John Cena has grappled with Dwayne Johnson in the ring before, and now he, too, is wrestling Hollywood for a place in mainstream pop culture.
Cena stars alongside Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a pair of soldiers who get pinned down by an Iraqi sniper in the war movie The Wall (in theaters nationwide Friday). It’s a more serious effort than what the 16-time WWE champion has been doing lately — guesting on The Today Show, hosting the Kids’ Choice Awards — though it falls right into Cena’s mindset as a cross-platform entertainer.
“You have to constantly tell a new and interesting story,” says Cena, 40, who had two scene-stealing comedic turns in 2015 as Amy Schumer’s musclehead boyfriend in Trainwreck and a tattooed drug dealer opposite Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Sisters. “It's just luck, shaking hands and preparation, and then you have to take a little bit of a risk and you see what happens.”
The flattop-wearing, all-American Cena’s social media game is as rock solid as his biceps (with 43.8 million Facebook likes and 9.5 million Twitter followers), and he gets a huge reaction whenever he returns to the ring. But how does Cena compare to someone like Johnson, the charismatic Fast and Furious franchise star and reigning Sexiest Man Alive?
"The Rock is the gold standard when it comes to a wrestler creating a career out of whole cloth,” says comScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. Cena, though, “absolutely” has the potential of being a strong box-office draw. “The path he’s taking is really smart: show a funnier side so people can get past his intimidating exterior.”
Like Johnson, Cena dipped his toes first into action-movie waters in the mid-2000s, with The Marine and 12 Rounds, but “I didn’t like it. Doing the last film, I remember saying, ‘Well, I’m never doing movies again.’ ” He came around in the 2010s with a very different role, playing an imaginary dad in three Fred: The Movie comedies for Nickelodeon. “It was like, ‘Hey, you don’t have to be this tough impenetrable force of an action star. You can be a goofball.’ ”
In addition to Trainwreck and Sisters, embracing his quirkier side has led Cena to voicing a nut-addicted pachyderm in Wonderful Pistachios commercials and the title pacifist bull of the upcoming animated film Ferdinand (in theaters Dec. 15); reprising his role as an intimidating stepfather with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in Daddy’s Home 2 (Nov. 10); and playing a father worried about his teenage daughter losing her virginity in The Pact, which begins filming soon in Atlanta.
“You become a movie star by finding what you’re great at and just doing that for as long as you can,” says writer Dave Schilling, who covers wrestling for the news site Bleacher Report and film for BirthMoviesDeath.com. Cena’s “look, his haircut, everything about him is very straight man-y. It engenders a lot of humor putting him in weird situations.”
Because Johnson’s popularity is “lightning in a bottle,” it would be difficult for Cena to completely replicate his success, Dergarabedian adds. But, “you get enough John Cena fans following his career, plug him into different movies and he draws a whole new crowd to the multiplex based on his star power.”