The joke is that John Cena cries.
I mean, yes, that is the running joke in Blockers, which aims to subvert the wrestling star’s image by casting him as an overly emotional dad. But it’s also the reality. John Cena cries. He’s a man—the manliest among us, really—and if there’s one thing he wants known, it’s that men are complicated. They contain multitudes. They cry, just like John Cena.
It’s actually the first thing we see him do in Blockers, the R-rated comedy out this week about a trio of teenage girls’ pact to lose their respective virginities on prom night, and their parents’ attempts to foil the plan. He plays Mitchell, an emotionally brittle dad who cries in that first scene, a flashback to his daughter’s first day of school, then again when she walks down the stairs on prom night, and again when they bond over how she’s matured into such a bright young woman near the end of the film.
Mitchell is an amplification of the type Cena played in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, a man so earnest and woke to his emotions that he’s not even able to engage in dirty talk during intercourse. I think he cries in that movie, too.
In addition to his burgeoning acting career, John Cena is one of the biggest wrestling stars on the WWE circuit, and has been for over a decade. So when Cena, a 250-pound monolith of bulging muscle and bulging veins cries, we know what the joke is supposed to be. We’re meant to find it unnatural or nonsensical, like Axe body spray with a lavender scent, or Fireball served as a spritzer.
“Right now in culture as a whole, everyone is kind of screaming at the top of their lungs that you what you see doesn’t define them,” he says. “As a 250-pound man, it’s OK for me to have feelings, to have emotions. I don’t have to brush everything off like I have granite shoulders.”
That’s the thing, though. Those shoulders. They’re like two chaise lounges, broad enough for you to recline on. That body, the one that’s made him a 13-time WWE Champion, the one built for throwing other 250-pound men around a ring for sport, is on full display in Blockers, first in a riotous scene in which he’s convinced to bend over and try butt-chugging while at a high school party, and another in which he’s stumbling around naked and blindfolded during sex play with his wife.
There’s the body, and there’s the voice, a bass that practically shakes my desk while we talk on the phone about his career and the surprisingly nuanced and timely message of Blockers, a film about antiquated gender dismissal, sexual agency, and consent that is perfectly timed to our Time’s Up cultural moment. Cena talks about all of that, passionately, eloquently, and is, generally speaking, disarmingly warm and upbeat while we speak.
“It was a long commute to the office today, but a good one!” he practically chirps, in so much as his deep voice can, as he recounts flying from Atlanta, where he filmed WWE’s Monday Night Raw, to Los Angeles for the Blockers premiere the night before. He’s excited to talk about it all, he says. Maybe now people will stop seeing him as “John Cena,” and start seeing him as John Cena. Just a guy. A guy who cries.
“Just because of what I do in the WWE, I walk into a press conference or interview and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been challenged to a fight, or someone’s said, ‘There’ll be no cage match today,’ talking me down from being violent,” he says.
In real life, he’s kind of a gush. He gushes over his fiancée, fellow WWE star Nikki Bella, whom he asked to marry him a year ago this week and she said yes and “instantly made me a better man,” he says. He recently watched the Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour on a plane and wept the entire way through. He’s not sure why. He just did.
There’s something comforting about talking to Cena, who, by the way, is very good in Blockers, holding his own against Leslie Mann and Ike Barinholtz, no small feat in a R-rated comedy. He’s not exactly a laugh riot, but he’s breezy and surprisingly easy to talk to. He calls me “brother,” and each time he does I get closer to signing up for CrossFit. That’s the thing about John Cena, and what our assumptions about him represent.
He’s not meant to be cool or a badass. Even in Blockers, he’s mocked for dressing—short-sleeved button-up tucked in to khaki shorts—like a youth minister. But he is meant to be aspirational of a certain kind of manliness: a gentle, dignified one. He’s clean cut and clean shaven, an all-American guy—albeit one who could send you dancing with the angels with one spring-loaded punch from his wrecking-ball sized fist. He’s the kind of man who is selected to host a television series called American Grit because that is exactly what he is.
And he’s careful about how he uses that image.
On WWE, he says, he’s always set himself apart from the other wrestlers, who trade in machismo and ego, blaming losses on the other guy cheating, demanding rematches, being sore losers. “I’m one of the few superstars, if not the only one, who time after time went out there and addressed the crowd saying, ‘I gave it my all. My all wasn’t the best. I was beaten by a better performer, but I’ll get back up, do it again, and keep going.’”
That’s the John Cena effect. He’s empowering. It's not that thing where you leave a conversation with him psyched up to destroy things, the way it is with other macho stars. But it's a thing where you leave ready to be your better self. No, not your better self. Your actual self, because that's pretty good already. John Cena thinks so.
In many respects, it’s kind of important that Cena, for all the assumptions you have about him and his masculinity, is in Blockers, a film from a female director, Kay Cannon (as he is the first to champion), that raises distinctly important conversations about our attitudes towards women and sex.
“I don’t think the point needs to be made with young women,” Cena says. “They know what’s going on. I think the people who need a little bit of an education are the blockheads like me.”
Cena grew up in Massachusetts as one of six boys, eventually going to high school at a private prep boarding school. (He missed his prom, he says, in order to pick up an extra shift at his on-campus job.)
“As a young man growing up, as far as sexual awareness, maybe in a wrong sort of sense, I sort of hit that curve at a very early age and became comfortable with it,” he says. “I think if you discussed more deeply love and commitment and that sort of thing, it took me until much later in life to realize the value of a relationship and the value of someone you care for’s company and commitment.”
We wonder out loud if he’s experienced a little bit of whiplash promoting this movie, where one conversation will veer from talk about female consent and the #MeToo movement to the mechanics of consuming alcohol through one’s rectum in a matter of seconds. “I’m smiling on the other end of the phone,” he says. “Because that’s art.”
I mean, sure. It is.
“Yes, I am naked in this movie,” he says. [Editor’s note: Hell yeah he is.] “I am exploring my sexuality. I am making sacrifices no matter what cost, not matter how humiliating. It’s a movie about what parents do for their kids, and young people taking control of their sexuality.” You’ll laugh a lot. “But you leave the theater talking about something more in-depth.”
For all the scoffing at a generation that purportedly values avocados over homeownership and is born with screens in their hands, Blockers is a movie that rides a changing tide in the wake of the Parkland teens’ fortitude and gives you hope and confidence in the potential of today’s youngsters. Even if they do things like butt-chugging.
“For every person who swallows laundry detergent, there’s so many more folks out there who have greater perspective of what they want to do,” Cena says. “Honestly I think the people who try stuff like butt-chugging, most of them are the folks who are like, ‘Never doing that again! Learned a lesson from that!’ I’ve done so many stupid things in my life, and I very rarely do them twice.”
Learning lessons is a big thing for John Cena. It’s the perspective from which he’s approaching his blossoming movie career, because it’s his second shot at it, and he knows how rare that is.
Back in 2004, observing the ring-to-screen success of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the WWE positioned Cena to be the next great action star. But the two films he starred in—stars-and-stripes stinkers The Marine and 12 Rounds—were critical and commercial bombs. It wasn’t until he made the left-field decision to co-star in Fred: The Movie, about a web-famous YouTube star, that his movie career pivoted into comedy and started to take off.
“This is my second run at this,” he says. “I had that shot 13, 14 years ago, and had the strategy of OK, this is an algorithm and I need to be an action hero, I need to do this and I need to do that. It failed because my heart was into the algorithm but it wasn’t into the material.”
Later this month, Cena will turn 41. We ask whether this past year, a turning point in his career that happened to coincide with turning 40, felt different to him. “I could waste your entire day to tell you how wonderful it is to be where I am in life,” he says. And you know what? We believe him.