John Cena on Comedic Acting, Life Outside the Ring, and Safe Words

The WWE superstar plays a drug dealer in Sisters, the new Tina Fey and Amy Poehler vehicle. We talked to him about it.
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The WWE superstar plays a drug dealer in Sisters, the new Tina Fey and Amy Poehler vehicle. We talked to him about it.
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John Cena is not a small dude. Admittedly, seeing him week in and week out dominating WWE matches has never given the wrestling superstar an air of daintiness, but it’s not until you see Cena in tattoos crawling up his arms and face, muscles pulsating, doing his best to resist the advances of a very drunk, very small Tina Fey that you realize, “Holy fuck, this guy is a beast.” For most athletes-turned-celeb cameos, showing up and being, well, big, is pretty much the entire job description. And if Cena had shown up on the set of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s dysfunctional family comedy Sisters and just been big, he’d have been fine. Lucky for us, Cena is so much more than big.

As Pazuzu, a drug dealer with no filter and a love of eighties movies, Cena holds his own regularly against comedic heavyweight Fey in Sisters. A few months before, he stole scenes as Amy Schumer’s sexually confused boyfriend in Trainwreck. Comparisons are already being drawn between Cena — himself ever self-effacing and humble — and that other wrestling superstar turned successful actor, but for Cena, getting a shot to flex his muscles is more than he ever imagined. Maxim caught up with him to talk about what life looks like outside the ring, how to practice safe sex, and the one thing he wasn’t allowed to do to Tina Fey.

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Between playing Amy Schumer’s boyfriend in Trainwreck and a drug dealer in Sisters, you’re doing a lot of comedy now, but your first films were dramas. Do you want to stay in the comedy world?

You know what, I’m really still kind of new to all this. Even though I’ve done some WWE films before, I’ve really been fortunate with the last few to be put with some really good filmmakers and some good folks. That’s my approach going forward. The best way to learn is to surround yourself with people that are better than you are, so I’m just trying to do that. I’m not ruling anything out, but I’m also not saying yes to everything, if that’s a good way to describe it.

I know my way around the WWE. I know at least a little bit about everything and our business model and I feel comfortable there, although I still learn every day. I have a very big sense of well-being [from being with the WWE]. As I’m diving into new waters, I just want to make sure that I don’t set a bad example and I don’t go in overconfident. I just want to stay surrounded by good folks and learn a few things about the movie business.

Now that you’re dipping a toe into acting, how do you handle the comparisons to your WWE predecessor, The Rock?

You know what, to be in that same conversation is an honor. I’m very thankful you would even make that comparison to The Rock.

You both are excellent actors. I was floored by how good you were in Trainwreck. There’s always this question mark, both as a reviewer and a fan, of whether a famous cameo was placed just to check off a comedy box, and people don’t realize you auditioned multiple times [for Trainwreck]. How was the process for Sisters?

Well, one begat the other. I had to go through the formal audition process for Trainwreck. Initially they weren’t asking for much, they wanted a big guy to do an overly physical sex scene with Amy Schumer. I got to audition and when they saw that I could offer maybe a little more than that, I went to a few more auditions, then a table read, and then I got the part and it was off to the races.

I spent a few days on Trainwreck and we were doing what we do, Judd Apatow and crew were kind enough to give me a great recommendation for a movie filming up the road in Long Island. He said to them “I know you’re looking for a big, tattooed drug dealer guy, and I think this kid could be all right.” I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

One of the best scenes in Sisters is when you deadpan to Tina Fey that your safe word is “keep going” but the outtakes in the credits of different safe words are even better. How many did you come up with?

A safe word, generally, for those who haven’t seen Fifty Shades of Grey, is generally a one-syllable word that indicates “I’ve had too much.” I took a second to think to myself and figured, “Well this guy has obviously been in weirder situations than anyone.” A longer safe word that’s more difficult to pronounce would be impossible, thus defeating the purpose of a safe word. And that’s when I fell on “What if the safe word is just keep going?” And the person doesn’t stop, you just keep going, so essentially nothing is too much.

I credit Tina, Amy, [Sisters director] Jason Moore, even Judd, for giving me the opportunity to not only read lines on a paper, but to say “Hey this is the gag we’re doing, can you come up with variations on this gag?” And that’s giving me the opportunity to think of warped, corrupt stuff that only happens in the darkness of my mind.

I’m sure a lot of being able to ad lib on the spot comes from the WWE. Does drawing on that background help as you transition to acting?

One hundred percent. Although admittedly I truly have a ton to learn about the film business, being in front of an audience and performing every day – not only a live audience, but a televised audience – helps. If you do smaller venues with smaller crowds you do have that leeway of maybe slipping up every once in awhile, but being broadcast globally every week, sometimes multiple times a week, you don’t have that luxury. You have to at least hit a single or double every time. You don’t have room to bomb. And a lot of that is understanding the audience and being as sharp as you can.

I can’t tell you how many times I would call and text my boss, Vince McMahon, on the set of Sisters and Trainwreck and anything else like this to thank him for over-preparing me for this.

All of your interviews for the last few years — not just the last few months of movie promoting — have been about wanting to make the WWE even better for future stars. What does the legacy look like to you, now that you’re 15 years in?

When you look back at your body of work, no matter what your career path, by the time you hang ‘em up, if you can say “this place is in better shape than when I started,” then you did good. I know I’ve told everyone who has asked that even with the success of a movie or two, I’m not quitting my day job. I love the WWE. I’m one of the older folks and we have a brilliant crop of new, young superstars and I’m kind of up against it in that regard. By the same token, I’m going to do whatever I can, in any aspect I can, to make our company even better for the next generation of stars.

I think I’ve been doing that, Dwayne [Johnson, The Rock] has been instrumental in doing that. I’m doing the best I can to get us to more countries, to get us more exposure, to get the stereotypes of who WWE stars are reworked and reinterpreted. I don’t walk down memory lane with matches I’ve won or lost or great moments I’ve had in the ring. I would be most proud of people saying “Wow, WWE is a better place than it got started.” If it wasn’t I wouldn’t be doing my job.

On one hand, you’re in the ring weekly as one of the most recognizable athletes in the wrestling world. Yet you’ve also become a poster child for female empowerment: roles in an Amy Schumer film, a Tina Fey and Amy Poehler film, and even in your vocal support of your fellow WWE star girlfriend, Nikki Bella, and other female WWE athletes.

I was lucky enough to really find a very strong gal to fall in love with, and I’m thankful she fell in love with me. I was so proud of the original cast of Total Divas [the E! reality show following a group of female WWE stars, including Bella]. I think that the potential of Total Divas and female athletes is that the sky is the limit. People want to know about these women, and in the WWE we call it the Divas Revolution — it’s a movement for women’s empowerment.

I don’t think that happens without those first women saying “Okay, let’s put this on camera.” It’s spawned a new, younger generation of women coming up and trying to make their mark on the WWE and on life, and I’m happy to be a part of it. I respect effort. I don’t care what sex you are, so there’s a lot of great women doing a lot of cool, funny, awesome stuff, and I think it’s phenomenal.

Speaking of strong women, what was it like working with Tina and Amy on a daily basis?

It was really great. To their credit, they always made me feel welcome. For essentially a rookie who indeed was coming in with his own ideas, even though it was truly not my place to do so, it was such a risky decision on my part. But they didn’t take it the wrong way at all and instead were open to seeing if we could get somewhere, and I can’t thank them enough. Trust me, what they had written down was very funny, but I wanted to invest in something and make it authentic. For my career in the WWE, I’ve learned that if it’s not authentic, the audience sees through it immediately.

When you rattled off your monologue of all the drugs you sold, it might have been one of the best things I’ve seen.

That was something I did my due diligence on. They had a list of three or four drugs and I said “Okay, you’re seeing this big, tattooed son of a bitch for the first time. He’s the seediest, shadiest drug dealer ever, okay, start with drugs.” Are there any other names for drugs on the street? Old-timey drugs? What else would he carry? Chewable Vitamin C’s? This dude has everything! It took me a while to get a scope on what’s out there: the pharmaceutical prescription stuff, there’s stuff on the street, there’s stuff on the shelves at Rite-Aid. That was just a crazy take that I got what they wanted first, came up with that list second, and they ended up using it!

I can assure you I’ll only be buying drugs from dealers who sell Flintstone’s Gummies from now on. Let’s talk about that Dirty Dancing lift with Tina Fey. She’s very small compared to you. Did you guys nail it one take?

No, no, that was orchestrated to not fail. Obviously Tina being the star of the movie, nothing can happen there, so they had a rig set up so that would not fail. We only had to do it once or twice, and although it would have been a beautiful moment for us to physically pull it off, they didn’t want to err on the side of chance. You don’t drop Tina Fey.