It used to be an odd question to ask actors: "What do you think of your action figure?" Anthony Hopkins was purportedly so bothered by the notion of Hannibal Lecter appealing to kids that it took him years to agree to an adult collectible figure, while Jeff Goldblum circa Jurassic Park reminded us all that he was still an actor and not an action figure. Nowadays, though, with geek becoming the mainstream and kids of the '80s all grown up, the action figures of today are being made in the likenesses of the kids who played with similar toys of yesteryear.
I and several other journalists got to attend a press day for G.I. Joe: Retaliation and talk toys with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (Roadblock), D.J. Cotrona (Flint), Adrianne Palicki (Lady Jaye) and director Jon Chu. Naturally, since this is essentially a movie about toys, we all wanted to know how they liked embodying them, and when the question came up as to who was the most nerdy, it was Cotrona who pulled out his own figure from his pocket, where he'd been carrying it around all day. "I collected all of them," he told us. "Somewhere in my mother's basement they're all airtight and held up. I had the aircraft carrier, which was a pretty big deal - that was the barometer to tell how big of a collector you were. When I go back and visit my parent's house I'll put him in a place of honor on that."
His fandom didn't end when childhood did, as he still keeps up with current storylines, noting "I started with the cartoon and the toys when I was very young and then as I got older I got into some of the comic books. Some of the IDW stuff they're making now is pretty politically intellectual. They make some really great stuff. I love all of it."
Palicki, who didn't know what role or even what project she was up for, was psyched to learn she'd be Lady Jaye. "Lady Jaye was just always such a badass. She was just such a strong female, always...getting to play her was such as honor to me. If I didn't get to play Jinx - which, who doesn't want to be a ninja? I obviously don't look the part but whatever, maybe in the next movie give me some swords."
Looking the part is more important to the sequel, as fans were vocally disappointed at the way some of the characters were changed onscreen in the first film, but the Rock felt a great obligation to look as much like the hulking Roadblock as possible, citing an 11-14 week diet in addition to all his combat training, while admitting that "no-one looks like Roadblock" in real life, though he tried to get as close as humanly possible.
Growing up in the wrestling business, the young Johnson not only had his toys like any kid, but also made a Joe connection through the world of the squared circle that his father, Rocky Johnson, inhabited. "When I was 11, 12 years old, all I played with was G.I. Joes and my Star Wars. I had a massive collection of both and at that time, the WWE, which was known as WWF didn't have dolls come out yet. They were about a year later, they had their first dolls created. Then I was a massive fan of Sergeant Slaughter and about Sergeant Slaughter, if you guys don't know his character, great guy, drill sergeant and I remember meeting him backstage and my biggest thing with him was I always just wanted to see his riding crop."
"He has a crop that he used to hit big guys with in the world of wrestling, and he was always so nice and so gracious. When he was a G.I. Joe, that then took it to a whole 'nother level. Then you tap into my turbo nerd when that happens!" When a guy who looks like Dwayne Johnson is calling himself a nerd, you know the world and the meaning of that word ain't what they once were.
As mindful of toy traditions as he is those of the ring, the "People's Champ" understands the honor of becoming a plaything for smaller people, saying, "I've had action figures in the past whether they were the Rock or the Scorpion King or some other characters that I've played and they've all been cool and great, that's cool, but to get my own G.I. Joe is extra cool because if you guys don't know the very first action figure ever made was a G..I Joe action figure, ever, after the war. That's a big deal in what it represented."
Though his awe doesn't keep him from occasionally laying the smack down on Hasbro, as he carefully inspects the figures and says things like, "My quads got to be a little bit bigger, so you got to make my arms a little bit bigger!" He notes there will be a figure with the correct tattoos very soon (current versions on shelves either have none, or Snake Eyes' Arashikage red tat).
Director Chu credits the '80s action figures with inspiring him to want to direct, recalling that "literally, I would play with toys all the time in my backyard, go to school, come back, continue the story. It would go on for weeks. It was always G.I. Joes. An arm would fall off and that would be even better because the adventure would get more interesting. It's where I fell in love with storytelling. I'm sure of it." [Don't worry, parents, he didn't recreate any amputations in the film.]
Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura loved that about Chu, and in what could be considered a thinly veiled slam at other toy-movie directors, he pointed out that "one of the great things when I first sat down with John is I understood how deeply embedded the DNA of G.I. Joe was inside of him...sometimes with the genre a couple things can happen. One is that some people are almost embarrassed that they're really doing it and so they're trying to cover it up by doing something else. I knew that there would be a swagger, a confidence about the characters because he knew who they were. He didn't have to try and make them different than what they were. It was make them all of what they were going to be."
And he did. For once, the love of the original action figures shows through.