When faced with the hulking, muscle-intensive, 6’1 frame of John Cena, the last thing one is inspired to do is laugh. During any of the industrious WWE superstar’s 320 wrestling shows a year, most people who encounter him tend to bust a gut only from getting five-knuckle shuffled in the stomach. Pretty soon, though, people everywhere will be cracking up at Cena—from the relative safety of a movie theater audience.
A lot of very funny comedians appear in Amy Schumer’s post-romantic-comedy romantic comedy, Trainwreck, Mike Birbiglia, Vanessa Bayer, and Bill Hader, included. So a lot of viewers are going to be flabbergasted when the movie ends and they’re talking about hysterical co-stars LeBron James and John Cena. For Cena, whose previous biggest film role was in the schlocktacular shoot ’em up, 12 Rounds, it’s all part of an effort to show a decidedly less lethal side of himself.
“I’ve been actively trying to extend my reach beyond WWE,” the man also known as The Franchise says. “I wanted to do some non-action related projects, stuff that will resonate with different audiences who might not know who I am.”
In Cena’s first unexpected moment of branching out this year, he appeared on Parks and Recreation in a role that was not actually much of a stretch: himself. He got the part through his affiliation with Amy Poehler, whom he met while acting in her new film with Tina Fey, Sisters, which is out this fall. Unlike the role of “John Cena” on Parks, the performer plays a drug dealer in Sisters and a sensitive crossfit enthusiast in Trainwreck. It’s all a far cry from the kind of role he usually plays, the one inside the wrestling ring.
“I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but there is a difference between the John Cena character you see on television and me as a human being,” he says. “A role like I had on Parks and Rec, to me is very easy to understand and that’s something that I can do with my eyes closed. But these other projects that have come up are more challenging, and in a good way.”
Cena landed the role of Amy Schumer’s friend with benefits in Trainwreck through a general audition. The part called for a seriously large, fit person willing to do a lot of physical comedy—a match made in heaven for a top-tier wrestler who regularly swaggers around taunting opponents before a crowd. The part also called for a fully nude sex scene. (“It was a little awkward, but the scene itself is extremely awkward so I kinda just went with it.”) In order to seal the deal, Cena had to hold his own through rounds of improv overseen by director Judd Apatow, who famously relies on a lot of on-set spontaneity. He aced it.
As far as beginners go, Cena would probably put most Upright Citizens Brigade improv students to shame. During the aforementioned sex scene, Schumer’s character prompts her F-buddy, Cena, to talk dirty to her. It does not go very well for them. For us, though, in the audience, it goes splendidly, with each line more cringey/funny than the last. A throwaway line from the scene even leads to an entirely new dimension to Cena’s character, which we won’t reveal here.
“They gave me a lot of liberty to think of who this guy really was,” he says. “A lot of what you see on screen is completely improv. I have zero experience in that field and truly I’m learning as I go and never once did they make me feel out of place or as if I was holding up production or anything like that. Judd and Amy never once made it intimidating.”
Now that Cena has had a taste of working in comedy, he doesn’t foresee a return to action flicks like The Marine or 12 Rounds any time soon. The experience of staging fights over multiple takes in those films doesn’t compare to the 1000-volt charge of doing it in front of a live audience of thousands of people on their feet, hollering–which is how he spends most days. Besides, getting into the funny business apparently means far superior working conditions.
“With comedies, it’s been very gratifying to be able to clock in, laugh all day, and then clock out,” he says. “That’s a pretty fun day.”
Personally, we think any day where you don’t have to inflict a flying shoulder block on an enormous person is a fun day. Please don’t tell John Cena Co.Create said that, though.
Watch a trailer for Trainwreck, which is out today, below: