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John Cena enters the ring of reality TV hosts on American Grit

Actor and WWE wrestler tells EW why his new Fox series isn’t your typical competition

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Michael Lavine/Fox

Since making the jump from WWE superstar to Hollywood actor, John Cena has enjoyed knockout success in the entertainment industry over the past decade. From well-received supporting roles in recent comedies alongside Amy Schumer in Trainwreck and Tina Fey in Sisters, Cena has maintained a firm grasp on his ever-widening, multi-hyphenate career.

With Thursday’s premiere of Fox’s American Grit, Cena enters the competitive ring of reality TV as host and producer of the physically-focused series, which pushes contestants to hone team-building skills across a series of endurance challenges derived from actual military training exercises. Cena tells EW that the series taps into a uniquely American brand of resilience — one that values perseverance and hard work as it propels contestants further and harder than its genre brethren under the guidance of real-life army veterans like Noah Galloway and Nicholas “The Reaper” Irving.

American Grit premieres Thursday, April 14 at 9 p.m. ET on Fox. Check out Cena’s full interview below.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Obviously American Grit features American contestants and coaches, but to you, what’s the distinct essence of American perseverance reflected on the show?

JOHN CENA: Hell man, if you look at the inception of the country, the country was built on hard work and resolve. America itself has been through so many challenges since that fateful day back in 1776. Our culture has been a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-go-to-work culture. That’s essentially the grit that we’re looking for. It’s not just a physical exposition of athletic prowess; we’re putting these people through challenges that are going to test their mind, their spirit, and their body, and that’s the true definition of grit and resolve. That’s how Americans persevere through good times and bad: they roll up their sleeves and go to work, and that’s what this show is about.

You’re certainly going to work on this show, stepping into the role of producer and host. How did your career as a wrestler and actor influence this new chapter on TV?

What inspired me about the show was its DNA, trying to get people together who say they never give up, and putting them in a scenario where their resolve will be tested. I was glad I had the best seat in the house that orchestrates all of this, but I loved the idea on paper. When someone explained it to me, I actually didn’t think logistically it could work as well as it did. I think people are going to watch this [and] love it. Not only from a challenge aspect — I think they’re going to be wowed by the landscapes and the excitement that the show brings, but I also want them to be inspired. I want them to watch the show at home and say, “You know what, if I work, I can do that,” and that’s pretty much the goal: to inspire people to never give up.

Is there a consistent challenge that you, like the contestants on American Grit, find yourself struggling to overcome as you expand your career?

From the time you wake up from the time you go to bed, it’s a struggle. [It’s] more embracing new opportunities; producing this show, taking a hosting route rather than an in-the-action player, which is kind of what I’ve been for the WWE over the past 15 years. Even slightly before that, the roles in comedies aren’t really typical of my profession. It’s just being able to take that leap of faith into doing interesting things and new projects that normally wouldn’t be on the menu for someone like me. Being able to swing in and host the Today show when they call me, it certainly is a new experience that I have a lot of fun with, and it’s different than being in the middle of the ring in Monday Night Raw. I’m becoming less reserved about going for it if the opportunity presents itself.

Speaking of your roles in comedies, I loved your performances as an actor in both Sisters and Trainwreck, and I’m wondering what it was like doing something so tonally different from what you’ve built a career upon.

It’s really fun for me, because you consistently see, “John Cena: WWE Superstar” on episodic television, and that’s all the perception you have, so that’s the perception people have of me. I’ll be 39 in April. I like adult comedy, just like anyone else my age, so I do have that side to myself. I just think a lot of the comedic value is when somebody you’re so used to and so normalized to be a certain way has the freedom to behave a different way.

How would you differentiate American Grit from other physical competition shows that have come before it, like American Ninja Warrior?

It’s not a “physical competition show.” We take these exercises derived from actual military training, and if you look at how the U.S. military functions, they are not just building physical specimens; they are building functional teams. Anyone who enlists in the military—man, woman—they come from all walks of life, and they don’t necessarily have the skillset of a bulletproof triathlete who can be an Olympic weightlifter at the same time [they] do crazy, death-defying stunts. As opposed to American Ninja Warrior, which is like, “Wow, I can’t believe how they do that,” I want [the audience] to root for [the contestants] because they know what they’re going through; they can feel how this would feel as they go under this physical and mental duress, and if they don’t like someone on the show, I want them to be able to yell at the television, “F that person. I can do this. I just need a chance.” And I want them to have that empowerment of [these goals] being aspirationally attainable.

Some of the coaches have been actively involved in the military, like The Reaper, who talks about the kills that he made in the field, and they’re judging these people who might not come from a similar background. Do you think the two things are comparable?

I think they are. If you talk to Nick Irving, if you talk to Rohrick Denver, who was a commander of the U.S. Navy Seals, they had the same view on this: through their service, they acquire a functional set of skills that do not exist anymore in civilian life. I’m not going to tell you that Nick’s going to show somebody how to shoot a golf ball off the top of a Coke can from a thousand yards away, but there’s such a demeanor that a sniper has and a skillset that a sniper has as well as a Navy Seal that’s in a very elite group of folks. They just learn things that civilians don’t, and the divide between military functional knowledge and civilian life continues to grow every day. All these unbelievable people fought for the freedom of our country with this knowledge base that is so very sheltered and elite, [and they] get to share that knowledge and actually mentor [contestants], and you can see how they can make a team of civilians effective, and I really love the fact that it just does not translate to combat in crisis scenarios.

Switching gears, I have to know what you think of the John Cena interrupts memes on Vine. Do you think those are annoying?

I was only recently made aware of these things. I’m way late to the party! Trust me, if an interruptive internet meme is the worst … I’ve been called everything under the sun. If it’s not offensive, I don’t care. I think it’s great. The fact that my music, the fact that my actions in the ring in the WWE capacity can spur pop culture to want to create this thing that I couldn’t control if I wanted to, although some people may take it as like an insult, it’s very flattering to me. I’m very thankful.

I know that you’re very involved in the Make-A-Wish Foundation and at the beginning of American Grit you talk a lot about the show helping people. How so?

People will see the dynamics of human beings and often in reality competition or reality shows in general, there’s an underlying backbone of negativity, of psychological manipulation and, for lack of a better term, foul play. When we put this thing together on paper, the concept was, “Can these folks work together and motivate their teams to succeed as a unit?” It’s really going to take everybody going for the same goal. I didn’t think it would work. I thought there would be a lot of negative television that we so often see, and man, I was wrong. I think the show sends a very great message that there are still a lot of really good folks out there. It’s one of those things people are going to watch and feel good about. What I do for Make-A-Wish is I make children and families that are up against some pretty tough circumstances, I let them come into our WWE universe, and I do my best to make them feel good. I’ve seen a lot of kids and a lot of families happy, and I think people are going to watch American Grit and have emotional moments. They’re going to be happy with what they see.