‘Young Rock’ Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan on Writing Wrestling Icons and Striking a Balance Between Real-Life Hardships and Humor

Nahnatchka Khan grew up watching wrestling legends like “The Iron Sheik” with her Iranian immigrant family on Saturday nights in the 1980s. Fast-forward to now, and the showrunner of NBC’s “Young Rock” is hoping you’ll sit down with your family and watch her adaptation of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s life on Tuesday nights.

Khan is in familiar territory, as she was also the creator and executive producer of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” another sitcom inspired by a real person (Taiwanese-American restaurateur, Eddie Huang). But, retelling and reimagining in a way that felt revealing for someone as well-known as “The Rock” was a unique challenge.

Ahead of the series premiere of “Young Rock,” Khan talks with Variety about those challenges, including writing and casting real-life icons.

What was the process like to sit with Dwayne and get his real-life stories to use in the script?

We had a bunch of what we like to call “storytelling sessions” at the very beginning, and Dwayne would just tell us different stories about his life. It really helped us identify the seminal moments in his life that shaped him and the different, maybe surprising perspectives that the audience wouldn’t actually know, since he’s one of the most famous people on the planet. We tried to answer how to tell a story about someone that you can’t just Google and find out. He was amazing and open and super collaborative.

The cast’s diversity appears to be authentic to Dwayne’s life; was he involved in any of the casting decisions?

Our amazing casting directors, Anya Colloff, Amanda Mitchell and Michael V. Nicolo, headed up a global search for these roles. We had been following a roadmap of Dwayne’s life, his family and where he came from. It was a tall order, and we wanted to get it right and we wanted Dwayne to feel great about all of it, so we got him and his team at Seven Bucks Productions involved. I’m so proud of the cast we assembled; having to cast three young Dwayne’s was in and of itself really challenging. I think it will make the authenticity of his experience come through.

Why did you decide to focus on three particular ages in Season 1? And, why did you also incorporate that huge time jump into presidential candidate “The Rock” in 2032?

We’re starting with 2032 because we were looking for a framework that felt organic and that could bring in multiple timelines. It made sense to me that if Dwayne was looking back on his life this way, then we can also look forward, which is where the future timeline came in. We’re able to give him an interesting arc for the future. I sat down with [executive producer and writer] Jeff Chiang with all of these notes, and we looked through them and started to identify three moments as a great starting place to introduce people to Dwayne’s world. When he’s 10-years-old he’s living in Hawaii in 1982 with his immediate family and also the wrestlers that kind of became his extended family, and the way he was shaped at a young age. Then, we jump ahead to 15 when he’s in Bethlehem, Pa. He has a lot of stories about how money was really tight for them and his dad couldn’t get work easily. I think a lot of people can relate to that struggle, and I wanted to tell stories from that era of Dwayne’s life because, again, we know that he ends up OK and he overcomes these hardships. And, then, the University of Miami period to me was also really interesting because this is where he thinks he’s found this path and he thinks his future is the NFL. He’s recruited right out of high school to go to this super high-profile football school. He thinks this is how he is going to change his life and support his family, and then his dream gets deferred a little bit. We see how he responds to that and why he obviously didn’t end up going down that road even if in that timeline, he believes that is what his future is. And then we just put it all together.

What do you think is the most effective way to strike a balance between comedy and actual serious hardships in a show?

For this particular project it is about Dwayne himself and he is successful, well-known and famous. I think audiences can live a little more in those moments of emotions and hardship because they’re not necessarily worried on a level of, “Oh my God, is this kid gonna be OK?!” But, the question becomes more about showing how he got through it and showing if there’s something optimistic about it. I think it will be surprising for audiences because they all think they already know who he is. I think for our storytelling, we make it entertaining and we make it fun, but in order for audiences to really care about these characters and connect with them, you have to make them feel like they’re real people that you could actually know. I think we accomplished that and that’s something I’m really proud of.

How do you think your experience working on “Fresh Off the Boat” prepared you for “Young Rock”?

There are a lot of elements, but at the heart of it is that it’s a family comedy, and that gives us an understanding of the kinds of stories we can tell. But, knowing that we were telling the life of someone who is worldwide famous gave us new storytelling devices. Every project is different. I think the challenge of this one, for me, was that people are going to feel like, “Oh, I know Dwayne Johnson. I know his story so I don’t really need to watch it.’” I think it was about inviting people in and showing them elements that they can’t find by searching him online or by looking at his Wikipedia way. We wanted to make him more “human” in a way, and accessible in a way that people hadn’t seen yet.

Did you grow up watching Dwayne’s college football or wrestling career, or did you mostly know of him through his acting career?

I was definitely a fan of his acting career. I watched wrestling when I was a kid with my whole family. That mid-’80s wrestling era is very nostalgic for me. You know, this is so random but my brother [Nick Khan] was a huge wrestling fan and he sort of spearheaded the viewing in our house, and now he’s the president of the WWE and works with the CEO Vince McMahon. Anyway, it was such a big part of my experience growing up. My whole family is from Iran, so the Iron Sheik [Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri] was a big hero in our house, even if his ring persona was a villain. He was the only person on television that we ever saw that had our accent, and that looked like us. On Saturdays, my grandmother and my aunts and my uncles would all come over to watch the matches my brother would tape. Creating this transported me back to that time, and it was a visceral feeling for me.

You weren’t only in charge of adapting Dwayne’s life, you were also in charge of the way you were adapting the lives of several wrestling icons. What was it like to have all of this responsibility?

It was really exciting and a real challenge; first, the casting part because they’re known legends and we all know what they’re supposed to look and sound like, so we have to hit that bullseye. And, again, credit to the casting team. Then there’s the other part where you need to write them, and you want to approach it from Little Dwayne’s perspective about what André the Giant was like outside of the ring and what his relationship was like with the Wild Samoans and the Junkyard Dog. Just listening to [Dwayne] talk about all of these people for us was invaluable because we could take it back and craft these guys as not who they’re performing in the ring, but who they actually are. Through this, we also found out who was similar to who they were on the ring, like “Macho Man” Randy Savage, who apparently is just always larger than life.

“Young Rock” premieres Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. on NBC.

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