How lucky am I?" Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson asks rhetorically several times during a recent interview.

With his latest movie, Gridiron Gang, opening today and his next project, a Disney film, scheduled to begin shooting later this month, life these days is good for Johnson, who has taken the unusual career path of using professional wrestling as a springboard to movie stardom.He acknowledges, however, that none of his success would have been possible had it not been for football - and for one man who took an interest in his future when Johnson was a troubled teenager.

That's why he was so drawn to Gridiron Gang, which stars Johnson as a juvenile detention camp probation officer who in four weeks turns a group of teenage felons into a high school football team. The movie is based on the Emmy Award-winning documentary of the same name, which chronicled the 1990 season of the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs and coach Sean Porter.

"I was one of these kids," says Johnson, who plays Porter. "I had been arrested nine times by the time I was 17. I was lucky that I had my own Sean Porter in my life, who was my arresting officer at the time. He said, `Listen, you're going to stop screwing up and you're going to play football for the freshman football team.'

"I certainly didn't change overnight. I continued to get in trouble ... but football taught me so many things beyond the actual game, like teamwork, sacrifice and, eventually, choosing to do the right things in life."

With Gridiron Gang, Johnson, 34, continues to make surprising choices as an actor. He instantly was pegged as Hollywood's next big action star after the box office success of The Scorpion King (2002), but Johnson hasn't limited himself to just action films.

He showed a flair for comedy in Be Cool (2005), earning kudos from critics for his portrayal of a gay bodyguard and aspiring singer, and Gridiron Gang marks his most dramatic performance. Johnson's next film, The Game Plan, is "a family comedy in the truest Disney sense," he says.

"I love action," Johnson says. "I love kickin' [butt]. I love blowing things up. It would have been easy for me to stay in the action genre, but that would have been unchallenging and boring. I want to grow and be challenged."

To prepare for his role in Gridiron Gang, Johnson says he repeatedly watched the documentary and spent considerable time with Porter.

"I didn't necessarily want to imitate Sean, because there's a clear distinction between imitating somebody and channeling that person," Johnson says. "I just wanted to get the vibe and the spirit and the intensity and the passion that Sean had for the kids.

"Before we started making the movie, Sean said, `I'm happy that you're making this movie about my life, but what's important to me is that you make it real.' He wasn't asking me, `When are we all gonna do interviews and go on Oprah?'"

Porter's insistence that the movie be as authentic as possible led to the decision to film at Camp Kilpatrick, a functioning maximum security juvenile compound in the Santa Monica Mountains.

"There were about 120 or 130 kids there every day watching us," Johnson says. "It was motivating because they're watching us make a movie about them and we're telling them, `Look, we're making a movie about your life that ends on a positive note. And it's not Hollywood [expletive]."

In meeting with Porter, Johnson learned that they had similar backgrounds. Not only did Porter also get into trouble as a youth before turning to football, but he and Johnson also had strained relationships with their fathers.

"My dad [former professional wrestler Rocky Johnson] never wanted me to get into wrestling," Johnson says. "He was adamantly against it and he flat-out said, `You don't have anything to offer this business.' It was tough."

Johnson, of course, proved his father wrong, as he went on to become one of wrestling's biggest stars during its boom period in the late 1990s. He only pursued a career in wrestling, however, once he had taken football as far as he could. Johnson earned a scholarship to the University of Miami, where he was a defensive lineman, but his dream of playing in the NFL never materialized.

Well, not in real life, at least. In The Game Plan, Johnson plays an NFL quarterback living the bachelor lifestyle until he discovers he has a young daughter from a former relationship.

"As a failed football player, how lucky am I?" Johnson says with a smile. "Now, I'm [playing] an NFL quarterback on a great team in Boston, winning the Super Bowl, holding the Lombardi Trophy. I got my little girl. I get to sing Elvis. It's great, man."

kevin.eck@baltsun.com