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EXCLUSIVE: John Cena on how he learned to stop worrying and love being a movie star

William Mullally

Published: Updated:

It’s early December and when I walk into the room, John Cena is waiting for me. I expected there to be a camera crew, but instead, it’s just me and him. He picks up on my confusion.

“I’m not dressed for cameras, man,” he says to me.

“That’s one of your better suits, honestly. No offense,” I say.

Cena is in Dubai to promote his new animated feature Ferdinand, based on the classic children’s book. He plays the titular character—a bull who, unlike all the other bulls, doesn’t want to fight the matador. In the film, Ferdinand is a towering presence, more physically gifted than any of the other bulls. Even so, he’s a gentle giant, one with respect for all those around him, regardless of age, size, or background.

The same could be said for John Cena. A non-fan of the sport might think that the 16-time WWE champion was all ruthless aggression, a mindless brute built for action films. If you watch him closely in the ring, however, you’ll see a much different man than you’d expect.

No pro-wrestler takes more care of their opponent, works more safely and deliberately, than John Cena. Sure, he’ll take risks, but in a John Cena match, the intrigue is often found in the character, the moment, and the story being told—a far cry from the blood-soaked hardcore matches that permeated the sport in the late 90s.

I’m wearing a bright-red shirt with a bright-red jacket. Cena picks up on this, too.

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“You were like, ‘oh, I’ll go for the matador’s cape red’,” Cena says to me. “Little did you realize that the book that’s over 80 years old has a famous red cover. You view things one way, I view them another.”

Cena himself is viewed two ways. To wrestling fans, he’s a living legend. For 15 years, after pro wrestling’s peak popularity in the late 90s and early 2000s, John Cena carried the industry on his back, a perennial top draw and one of the few from the era to gain mainstream fame. To film fans, he’s still, in many ways, unproven. In the past few years, he’s become a scene-stealer in supporting roles, but he’s yet to carry a huge tent-pole project on his own—at least until he joins the Transformers universe next year.

That duality is not lost on Cena. He knows he’s a mega-star in one field and a up-and-comer in another. Rather than approach this new world with frustration, he’s without ego, carrying himself with a calm generosity of spirit, full of passion for what the future holds, reflective on how he ascended one peak, and still figuring out how to use those lessons to climb the next.

Cena and I were supposed to talk for a few minutes. We ended up talking for 20.

Read and listen to the full conversation below:

When did you first read the book?

After I did the movie. I was well aware of the book. It’s been showcased in the famous monologue in the movie Blindside with Sandra Bullock about the giant offensive tackle. The story reaches so many folks, and has been publicized and popularized for so long. I had just never read it until after the movie.

What did you take away from the book once you read it?

What a timeless wonderful story about being yourself. It consistently says, ‘All the other bulls, all they wanted to do was fight! Not Ferdinand, he just wanted to smell the flowers and he was happy’. There’s a wonderful excerpt from the book where Ferdinand’s mom enquires. She says, ‘Ferdinand, why don’t you run away and fight!’ Ferdinand says, ‘No I’m happy!’

There’s a wonderful line, and keep in mind that it’s 80 years old, ‘His mother, even though she was a cow, understood that Ferdinand wouldn’t be lonely and was happy.’ It’s a really cool message to send that long ago. The book holds up today. It’s really good.

When you were about to sign on for the film, were you concerned about capturing that same spirit?

No, I guess it’s just a weird sense of confidence that I have in the folks around me. They came to me, wanted to know if I would be Ferdinand, and I said I would be honored to be Ferdinand. The reason I didn’t read the book before is that the book is very short and the movie is very long and I didn’t want to get too held down by the book to put any inhibitions or preconceived notions in my head about the movie. They created a bunch of new characters for the movie, and they created a different world for the movie, but it really is fantastic. It was a great honor to be chosen and it was something I went into with zero inhibitions.

What was the most memorable part of the process for you?

Seeing the animators when you’re voicing your character. You can see that they are meant to do what they do. They are so imaginative, and they have a world in their head, and they use their skills to bring it to life. I love storytelling, man. I could waste all your data on the phone about the dynamics of storytelling.

I could too.

Especially, I gravitate towards storytelling in front of a live audience because you can see and feel and experience the reaction. My audience in the sound-booth is two animators and [the director] Carlos. You could see them get excited and feel them wanting to create things. Seeing the movie is something special, but it was really cool to be like, ‘Yeah, those people love their job. This is awesome.’ I knew in the first voice session that I was in good hands, and that this was going to be great.

What did you originally intend your film career to be? Did you think that you were going to be a Marine action hero the entire time?

Originally my film career was a direction from upper management in WWE—like, ‘Hey, go do movies.’ Originally what I wanted my film career to be was an extension of the WWE business model. I understood. WWE studios opened in 2003/2004, they began to film movies, and the model of the business was, ‘if we can make our stars bigger stars, they will come to see WWE’. Well, that’s what I wanted, but I didn’t want to go do movies.

The process of making a movie is so different. It takes a long time, it takes a lot of people, and there’s nobody cheering you on. As a younger man I really was drawn, and still am, to the dynamic of a live audience, and the live experience of ‘just out there and see what happens’. But 15 years of telling stories in the WWE ring, the constant passion, loving my job every day, I began to ask why.

As a young man, I didn’t have the perspective. It was, ‘Oh, because I want to be champion, and I want to do this or that!’ Now, after all these years, it’s like, why do I still love this? I love telling stories, man. I love telling stories. That’s something that I didn’t enjoy on multiple platforms in 2005-2006. Now you can see I enjoy helping with morning shows, doing tonight show bits, hosting, doing R-rated comedies, doing family movies, still doing WWE, being on reality TV. I think I’m just drawn to the creative process. Now with more experience and a more comfortable feeling in my own right in WWE, I’m confident enough to use those skills elsewhere.

In this film, you have to use your comedic skills. Speaking as a film critic, obviously you may feel differently, but I feel you’ve found your voice on screen in comedy.

Thank you very much.

What made you gravitate towards comedy, and how did you find your comedic voice on screen?

I don’t think it’s a gravity, I think it’s an ability to not be worried about what other people think. As a young Superstar in WWE, because entertainment is so fickle and one day it can be there and one day it can’t, you are just so worried about doing the wrong thing because you’re so worried that it will all be over.

You get to a certain point, and trust me I have great perspective on this, where I’ve been fortunate enough to say, when people ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’ My answer is that I’m a storyteller. I get that one day that will end, but I’ve been able to make a living out of it.

I’m to the point now where, especially in front of live audiences, they eat you alive. There’s an entire audience that chant ‘Cena sucks!’ when I come out there. You’ve got to understand that this is a decade and a half of being viewed by a large portion of the audience as the not coolest M-F that walks the planet. I’ve already been called everything. I’ve already been criticized. I’ve already been fed to the wolves, so to speak. I’ll just be me, and I’ll go for it, and you hit some and you miss some and that’s that. But at least you’re not performing and holding back.

I think that’s a lot of the case in comedy, because a lot of it is just the experience of our life put out there for people to digest. You have to be vulnerable enough to be like, ‘Hey, laugh at this part of my life! Laugh at my confusion! Laugh at my setbacks! Laugh at my failures! Laugh at my emotional distress!’ To me that’s what a lot of comedy is. It’s being able to purge yourself of that in an environment where people laugh at it.

On Edge and Christian’s podcast you were talking about how what the next generation of WWE talent needs to focus on is taking risks.

Yes.

Going out there and not knowing what people are thinking, just trying something new. Not worrying about what [WWE Chairman] Vince McMahon is thinking.

Yes.

How are you applying that to your film career?

By reading stories and attaching myself to them. If I can’t read a script in one sitting, it’s out. I don’t care how good it is and I don’t care who’s doing it, I would be doing the production, the director and the cast a disservice if I didn’t attach to the story. Step one is loving the material like I love wrestling. That’s why wrestling is—I don’t want to say easy, but I have a home there. I can take the pieces and create something I feel people will attach themselves to. That was what made me successful in WWE, so I’m taking the same approach to movies.

Step one, read it, and love it. And then step two, don’t be married to a certain facet of the story. Read it and love it but I have to play character A. My manager is the guy who’s going to write all the agreements and say ‘this is the movie we’re going to do’. But there are films where I say, ‘I just want to be in this’. Because it’s that important, I ask, ‘is there any way I can help out?’

That’s also a key to my success in the WWE—taking any way I can be out there to show my craft to contribute to this. If it’s something you read, and it’s something you’re passionate about, you understand all the pieces, and you can fit pretty much anywhere.

Acting is very interpretive and very different for everybody, but it’s the art of telling stories. When you tell a good story, a captivating story, you have to be comfortable. These little tricks that I’m developing now by looking back at my 15 years in WWE to see what it was about that that made my heart beat every day and still does, I just translate those things and translate them the big screen.

Then, once I get attached to something, I have faith in the people making it. No mater if it’s a first-time director or an experienced director, I trust in them, and I always have a conversation with them where I say, ‘Listen, I’m just getting my feet wet in this.’

It’s also because it’s their movie, very much like it is Vince’s story. I can go to Vince and just say, ‘This is the story that you want, this is how I’d like to create it.’ That’s fine. You have the same relationship with a director. I think it’s also about understanding where you are. I don’t play director, because I’m not the director. I don’t play Vince, because I’m not Vince.

Once again, it’s just my perspective. It’s also a successful model that’s worked in something. I tried movies before, and man, it was like pulling teeth because I didn’t use that approach. I ended up growing a poor taste in my mouth towards movies. I was like, ‘Why? Why? It doesn’t correlate!’ It wasn’t until later on in my career that I realized, it’s not that I’m hateful towards movies, or that I don’t appreciate the process, I was just choosing the wrong projects.

What was the turning point for you, when you really fell in love with film?

When I got to be an idiot—because I’m an idiot! If you look at the stuff I do in WWE, yes there comes a time when the line is crossed, and I do have a moral ethos and I fight for that, but in front of the audience, I’m not afraid to be the butt of a joke. I’m not afraid to bring my life out there. Every time, and in a very genuine sense, and you can ask anyone I’ve ever stood in the ring with, I always tell them to come at me with their best shot.

It’s about being comfortable enough in your environment to just enjoy it and see what happens. I have the WWE Universe to thank because it’s the repeated process of facing that sort of adversity every day and it never getting to you and you being like, ‘Meh, sun’s still up! Still a good time! Still a good day!’ So I don’t know.

Once again, I’m very thankful and happy for all this stuff, and I realize that one day it’s there and the next day it’s gone, so I’m enjoying it right now and I’m trying to figure out, ‘What is it about this that worked? Why did it work?’ But not too obsessive because you don’t want to make it this weird formula and it all breaks and it’s all gone.

Having a stringent schedule and selection process, what are some of the projects you turned down?

Scheduling is not a problem. That’s one of my strong points, to make time out of nowhere.

I don’t know how you do it, man.

Well, I love all the stuff that I’m doing. We’re doing a pretty whirlwind tour, but it’s easy because I love the movie, man. It’s easy to sit down and talk about the movie, about the book, about the WWE, about stuff coming up. Stuff that I’ve turned down—a lot of it, because it was in the last few years, hasn’t made it to the screen yet.

A lot of the stuff that I did turn down was similar-style action direct-to-DVD movies from 2007 to 2014. I had a wonderful opportunity to make a hell of a living doing those projects and I turned down more than I could remember because I‘d rather be in the ring. Then along came the movies that began to give me confidence.

Believe it or not, I loved doing the Fred movies. I lived in a refrigerator as the WWE John Cena character and go to be the biggest goofball ever and I realized, whoa, this is fun again. I then started cutting my teeth by hosting some ESPN stuff and then a little bit of the Today Show, then some Tonight Show bits, and it was all because I felt comfortable. I guess back that long ago I just didn’t feel comfortable, you know?

One of the reason that you’re going out there and dealing with a crowd that’s booing you, saying “John Cena sucks” even if it’s it might be in jest at this point…

Even if it’s not, they’re entitled to say what they want.

Sure, there’s always that one guy.

A lot of times it’s more than one guy.

[Laughs] Fair. But if I’m to speculate, one of the reasons that you stick to the character, stick to the ethos of your character, is that you’re thinking about the kids in the audience. You’re thinking about the Make-a-Wish kids who are coming to you. The people who have talked about how they helped their mother get over cancer because of what you inspired in them.

How much of that do you see in a project like Ferdinand where you also have a really strong message as well?

I think it’s great when you can put together a project that people are attached to that can also begin to talk about things like that. It’s great that you can talk about a character essentially in professional wrestling/sports entertainment and be able to do your job and affect people outside of your job. That’s really important. Keep in mind, I said, once again, I’m not Vince. So if Vince tells me tomorrow he wants me to be a bad guy, I’ll take my best shot at being the best bad guy I can. But you’ve got to understand, while I’m supposed to do things the way I’m supposed to do them, how I paint with the paintbrush is up to me.

I’m very aware first hand, because of the people that I meet, the effect that something as simple as WWE can have on their lives. That’s really cool, man—to be able to do something like that, to make a movie like this, and for people to watch the movie as intended and laugh and cry and do whatever, and then after the movie to be like, ‘Wow, that was good. I’m going to take something away and talk about it or modify my life about it or maybe it will help me get through a tough time.’

I get more satisfaction out of ‘hey man, you helped me through a real tough time’ than ‘hey man, that match was great’. We have so many matches all the time. When they remember single matches they don’t necessarily remember you. When they say, ‘Oh man that match with Punk, yeah, it was great when he walked out with the title!’ It’s because it’s a story of man against establishment.

I think that’s why that rings. If I asked any of those people to tell me three or four moves from that match—I’m kind of putting myself in the corner here because I only have three or four moves so they’ll just tell me those three or four moves—but it’s the story of the match. A lot of those times, when we tell those stories, it affects people’s lives outside of that seat in the arena, and dude, that’s the coolest feeling ever.

Where do you want to go from here? You have Bumblebee coming up…

Yep.

How’s that going so far?

Wrapped. I know all the secrets!

I’d ask more but obviously you’ve signed 10,000 NDAs.

Yeah, man. I think it’s going to be a wonderful way to keep a great franchise alive and I’m really excited for it.

Where are you going from there?

Calendar-wise, the Road to Wrestlemania is right around the corner. I’ve got some other things in the works for ’18, stuff that’s already in the can, but once again, we’ll talk about that hopefully when we need to talk about it when I’m back in the UAE.

Anyone you want to face at Wrestlemania next year?

Aw I’m never in the picking business, man. I might have mentioned that on Edge and Christian’s podcast. Don’t play Vince if you’re not Vince. The best way to love what you do in that respect is to say, hey, here’s what’s going to happen, and then say, hey, I’m going to make this effin’ awesome.