John Cena is everywhere. He’s a seasoned television host, currently co-hosting TBS’ absurdly fun Wipeout, a #1 New York Times bestselling author with two new books on shelves, and one of the most in-demand, silver screen actors appearing in comedies, family films, and unsurprisingly, action movies alike. For someone whose catchphrase is “You can’t see me!” we sure have been seeing a lot of Cena.
Over Cena’s 18 years in the WWE, the charismatic sports entertainer has collected 16 World Titles and served as the face of the company and moralistic brand ambassador. Cena reigned at the top of the WWE pecking order longer than past favorites like Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and did so with a smile, whether the WWE Universe was behind him or not. Like most of the company’s top stars, Cena inevitably found his way to Hollywood and, after some half-hearted initial forays, has found himself to be an adept and engaging screen presence. You don’t log that many hours on weekly live television without learning how to be a skilled performer.
This summer, Cena’s star looks like it will be shining brighter than ever. Not only will he serve as the main antagonist in the latest Fast & Furious film, F9, but he’s set to make his debut in the DCEU as Peacemaker in James Gunn’s highly anticipated The Suicide Squad. He told us all about it and more in this exclusive interview…
Den of Geek: How did you get the role of Peacemaker?
John Cena: I had tried my hand at trying to crack the DC code for a long time with multiple failures. It was brought to my attention that James had an interest in me playing Peacemaker in The Suicide Squad, and he just wanted to meet with me in person to solidify his instincts. His reputation is one thing, but to see him in action…I got to actually go to the production offices and just see all of their preparation. It’s like nothing I’d ever seen before.
He really just prepares as good as, or better than, anyone and adds to that his passion for filmmaking and his passion for storytelling. I think he sees his story and then he puts together a list of suspects that could be possible fits, and I was one of those and we hit it off.
Based on your physique and your background in sports entertainment, many people expected you to book more of these macho action hero roles, but you’ve sort of subverted that expectation with movies like Trainwreck and Blockers. Is Peacemaker meant to continue that subversion of audiences’ preconceived notions about you or does it sort of play into them?
Well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with diving into preconceived notions, if that’s who you are. I mean, if you can remember, that’s exactly what I did at first. I did macho action movies that were complete failures. So I did that and it wasn’t really who I was at the time.
I compare the experience by saying I got to be put in these action sequences with these tremendous stunts, but yet I was doing that every night in front of 20,000 people and the electric passion you feel and certainly the love and excitement I have had and will have for WWE is unwavering. So given the choice between doing stunts surrounded by 36 cameras and no one else watching or doing stuff in a live arena, I wanted to be in the ring. Especially at that point in my life when I began doing these movies, that would be 2004. I was literally just getting comfortable on the WWE canvas and deciding that that was really where I wanted to be.
Fast forward to now, a decade and a half later, and I don’t think anything’s out of reach, with Fast Nine coming up, that certainly is a blockbuster action installment. The Suicide Squad has a lot of gore and a lot of action involved in it, but it’s me realizing who I am and who I’m not.
I think that’s why you see me all over the map from family movies that Playing With Fire to R-rated comedies like Trainwreck to PG-13’s like Daddy’s Home, to a DC movie like The Suicide Squad, to a straight-up blockbuster action like F9. I have an R-rated comedy coming out on Hulu called Vacation Friends, to a straight-up action two-hander with Jackie Chan called Project X that was filmed in China. Everyone always asks, “Well, what’s the next movie you’re looking for?” And my answer is always the same. I say, “I’ll know it when I read it.” I just like to read stuff and see myself in the story. Because that’s the one thing that’s really helped me with WWE, me being able to absorb the story with whoever I stand across the ring from.
Based on what we’ve seen in the trailers, it almost seems like Peacemaker could be a warped version of your character in WWE. Did you draw any inspiration specifically from the “John Cena,” boy scout-esque character?
I remember meeting with James and asking if I should dive into the comics history of Peacemaker, and he specifically told me not to. I think that’s because James likes to navigate his story. He just was like, “you have what I’m looking for. Just be yourself, and if you’re willing to take direction, I think we can do something special.”
I originally had approached this character as much more of an angular, drill sergeant, Full Metal Jacket-esque personality, and about 20 minutes into filming our first scene, James came over to me and was like, “This is not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for a douchey, bro-y Captain America.” We do draw from the do-gooder side of John Cena, who has a strong set of values and doesn’t waver from those values. So the answer is yes, but not in my eyes. Whenever I play a role in a movie, it really is never myself. Whereas WWE is the odd thing that a lot of times you have to create an extension of yourself because the narrative is just so damn long.
The Suicide Squad are a bunch of super-villains and every villain has to believe what they’re doing is right and just, and it’s just their warped perspective of society that makes them evil. I think that’s a great way to describe Peacemaker. He thinks what he is doing is right and just. He just has a really abstract perspective.
What’s it been like to work with James Gunn and develop this character together?
It’s amazing. He provides you the freedom to take chances, very much like Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer did in Trainwreck, but man, his preparedness and his commitment to narratives in their entirety, from things as simple as the score— it can’t just be a song, it needs to be this particular song at this particular point. He is passionately immersed in the totality of the experience. I just let go and realize that I am far from the smartest person in the room. I’m going to be my nice little piece, pun intended, on the chessboard and let the master figure out what the opening is and what the next move is.
Peacemaker is also getting an HBO Max series. How does it feel to be entrusted with what is essentially the first television series in the DCEU?
I’m very excited. DC has been trying to create excitement and buzz and it has had tremendous success and it has had its share of setbacks, but at the same time they know what their fans want and they know the satisfaction that their fans are looking for. I really think they’re stepping up to give fans what they’ve been waiting for. They’re taking bold and brave chances with completely new characters like you see in The Suicide Squad or completely new takes on all the properties that they have in their bank. I think both of these projects, The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker, are steps in the right direction.
Did it help to have such a strong grasp on the character from working on the movie first? Or do you think there are aspects of your performance that you found while filming the series that you thought, “Man, I wish I would’ve had this light bulb go off while I was filming the movie.”
Man, hindsight’s a dirty rabbit hole to go down. If I could tell my former self a bunch of stuff it would be like Hot Tub Time Machine. So it’s just… That’s not the way I operate. I’m absolutely grateful for what’s put in front of me. I just try my best every day to do my best every day. I don’t look back on any experience saying “I wish I would have” I look back on experiences and say “What did I learn?”
Dwayne Johnson is also coming into the DCEU. I think anybody that knows the history you share would love to see you guys square off on the big screen. Do you have any hopes for your respective characters crossing paths someday?
Well, like I said before, I think the DCU is making steps in the right direction, and certainly, there’s a lot of buzz behind Black Adam as well. We’re all kind of under the same umbrella. So do I have hope? I always have hope. I know audiences really enjoyed what we were able to do [in WWE] and if we’re able to transfer that excitement and passion from live entertainment to the big screen, I think it seems like a pretty logical jump, but I don’t make those choices. So all I can do is just keep doing me, man.
The Suicide Squad opens on Aug. 6 in theaters and HBO Max.
Check out more on The Suicide Squad in the latest issue of Den of Geek!