Breaking Big: How John Cena Became a Hollywood Megastar

John Cena photographed for the May 2018 issue of Men's Journal by Art Streiber
Photograph by Art Streiber

John Cena is obsessed with noise. For him, noise is truth. Noise is job security. Noise is power. As a World Wrestling Entertainment superstar, he learned years ago that his career would thrive as long as the crowd stopped sucking down sodas and popcorn long enough to either cheer or jeer him, creating that all-coveted roar. “Regardless if someone in the office or one of the decision-makers likes you or they don’t,” Cena says. “You cannot argue with the noise.”

After 20 years in the business, Cena, 41, still evokes a rowdier response than anyone else, and not by happenstance. Before taking the stage, he studies the crowd, to gauge who they are and how they’re feeling, to read their signs, to ensure that he connects. He obsesses over his merch and his physique, his promos and his gimmick. It’s all crucial and has to be on point. After all, you don’t become the biggest name in WWE—not to mention an internet meme and a rising movie star—just by being a guy who can do the stock-in-trade meathead schtick. You have to bring the noise.

Cena explains this to me in a photo studio in New York City, overlooking the Hudson River. “I was lucky enough to work with veterans who knew noise and knew how to interpret noise,” he says. “If the audience drove the story another way, the brilliant ones, the ones who had so much longevity, were able to ride the noise and bring the audience back.”

John Cena photographed by Marcus Nilsson for the May 2018 issue of Men's Journal

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Cena is busy today, as he is most days. And not your standard celebrity level of busy, but away-from-home-320-days-a-year busy. Last night, for example, he got to his hotel at four-something, then woke up at 8 a.m.; now he’s here for this photo shoot, busy being John Cena. Tomorrow, he’ll co-host and officiate a wedding live on The Today Show, during which he’ll exclaim, “Let’s get it on!” before handing the couple their rings. Admittedly, all this busyness complicates matters with his fiancée, Nikki Bella, star of the E! reality show Total Bellas and a WWE superstar in her own right. He has never wanted to slow down, and because of this, on their first date, he told her, “Hey, I’m not getting married and having kids”—which didn’t go over too well.

If you know anything about Cena, you know that he is an action figure come to life, a walking, talking, unstoppable mass of bronzed muscle. The cliché isn’t undeserved. He has claimed 25 WWE championship titles, remained the face of the company for more than a dozen years, and starred in a handful of forgettable tough-guy flicks, including 2006’s The Marine and 2009’s 12 Rounds. Over the past three years, however, things have begun to change for Cena. He appeared in a string of well-received comedies—including Sisters, in 2015, starring Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, and Trainwreck, the same year, starring Amy Schumer—that has put his acting career on an entirely new track. In 2017, he voiced the titular character in the children’s film Ferdinand.

And now there’s Blockers, out in April, in which he co-stars with Leslie Mann and Ike Barinholtz. It’s about three parents who try to thwart their daughters’ efforts to lose their virginity on prom night. Cena plays an uptight dad who refuses to accept that his daughter intends to do the deed. He says comedy is a welcome change from his early-career action movies, which he admits were failures. “At my core, I’m a 40-year-old dude who laughs at dick jokes,” he says. “So when you get around a group of people who enjoy the same punch lines, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, that was great!’”

“You can kind of teach comedy but you really can’t,” says the film’s director, Kay Cannon. “John just inherently has it. I don’t want to compare him to Tom Hanks, because they’re so different, but he’s, like, the everyman; people just love to watch him.”

Cena stands next to a clothes rack as a stylist hands him shirts to try on. Our conversation returns to wrestling. He’s something of a missionary for the religion that is WWE, an organization to which he feels deeply indebted. “My goal is for everybody to realize that we got something cool at WWE,” he says. “It’s not for everybody, but it’s for a lot of folks, and I just don’t understand why folks turn their nose up.” (I am a coward, so I don’t mention that perhaps the glorification of violence, or the bad acting, or the retrograde style of masculinity, or the glut of body oil may be to blame.)

Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, and John Cena in the film "Blockers" which premieres April 6.
Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, and John Cena in the film Blockers, which premieres April 6. Universal
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Cena removes his button-down and pulls on a V-neck. Upon catching a flash of his torso, you come to appreciate fully that he is not one of those celebrities whom you meet in real life and think, That guy looks bigger on TV, as with deceptively short strong guys Mark Wahlberg (5’8″) and Sylvester Stallone (5’10”). In fact, television doesn’t begin to capture Cena’s size. At 6’1″ and a ripped 250 pounds, he exerts a gravitational force, like a small planet, pulling you closer and closer until you nearly collide. It’s hard not to gawk at, and at least somewhat envy, him for being impossibly more fit than most people could ever dream to be. But he’s so genial that you can’t hold his bulk against him. Plus, he has granted more than 550 Make-a-Wish requests. How can you begrudge a guy like that?

It’s tempting to put Cena in a box, to dismiss him as a meathead, or to disregard his achievements in WWE, given the performance-art nature of the whole spectacle. But Cena is not just another wrestler trying to pivot into movies. Well, maybe he sort of is, but labeling him Rock Redux sells him short. The man is an entertainer in the truest sense. For starters, he is killer at photo shoots. Brilliant at photo shoots, even. He needs no coaching—funny comes easy. He can just stand somewhere and amuse, either by cocking an eyebrow, twisting his grin, or simply positioning himself next to objects much smaller than he is, which includes just about everything.

Cena not only has a knack for captivating a crowd, but he also has a freakish level of commitment to his interests and his work. About halfway through the shoot, the photo assistants sit him at a miniature piano. Then, to my surprise, he begins to play, or play as best he can on the tiny keyboard. Out come a few bars of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata and then a bit of Erik Satie. Yes, Cena can play the piano. He decided to invest 50 hours into learning, and it stuck. He can also speak Mandarin. He’s not great at chess, but he can hang. He can rap, too, and act better than guys who have spent their entire careers on Hollywood sets. I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew a step or two of tap.

John Cena photographed for the May 2018 issue of Men's Journal by Art Streiber.
Photographs by Art Streiber

He’s a classic overachiever, and he would have likely excelled at whatever he decided to do in life. He could have enjoyed a fine career as an ambassador to a small country in the South Pacific, say, or as an officer in the military, which he nearly joined before giving wrestling a go. But he happened to find success in the ring early and followed the path deeper and deeper into the world of spandex, muscly dudes, and choreographed fighting. Then he outworked, and outmaneuvered, everyone else. He is not a fantastic wrestler, at least not on a technical level. But he believes in whatever he’s saying on the mic and lets his character consume him so much that his shortcomings fade. “I’m never the person who asks the question, How far do I go?” he says. “I’m like, ‘If we are going, you have to tell me to stop.’”

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That said, there are a lot of wrestlers who are good on the mic who haven’t expanded their careers beyond WWE. “I don’t care how big of a star you are in wrestling, your fame isn’t going to naturally transfer over,” Dave Meltzer, publisher and editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, says. “There’s a feeling that they’re not talented, so they’ve got to overcome it.” It takes a cocktail of charisma and intrinsic likability to do it. “Hulk Hogan didn’t make it, and Hogan was a huge star in wrestling,” Meltzer says. “Steve Austin was a huge star, and he didn’t have a big movie career, either.” Bruce Prichard, a former WWE producer, explains that though matches are scripted, wrestlers tend to excel not if they’re good actors but if they’re good reactors. So the transition to other forms of entertainment doesn’t come as easily as one might assume.

Cena, though, can act, and, if for nothing else, he deserves credit for being one of the only two guys in the history of professional wrestling to have made the jump to Hollywood successfully. The other, of course, is the Rock—today better known as Dwayne Johnson, John the Baptist to Cena’s Jesus Christ. Johnson made his name playing an Egyptian king in two of the Mummy films, then starred in a handful of The Fast and the Furious sequels. In every respect, he’s a megastar, and he proved that wrestlers could do more than just body slam one another over make-believe beef. “There’s no way you can put us in the same sentence,” Cena says, with self-deprecating sincerity.

But for all of Johnson’s 40-odd movie roles, he hasn’t had one half as memorable as Cena’s in Trainwreck. In it, he plays Amy Schumer’s sexually confused, CrossFit-obsessed boyfriend, and it’s a contender for the greatest sports crossover in film history. In a standout scene, he trades insults with a guy at a movie theater, but as the fight escalates, Cena’s character sort of begins to hit on the other guy. “OK, Koko B. Ware, you know what?” he exclaims. “You’re being an asshole! All right? You know what I do with assholes? I lick ’em!” Cena sells the lines perfectly. “He’s one of the fastest minds I’ve ever seen at work,” Schumer says. “He took what was on the page and made it so much better.” He’s a pro, she adds, “but, fuck, that dude knows how to let his mind go free on set.”

Cena’s innate, and perhaps curious, ability to connect with people no doubt helps his characters resonate. “He looks like a robot built by the government to destroy people,” says Barinholtz, his Blockers co-star. “But he’s incredibly kind and has absolutely no ego, and that connects with people.” On the set, Cena would do whatever it took to make the movie better, Barinholtz says. “He was like, ‘Sure, sure. Whatever you need, I’ll do it. Oh, you want to shove two beer funnels up my ass? OK, I’ll do it.’ ”

Cannon adds: “He’s just so open and accepting, and people can feel that. I think people see the good in him and want to be good like him.”

I’m never the person who asks the question, how far do I go? If we are going, you have to tell me when to stop.

Cena has rightly earned applause for his recent comedy roles. But his greatest achievement to date remains the fact that he almost single-handedly changed WWE’s business model by being the upright, disarming yet totally chiseled slice of white bread that he is. Consider WWE stars of the past: Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Undertaker. They all came across as dudes who, had their wrestling careers not panned out, might have ended up digging septic trenches or selling live bait. Longtime fans loved their dirt-under-the-fingernails, antiestablishment aesthetics, along with their monologues about ass whoopin’ and beer drinking. As for John Cena? He’s the one who turned WWE into PG-rated, family-fun entertainment.

One of five boys, he grew up in pastoral West Newbury, Massachusetts, an hour north of Boston. His dad, John Cena Sr.—who now promotes small-time wrestling matches under the name Johnny Fabulous—was a wrestling superfan and exposed Cena and his brothers to the sport at an early age. “As a New England kid, I didn’t know who the Red Sox or Celtics were,” Cena says. But he was enthralled by the wrestlers’ mystique and overblown personalities. “I honestly believed everything I saw,” he says. “Even if you know the situation, it’s something you can lose yourself in.” And, sure, he enjoyed watching the guys beat, or pretend to beat, the stuffing out of one another. The family went as far as to construct a ring in the basement for the brothers to mimic what they saw on television. “I was kind of raised in a frat house,” Cena says. “Looking back on the things I was exposed to at such a young age, they probably were not exactly in the handbook of how to raise your kids.”

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 23: Seth Rollins and John Cena battle it out at the WWE SummerSlam 2015 at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on August 23, 2015 in New York City.
Cena in the ring in 2015. Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images

After high school, Cena played football at Springfield College and then, in 1999, moved to Venice Beach, California, where he began pursuing his wrestling career. He started out with a small local outfit before WWE recruited him for its development league in Louisville, Kentucky. In his first televised WWE appearance, in June 2002, at age 25, he performed wearing bright, ass-hugging shorts and matching knee pads. He had no gimmick—which, in the world of pro wrestling, is to say that he had nothing. He flailed for a few months. “I was literally about to get fired,” he says. “Everybody told me, ‘It’s not working.’”

But that fall he developed a Vanilla Ice–inspired rapper schtick and quickly became a fan favorite, thanks to his quick-witted, and often racy, rhymes. In 2005, for instance, Cena told Hiroko Suzuki, a geisha-style wrestling personality, that he’d help whiten her face, the sexual connotations crystal clear. “We were willing to push the envelope,” Steve Austin says. “You had to be edgy, because if you weren’t, you were going to get smoked.”

By 2006, the demographics of WWE’s live audience had begun to shift, however. More young families and kids began to fill the crowd. Cena was quick to notice and knew that he had to do something. The decision to change course ultimately fell on WWE CEO Vince McMahon—but, says Cena, “I made it perfectly clear to him that I would like to stop doing what I’m doing.”

He soon pivoted to the squeaky-clean-hero character that he has stuck with ever since. The image helped make him the face and change the direction of WWE. “John is the all-American clean-cut, blue-collar guy,” Austin says. “He goes out there in his jean shorts and his sneakers, and he’s an entertainer. To me, that’s his gimmick.” Fans have criticized WWE for giving Cena too much exposure. But when it came down to it, Meltzer says, “the company thought that John looked like a superhero, so if they were sending guys out to do media, they’d go with John.”

“He was never the chosen guy, never,” Austin adds. But because of the crowd response, WWE had no choice but to push him, he says. No matter whether people cheer or boo him, “100 percent of that crowd is invested in his match.”

Part of why Cena’s all-American schtick has worked so well is that the character isn’t a stretch. He’s deeply patriotic. And it doesn’t hurt that, according to a 2013 study, WWE’s largest markets are in strongly conservative southern states, such as Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas. But Cena is patriotic in a Greatest Generation sort of way, not a let’s-build-a-wall-and-make-Mexico-pay-for-it type. “This country is built on coming here and getting a chance, and I love that,” he says, during a wardrobe swap-out. “America is a weird thing, and it goes through phases of finding and losing its way, but I think we always go back to that.”

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To wit, in 2016, he starred in a short PSA titled “We Are America,” in which, strolling through a quaint small town, he opines that “to love America is to love all Americans,” regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, or orientation. The video garnered a couple of million views online and prompted People to call him a “perpetual font of goodness.” “I get to see the diversity,” he tells me, “and it’s incredible to see all these cultures coexisting.” He points out the window, in the direction of the Statue of Liberty, four miles south. “It’s difficult at times,” he says. “But remember where you are. Remember the statue in the harbor—give me your tired, hungry, poor.”

“I’m a character on a television show. I’m lucky to do what I do; it’s not real.” Besides, so what if fans hate him? “My job is to bring them on a ride.”

As photo assistants corral Cena to the set again, I ask whether he’d consider running for office one day (because that’s a question we ask celebrities in the Trump era, apparently). No, he says. “It’s not entertaining to me,” he explains, and he’s not sure whether he could handle the stress. Some fans have taken to chanting “Cena sucks” whenever he enters the ring; he handles the heckles with admirable composure, a characteristic, I add, that would serve him well as an elected official. “How am I supposed to be?” he asks. “I’m a character on a television show. I’m lucky to do what I do; it’s not real.” Besides, so what if fans hate him? “My job is to bring them on a ride.”

Cena knows his WWE run is coming to an end. He’s already older than the superstars that came before him. “I’ve always said that if I feel and look a step slow out there, then it’s time to go,” he says. In fact, he has already backed away from WWE some, appearing only part-time. When he gives up the ring for good, he hopes to continue acting; he has also dabbled in production and has a children’s book coming out. But he can never leave WWE, not fully. It made him the man he is today, he says, and gave him a chance to make something of himself. As far as movies go, he knows he’ll make mistakes along the way. “I’m just hoping to come out clean on the other side,” he says.

As the shoot begins to wrap up, Cena and the crew take a break, and he sits and sips water on a sofa in a back room. He’s exhausted, and though he has been a good sport, he’s clearly ready to bail. I tell him I don’t know how he can stand always being on the road, especially with a new fiancée at home. “That’s the thing,” he says. “Everybody is like, ‘How do you do it?’ ” Easy: He loves his work. “And that’s why I’ve dedicated my life to it for over 15 years.” He sacrificed a normal existence for his career, he acknowledges. But now, in the twilight of his time as a WWE superstar, and as he begins to take more acting roles, he has started to reconsider some of his priorities, he says.

John Cena photographed for the May 2018 issue of Men's Journal by Art Streiber
Photograph by Art Streiber

He reflects on his first marriage, to his high-school sweetheart, which ended in divorce, in 2012. “I wasn’t ready to be a husband. I was given this golden ticket to do something that I just thought was mythical.” So he would prioritize his career over his relationship, he says.

I mention a 2006 interview he did with Howard Stern. In it, Cena discusses having sex with groupies while on the road with WWE. One night, he tells Stern, he had six women in his room at once, and he says later that he considers the best night of his life an evening he shared with two strippers from a “small ratty strip club, in Louisville, Kentucky.”

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“I lived a much more selfish life,” Cena tells me. “My definition of what I thought love was was way off track.” He has since realized that he has to consider other people’s needs, he says, and he’s now trying to learn how to balance his home life and his career ambitions.

I tell him I don’t think the balance exists. “It doesn’t,” he says. “But I didn’t think I could speak Chinese. I didn’t think I could play the piano.” Either way, living with someone is hard, I say. “It’s not,” he says, then stops. “It is. I’m not going to take that away from you. But you have to say to yourself, ‘This is hard. This is not easy.’ But anything worth anything is not easy. OK? It is hard.”

And hard is something that Cena embraces. Every day people are going to ask him to do something supernatural, he says. “I’m going to do it.” He accepts whatever challenge is at hand, no matter how daunting, because he knows that everything he has—his relationship, his movie career, his WWE stardom—is fragile. He pushes himself so that it all remains intact, so that the crowds keep turning out to see him, so that he can continue being John Cena. But for all his striving and high-achieving, he’s not self-critical, he says. “No, I’m just always searching for ways to keep the noise.”


This story appears in the print edition of the May 2018 issue, with the headline “Breaking Big.”

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