From wrestling ring to silver screen, John Cena tackles '12 Rounds'
Before John Cena was a WWE superstar, the West Newbury, Mass., native headed west with a resume that included eight years of high school and college football. He found work at a Gold’s Gym, where someone took note of his look — a blond Mohawk, a square jaw, bright blue eyes — and suggested that he get into professional wrestling.
One wrestling school led to another, followed by a big break into the ranks of Vince McMahon’s WWE and, eventually a few championship runs. But right in the middle of it all, Cena was thrown into a second career: starring in movies. In his first, “The Marine,” he played a Marine who had to rescue his wife from kidnappers. In his newest, “12 Rounds,” he plays a police officer who has to rescue his girlfriend from a kidnapper.
Acting, and fighting, in the wrestling ring was always the plan. Acting in the movies was certainly not.
“ ‘The Marine’ kind of fell into my lap by accident,” says Cena, 31, who stands at 6’ 1” and weighs 240 pounds. “It was originally written for Steve Austin, but it was at a time in his career when he was kind of on the outs with the WWE. They already had the movie in preproduction and were ready to shoot, so they needed someone, and on a whim, they called on me.”
To clarify, Cena explains how it really went down with WWE chairman McMahon, who also served as a producer on “12 Rounds.”
“Vince pulled me aside and said you’re going to make a movie,” he says, breaking into a big laugh.
Cena admits that the experience of the new film was more relaxed than the first one.
“This time I didn’t have to be some superhuman guy who was impervious to bullets and couldn’t be destroyed,” he explains. “I got to be a normal guy. I got to have weaknesses, and have moments of failure and indecision. I got to have a good believable relationship with my girl. It was really easier to do this than ‘The Marine,’ because this is more me.”
But he points out that acting in the ring is radically different from acting in front of a camera.
“It’s like Broadway to cinema,” he says. “In the WWE we’re almost doing Broadway. When you perform to 15,000 in the live audience, you have to make sure your image is projected. You want to be larger than life. You want to be a superhero. In movies, the screen is big enough. You don’t have to be larger than life. I prepared for it by telling everybody, from the director to the other actors to the crewmembers, ‘Listen, this is what I do well on television, and this is what I think I lack in movies. I’m OK with criticism. If you see something that’s not good, tell me, and we’ll fix it. Because it’ll only make the movie better.’ ”
It’s not the first time that Cena used that approach in the entertainment business. He got his start with Ultimate Pro Wrestling in California where, he laments, “Everyone there was basically a glorified stuntman, and I learned how to fall down.” But he caught enough eyes to be brought into the fold of Ohio Valley Wrestling in Kentucky — the training grounds for WWE — where he was really taught the ropes.
“When I got the call to go to Kentucky, Jim Cornette and Danny Davis, and later on, in the WWE, Tommy Dreamer, became mentor figures in every sense of the word. They know their profession very well, and have a wealth of knowledge, but don’t just give it out for free. You need to tap the resource, and I was always asking for help, kind of the same approach I took on the movie: ‘Help make me better.’ ”
These days Cena, who recently lost the WWE title belt, wrestles four matches a week, a tough schedule that keeps him on the road, headlining in huge arenas such as the Boston Garden and Madison Square Garden, as well as regularly working towns such as Champagne, Ill., and Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
And though the WWE writers call the shots for what his in-ring character will do, Cena also keeps his hand in the mix.
“There’s a whole staff responsible for my character,” he says. “But I try to take their request for chicken soup, and make my own chicken soup. If they say they want steak, I put my own seasoning on it. Rather than create my own destiny, I take the destiny that’s created for me, and make it my own.”
But will he one day make a film in which he doesn’t have to save a damsel in distress?
He smiles and says, “That certainly is hopefully the setup for the next project.”