John Cena knows what you’re thinking. “When someone looks at me, you check off a box like, ‘Oh, I know where this person fits,’” says the 40-year-old wrestler-turned actor. “I’m 250 pounds, so I get it.”
But with films like the raunchy new comedy Blockers, which opens April 6, Cena hopes he can begin to shed the perception that comes with being, well, John Cena. “It’s been a work in progress, but I understand why,” he admits. “You play a character for so long and people have no other choice than to see you as that character. So that unwinding process takes a long time. But it’s fun to be able to make people forget that.”
Cena’s acting career may just now be on the rise, but he’s long been a star in his own right. The 13-time WWE Champion has been the face of wrestling for more than a decade. Following the successful transition of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and looking to capitalize on Cena’s popularity, WWE Studios built two action films around Cena: 2006’s The Marine and 2009’s 12 Rounds. Both were critical and commercial failures that almost ended Cena’s big screen career as quickly as it began.
“It was kind of a realization of, ‘I love what I do in the WWE, I have tried being the person people think I am and failing in a cinematic sense,’” he shares. “So around 2009, it’s like, ‘I’m not ever doing movies again.’ And I was okay with that.”
So after two swings and misses, Cena turned his focus back to wrestling and new gigs, including hosting reality TV and awards shows (his work at the ESPYs is what sold Blockers director Kay Cannon on his comedic abilities). But then in 2015, he fully reemerged in a big — and naked — way in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck. He proved to be a surprise scene-stealer as an emotional, closeted guy who Amy Schumer’s character hooks up with. Later that year, his new foray into comedies successfully continued with supporting roles in Sisters and Daddy’s Home.
“I was kind of just put in the movie mix before as a furthering of a business model — which I get,” he admits. “This was a conscious choice to be like, ‘I just read this, it’s awesome, I’d like to do it.’ So finding something I’m as passionate about as WWE, I know I’m going to at least have fun with the process and be proud of the thing I see on screen, whether people buy tickets to it or not. I don’t just have to do it, I like to do it.”
And now with Blockers, Cena takes on his largest comedic role yet, playing one of the adult leads alongside Leslie Mann and Ike Barinholtz. The trio star in the R-rated comedy as parents determined to prevent their daughters from losing their virginity on prom night.
While making it clear it wasn’t a conscious decision, Cena believes this is the latest progression of people not seeing him as “the wrestler guy.” “It’s still not an entire picture rotating around a world that is John Cena,” he points out. “It’s easing into, ‘Okay, I saw him at the end of Daddy’s Home, he was a drug dealer in Sisters, and he had that crazy scene in Trainwreck, and now he’s doing more things as a dad in Blockers.’ So I think maybe that’s helped people digest it a little bit easier.”
Blockers does serve as an important step for Cena. Whereas his past roles have leaned heavily on his powerful physique and presence, that’s not the case here. Cena stars as Mitchell, a regular dad who just happens to look like John Cena. Well, a regular dad who will do anything to track down his daughter, even if it means chugging beer through his butt. In the film’s most laugh-out-loud scene, the only way for the parents to infiltrate a prom party is for Mitchell to drop his pants and beat a teenager in a backside drinking contest.
“So I’m thinking, ‘What can I do to make myself not be that guy everyone sees? I’ll drink a beer through my butt!’” jokes Cena. “That was more uncomfortable for everyone else than it was for me. That scene survived every script rewrite, so I’ve talked myself into being cool with it before we’re even in it. And I think everyone else was not cool with it. Because keep in mind, it’s at a prom party, so we’ve got 150 extras staring into my abyss as we’re doing this thing, not to mention Ike and Leslie. But I think it was me being cool with it that helped everybody else have fun and laugh at it. I’m certainly not afraid to laugh at myself.”
Referencing his memorable bare-it-all scene in Trainwreck, Cena cracks (pun intended), “I guess when you start so naked you’re good! That did help. The ability to be very scantily clad on set for an entire shooting day, you just get over it. This is funny, everyone is laughing, so let’s see how far we can go.”
Where Cena will go next is to the Transformers franchise for a key role in the Bumblebee spin-off and back into the ring for as long as he can. Cena may have followed Johnson to Hollywood, but, unlike the Fast & Furious star, he’s not ready to leave behind the sport that put him on the map (Cena previously called out Johnson for doing so, before later apologizing).
“This is the best way for me to explain it: it is my home, it is my family,” he passionately declares of the WWE. “I have spent 41 years on this planet and 16 of them in the WWE. I see some of our audience members more than I see my family. It’s dependent on physical health and time, and I know that my days are numbered, so I’ve always appreciated every moment, but I’m really at a point where I appreciate and savor every single second that I’m out there.”
Coincidentally, filmgoers are beginning to feel the same way.