The WWE Raw wrestling superstar, actor and co-host of the TBS sports competition Wipeout John Cena, 44, stars in the new movie The Suicide Squad (in theaters and on HBO Max August 6), based on characters from DC Comics. As the ruthless Peacemaker, he joins Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and other crazy “criminals” freed for a do-or-die assignment.
Peacemaker is described as a hulking specimen with muscles on his muscles. What intrigued you about him?
The conflicted nature of his character. These people are villains, so [he’s] essentially a broken toy. I believe it’s the characters with the most flaws that we desperately want to root for, that we can make a connection with.
Peacemaker will get his own TV show, set for next year. What can you share?
I can tell you that we’re in production right now and we’re almost done. It’s been a long and arduous shoot, but what we have is very special, and I do not think we will let the loyal DC fans down.
What was it like to join the DC Comics world?
Well, it’s all so grand and the movie is enormous in scope. I believe this is the biggest scope of such an undertaking with DC that they’ve ever gone through. I love the imaginative mind of [Guardians of the Galaxy director-writer] James Gunn and I think his creativity at the top has a trickle-down effect on everyone.
Not only that, when you combine that with the well-defined characters that they create through appearance and through score and all that, you really do get to lose yourself in your character. It’s very different than if you’re playing an everyday person. When you do play a character like Peacemaker, when you do put on the hero’s outfit, when you put on a big chrome helmet and hold a Desert Eagle [semi-automatic pistol] that’s been welded to a Desert Eagle, you can’t help but begin to get into it, especially when everyone around you is into it.
James Gunn told you not to read the comic books but to act like a “douchey, bro-ey Captain America.” How did you interpret that?
It’s actually very easy. He specifically used that phraseology because after we spoke, after I attempted to perform and give my interpretation of what I thought Peacemaker was, he knew what I would understand. James has so many great strengths—his creative ability to tell stories, he’s such a gifted writer, his ability to see even the most minute detail and make it make sense, but also his ability to communicate and manage people—I just think that’s something that he knew I would get. He was absolutely correct. I got who Peacemaker was in one sentence.
Peacemaker is good with guns. Did you have to do any training for the role?
Very minimal. I didn’t have to immerse myself in munitions. The second unit and stunt coordination team did a great job of playing within my strengths. The one thing I really did have to do was learn how to handle a sword, which was very unusual for me. That took a bit more practice and acclimation than I thought. But I’m pretty familiar with firearms and it didn’t take much more practice.
A lot of your films have comedy in them. Why do you enjoy that?
I do enjoy comedy, but I don’t seek out films that are strictly comedic. I do think that a journey that at least doesn’t get you to smile is not one that’s fulfilled. I think within even the most dramatic pieces, you want to think, laugh and cry.
I know what people perceive when they see someone like myself with a larger stature, or the first impressions that they might have, so that also adds itself to a lot of easy humor if I want to lean into that. There’s a lot of on-the-nose jokes that can be addressed and a lot of stereotypes to lean into, which can make even the most dramatic moment give you a chuckle or a smile. I don’t mind owning who I am and allowing that to be the punching bag of the narrative if that’s what it calls for.
The WWE is going back to live touring. Might you have a match with Roman Reigns at SummerSlam?
I really am excited that the biggest superstar in the WWE universe is coming back, but there’s a lot going on; I have other projects on the way. I may have to bend the laws of physics, but, if I could, I would be interested.
You have kept your connection with the WWE rather than severing it now that you’re a movie star. Is loyalty an important quality to you? Is that what keeps you going back?
It’s selective loyalty. I don’t think blind loyalty is a strong trait for anyone to have because you can be loyal to people who are trying to bring you down or do you harm, and the fact that you are loyal doesn’t do your character or your growth any good. I’m very proud of my existence in the WWE. I would say I’m loyal to both the brand and its audience because I love it. I don’t think there’s a better way to say that. They’re a major part of my life. They’ve really given me some wonderful life lessons and instructed me more than they know on how to conduct myself and live as a man and a human being.
I can’t describe enough how much energy and electricity you get performing in front of live audiences across the world. I really could use all the time you have left, and then some, explaining how much I love the brand, its performers, and its audience.
It’s taken me a long time, probably longer than most, to remain associated with the WWE. I really had to overcome the stigma and stereotype that’s associated with our performing, but I also think it’s doing a service to performers now because they have less of a hurdle to climb. I’m not in any way knocking anyone else’s choices to take their lives or career in a different perspective. Obviously, there’s success in all paths, I believe. But I just want to make sure if you quote me, WWE then, now and forever, I will be proud of my existence and I will showcase it wherever I can.
What have you yet to achieve? Is there something on your wish list that you still want to make happen? With everything you have going on it seems like you’ve done it all, but maybe not.
If someone feels as if they’ve done it all, I don’t think that’s a sustainably joyful life. I always think that there’s something to accomplish in life. I don’t think that it has to be associated with career. We’re all so very driven as far as what defines us as career achievement. I choose to try to aim up as much as I can and everyday just try to be a little bit better than I was yesterday. That’s been a very sustainable life business model for me for the past 44 years. I don’t set a particular goal until an opportunity presents itself. When I was presented the opportunity to be a member of the Suicide Squad, my goal was be the best Peacemaker I possibly can. But my goal before that was not: be a member of a comic book universe.
When I was in WWE, it was to have the best performance I can. So, over the time and attention, someone will notice. That’s exactly how it’s worked out. I don’t have a bucket list of people that I dream to work with or projects that I dream to do; it’s literally, take one thing at a time, and I believe that keeps my feet firmly in the now and in the present and it allows me to do the best I can.
What’s it like to have given more than 650 wishes to the Make-A-Wish Foundation?
WWE is a fantastic vehicle for Make-A-Wish. A family can come to an event, we can get them a ton of gifts because of the WWE’s extensive merchandising, we can dedicate a [wrestling] maneuver to the child, and they get one-on-one time to talk with me. The bonding done in that time is the reason I continue to do it.
This last year has been difficult for everyone. Was there something that it taught you?
The appreciation for what is. I think in difficult times we often want to just throw our hands up and say the whole thing sucks. And life is difficult a lot of the time. I think through the difficult times, regardless, if it’s an unforeseen pandemic or tragedy, no one says, “This is a good time for tragedy.” I often use that when performers get hurt in the WWE. Everyone is so really, really bent out of shape because there’s never a good time to get hurt. People often say, “This isn’t a good time to get hurt.” My reply, “Well, tell me, what is a good time to get hurt? There is no good time to get hurt.” So I think the pandemic falls along those lines of a very difficult experience in life which pushed us into the uncomfortable.
We’re not used to being sequestered, we’re not used to having the everyday conveniences and freedoms of our normalcy taken away. We adjust to all of this. It’s been tough on many fronts. But I think realizing that we are, indeed, still alive and there still is a lot of good in that, even through the most difficult times. That’s what this has taught me.
What’s the status of music for you right now? Is it just personal enjoyment or are you working on a project?
I was brave enough as a young man to be bold enough to try my hand at hip-hop and I’m very, very satisfied with the efforts of the You Can’t See Me album that I believe celebrated its 16th anniversary this year. Hip-hop is truly a music of youth and rebellion, and I pressed that album at the right time. The hip-hop artists that lead a long career dedicate their lives to that career. I chose a different path. I really did focus exactly all of my efforts on making that album the best that I could as far as investing my time and resources to that album, but after that my perspective and focus and choice began to change. I don’t foresee music in the near future, but you never know.