"To create the most fearless heroes we can"

Interview with John Cena
From the ring to the big screen, John Cena has made the journey from World Wrestling Entertainment Superstar to Hollywood star look easy, surprising perhaps even himself with his skill and charisma. Playing With Fire is a very warm, very funny family film in which Cena plays Jake Carson, leader of a team of smokejumpers.
How did you get involved in Playing With Fire?
I read it, that’s my first step for any project, to see if it resonates with me. I think that’s the first step in knowing what you can contribute, in any capacity. I don’t read for a certain character. I just read. That way you get a scope for the whole story, the relationships with the other characters. So, when you sit down with the director and talk about their vision, what they’re asking you to do, it’s really easy to bounce around ideas and see their vision as well. That’s just my process.

What resonated with you?
I remember being handed it as a family comedy and being asked, ‘What do you think?’ And I remember getting emotional at the right point, at the point I would be getting emotional in the movie. When I’m reading the words – and I don’t fancy myself as a particularly fast reader – and I’m that emotionally attached, I know there is something there. I know that not only can I do this and I can feel it, but that I want to put my efforts and energy into it. It sneaks up on you.

You cite Blazing Saddles as one of your all-time favourite movies. Is comedy somewhere you feel really at home?
I don’t know. I like laughing, I know that. If I can somehow take the skills that I have and make other people laugh, great. And a lot of that is just surrounding yourself with really funny people and allowing them to assess your strengths and weaknesses and say, ‘Okay, this would be really funny if…’ And talking about how things are going to land. Especially to someone who is not a trained comic, like myself. I think there’s a lot to that process. You’re being vulnerable enough to trust someone else with your well-being, but if you believe in them and believe in the material then you can make folks laugh. You have to understand, in this I am around really funny people. It also comes with understanding the jokes. If the joke’s on you and you don’t understand it, if you’re not comfortable enough to make fun of yourself, sometimes the comedy doesn’t land. I think when you have an understanding of what the purpose of the joke is, what your role in the joke is, as long as you stay within those parameters, it’s going to be fine.

How do you figure all of those things out?
Listen to the people around you. You do go over material well – on the table read or if you workshop ideas on the side. A lot of times you come up with ideas on the day. You just take it one at a time.

It feels like a lot of the dialogue in this was improvised. Is that true?
Yeah, absolutely. Because you have these hugely gifted master-craftsmen in Judy [Greer], John [Leguizamo] and Keegan [Michael Key]. Think of the 10,000 hour theory [that doing 10,000 hours of something makes you an expert] – they will surpass that. So, getting what we need to get on paper is one thing, but then asking them, ‘Hey, do you want to add anything?’ You never know what you’re going to get. And that’s why I really enjoyed working with Judd [Apatow, director of Trainwreck]. He would let you go to just see what you got. Even if you told cruddy jokes, he would never make you feel like, ‘Don’t ever speak up again!’ He would always encourage you to explore the space. And Andy [Fickman] was exactly like that too. I had it easy and hard. I had it easy because I didn’t have to come up with any material – I just had to remain stoic. And it was hard because I couldn’t come up with any material and just had to be stoic! There were so many times that I just wanted to jump in on the act, but it ruins the joke. We just talked about, ‘Your role in the joke.’ My whole role in the joke, throughout the whole movie, is being stoic… Until I’m not!

There’s a great scene where you and him are both dancing – are you a natural dancer?
Not at all. That was another example of facing my fears. I just go for it on camera. Andy Fickman said, ‘Just dance like no one is watching.’ We all have those moments of celebration. I saw a kid on the street the other day, he came out of a shop and just danced. I was with Keegan and I looked over and said, ‘I want to be able to do more of that, to dance like nobody is watching.’ Because that is the scariest thing in the world. Because there is a certain standard of dance that we accept as passable and I do not meet that standard! Therefore, I am afraid to dance because I don’t meet the standard. But it is a funny expression of getting rid of some emotions. That is extremely important. I would love to be able to dance like nobody’s watching. I’m not yet brave enough, but saying that is the first step to facing the fear.

What did you know about smokejumpers before this movie? Did you do much research about them?
Yes, and Andy [Fickman] always dives in. He was the driving force of educating us about who these people are and what they do. Very quickly all of us realised we could never do this. And I think that’s why smokejumpers were chosen. They are so elite in their skillset and really do cheat death every single time they board the plane – as do all first responders. But, man, these guys jump out at questionable altitudes with whatever supplies they have, not knowing how long they will be there, to contain these raging wildfires, and then hop back in ready to do it again if need be. They sleep in their gear, so if the bell rings they can get ready in 30 seconds if they need to. We all know we could never do this, but the idea was for us to create the most fearless heroes we can.

In the movie, your character never cries. In real-life, when was the last time you cried?
This morning. I was reflecting on my past, and talking to someone who is close to me, who obviously gave me an open environment to be able to reflect on those things... And if I’m moved by the conversation, I’ll embrace it. That macho cliché is so bad [about men not crying] and this movie hits it in the face. My character is like, ‘I never cry!’ And they [the kids in the movie] are like, ‘And you’re proud of that? You are so archaic, bro! There’s so much in there!’ And [in the movie] this is a teenager telling me this. You know, like, ‘You have some issues, man!’ And I love that he [Cena’s character] Google searches, ‘Is it okay if I’ve never cried?’ And then is vulnerable enough to break down at the end of the movie. I think it’s an important message.

Where do you see your career going now?
I don’t know and I think that’s great. I think having no expectations is a great way to stay thankful because everything that comes my way is something I shouldn’t have had in the first place. And that was the philosophy I had in WWE. I never expected anything except a chance. That’s it.
UIP-Duna Film
(14 pictures)

Film premieres

Wreck-It Ralph

American, animation, 92 min., 2012
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