John Cena's second movie, 12 Rounds, opens March 27. I spoke with the WWE world heavyweight champion over the phone last week about his acting career, and I slipped in a few wrestling questions, too.
Was acting in a movie easier for you the second time around after having done The Marine?
It was certainly easier, but I don't think it had everything to do with the experience from The Marine. We really just had a very, very good crew. Mark Gordon's production company – he produced Speed, Saving Private Ryan – really stepped in there with Fox to make sure this thing kind of knocked itself out of the park. And Renny Harlin was such a great asset as a director. He's the guy, whether it had been my first movie or my hundredth movie, that made it very, very easy. He's a great guy to be around that certainly has an agenda. I'm a beast who runs on schedule because we travel so many days a year, and he was just spot-on, man. He was overly ambitious and he really delivered.
For those who may not have seen the clips on TV, what is the basic plot?
The long and short of the movie is that I start off as a beat cop and I make the bust of my life by accident. I take down pretty much the world's greatest bad guy. In the process, the girl that he loves gets run over by a truck, so he vows to get revenge on me. He breaks out of prison a year later as I'm finally finding some substance to my life and totally ruins it. He blows up my house, takes my wife to be and challenges me to 12 rounds of survival, the reason being that he is like a game theory addict. He really has a plan for everything, and that night that I arrested him, it wasn't part of the plan and he never banked on that. So he wants in his mind to know if I'm lucky or actually good. If I survive the 12 rounds, then I was actually that good.
I know that you had an acting coach on the set with you when you did The Marine. Do you have one for this movie as well?
Absolutely. I tell people this is like having my second match, and by the time I had my second match I needed a lot of coaching. I had a coach in pre-production and I had a bunch of great coaches on set. Brian White is a fantastic actor. He plays my partner and my best friend in the movie, and I learned so very much from him. Steve Harris is another guy that I learned so much from, another fantastic actor. The whole cast met me with open arms to try to make the film as good as can be.
Do you do many of your own stunts?
Yeah. Man, I just got to learn to put the stunt guys in every once in a while. Getting beat up on the movie set is wearing on me. What we do [in WWE] is live as it happens. There's no cut, take three or take four. I couldn't imagine having to do a match over like eight times. It takes its toll on you when you know you have a stunt day and the whole day is going to be you getting beat up. You go home pretty sore that day.
Both of your movies have been action movies. Do you have any interest in doing something different, such as a comedy?
I do have that interest; I just think it's not time yet. It's very similar to our business. You have to establish identity with the audience before you can really spread your wings and open up. I certainly got that in me. I hopefully will have some small chances to showcase that, but I think as far as the silver screen stuff goes, I'm going to stick with the action at this time. I just don't think two movies is enough.
Ted DiBiase Jr. is starring in the direct-to-DVD sequel to The Marine. Did you talk with him at all or give him any advice before he began filming?
I really think he has a lot of potential to be a success and another person to kind of transcend the wrestling business into the movie business. He's a very hard worker, learns very, very quickly and understands exactly what this opportunity is. That's the one thing I really tried to hit home with him. I said, "Listen, they're choosing you for a reason. The Marine did extremely well on DVD, so when The Marine 2 comes out, just because of the franchise, the DVD will sell, so you're already involved with something that will be successful. If you do a good job, that's a great way for you to make a name for yourself on to bigger and better things." So I think he totally understood that. I certainly didn't give him much advice about acting because he went through the same kind of torture chamber I did – meeting with an acting coach all the time and really trying to do his best. I just really hit home about how great the opportunity was for him.
What you do in WWE is scripted, but you also do live TV, which means you have to think on your feet and ad-lib. Did you have the freedom to do any ad-libbing in the movie?
That's the difference, and that's been the biggest thing for me to adjust to, because I'm one of the biggest ad-libbers there is. I certainly don't like planning anything, just because my audience is a live audience. You can't really force-feed them. What I've learned is that what they enjoy most is when it's unpredictable, so I just go out there and do my thing. You can't really ad-lib a lot in a movie, because there is a story. It's such a huge production involved. It's not just one guy and another guy, or a tag team match with four guys. You have everybody, from people in production and lighting. If you move in the wrong direction, you're in the wrong light, which messes up the shot. That's a different challenge that separates movies from sports entertainment.
Did you get a chance to see The Wrestler, and if so, what are your thoughts?
I did. I thought Mickey Rourke's performance was awesome. What a great depiction of a guy who made a couple bad decisions and just really can't get any focus on anything else but the thing that he loves the most.
Since we're on the subject of movies: About a year ago, there were quotes from you in The Sun (U.K.) in which you were critical of The Rock for not giving back to the business after he made it in Hollywood. Do you still feel that way? Did the two of you talk about the article in The Sun at all when he was at the Hall of Fame ceremony last year?
No. I don't want to say that you misread it; I may have been misquoted. What I actually said, and I'll stand true to it to this day, I don't even care, is that here's a guy who, when he was with the WWE, pounded his chest that he really loved the WWE, and that wasn't the truth. The truth is that Dwayne Johnson is a great actor and I think always wanted to be an actor, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's like an athlete saying, "Hey, I don't do drugs," and then getting busted for drugs. It's not the truth. I mean here's a guy who said he was WWE through and through, and then the first chance to take a road to a different career path, he took it. There's nothing wrong with that. Dwayne's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. He's one of the hardest workers you'll ever meet, and he certainly is a great actor. The roadblock that I have, because I certainly am in love with this business and I don't see myself leaving it any time, is when someone says that and then leaves, it cheapens our business. If he's going to say that, then back your word. That's the only beef that I have and that's what I told the people at The U.K. Sun. It just cheapens that phrase: "Oh, I love this business." So then next time I come up and say I love this business, well, the guy before me who said that left. That doesn't look good for me or our business.
Randy Orton has been on an incredible roll as of late. I know that you and Randy came up together. Did the two of you ever sit around in Ohio Valley Wrestling and say, "One day, we'll be headlining WrestleMania?"
No. As a matter of fact, when we were in OVW, we thought we wouldn't make it out of Kentucky. I don't want to say we were two lost souls, but we were surrounded by talent that was one of the greatest developmental units to ever be assembled. I think WWE started the developmental system in the mid '90s, and that class of 2000 through '02 I think is the most successful that has ever been. We were literally just two average guys among some very gifted performers, and never once did we think we'd be headlining WrestleMania.
What do you think about Orton's performances recently?
I've said this before and I said this before his – what is this, his fifth or sixth "breakout?" – that he is the best guy we've got. He is certainly the best performer of my generation.
Here's a question that comes up frequently: Will your character ever turn heel again? Would you be open to doing it?
Here's the deal with my character: I'm in a really unique place. You've seen me get cheered, you've seen me get booed. Where I'm at right now, there is no good guy or bad guy. I can just be me, with certain little adjustments to my character, I guess, that makes me a "good guy" or a "bad guy." The people who are going to decide that are the paying customers. When they get sick and tired of me, they're going to turn on me. And when they turn on me, I've openly shown in situations where I get booed that I can turn on them back.
Credit: Baltimore Sun photo of John Cena by Kenneth K. Lam / Dec. 1, 2008