Behind every successful person, there’s a tale of how they climbed the ladder. The highs and lows, trials and tribulations, and the chaos happening on the rise to success. NBC’s new hit comedy series Young Rock explores the life of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson from when he was a young child, through his teens, and into his young adulthood, showing how the different experiences at each stage of life has readied him for his fictional presidential campaign in 2032.
Taj Cross of Hulu’s PEN15 fame takes on the role of Gabe in the series, 15-year-old Dwayne’s (Bradley Constant) best friend. The two find themselves doing their best to impress girls, look cool, and have fun in high school. Though they don’t escape without a few bumps and bruises from reality checks along the way.
The fun dynamic between Gabe and Dwayne on-screen can be credited to the awesome chemistry between Taj and Bradley. The two set a tone as if they’ve been friends since kids and have seen each other through the awkward trials of pre-teen life without there being a doubt that they’ll continue to stick together through the rest.
“Oh, it was so fun working with Bradley because we would get on set and we would always have a fun time shooting,” the actor says. He continues, “It really did come naturally, that almost friends-for-life kind of relationship. You know, how they’re not scared to share their opinion with each other and be real with each other. They just know each other so well that it shows.”
Taj recalls building that bond off-set when the cast filmed together in Australia due to the COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions forcing production to move from Los Angeles. “We were all staying in the same hotel [in Australia],” he says. “So it wasn’t like [we] shoot one day and then go back to our own home and then see each other the next day we happen to shoot together. We were going back in the same car; we were going to dinners, lunches together, breakfast together. So that’s where the chemistry really kicked in and it was such an honor to work with him and it was so fun.”
Everyone had like little secret handshakes together with the crew.
Travelling to Australia to shoot Young Rock marked Taj’s first time in the country. “It was incredible,” he says, the awe still present in voice. “I had a great experience in Australia, with shooting Young Rock and, secondly, Australia is very beautiful.” He adds that having the entire cast staying in the hotel helped not only build chemistry between the actors but it also brought a lot of joy and entertainment to their stay.
“It was really fun hanging with everybody because the cast was so lovely, so amazing and nice and welcoming.” He mentions how the vibe on set was incredible too, saying, “It was probably one of the smoothest, chilliest sets I’ve ever been on. Everybody was so chill and everybody cracked jokes whenever they could. The crew was amazing.” Taj continues, “Everyone had like little secret handshakes together with the crew.”
With a great experience on-set, it also didn’t hurt that the actor was able to take a trip to enjoy the wonderful sights while in Australia. “During a three-week break that I had, I was able to take a little vacation to Byron Bay, and that was very beautiful.”
While the adventures that Gabe experiences with Dwayne on Young Rock aren’t quite the same, Taj teases, “They get in a lot more trouble together. And Dwayne keeps holding onto what his dad told him about working the gimmick, and he realizes that working the gimmick can lead him into a bad spot.”
Despite the situations that the two may find themselves in, it’s almost certain that Gabe will have an idea of how to get them out of it. Whether the idea is a good one, or the best way to leave the situation, will be seen.
“Gabe is very enthusiastic, very active. He’s quick with an opinion,” Taj describes of his character. “He loves adventures, as in parties, girls – that kind of adventure.” he explains with a laugh. “He’s Dwayne’s right-hand man, his wingman, his partner-in-crime. He helps him out with everything and he’s a little bit of a problem solver as well.”
With Dwayne Johnson being one of the biggest and most successful actors and entrepreneurs around, it makes it hard to have not known about the man before the show. Some people grew up familiar with him as a wrestler and others are more familiar with his projects in Hollywood. Taj falls into the second category.
I realized in Young Rock that it’s really helpful to interact with directors and ask questions, throw out ideas, take suggestions, ask if they have any notes.
“I actually never watched him with wrestling, but I got into being a fan of his when he got into acting and did all those legendary comedy movies,” he says, adding how he loves seeing The Rock opposite comedic actors Kevin Hart and Jack Black. “So yeah, I can definitely say I was a fan of his. It was already such an amazing experience to even audition for one of his movies or shows, and it’s obviously such an even greater experience to work on it.”
Being a fan of Dwayne Johnson and bringing the stories inspired by his life to the screen is a cool experience, according to the actor. “It touches a place that not a lot of movies do because it’s about his family and everything he went through,” Taj says. “It’s literally about his experiences, and I think that really held an importance to it. Not many movies or shows have that level of importance like that or a level of personal value. I think that really added to the show and people’s performances on it.”
It comes as no surprise then when asked by TEENPLICITY if Taj could have Gabe cross the show’s timelines and interact with any other character/person featured, he picked the man himself.
“This might be an obvious answer but I’m gonna go with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I think that would be hilarious, seeing their friendship in that timeline.” Due to his busy schedule, Dwayne filmed his scenes in Atlanta, although Taj gushes that it would be incredible to one day work opposite of him.
As the show spans the different times and moments in Dwayne’s life, Taj is getting to enjoy some parts of the series for the first time with audiences. Discussing who in the cast he’s excited to see bring the story to life every week on NBC, the actor says, “Ooooh, everybody!”
He loops back to the fact that almost all of the cast stayed at the same hotel. “I got to know mostly everybody,” he says, crediting it to that experience. “So it’s really fun to see all the little pieces that I didn’t get to see on set, like ‘Oh, what is Matt going to do?’ – Matt Willig plays Andre the Giant. He was so funny; he did the accent so well! Or Lexie Duncan [who] plays Fine Ass Karen. I can’t really say a certain person,” Taj says, struggling for a moment to pick one cast member in particular before deciding. “I think I’m actually just going to say Matt Willig because he was so funny as Andre the Giant.”
With Young Rock focusing on the life of the famed actor and wrestler, TEENPLICITY asked Taj what other person he’d like to tell the story of.
“I think I’m going to have to go with Heath Ledger,” he says. “Heath Ledger was and still is a huge inspiration of mine and I think his story is magnificent.” Taj cites The Dark Knight, Heath’s take on the Joker, as what really stuck with him. “His performance in that was one of the main things that inspired me to start acting in film, because at the time I was doing musical theater. [The Dark Knight] was one of the main things that pushed me to think of the idea, ‘Oh, that looks really fun! And cool!’ Like, look what someone can accomplish.”
As Taj continues to explore his passion of acting, he learns from each experience he has. Talking about his time on Young Rock, the actor says of what he’s learned from the series, “I learned how to interact with the castmates and crew, as in really get to know the castmates and almost play off of the way that we work. Since we’re all professionals, I love going in there and rehearsing.”
I think they honestly kicked it up a notch with part two of season two… So be ready.
He adds, “I learned how to really function and throw out ideas and take suggestions from castmates. Also I learned how to interact with directors. On PEN15, I was a little scared because it was my first acting job. I was a little scared to interact and ask questions, because, you know, directors – ‘That’s a big job, I shouldn’t step in their lane and talk to them. They’re busy!’” Though those were the thoughts that used to go through his head, Young Rock helped him gain confidence. “I realized in Young Rock that it’s really helpful to interact with directors and ask questions, throw out ideas, take suggestions, ask if they have any notes. And I think that really upgraded my performance.”
Thinking of how he approached PEN15 compared to how he approached Young Rock, he remembers being really scared to ask directors questions during the first season of the Hulu series. “I wasn’t a new actor but I was a new actor to [being] on-screen. It was really hard to not look at the giant camera staring at me in the face two feet away from me,” he recalls with a laugh as he continues to reminiscence on his time during PEN15.
“In season two, I got more comfortable with it. That really helped me move over to [Young Rock].” Taj brings up one moment while filming the Young Rock pilot, adding that the footage didn’t make it into the episode. “The scene where [Gabe] and Dwayne got the new car and we pulled up to look at those girls. While we were driving, they had this car in front of us with this giant arm with this camera. And you could swing it around the car. It was so hard,” he begins, laughter filling his voice as he continues, “not to just look at this giant swing [camera] moving in front of us. But my experience with PEN really helped me out in that situation.”
The second half of PEN15’s second season is due to premiere this year and Taj teases what fans can expect from the new episodes. Amusement, and some slight second-hand embarrassment from thinking of the situations of what’s to come, litter his voice as he says of the new episodes, “So much to come, so much of the same stuff, [and] same old cringe-worthy experiences.”
A laugh breaks through Taj’s thoughts as he shares, “I can say I don’t understand how people binge-watch [PEN15]. I tried to but I could not. It was so uncomfortable for me to binge-watch, I had to stop halfway through.” Whether you binge all of the episodes at once or space them out for further enjoyment, the actor adds to his previous tease, “With the second half of season two, it’s just so much more [of] cringy, embarrassing middle school experiences. I think they honestly kicked it up a notch with part two of season two… So be ready.”
As his fans enjoy new episodes of Young Rock on NBC and eagerly anticipate the rest of PEN15, Taj is keeping himself busy with auditions. He keeps his fans in mind as he greets them, saying, “What’s up, guys?! What’s happening? Thank you, guys. I know I’m a weird person to watch but I appreciate all the support and I appreciate you guys!”
Young Rock airs Tuesdays on NBC and streams the next day.
PEN15 is set to drop the season half of season two on Hulu this year.
For all things Taj Cross, be sure to follow him on Instagram!