By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—His biography describes John Cena as an actor, producer, host, entrepreneur and WWE superstar. It doesn’t spell out all the philanthropic activities including his frequent participation in the Make-A-Wish Foundation and raising money for Susan G. Komen breast cancer research. The giant entertainer obviously has a giant heart but he doesn’t like to brag (at least outside of the ring).
Like other professional wrestlers turned actors (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Hulk Hogan, Dave Bautista, among others), Cena brings a dedicated following from his other job to his movies. But he also has managed to expand that following by delivering solid, sometimes surprising, sometimes surprisingly hilarious performances as he did with 2015’s “Trainwreck” and the “Daddy’s Home” comedies. The 40-year-old muscleman, who hails from West Newbury, Mass., where he was one of five rambunctious boys, nearly steals the show as Mitchell, an overprotective dad determined to prevent his teenage daughter from losing her virginity on prom night, along with two other similarly concerned parents in Universal’s R-rated comedy “Blockers.”
Directed by “Pitch Perfect” writer Kay Cannon making her directorial debut, the comedy also stars Leslie Mann (“How to be Single,” “This is 40”), Ike Barinholtz (“Suicide Squad,” “Sisters”) and newcomers Kathryn Newton, Gideon Adlon and Geraldine Viswanathan, who plays Cena’s tomboyish daughter who enters into a pact with her two best friends to lose their virginity on prom night. When the parents get wind the girls’ conspiracy via deciphering their emoji-filled texts, they set off to, well, block their daughters from consummating their plan with their dates. Chaos ensues. The screenplay is written by siblings Brian and Jim Kehoe (Disney’s upcoming “The Wheelman”).
Dressed in a perfectly tailored suit that accentuates his muscular physique, Cena, who is engaged to fellow wrestler Nikki Bella whom he proposed to during last year’s WrestleMania, spoke about playing a concerned parent, doing comedy, his favorite emojis and missing his prom.
Q: Congratulations on your engagement.
Cena: Oh, thank you very much.
Q: Have you and Nikki set a wedding date?
Cena: I’m waiting for the “boss” to decide that. (He laughs.)
Q: You popped the question at last year’s WrestleMania. That’s quite romantic.
Cena: Well, asking the woman of my dreams to marry me at the largest event in WWE, I’m glad you think that’s romantic. I thought so too. It was a massive event but it truly was for a moment just the two of us.
Q: So, “Blockers” is an R-rated comedy with a lot of laughs but also is kind of a heartwarming universal story about parents and their unfathomable love for their children.
Cena: Well, I’m glad you think so because that was our mission. We wanted to make a movie that was funny enough for everyone. It speaks volumes to the relationships, the story, some of the physical comedy. It’s a **** of a ride.
Q: Speaking of rides, the scene where you, Leslie Mann and Ike Barinholtz are in the car racing to catch up with your kids and it flips over was pretty intense because they had you rigged up in this car body on a platform. What was that like?
Cena: It was completely safe and it’s just the idea of being parallel to the ground for a while. It’s almost like going to an amusement park, but it was a much safer field than an amusement park ride.
Q: The scene audiences are going to remember about this is you doing the butt chug, which is basically a beer chug in reverse. Is this an actual party trick?
Cena: It is, and that’s what kind of captures the comedy, the fact that society is changing. We’re in the information age. But we also give everyone a stage to do what it is they want to do. Some unbelievable things are coming out of that, and this is one that is actually a thing. It’s a thing and we kind of capitalize on that but done in a light where this guy is trying to do anything he can for his daughter and he will do everything he can for his daughter. He is put in that position of like, “I have to do this.” It’s not that crazy decision of this is how I’m going to show the people that I’m star. It’s like I’m going to save my daughter and I’ll do whatever it takes.
Q: You’re very brave.
Cena: Thank you. I’ll be forever known as the guy who does the butt chug.
Q: Since the film points out how teens nowadays communicate with each other with emojis, were you aware of their alternate meanings?
Cena: Not a chance. I’m so far behind the curve of what’s going on with the youth. I’m at the generational gap. I’m not as tech-savvy. I’m trying to catch up and failing. It’s a language that I’ve come to learn because of all the promotion for the movie, but I don’t get it.
Q: What’s your go-to emoji when you’re texting?
Cena: All the basic ones; the big grinning smiley face. All the ones that display obvious emotion. I still don’t get why people use the dancing lady if they’re not going dancing. There’s so many that I just don’t understand, just something as simple as eggplants are ***** and a peach emoji is a butt. But there could be a bunch of other emojis in the catalogue that I just don’t know what they mean.
Q: Any other favorites?
Cena: The generic ones, like the thumbs up and the strong arm, which I use when I’m going to go work out. That’s an easy way to say that. I use the classic grin and the classic angry emojis. Here’s the thing about emojis. They add a digestibility to conversation. Text is difficult to communicate emotion. Even an angry emoji, admitting you’re angry is not being as angry as you think you are.
Q: Did you hear some war stories about raising kids from your co-stars, who both have children?
Cena: No. Although I’m not the parent of an adolescent, I was once an adolescent. As an adolescent I was rather defiant and I can understand my parents thinking that they had me figured out and me knowing that they didn’t and me thinking they knew nothing and realizing now they knew a whole lot more than nothing. Having gone through that arc of life, although I’m not a parent, I can put myself there and understand that a parent is just trying to minimize your mistakes. Eventually, what they predicted actually did happen because of their life experience. (My character) Mitchell in this movie is just as protective and guarded of his daughter so much, and she is now a young woman, but he is certainly not ready for that. Whereas in Ike’s character’s case, he would like to be there for his daughter. And in Leslie’s character’s case (a single mom), she has a best friend that she doesn’t want to leave her. All the parents’ journeys are different, and that’s also what adds to the fun, the newness, the energy of the movie. You’re not seeing it through a uniform eye of one parent. Every parent has a different problem, and the kids are very different. Their dates are very different.
Q: Your daughter in the movie is mixed race: part Asian, part Caucasian. Was that in the script that she was going to be part Asian?
Cena: I don’t know. I can only see Geraldine’s (Viswanathan) performance as amazing. I thought all the girls—Gideon, Geraldine and Kathryn— they’re the driving force behind this movie because it’s played so genuine. They’re not trying to be funny. They’re not trying to be anything. They’re young women moving into adulthood. That’s why it’s funny. They’re just trying so hard to have this perfect night among friends and it collapses and you follow their journey through the collapse.
They learn a lesson, the parents learn a lesson, their dates learn a lesson, and I love the fact that the choice is in their hands. It’s not like they got a bunch of horny guys chasing them around and at the end of the day they’re the catch. You get it from a different perspective and it’s a powerful one. Hopefully people can take the message away. As a young woman, you have to look at yourself as a catch. You can enjoy the situation for what it is, and if you so choose to make it what you wanted to be on your own terms, great! If it’s not time to do it, it’s not time to do it. That’s important. I’m very glad we got the cast that we did. I’m glad that the movie hits so many spaces without forcing any spaces. The thing we’re trying to force is making you laugh. That’s it.
Q: Your director is a woman, Kay Cannon, who is very funny and has written hit comedies. What was it like working for her? I heard that you called her coach.
Cena: I’m still trying to find my way in (acting), and I always have trust in the people leading the ship. I consider myself like a chess piece in a chess game. I know what I’m capable of, but they will use me to the best of their ability. Hopefully the director is good enough to make a good product. As in this case, it was absolutely the right choice.
This was Kay’s first time out as a director so I just wanted to make the experience good for her. I will say this about Kay. She is funny and she knows funny. But her mission statement was to make the stories and the characters believable and you can invest and relate to them. The humor comes from the fact that you feel for these people. You feel the connection with Leslie and her daughter. You feel (Barinholtz’s) Hunter’s absence and you want him to reconnect with his daughter. And you feel my character’s struggle of like my daughter.
Of all Kay’s accomplishments and of all of the famous punch lines that she may leave behind, her success in this movie and her success going forward is her ability to tell a wonderful story. I was happy to be a part of that. I guess I just see things sometimes in terms of sport, and I also know she’s a big sports fan.
The player-coach relationship, I know how to play the game, but tell me the way you want me to play your game. I’m a team player and I will do this to the best of my ability.
Q: Did you attend your high school prom?
Cena: I didn’t. I chose to work instead. I was a boarding school student so I was with people that I saw every day. It was a co-ed boarding school. You only ask the people in school to go to prom. Also, I was dead broke. I was there on an opportunity, not because of prosperity, and I had the option to work around campus and make extra money or I could ask a person to go to prom that I see every day, worry about the suit, worry about the flowers, the limo and all that, and I just didn’t have that. But I don’t shortchange prom. Seeing everyone (else) dressed up and hearing the stories of afterwards, I wish I had been there. It just wasn’t in the cards for me.
Q: You have WrestleMania 34 coming up. When do you have time to prep for that? You’re obviously fit, but do you have to do extra preparation for that?
Cena: No. As far as being in shape, that’s more of a lifestyle choice than it is a task. It’s just been a part of my life since I was 12 years old. So regardless of how many things I do or if I do stray away from WWE or the time comes where I no longer can perform there, I’ll always go to the gym. It’s just something I love to do with my time.
Q: Do you go to a gym or do you have your own gym?
Cena: When I’m home— I got a place in Florida—I have a place and that’s a really nice place and fun place for me to go. But most of the time I’m working out in the room when I travel.
Q: You hosted the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards again recently.
Cena: That’s always fun. This movie comes out April 6 and WrestleMania is April 8. So, it’s a busy month. It’s not like I’m complaining about it. I’m very fortunate to be able to do all of these things.
Q: You’ve been making films for about 11 years now. How do you feel you progressed as an actor?
Cena: Early on I kind of shied away from the movie business because the live entertainment is so immediate and energized and right now, and I’m a really fast-thinking guy. After 15 years of being in the live entertainment business, I still love going back every single night, and I had to ask myself why. When you strip it down to the bare metal, I love telling stories. The moves are one thing and the falls and jeopardies is another thing. But the story of good versus evil and the ability to constantly recreate the same character 52 weeks a year for 15 years, you have to pull every possible story out and every possible emotion.
Over the arc of my career, I became humble and vulnerable. I grew up as a man. I’ve fallen in love. I’ve been okay to showcase my emotions more. Me being attracted to movies and the ability to tell these long-term stories is just me growing up as a human being and me being more comfortable with who I am now rather than when you’re trying to make a connection with an audience back in 2004. You think that doing something that will make you uncool, unfollowed and unessential will make this dream stop. Now, I’m just happy to still be involved, and I enjoy taking chances.