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How Chicago taught ‘Jumanji’ star Dwayne Johnson to be himself

Dwayne Johnson (center) stars with Karen Gillan and Kevin Hart in "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle." | SONY PICTURES

HONOLULU — Sitting outside a lush Hawaiian resort, Dwayne Johnson smiled when he realized he was talking to a Chicago journalist. “You will never know — except I’m about to tell you — how important your city and your community has been to my life,” the actor and filmmaker quipped.

Before chatting up his new movie “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” (opening Wednesday), Johnson wanted to explain how “Chicago fans truly turned around my career, back when I was wrestling.” The entertainer, known then as The Rock, said that he had been instructed by wrestling impresario Vince McMahon “that I should always, always, always be smiling — whether I was winning or losing in the ring. That was true whether I was in a good place or in a bad place.

“The tricky part for me was that I frequently WAS in a bad place, and I often felt really stupid grinning like a crazy person when I should have been showing how upset I was. But that all changed on one fateful night in Chicago. When I smiled and looked happy after losing a match, the audience went nuts. They were booing and throwing stuff and generally expressing their anger in very graphic ways, if you know what I mean,” laughed Johnson.

“That taught me an important lesson: to always be true to both who I was and what I was feeling. After that night in Chicago many years ago, I have never pretended to be happy when I wasn’t feeling happy. Vince didn’t like it, but I stuck to my guns, and things have turned out pretty well, haven’t they,” said the Hollywood star ranked high on Tinseltown’s money tree.

In the updated remake of the 1995 “Jumanji” starring the late Robin Williams, Johnson serves as both star and executive producer. “The entire time we were filming — and of course long before that, as we were prepping for the new movie — Robin’s memory and legacy were front and center in our thoughts,” he said. The actor made it clear that the film’s entire team wanted to make a movie “that Robin Williams would not only love, but laugh as he watched it. … My only regret is that Robin’s not here to see the final cut of this new film.”

While the first “Jumanji” was all about a board game, the remake is based on a video game, Johnson said, “since that’s what kids today would understand.”

A group of high school kids — all very different and forced to be in detention — come upon the Jumanji console. In the process they unwittingly pick characters in the game they would like to play, not realizing that magical powers will suck them into the actual game and transform them into those characters.

In Johnson’s case, the man with the gigantic muscles and impressive physique (as his Dr. Smolder Bravestone heroic character is in the game) becomes the avatar for Spencer, a nerdy, brainy, shy teen. “It was so freeing for me, to play that wimpy kid — it was like nothing else I’d ever done,” said Johnson.

“But the guy who steals the movie is Jack Black,”  — whose Dr. Shelly Oberon [character] is chosen by self-absorbed “Valley Girl” Bethany, thinking her character is a woman. It soon becomes clear that Shelly is a nickname for Sheldon. “To watch Jack channel his inner female self was a wonder to behold,” said Johnson with a huge laugh. “He totally dominates every scene he’s in — just because he totally gets what that girl would be like.”