John Cena Shows His Passion For Animation With Dallas & Robo

WWE megastar and actor John Cena talks about his role as a bone-crushing robot in SYFY’s new animated series.

John Cena Dallas & Robo
Photo: SYFY / Getty Images

Han and Chewy, Kirk and Spock, Groot and Rocket – the science fiction world isn’t hurting for lovable outer space duos. Now, another intriguing pair is putting themselves forward into the “space buddies” canon. 

Dallas & Robo stars the accomplished Kat Dennings as Dallas and WWE megastar John Cena as Robo. The series that bears their name follows the misadventures of Dallas, a sassy space-trucker with a colorful vocabulary and Robo, her bone-crushing artificially intelligent best friend.

The eight-episode series comes from creator Mike Roberts and animation studio ShadowMachine (both of Bojack Horseman). It will be making its cable run debut on what seems to be the perfect fit, Syfy, this August on Saturday’s late night TZGZ programming block.

This past week we had the chance to chat (via phone, of course) to the man behind Robo — the GOAT, John Cena himself. Cena discussed becoming Robo, his love for animation, and how his years in the WWE have prepared him as he continues to further his career in entertainment. 

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Den of Geek: I could certainly try to describe it, but since you are Robo, how would you best describe the show for all the potential first-time viewers out there?

John Cena: Robo’s description of the show would be different than mine. Robo would say that AI is absolutely equal to or greater than the human species and should be treated as such. I think, as a viewer, it literally is a fun ride, a look at a quasi-realistic futuristic environment. It gives us a chance to laugh. It’s very lighthearted and it looks at the future through freight, which is not a job that’s going anywhere soon. With all the online ordering and all the shipping to your door, this is something that will be around for quite some time. So it takes something that’s extremely important now, but rather mundane and that’s the basis of the show going into the future.

How exactly did this opportunity come about to play Robo? Is starring in an adult cartoon series something you always wanted to do?

Animation is something that I love. I really think it gives you a chance to tell stories and use tools that aren’t possible in live-action or actual film. So it was very entertaining to me and to do something in the animation comedy space. It’s even more entertaining because of what I’ve done for most of my life, regardless of the risks that I take outside of that, it’s very difficult to break those typecasts. Where I was able to be a voice in an animated comedy, man, that was something that I was really interested in and I really have an interest in AI and the development of electronics. 

Certainly as a semi-professional future, all of these things hit on certain channels that I really do enjoy. The folks at ShadowMachine have a great track record, and I’m so grateful to Syfy. It couldn’t have ended up on a better network. It belongs on Syfy. It belongs on the weekend animation spot. 

You co-star with the amazingly talented Kat Dennings. What was it like recording the voiceovers for the show alongside her?

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As with most animation, it’s very difficult to get everybody in the same room, especially when you want to put together an all-star cast. Because of all the outlets of entertainment, everybody’s really busy. It’s a really good time to be an entertainer, which I’m certainly very fortunate for every day. But to be able to stack the cast the way we did, a lot of times you’d have to record without the person being there. Now, Kat and I did record many times together. I wouldn’t see anyone else as Dallas. And she really embraced it.

Animation is realistic yet over the top. And a lot of times you get the opportunity to leave a joke longer. With animation, you can punch home some of the punchlines because there’s stuff you just can’t do without drawing. So she’s incredibly gifted and I think has a brilliant mind for how long to lean into a joke, the correct presentation of the humor, and also giving the character a sense of … you’re very sympathetic to the character, as well. It’s more than just coming in and reading from a paper and she absolutely really did a great job.

I love the chemistry between your two characters. Robo acts as sort of the voice of reason counterpart to his reckless, alcoholic partner, Dallas. Did the dynamic between the two characters come naturally through the script, or did the two of you sort of mold the characters into what they ended up becoming?

Well, I’m pretty straight laced. So I think Robo was easy. It wasn’t beyond my reach. And that’s also what drove me to the character – this kind of skeptical, really logical piece of AI that really just wants to be treated as equal. But he’s also very angular at points, and I hope that that helped Kat let loose because me not pushing those boundaries too much allows her to push her boundaries. And it really gives, like you said, a great comparison between the two characters. 

I think if we were both on that same wave of really trying to push the boundaries of personality, I don’t think either one of us would’ve stuck out. So I’m really glad at how everything came out. And for me to play straight laced and logical, that’s kind of right in my wheelhouse. So like I said, I was very grateful to be able to do it.

Throughout the series, we see the two of you fight off cannibal biker gangs, get into time travel fiascos, and compete and speed races on Mars. Without too many spoilers, what scenes or episodes from the show really made you laugh while watching back?

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Dude, I like anything to do with Fat Paul. He’s one of my favorite characters. I actually like some of the attempts to be a futuristic entrepreneur because it really just gives a forum for a whole new sense of stories. The series tackles a bunch of stuff like social isolationism, the development of AI. Then it goes to something as commonplace as car racing and it kind of keeps the environment the same and life on different planets and our expansion of the human race and how certain planets are and how certain environments are. I dig that a lot, that’s the  stuff that makes me laugh. There’s a running joke about a casino operation that’s pretty decent.

I even like the … I hope I’m not spoiling it for anybody … the hidden bounty hunter element of what’s going on and all. But there is a lot to be told in each episode and I think you really should enjoy them all together. And I think once you watch one, hopefully you enjoy it and we have good characters and good stories. Hopefully you want to see them all.

Full disclosure: I’m a gigantic WWE fan. In honor of the name of our company, (Den of Geek) … I’m totally geeking out having this interview with you. So how have all your years in the WWE prepared you to play these different roles as you continue to venture off into acting and voice acting?

This one I’ll try to not be so long winded. I’ll sum it up like this. After 15 years or 18 years of putting yourself in front of a public audience six nights a week, constantly, with no break, you begin to really know … you’d either go one of two ways. You don’t know who you are anymore, or you really have a great knowledge of self. And that’s really made me comfortable in my own shoes. Doing that, it’s made me want to challenge myself and grow and get better. The WWE has prepared me not only for live entertainment, but life. And I really hope one of these days in the right circumstances, I can thank the WWE audience for all they’ve given me because it’s been really important in the development of me as a human being.

While we’re on the topic, as I was watching some of the fight scenes in Dallas and Robo, I noticed quite a few wrestling moves out of Robo, including some DDTs and what looks to be a move inspired by your finisher, the attitude adjustment. Did you inspire that decision?

I really get excited when I see stuff like that. I think the animators take a chance and cross their fingers that the artist isn’t going to blow their stack or be offended. I’m never offended with stuff like that. That is such a great homage as to the fact that hopefully I contributed to something that left a lasting impression on somebody. I would have loved to have Robo do the “You Can’t See Me.”

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What’s great about a good show, is being able to dig into those nuances. If it’s something you catch, like you being a dedicated fan, that’s cool. If it’s something you don’t, it doesn’t ruin the story. I think great animated programs have a way of doing that, where they can shoehorn in little Easter egg jokes. Dallas & Robo, especially those fight nuances, is a great example of there’s a lot in there and you don’t need to get it all. You can still watch it and have a good time.

I know a lot of fans like myself loved your cinematic style WrestleMania match against Bray Wyatt this year that sort of brought us through this John Cena time machine. What was the creative process for coming up with that idea?

That, in its entirety, is a great example of being given an idea and then when asking, “Well, what is this idea?” then the response from those people that give it to you is, “We don’t know.” I can waste the entire day talking with you about that performance, because it means a lot to me and it’s one of those that is really special. But if anything, it’s a great example of just not stopping and continuing to lean into anything and everything to tell the correct story. We weren’t given any direction. We were just given this thing. And then we made this out of nothing because the response of all of our inquiries was always, “I don’t know.” So instead of taking “I don’t know” as mopey complacency and going back and kicking the rock down the road, we took “I don’t know” as an opportunity. And trust me, man, when we were doing this, everyone involved was like, “This is either going to be awesome or it’s going to suck. No one is going to apathetically watch this and go get popcorn.”

It’s not like we knew we had something special. You talk to anyone who was involved in the process and the theme was, “This is either going to be really good or it’s going to suck. And we’re going to go down with the ship, but let’s not err on the side of caution, let’s be brave and let’s do something different. And if they don’t get it, at least we’ll know right away that they didn’t get it and we’ll know why because our audience is very vocal when they don’t like stuff.” We really could have sat on our haunches and done whatever we want and it would have been okay. It might’ve been just another match. But we all leaned into it and came up with some really creative stuff and in the process, used the forum to tell a great story.

It really was a cool thing. And I say it’s important to me because I also like to help and teach and guide younger performers that are looking for answers. For them to be like, “I get nothing. No one gives me any information.” They don’t realize that that’s a goldmine. Now I actually have multiple experiences, when I started rapping, for example, and the choices then, to even now of like, “Hey man, it happens at every level. You are not alone. Take it by the horns and do your best to make something out of it. And don’t be afraid to fail.” I really was happy with the effort and whether it bombed or it went to the moon, literally, I was happy. But I was also so happy that our audience understood what we were trying to say.