Dwayne The Rock Johnson’s performance in HBO’s Ballers is better than his movies


Dwayne The Rock Johnson has become known to all far and wide as the hardest working man in Hollywood. His movies, seemingly coming off of an assembly line, always have mixed commercial and critical responses. However, The Rock’s HBO series Ballers might be his best work to date.

Ballers is an original HBO production that is about a retired football player trying to get a second lease on life by becoming a financial advisor to other sports stars. The series features an in-depth look at the inner workings of the sport industry; the players, their family, and friends, as well as their handlers, as per the show’s tag. The show is produced in part by Dwayne Johnson himself and his Seven Bucks Production company.

Ballers sees Johnson in the lead role of Spencer Strasmore, as he tries to navigate life after the game, and build a name for himself as a responsible financial manager. It’s an uphill battle given the flashy football industry, the egos, and many other challenges facing him. However, Ballers offers Johnson the role of a lifetime, and he scores a massive touchdown. Pun obviously intended.

In many ways, Johnson’s performance in Ballers is better than any of his films.

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Television offers freedom

Dwayne Johnson’s movie career is by no means struggling, with almost every movie being declared a commercial blockbuster, despite critical receptions. Johnson is considered one of, if not the, most successful actor currently working in the industry.

However, the recent critical reception of his movies hasn’t been the best. Baywatch and Skyscraper have been written off by critics, and even the successful movies, like San Andreas and Rampage, are only kind-of-so-so from a critical perspective. The reason for this could easily be the fact that, while Johnson is a draw, the quality of the movie ultimately still boils down to story and direction. If the character isn’t written well and the story is lacking, no amount of gym-sculpted charm or social media savvy can save it.

Photo: Jeff Daly/courtesy of HBO/acquired from HBO Medium /

Ballers, however, is serialized long form content on television, that allows a bit more movement of freedom when it comes to storytelling. The format of TV allows audiences to grow into the character of Spencer Strasmore, over a weekly viewing routine. The long form format of television also allows the show runner and writers to course correct the show from season to season, based on fan and critical reactions. Something that a movie cannot do.

Being a television show, Ballers definitely allows Johnson the room and freedom to breathe in this role more so than a feature film, so he himself can live with a character for longer than a few months, fine tuning his portrayal and digging deep into the skin of the character. All of this translate on-screen into being one of the most nuanced and layered performances of his career.

BALLERS — photo: Jeff Daly/courtesy of HBO — acquired via HBO Media Relations
BALLERS — photo: Jeff Daly/courtesy of HBO — acquired via HBO Media Relations /

The protagonist isn’t a hero

Another aspect of Ballers that adds to Johnson’s performance is the fact that the character he’s playing isn’t a clear-cut hero archetype, despite Johnson’s natural ability to be typecast into it. While his film roles have either played to his physical strengths (Skyscraper, Baywatch) or subverted it, (Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, Be Cool) Ballers depicts the character as someone trying to climb out of hardship. It’s a more emotional and intellectual challenge for the actor, than a physical one.

Strasmore isn’t heroic; He’s not there to save the day. In the first two seasons the character barely knew what to do, which was his journey. It’s very much a story where this well-dressed, well spoken and physically perfect character, is unlike any of those things that he exhibits to the world. He’s flawed, in many ways broken, both emotionally and physically, and is trying to reshape his purpose in a world that he’s very much left behind in one capacity; all the while pretending like he knows what he’s doing.

Photo: Jeff Daly/courtesy of HBO/acquired from HBO Medium /

Big guy shows vulnerability

Another by-product of playing a character that isn’t a hero, is that Johnson gets many opportunities to display genuine emotion and vulnerability, while conveying an outwardly image that wouldn’t normally speak to those attributes.

While his physique can, at times, take away from the range of emotions he might be asked to display in a 2 hour block buster entertainer, Ballers doesn’t shy away from stripping away all of that and showcasing a character that in moments, might just break into tears.

What’s refreshing about this depiction also is that it’s not handled in a manner that’s clichéd. The character could easily play upset and vulnerable in a more typical manner to his back story– being aggressive, violent and going on rage filled table flipping benders– but it would take away from the kind of character Johnson plays in the larger context of the show.

It’s also amazing to see an actor with the charm and larger than life personality of ‘The Rock’, play a character that’s not the biggest fish in the pond. Strasmore is constantly knocked down by characters that are richer, more powerful and have a higher professional status than him in this fictional world. And seeing him just take it is also further reinforces the fact that physical strength does not always equal power.

Photo Credit: Jeff Daly/HBO/Ballers /

Shoulder the responsibility

Ballers‘ success can also be attributed to the fact that, despite his work ethic, the show is not entirely reliant on Johnson’s character and his story arc. The makers have done an amazing job of selecting a great supporting cast that portrays incredibly well written characters that fit this high-powered world, and all of whom support, and thereby enhance, Johnson that much more.

A Rock movie is usually just that; a movie built around Johnson’s presence. Even ensemble casts that he’s been added to, have been overshadowed, in a good way, by Johnson’s presence. With Ballers being an ensemble show that is centered around Johnson and his character, the pressure of carrying the entire thing on his own is spread across his shoulders more evenly.

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While Dwayne Johnson’s film career is most likely here to stay, with multiple releases planned over the next few years, his one television stint with HBO’s Ballers gives the actor a lot more to work with and allows him to give his best performance to date.

Ballers airs on Sundays on HBO.