John Cena is no rookie. A WWE superstar for 15 years, he has headlined the brand as a champion in the ring and a goodwill ambassador outside it. With more than 500 Make-A-Wish requests granted, he holds the foundation’s record for the most completed by a single person.
But when it comes to his acting career, the wrestler’s brash showmanship is replaced by something resembling humility. Not humble-for-an-actor, but actually humble. “I’ve read a lot of good scripts that I don’t think I’d do well in because I’m still refining my skill set,” he told EW. “Hopefully, that skill set is growing every day.”
Here, Cena opens up about his new role in the wartime thriller The Wall, where he stands with the WWE now, and popping the question during WrestleMania.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What are the deciding factors for when you take on an acting role? Is it mostly timing?
JOHN CENA: Timing matters as it gets closer. I get scripts all the time. If I read it and like it, then I will actually read it again and see if I can see myself in it. I’ve read a lot of good scripts that I don’t think I’d do well in because I’m still refining my skill set. I’ve shied away from projects like that. If you read it and like it and can see yourself doing it, then you start to do the logistic stuff. That has to do with timing and planets aligning. It takes a lot of people to make a movie, so everybody’s got to be on the same page. If it all goes right, then you actually shoot the thing, and then we’re where I’m at right now, which is going to actually see it.
You’ve got a pretty solid day job. What motivates you to go find these acting jobs?
I guess I’m at a point where I love what I do for a day job, so it’s got to be something creative enough that it sparks my interest just as much as that. The part in Trainwreck was very different from The Wall, but both piqued my interest exactly the same. Once again, it’s got to be something good enough to draw me creatively away from what I actually do for a day job.
In the last few years, you’ve been stealing scenes in comedies. How did that string of roles come together?
I was certainly very fortunate the get the opportunities to work with the folks that I did. I spend a lot of time taking myself very lightly. I guess it just took a series of opportunities to get a chance to tell some jokes on the screen and kind of make fun of myself. People actually laughed, so I got another chance to do it.
I don’t mean to sell you short, but knowing you from WWE, it’s surprising how funny you are.
I play a hero on a PG-rated weekly episodic television show, so it’s not like I’m telling R-rated jokes all the time. I very rarely have the chance to slip on a banana peel and have it be funny. You have to sustain the weekly storyline of the WWE. We all just kind of do our jobs over there. We’re told to do something, and we’ve got to do it to the best of our ability. A lot of times, it just falls between the familiar goal posts of the creative energy of the WWE. I love it because I love that, but it doesn’t define all of who I am. I’m a 40-year-old adult, who might have accidentally seen Blazing Saddles at age 8 and loved that kind of adult humor. Just because I can’t show it on a PG television program doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it or laugh along with it.
The comedy roles were also a pivot from the action roles you started out in.
The Wall is the kind of action I do like to do. I really wasn’t proud of the stuff that I did beforehand, which was the stereotypical — it might as well have come in a white box that said “Movie” on the side. I think the performance dictates that. It wasn’t as creatively stimulating as the stuff I’m in now.
The WWE is a super collaborative environment. Does that affect how you work on a set?
The difference is that WWE moves all the time. It changes all the time, and you can’t really get married to a concept or an idea. It’s a collaborative effort, but I really trust the people making the movie, especially from a directorial standpoint. I’m not afraid to take advice from coworkers, not that I’m afraid to do that in WWE. Having been on television every week for 15 years, I kind of know and love to try to predict the waves of energy that the audience will give you. I’m almost the driving force behind the creativity in the WWE, especially when it gets down to the “Okay, this is what we’d like you to do, John.” Then I go to work. I don’t necessarily pick the stories, but when I get the story, man, I can make it my own. The difference is that in cinema, I really rely on the director to kind of tell me what he wants and what’s the story and what he sees and how I can do my best to get you what you see.
Where did The Wall shoot?
We shot in a place in California that literally looked like Baghdad, and I’ve been to Baghdad on multiple occasions. In certain spots, it gets empty, and it gets hot. Man, that’s where we were at.
It looks incredibly hot. How much of that is movie magic?
We were dealing with 105 to 115 temp every day in full pack and kevlar. Again, just an instance like that gives me the utmost respect for the people who do protect our country. Just the amount of gear you have to wear to survive a day. That’s not even talking about doing anything physical or engaging in any sort of combative activity. That’s waking up, putting on the gear, and moving around. It’s damn-near impossible.
Was it a long shoot?
It was fast. We made this movie for next to nothing. That’s another reason why I’m proud of it. I think everybody who stepped on set earned it. They did this project because they love it, even coming down to the simple fact that we shot it on film. It was so, so fun and face-paced. It was right when I was hosting the ESPYs. There were nights when I would go in to rehearse for the ESPYs, and then the next day, I’d be covered in filth and dirt. The night that I hosted the ESPYs, I literally had one celebratory toast with the production crew and then ran off to the California desert. The very next morning, I was covered in filth. I have a nice juxtaposed photo of me in a tuxedo and then me covered in crap.
You spend a good chunk of the movie lying around. Is that make for an easy day on set?
Honestly, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it was tough. We were in blistering heat. It was exhausted. It was sweaty, and I’m supposed to look like I’m exhausted and helpless and sweaty. At the end of the day, every movement does take everything out of you. Aside from it being hot as balls, I think we did pretty damn good.
You got engaged a few weeks ago at WrestleMania. How did you decide to propose on live TV?
I’ll tell you what, I owe a huge thank you to that huge audience because sometimes with the WWE audience, emotions run high. I know sometimes during the performance at the event, I’m not exactly their favorite. As a matter of fact if you watch the event itself during the match, they certainly did not like me, but I owe them a huge thank you because they saw that what I was doing was genuine, and they could have easily taken a giant crap all over it. It made a moment that I’m going to have for the rest of my life a bit more trying than it was, but they made it special. The audience made it forever memorable and forever special. It’s amazing that in an event when people are so amped up and at each other’s throats, they calm down and put a smile on their face for a second and had a great time.
It’s the perfect moment for Cena not to suck.
[Laughs] I wanted to take a chance and do something crazy. I really owe a huge thank you to the WWE and the fans at WrestleMania for a moment that I will have forever.