IT IS NOT CLEAR HOW WE GOT ON THIS topic, but John Cena and I are discussing the joys of sipping red wine. “I enjoy red wine for the same reason I enjoy a cup of coffee or an occasional cigar,” he says. “They’re vehicles for connection. You cannot chug red wine. It’s easy to chug a cold beer, it’s easy to do a shot. But strong coffee is to be sipped. Red wine is the same.
Especially, like the bolder cab—it’s a vehicle for conversation.”
If this isn’t the kind of trash talk you were expecting from the square- jawed actor and global face of the WWE, Cena knows that and, well, that’s on you.
We’re standing inside a fancy photo studio in Hollywood, a cavernous space with vaulted ceilings, the afternoon sun streaming in through massive skylights. Loud club bangers scream from some unseen speakers. Cena is currently promoting F9—the latest installment in The Fast & The Furious franchise (due out in April 2021) and also his first. So here he is, posing with one of the film’s gorgeous co-stars: a 1968 matte black Dodge Charger (driven by Vin Diesel’s character in the film). The 800-horsepower custom roadster, constructed of carbon fiber, may be the most beautiful thing in the movie (after Charlize Theron), and it comes with a chaperone, who tells me the car’s tank is designed to hold less than a gallon of gas to prevent explosions when filming stunt crashes.
Cena’s career, on the other hand, has gone positively supernova. About two years ago, he skillfully negotiated the transition from WWE champion to bankable leading man—with starring roles in Transformers spin-off Bumblebee and the raunchy comedy Blockers. His evolution is finally complete with F9, which introduces Cena as Vin Diesel’s long-lost brother, the skilled assassin Jakob Toretto. He’s just finished shooting the next Suicide Squad, reimagined by director James Gunn. Next, he’ll go for laughs with Vacation Friends, a twisted comedy directed by one of the producers of Silicon Valley.
Hang the Mission Accomplished banner. But Cena’s also been on a different kind of journey, one that’s richer than the when- will-Hollywood-take-this-guy-seriously narrative. In person, Cena still looks like a He-Man action figure hit by whatever gamma ray turned Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk. His hands are like meat puppets. When he changes his sweater between photographs, a jagged vein on his right shoulder threatens to escape from beneath his taut, tan skin.
But at 43, Cena is hard at work remaking himself. The man who once bragged to Howard Stern about a one-night-stand with a “fat chick” has chiseled himself into something less predictable and way more interesting: a genuinely woke American hero who raises millions of dollars for veterans and writes children’s books about how boys can learn from their mistakes but is still funny enough to make Amy Schumer wet her pants.
And he’s accomplished it all not because of the way he looks but almost despite it, challenging the expectations of executives and the public at every turn. As if a 250- pound, six-foot-tall sentient action figure couldn’t possibly have a rich inner life. “Everybody thinks I’m going to come in and smash somebody over a table,” Cena tells me. “Because that’s what I’ve been fortunate enough to do.”
THERE’S NO CABERNET ON SET TODAY, but it turns out we don’t need any wine to get into it. Cena dismisses my softball questions about F9’s wacky stunts or hanging out with co-star Cardi B at the craft services table. He’ll barely engage the topic of Charlize Theron’s instantly iconic bowl cut. “Not once did I notice the haircut,” Cena says, maybe more severely than need be. “I would show up and, it’s like, ‘Today I get to work with a very talented actress.’ At the end of the day, I was like, ‘Man, she made me a better professional.’ ”
To be clear, Cena is unfailingly polite (not to mention military-grade punctual). By all accounts, he was the same on the set of F9, which was shot on multiple continents.
“There’s a sequence that involves John zip-lining in Edinburgh,” says the film’s director, Justin Lin. “It must’ve been the most annoying thing for him to shoot, because we ended up hanging him on that zip line for several days. But John had a lot of trust in the crew and the stunt team and kept coming back happy to do it again.”
During our chat, on the other hand, Cena doesn’t come to life until we start talking about—of all things—Dr. Brené Brown, the prominent thinker and professor whose popular 2010 TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” posits that self-actualized, happy people have one thing in common: the belief that vulnerability makes you beautiful. What she advocates for is a very different kind of Monday Night Raw, telling the crowd: “You cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, ‘Here’s the bad stuff, here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin.’”
Which of Brown’s ideas initially caught his attention, I ask. Cena does not hesitate: “Be brave enough to be vulnerable.” Why that one? “Because it goes against everything that boys and men are taught,” he says.
Cena’s origin story has been told before, but if you’re late to the party, the details make for its own motivational TED Talk: At age 12, a skinny kid in remote West Newbury, Massachusetts, asks his parents to buy him a weightlifting bench for Christmas, explaining: “I get the shit beat out of me every day because of the way I look.” Suddenly the world is in color. Newly jacked, he does a stint playing Division III football in college, then moves to Venice, California—with two duffel bags and $500 in cash. He’s sleeping in his 1991 Lincoln Continental and showering at the legendary Gold’s Gym, where he works the front desk. The future is in serious doubt. And then he hears about a training camp in Orange County for wannabe professional wrestlers. Five years later, Cena is crowned world champion at WrestleMania XX, firmly announcing himself (and his jean shorts) as a potential heir to the WWE’s first true crossover star, The Rock.
That Cena conquered Hollywood shouldn’t be all that surprising. For more than a decade, after all, he was essentially acting on two of the longest-running prime time soap operas in history, WWE SmackDown and Monday Night Raw. And his personality in the ring—an All-American hero who preached “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect”—made him diehard fans and mortal enemies. “I’ve had stadiums of people calling me such horrible things,” he said. “For like 12 years, half of the audience told me, ‘You fucking suck!’ And the opposite said, ‘No man, you’re all right.’ ”
If some of that negativity got under his skin, that’s OK, because he understood what mattered most: that people were talking about him. That’s something the WWE and Hollywood have in common, he says. “Make moments that resonate with people. Or you get to not have your job.” When Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow opened the door with Trainwreck, inviting him to play an oversize gym rat who has comically physical sex with Schumer, Cena walked through it—with nothing but a towel draped over his still-erect junk.
Cena is using his newfound platform in unexpected ways—to encourage men along their journeys of self-discovery while helping the next generation unlearn (or never learn) the meathead wiring of his youth. He’s doing the latter as the author of a series of best-selling children’s books about a talking truck named Elbow Grease—an underdog in a family of oversize monster trucks who figures out that failing is the best way to learn.
The next book in the series, Elbow Grease: Fast Friends (due out this fall), tackles jealousy. Says Cena: “A lot of people get consumed by jealousy, especially nowadays when you can see all these terrifically, wonderful things that people are supposedly doing on social media.” The book is a surreptitious secret weapon designed to cut off toxic masculinity at the root. “Maybe,” he says, “you can reach a young reader at 4.”
IT’S HOKEY TO SAY THIS, but it cannot be avoided: What brings John Cena joy is giving back. Despite the flurry of showbiz action in his life now, he prefers to use our time together to talk about FitOps, a nonprofit that prepares veterans to return to civilian life by training them to become certified personal trainers. It’s estimated that 20 veterans commit suicide every day, Cena notes with obvious pain. “For the number to be that high, something is broken,” he says. “There’s no perfect fix. But we’ve got to start somewhere.”
FitOps runs five training camps a year, inviting 40 veterans at a time to Bentonville, Arkansas, for three-week sessions. “The program is designed to give veterans purpose again,” says Matt Hesse, the army vet who founded FitOps and is the CEO and founder of the sports nutrition company Performix. Attendees graduate with a certificate in personal training, as well as the marketing and social-media skills to find clients and build a real business.
A couple of years ago, Hesse invited the wrestling star to visit one of FitOps’ camps. It was a rare opportunity for a civilian. “We’re trying to create an environment where the veterans are able to be vulnerable and let go,” Hesse says. “And John wanted to be respectful of that. He spent about two days at camp with us. He slept in the same barracks that all the vets sleep in. John was very present. The last thing we do each day is get around a campfire. And one vet gets up and tells his story. Some of those stories start at their childhood, some start the day they enlisted, but almost all of them end in tears shared by everybody—including John.”
At one campfire, Hesse says, Cena asked if he could speak. “He talked a lot about understanding what your purpose is and the value of having a vision for your life,” Hesse recalls.
Cena’s involvement with FitOps makes sense on multiple levels. The actor has always been vocal about supporting the troops. But even more meaningfully, his path—from scrawny kid to college athlete to WWE superstar to Hollywood box office champion—has been filled with moments of self-doubt, in which he questioned his purpose. Through it all, he has been fueled by a commitment to self-improvement and physical fitness. And it’s only natural that he’s partnered with Performix, a brand built on helping people find purpose through fitness.
Not long after visiting the FitOps camp, Cena went on Ellen and told America that for every dollar the public donated to the organization, he’d match the donation, up to $1 million. He met his goal and now plans to do the fundraiser again this year—from Memorial Day to Veteran’s Day—putting another million dollars of his own on the line.
As Hesse and I wrap up our conversation, he asks me an unexpected question: Which John Cena did I meet, he wants to know. I ask what he’s getting at. “I mean there’s several,” he says. “There’s a lot of depth to that guy. There’s a John that is insanely intense and disciplined about everything that he does. Then there’s funny John—the guy you’d have a beer with in the backyard.”
James Gunn, director of The Suicide Squad reboot, says the same thing. Cena, he tells me, is “probably the best improviser I’ve ever worked with in my entire life. And I’ve worked with a lot of comedians. He is so funny but also dark and twisted. But a really, really funny guy.” Justin Lin, unprompted, echoes that point. “What I appreciate most about him is that he can become goofy at the snap of a finger,” Lin says. “He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure, critically under- appreciated comedies and can rattle off quotes nonstop.”
I didn’t meet that John Cena. (Though he sounds like fun!) I got the intense John Cena. The one who, when the discussion turns to cars, tells me he’s in the market for a Mini Cooper—but refuses to acknowledge that the idea of John Cena squeezed behind the wheel of a Mini Cooper was funny.
He could not have been more polite, but he wasn’t clowning around for my benefit. The closest he comes to cracking a smile is when I ask about his underwear. Because this dude is all about efficiency, we continue talking while he changes clothing between setups—which is how I see him in a hot-pink banana hammock. Picture just some poor spandex holding on for dear life.
“Is that your underwear?” I ask, thinking maybe the photo shoot’s stylist brought it along.
“It is,” Cena says, with an almost smile. “More for the fit, less for the color.”
If Cena must discuss work, what he wants people to know is—whether he’s making F9 or The Suicide Squad or a comedy like Blockers—he’s just grateful to be invited to the party. And when he’s a guest in your house, he’s going to play by your rules. Even if that means, as it did with Blockers, chugging a beer through his butthole for laughs. “I’m signing up for that knowing that I’m going to do stupid shit,” Cena says, admitting he performed a bunch of bits no one else wanted to do, precisely because he was willing to putting his ego aside. “I’m OK being made a fool. That goes back to being made a fool in front of 15,000 people night after night after night after night after night.”
Cena’s humility may seem like an absurd overcorrection. (I mean, have you seen this guy?) But it’s no doubt heartfelt. “There’s no entitlement in what John does,” says Lin. “He wants to earn everything.”
Predictably, Cena won’t say much about F9—a global affair shot in London, Edinburgh, Thailand, Los Angeles, and Tbilisi. But Cena does say that his interest in joining the franchise was piqued by the emo hook of the story. “If you’re going to reveal that there’s a lost Toretto? I think there’s an emotion with it,” he says.
Before Cena was officially asked to join the cast, he was put through a sit-down with Vin Diesel, who invited Cena to his personal gym for a tête-à-tête (or would “pec-à-pec” be more appropriate?) “He wanted to assess my character—as a human,” Cena recalls. “I don’t blame him. We do the same thing at the WWE. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m getting a major league push being attached to this franchise. I like that there’s a vetting process. If I just cared about myself and not the legacy of the work? We have performers like that all the time at WWE. And they don’t last.
“When you get someone who loves the business, loves the company, loves performing,” Cena says, “you get a winner.”