opinion, he was damn good at it. Derek was/is a character - anyone that knows him can attest to that. I really looked up to him and respected his vision and journey. Derek had been there through all of those amazing, iconic days of Gold's. I would go into his office and see countless pictures with him and the legends. All of the celebrities who made their way through Gold’s would go out of their way to find Derek. Derek is important to this story because he was the person who tasked me with something one day that definitely wasn’t in my job description. I remember it well. He called me into his office, gave me a camera, and told me, ahead of Gold’s Gym International celebrating a major anniversary, it was my job to get workout footage of some of the celebrities who were gym members. Keep in mind – this was in 1999. There were no camera phones or digital video recorders. I had to use Derek's huge, over-the-shoulder film camera that recorded onto big cassette tapes. You had to wait for like 5 seconds after hitting record before it started, and when you stopped recording, it would rewind back a bit, which I found out the hard way made it easy to record over important footage you had just shot.

So why did Derek ask me to film all of these famous people and not just do it himself? I asked myself that, believe me, but there were two main reasons. Number one: Logistics. Derek's office was located where it was difficult to see who was coming in and out of the gym. Number two: Relationships. By this time, I had already earned my stripes and he knew I wasn't going to embarrass anyone, since I had years of experience dealing with high profile clientele. I also had developed many relationships with almost all of the members myself, and one of those high profile clients happened to be the Rock himself, Dwayne Johnson.

Now Dwayne wasn’t the megastar then that he is today, but he was still very famous as one of WWE’s biggest stars, and he was beginning to pick up small acting roles too. At the time, Dwayne and I were on "kinda friends" terms. It’s not like I was getting phone calls from him on weekends to come over, but I was definitely friendly enough with him that he would stop by and say hello if I was in the office. Not to mention, he was gym friends with closer friends of mine like Mike Ryan and Chris Bell, two Gold’s regulars who have many more stories about the Rock. They’d hang out with Dwayne, often for breakfast or lunch, at Firehouse restaurant. I can remember a few times sitting down with them all and just shooting the breeze.

Now that you have the context, I can fast forward to the day I was supposed to shoot video of the Rock. Mind you - none of this was really planned out, and there wasn’t any kind of appointment set up in advance. Instead, I would basically find the person while they were working out at Gold’s and ask them to participate. That part – asking them if I could film them – might have actually been harder than the recording itself. I was worried about approaching these celebrities and getting a big, fat, embarrassing, “No.”

That fear was on my mind the next time I saw the Rock come into Gold’s for a workout. I caught him just before he started hitting the weights. Even though we were friendly, I was worried that he would hear my question, and give a big, awkward, look at me with the camera and say, “No way, dude, get the F out of here, unless you break out the checkbook first.”

But instead of me approaching him, he walked up to me on his way to the weights, gave me a fist bump, and said, “What’s up, man?” I got straight to the point. "Dwayne,” I said. “Hey buddy, I've been tasked with filming some of the high profile folks who train here. I just need a small 1-minute clip that we can use at our Gold's Gym Convention that’s coming up. Many of our franchisees, gym owners, and management will be there and you are an inspiration to many…" That’s where he cut me off - not with a “No,” but with a, "Let's do it ,brotha.”

I was in shock – at the answer, and even more so – when we started filming. He was one who absolutely took control. He was like, “OK Matteo, I need you over here, ask me this, let's go over to this part of the gym because the lighting is better.” He spoke loud and clear, and talked about his appreciation for Gold’s and how the gym had changed his life, wishing the whole team the happiest anniversary. We did everything in one take and it was a wrap. I was so impressed by how, even as a young superstar, he had a perfect attitude and was generous and personable. He acted just like a regular guy you would call to go workout with but who would absolutely crush you if you tried to keep up.

I ended up interviewing and filming many more celebrities, like James Caan, Lou Ferrigno, Keanu Reeves, Jean Claude Van Damme, Ray Liotta, Vitali Klitschko, and Kobe Bryant. I would ask them to tell me why they liked, loved, or were passionate about Gold's, and if they could wish Gold’s Gym International a happy anniversary on camera. Pretty much every person I asked agreed to do it, but Dwayne really stood out with his energy and kindness.

It's no surprise to me now that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is the mega star he is today, and it’s also no surprise to me the way he handled getting COVID-19 - by putting a message out there to his millions of fans, humbly describing where his priorities are as a father and husband, and how he hoped others could learn from his experience. He’s an all-around great guy, and I’m wishing him and his family a full recovery and good health from down here in Colombia.

If you want to watch the video he published, click here.

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