Hustle. Loyalty. Respect. O-faces.
Among the unlikely surprises of Amy Schumer’s rom-com Trainwreck, in a lineup of standouts that includes, of all people, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James, is a WWE pro better known these days for muscling around the ring with an air of heroic theatricality than mining comedy gold from his hypermasculine persona.
Yet there’s John Cena, cracking one-liners in the Judd Apatowverse as a sensitive Adonis named Steven. Antithetical to his hulking frame, he’s cringe-inducingly bad at dirty talk and rightfully insecure in his relationship with the philandering Amy (Schumer), his would-be “CrossFit queen.” The Champ gets dumped unceremoniously on a Manhattan stoop, but he walks away with our sympathy.
The left-field casting of wrestling’s biggest current superstar might come as a surprise to audiences. It marks the first in a series of mainstream crossover stabs Cena is taking at Hollywood—and he’s humbly aware he’s got work to do before he can reach The Rock-level ubiquity.
Cena has been trying to branch out from wrestling into the movies for almost a decade now with lukewarm results, most notably starring in a number of niche actioners from WWE Films, the company’s movie arm. But even going out for a project like Trainwreck, a major studio comedy, marked a career shift from his previous action hero turns in films like The Marine and 12 Rounds and his recurring role in the Fred: The Movie YouTube spin-off and its sequels.
Trainwreck, directed by dude-com king Judd Apatow and written and starring Schumer, allows a new side of Cena to escape from the macho mantle of John Cena, WWE Star. “I’ve been trying to extend the reach of what I can do,” Cena told The Daily Beast one recent afternoon in Santa Monica. “Although action seems like a natural progression, essentially when people watch the WWE, they see action. So comedy or drama is a much different way to go.”Critics have heaped praise on Cena for surprising in his scenes as the straight man, so to speak, to Schumer’s deadpan man-eater. He calls the role his “Holy Grail.” “I’m playing Steven, Amy’s estranged ex-boyfriend, and people casting aren’t going, ‘Oh, we should get John Cena so he can do the wrestling stuff. How can he suplex somebody in the film?’” he said. “I’m not in a situation where I can be really selective or demanding. So when this came about, if you would have asked me what I was looking to do, this was perfect.”
The Cenation Leader recalls being “extremely nervous” going in to audition for Apatow and Schumer, who were impressed by his off-script riffing and cast him in his biggest comedic role to date. Not once was he asked to suplex anyone, but Cena and Schumer went through, in his words, “an overly physical rehearsal” of a big mid-coitus sex scene originally written to include an array of sexual Olympics. Cena noted, with a gratified smile, that what made it to the screen instead was mostly improvised banter between the characters… capped by an eyeful of Cena’s tanned and toned body sporting a prosthetic penis, no less.
Somehow, after months of gossipy speculation and a long summer day’s worth of interviews, I’m the first person to ask Cena the Dolph Ziggler Question: Is he playing a veiled version of Schumer’s real-life ex, WWE wrestler Dolph Ziggler?
Cena answers, earnest and serious. “Why do you ask? A sexually-confused CrossFit instructor?” Ziggler, AKA Nick Nemeth, “is a good friend of mine,” Cena says, as if it’s the first time such a notion has crossed his mind. He looks me straight in the eye, with no inkling of humor. “Seems far from the Dolph Ziggler I see on Monday Night Raw. I don’t see the correlation.”
Purposefully grave moments like these ebb in and out of conversation with Cena, who’s protectively deferential to his position in the WWE and dresses the part in a sharply tailored suit and tie, all business. This despite appearing in an R-rated comedy filled with ribald sex gags, including an over-the-top orgasm scene that plays to the nosebleeds and made it into the red band trailer.
The Cena that WWE fans see every Monday in character as a patriotic, cargo shorts-wearing American hero wasn’t always so serious. The Massachusetts native and former college footballer made his WWE (then WWF) debut in 2000 and spent years struggling to nail down a ring persona. Success first struck when Cena brought his love of hip-hop into the ring, freestyling on the mic in his rivals’ faces and dropping verses on his own entrance song as the “Doctor of Thuganomics.”
Plenty of fans have begged Cena to bring back the rap gimmick (“I love Slaughterhouse,” he exclaims, adding that he still listens avidly to Jay-Z and Eminem). They wonder when he’ll finally turn heel and ditch the good guy shtick to jazz up his storyline and ratings. But Cena’s progressed too far towards his greater goals to do either, he says.
“The evolution of the character to the present state, that’s the long-term development. You’re talking a 15-year story arc,” he said. “I’ve had 10-year-old kids ask me why don’t I go back to rapping? When I was rapping, they were none. Not even one-year-old. Yes, they can see some of that [on the Internet] but it’s like when you get people to reminisce and they give you the ol’, ‘Back in my day this was awesome’…”
“Everyone says, well, back in this time you were better. No—I can show you factual information that we’re more successful now than we were then,” he said, pointing to the success of the WWE and its accelerated push to become more family-friendly in the last half decade. Like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson before him, Cena’s trying to find his place in mainstream Hollywood. Later this year, he’ll star opposite Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in the Universal comedy Sisters. For now, the difference is he’s still fully invested in his WWE career. “I love where I work,” he emphasizes, repeatedly praising the WWE.
It shows outside the ring. Cena made headlines when, last year, he became the first celebrity to grant 400 wishes as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation—bestowing wishes upon young children with life-threatening illnesses. He’s since exceeded that number, and remains the biggest wish-giver in the history of the program by a considerable margin.“I think it boils down to the fact that John connects with children in a really special way,” Josh deBerge, a spokesperson for Make-A-Wish, told Yahoo. “I think that (the kids) have seen not only how he performs in the ring but they’ve seen the great things he’s done outside the ring.”
At 38, Cena doesn’t see an end to his wrestling days in the near future. “I’m stronger than I’ve ever been,” he playfully declares.
Still, Cena—Doctor of Thuganomics, The Champ, Maker of Wishes—has already been plotting his long-game strategy. Trainwreck, and roles like it, are just the beginning. Last year he struck a deal to develop reality shows with the shingle behind Pawn Stars.
“I’m well aware that it’s a cycle of life,” he said. “You have your time in the ring, and your time is done... [My strategy] is to do good stuff. With the production deal, the same with searching for movie parts, the goal is simple: To be involved with good movies, not just to do movies.”