Most actors hate press junkets. They’re stuck in some random Los Angeles hotel for hours, shuttled from room to room while endless journalists ask them endless questions, the studio-provided vegetable platter getting sweatier throughout the day. You get in, you get your soundbite, and you get the hell out. When I rolled up to the Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica for the Trainwreck press junket on a Friday afternoon, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I waited for my turn with the last remaining journalists, scarfing down the last of the guacamole as the trailer played on a loop. By the time I got the go ahead to head down to Room 207, I steeled myself for an interview with a seriously fatigued subject—and then door opened and my expectations completely disappeared. John Cena strolled in, his gray suit starched and pink tie knotted tight, gave me a smile, and shook my hand firmly. This guy, as always, was not messing around.
While Cena’s been entertaining millions with the WWE for over a decade now, his pivotal part as Amy Schumer’s (sort of) boyfriend in Trainwreck is a breakout comedic role. His character Steven is a diehard macho dude—which is maybe unavoidable when you have Cena’s Goliath BMI—but his sensitive side confuses the hell out of Schumer’s commitment-phobic character. Cena’s deft performance is startling if you’re used to his outsized WWE personality, but it’s also just hilarious. Both Schumer and Apatow have heaped praise on his comedic timing and improv skills, and as I talked to Cena, it became clear that he’s not taking this opportunity lightly. With roles like the one in Trainwreck and his turn in the upcoming Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy Sisters, Cena is aware that people’s existing expectations of him might completely disappear—and that’s exactly what he wants.
[Mild spoilers for Trainwreck below]
You’ve been with the WWE for a long time now, and this year you’re in two comedies. Not just Trainwreck, but Sisters with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. So my main question is… How did this happen?!
A very long, calculated plan that actually somehow took shape. It took a little bit of luck, and just, all the right pieces kind of fell into place.
Did you seek out comedy specifically?
It’s been a long time to try to do something outside the predictable realm. The good news is saying, “Hey, we want to kind of get out of our shell!” The bad news is trying to get somebody to take the risk. Judd was awesome. I had to go back and read a few times to get it, but at least he gave me an at bat, and I’m very thankful.
Were you familiar with Amy’s work before the movie?
Yeah, she’s extremely creative. Her style is very brash, it is definitely her own brand. She is…you know, on a crusade, tackling enormous issues while still being herself. I really like the fact that not only did she star in the movie but she wrote it as well. And I think that gave it that extra push of wanting everyone to do well, to make a great movie. It’s fun to see what she comes up with on [Inside Amy Schumer], and after years and years of really bustin’ butt, she’s finally getting some big opportunities and she’s doing extremely well with them.
What was that audition process like?
Uh…very nervous. Because if you go in and bomb the audition, everything you’re trying to build, and everything you’re trying to do…I don’t even think it’s a setback, I think it’s over. You just have to come up with a new plan. If you don’t get the part but you don’t bomb the audition, you’re still in the good graces of everybody. But if you can actually get it, and then actually do okay, then maybe you can start having some fun. And that’s true of what we did.
What was the most surprising thing you learned on this set?
How welcoming everybody was. We had a Hall of Fame funny cast. I was accepted as an equal, not an outsider. And I think that’s really important. We often have guests to Monday Night Raw, and the most pivotal thing to make a person want to be part of the show is to let them realize that they are definitely an integral part of the show. Their involvement and their segment is very important. For me to receive that type of treatment, now I know exactly how important that is, to be able to be viewed as a peer rather than, “this guy’s here just for a few days, can’t believe the wrestler’s here.” It was just really cool and encouraging. It certainly got the best out of me.
Did you bring anything from wrestling into your acting experience here?
Uh…yes. But only—and I don’t want to say this out of context—only what not to do. Because in the WWE, I have people as close as you are, but I [also] have people as far away as those palm trees out there who can’t see what I’m doing. I’m in a 20-foot ring, I have to be enormous. I have to be Broadway. And especially in the uncomfortable scenes, in the intimate scenes, the fights between people, when it truly is just you and another person, you can’t be big. Like, every day I would go on [the Trainwreck set] and be like, “Okay, this isn’t WWE.” That’s not a knock on what we do. It’s just such a contrast…so, that’s exactly what I took from my job to the new job—tone it down a little bit.
So when you’re actually on top of Amy, a foot away [from her face]…
It’s supposed to seem like it’s just us. Not like [huge cartoon voice], “HEY GUYS AM I DOING OKAY?!” [Laughs]
Every interview with Amy and Judd that I’ve seen, they can’t stop talking about your improvising.
Well, I believe that’s a testament to them. A lot of times people don’t allow that. Everybody always praises Judd’s directorial style. I think that’s how he gets the most out of people, is by allowing them to play within the guidelines of the story and just be essentially who they are. Amy was no different. It takes a lot for the star of the movie to be gracious enough to let the people around her try and shine as bright as they can. That says a lot of Amy’s character.
She said she wasn’t sure if she wrote many of your lines that ended up in the movie.
The sentiment was there. Her description of who Steven was, was something that I kind of took and ran with it. We had the one punchline in there, the climax of the sex scene was that Amy looked like a guy. And I thought to myself, “Why would that even work, unless the dude is truly confused about who he is?” So we kind of just ran with that, and it snowballed, and it got bigger and bigger…
Until that scene in the movie theater where your smack talk kind of turns into dirty talk a little bit?
Yeah, he doesn’t even know it, but… there’s a lot of stuff going on there.
I liked that he kind of freaked Amy out with this fantasy of life in the suburbs, and she could be the Queen of Crossfit and they’d have five boys. Which is like, her nightmare.
[Laughs] Yeah. I was thankful for that scene as well: “We’ll have three boys…then two more boys!” The backbone of it is that ruling the Crossfit world is supposed to be comedic, but here is a guy who is petitioning Amy to live the life that everybody thinks that they want to live. And she’s like, “Agh, there’s no way.” I think it’s a major story point to Amy’s journey to find herself. So it was pretty cool to be able to tell all those jokes and in the end, be a pivotal swing. Like, well, she’s truly not interested in this.
There were a lot of athletes playing themselves in this movie, because Bill Hader’s character is a sports surgeon, but I think you were the only one who didn’t. For people who watch you on WWE, you play a very different character, this very sensitive guy. Did that draw you to this part?
Yeah! It’s a lot easier to try and create something when you don’t have to parody yourself. Sometimes that can be difficult. There’s a lot of loopholes with that. So it was cool just to be somebody else.
Just gave you a little bit more room to play. We’ve been talking a lot about the heart of this character, when a big moment for him is having this giant erection that’s holding up a towel…
[Laughs] Yeah, how about that.
The dual complexities of humanity, there.
Yeah, uh, they’ll remember the towel. For God’s sake, they’ll remember the towel…
There’s some really fun dirty talk in that scene specifically. How many takes of that were there?
That was all day. All day. I kind of went into the concept like, okay, the guy does not know how to talk dirty. He looks at everything like a physical or mental challenge, or a drill. He’s going to try and be intelligent, and he’s going to try to be witty. He’s going to do everything but actually talk dirty because he doesn’t know what that really even is. And it just ended up in some really awkward humor.
So which is more fun for you right now: dirty talk or smack talk?
[Laughs] I’m much more comfortable in the WWE ring. That’s my life for the past decade now, and I love it. This project was really, really fun. Hopefully, it’s a gateway to more similar projects. You know, start it small, hopefully stay there for a little bit, so I can learn the industry, become a better actor. I didn’t become a success in the WWE overnight. It took quite a long time. But I know this will be the same, it’ll take quite a long time. I just want to continue finding opportunity that is good and work with good folks.