John Cena Transitions to Hollywood
Gregg Segal for Variety

WWE’s biggest moneymaker is making movies with Judd Apatow, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer and winning them over with his comedy

Nothing intimidated John Cena, who regularly faces 300-pound men in the wrestling ring — until he had to audition for Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer.

No slouch himself, packing 250 pounds onto a muscular 6-foot-one-inch frame, Cena was eager to make the leap from action movies to comedy. “These are the people who make funny,” says Cena. “I was more nervous of that than anything I’ve ever done.”

At a time when Dwayne Johnson and Dave Bautista have successfully transitioned from WWE to the bigscreen with franchises like “Fast & Furious,” “G.I. Joe” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Hollywood is now calling on Cena to make the leap.

He recently wrapped showy roles in Apatow’s “Trainwreck,” which Schumer stars in and wrote; and “The Nest,” with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Universal Pictures will release the comedies in July and December of 2015, respectively.

But Cena, 37, isn’t looking to leave wrestling behind anytime soon. In fact, he sees movies as an important way to elevate the company’s profile with people who may not be familiar with WWE’s weekly TV show, monthly pay-per-view events like “WrestleMania” and “SummerSlam,” or its digital streaming network.

Cena’s roles in Universal’s comedies aren’t his first movie credits. His imposing physique and military buzz-cut landed him the lead in “The Marine” in 2006, and the Renny Harlin actioner “12 Rounds” in 2009 — low-budget co-productions with WWE that generated nearly $40 million at the box office.

Yet “Trainwreck” and “The Nest” — retitled “Sisters” — will surely introduce Cena to a whole new audience, and give critics a different look at him: In “Sisters,” he plays a drug dealer. In “Trainwreck,” he’s Schumer’s ex-boyfriend in a film loosely based on her life.

Gregg Segal for Variety

“People will see another side, and hopefully they’ll smile and laugh, and say, ‘I want to check out that guy’s other job,” Cena says.

Presenting a different aspect of himself is a prime purpose for Cena in making movies these days. In the past, he was understandably stereotyped as the action guy. “But I don’t think I work tremendously well in action because people see me in action every week without fail,” he said in a rare sit-down interview exclusive to Variety. “If I’m the shining white knight in the movies, that’s kind of the same thing. Audiences aren’t getting anything special or different.”

Despite his popularity as a wrestler, he was still a virtual unknown to Apatow and Jason Moore (“Pitch Perfect”), who directed “Sisters.” While both roles called for an imposing, athletic figure, Cena still had to audition to land the parts.

“I wasn’t so familiar with his other work, so I had no bias,” Apatow says. “I just saw him as an actor who was riotously funny. We read a bunch of people, and he was by far the funniest. Then he came and did a table read before we shot the movie, and got more laughs than anyone.”

That impressed Apatow enough to recommend Cena to Moore and other filmmakers, which landed him “Sisters,” in which Fey and Poehler play estranged sisters who throw a party in the house their parents are about to sell.

“He is a great improviser,” Apatow says. “He has a great sense of humor, and is the most professional person I have ever met.”

But Apatow soon grasped who he was dealing with while on set in New York. “Whenever we were between shots, he would be inundated by fans and kids,” Apatow recalls. “We all looked at each other and realized we were also working with this athlete that people idolized.”

That doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows Cena. Certainly not Schumer, who understood WWE’s world, having dated one of its current stars, Nicholas Nemeth, known in the ring as Dolph Ziggler.

“I know that they’re performers and roll with things,” she says. “They’re quick on their feet,” because of the live shows in which they perform each week. Cena’s comedic timing, however, impressed Schumer. “He blew us away,” she says. “He was as good an actor as anyone, and as funny as anyone. There were so many moments when I was crying on set.”

Poehler also was impressed with Cena on the set of “Sisters.” “People know that he is strong and hard working, but soon people will know he is also kind and hilarious,” she said. “Working with John, it’s easy to see why he is so beloved. He is a Boston boy who loves red wine and his Mother. The total package.”

Anyone who comes to know Cena is left with the same impression: He’s punctual to every meeting, unfailingly polite and eager to please his bosses, sponsors and fans, often sitting for multiple hours to sign autographs or take photos. He rarely appears at parties, not even those hosted by WWE, and is more focused on being a role model. For years, his mantra has been “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect,” a slogan that appears on his merchandise.

“I’m very close to what you see on TV,” Cena says.

Cena’s also a company man to the core: When asked to take off the baseball cap that’s branded with his signature “You Can’t See Me” move — part of the brightly colored uniform he wears in the WWE ring — he always declines. “They don’t pay me to promote my hair cut,” he says.

Cena has wrestled on TV for WWE for 12 years and is a mainstay of the company’s storylines. He’s the good guy in a cast of over-the-top characters, and is most popular with kids, which helps keep them engaged with the brand as they grow up. Whereas some of the company’s stars change their personae, and “turn heel,” as it’s called, Cena won’t shed his current image.

“When you do that, everything you said, everything you stand for gets erased,” Cena says. “It’s a poor business decision.” He keeps meetings like one with an eight-year-old boy who beat cancer twice in the back of his mind. “He was shy and reserved but simply said, ‘I never give up because you tell me not to.’ It’s tough to win that eight-year-old kid back (with heel turns). I don’t want to lose them. Athletics has become such a business. Everything is circulated around the almighty dollar. It’s tough to find people to look up to.”

Cena has the kind of rags-to-riches tale that’s hard not to respect. Early in his career, he learned humility when he had to sleep inside his 1991 Lincoln Continental just blocks away from Gold’s Gym in Venice, Calif., where he worked from 4 a.m. to midnight, selling protein bars from 1999 to 2000.

WWE may have 150 wrestlers on its roster but Cena is one of the few stars that actually has a say in what the company does with him in and outside of the ring. That’s partly because Cena is his biggest critic. He re-watches each match and closely analyzes ways to improve for the next bout. He also is involved with the designs of his own merchandise, closely factoring in the wishes of his fanbase when it comes to launching new product to the point where he knows which colors sell better than others.

“I’m as involved as I can be without having to live in Stamford, Conn.,” where WWE is based, says Cena, who resides in San Diego, but hails from West Newbury, Mass. “I don’t want to be a guy who just punches the clock. I’m much more interested in how we grow the business.

“We put on a show every day for people who pay to go see it,” Cena adds. “If you know your consumer you can give them what they want. If I understand the system, I can be a better performer.”

Cena is now bringing that thinking to his involvement in the film industry. He’s tried to learn about the film business from production to distribution, why mid-range budget movies have disappeared, and the switch to digital platforms for homevideo releases. “It gives you a better mindset of what you’re getting into and whether it’s something I really want to be involved in.”

Universal’s execs saw that side of him on set.

Gregg Segal for Variety

“It’s clear that he’s engaged on a level beyond just the day’s scene work,” says Erik Baiers, Universal’s senior VP of production. “He’s inquisitive of the business and the studio system and how movies get made. He’s in it to win.”

Cena’s renewed interest in movies comes as casting directors are in need of tough guys. Johnson, known as “the Rock” to WWE and movie fans, has landed many of the roles requiring muscle-bound heroes. Now it’s Bautista’s turn: After starring in this summer’s Marvel blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which grossed $687 million worldwide, he’s up for the role of a henchman in the next James Bond film.

The bigscreen appeal of Johnson and others is helping WWE rid itself of the social stigma that has prevented it from becoming a larger player in the entertainment field. It doesn’t help that its shows are essentially male soap operas with arguments erupting into simulated fights.

But it’s still been able to chip away at any preconceived notions by getting more people to check out its programming — especially after switching to a PG family friendly format in 2008. That’s helped attract more high-profile advertisers to its TV shows on USA Network and Syfy, as well as sponsor its pay-per-views. It still hasn’t lured the likes of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola or carmakers, which hurt the company in locking down a richer TV licensing fee from NBCUniversal for its flagship shows that are huge ratings drivers but don’t necessarily pull in the big bucks from marketers. But even that’s changing with the WWE Network, which will soon integrate advertisers like Pepsi, Mattel and Kmart.

WWE does have its own film division, but its lower-budgeted films, which are now making the company money, are seen as vehicles for its newer stars. WWE Studios also is co-producing animated films based on Warner Bros.’ “Scooby-Doo” and “Flintstones” franchises with the studio, which should help attract new fans, as well.

More high-profile roles in Hollywood movies should help too. “WWE needs more people like Dwayne (Johnson),” Cena says, and noting Bautista’s success, adds, “I’m so happy that ‘Guardians’ killed. We have talented people working for our company. It’s just going to take a bit. It’s just going to take a few more situations like that” to make wrestling talent — and the WWE — more mainstream.

Internally, WWE has had to rethink its own stars. “You have to understand where we’re coming from,” says Cena, noting that WWE’s chairman Vince McMahon “took a bunch of unbelievable characters in the ‘80s and made them larger than life but they were so good you can’t see them as anyone else. When (Hulk) Hogan does ‘No Holds Barred,’ he’s Hogan. Now we’re entering a new generation where these people are multi-faceted.”

Even if he scores onscreen, Cena has no plans to leave WWE for Hollywood. “I just love the business too much,” he says. “That’s why I beat the company drum so much. I always want to be involved in some aspect.”

WWE can’t afford to lose him, either, especially when it’s aggressively expanding its presence overseas, and trying to sell more subscriptions to its digital network.

“John’s passion for our business along with his charisma, work ethic and integrity have made him a global superstar and role model,” McMahon says. “John also has extraordinary business instincts and an insatiable thirst for knowledge which translate to any medium and are keys to his success.”

Cena, who is repped by ICM, does want to make more movies, though. Getting additional parts may be a waiting game until “Trainwreck” and “Sisters” are released.

Universal may be first to come calling. “We didn’t know John beyond his wrestling career and the action films, but he was a total revelation,” says Universal’s co-president of production, Peter Cramer. “Judd has an eye for comedy casting. Right away there was a good stamp on the guy. There’s no pretense to him. He’s there to do the work. We hope to find more movies to do with him.”

Until then, Cena is starting to develop his first TV projects with “Pawn Stars” producers Leftfield Pictures, and will focus mostly on reality fare.

He also remains busy in other ways. On the side, Cena already has built a business around his brand through clothing lines with Kmart, promotional partnerships with Post Cereal’s Fruity Pebbles and Schick razors, and BodyChange, a fitness program that encourages people to eat right and exercise. Then there’s his support of organizations like Make-A-Wish (Cena is one of its most popular celebs) and the Susan G. Komen Foundation for breast cancer awareness, for which he got WWE to promote and help raise more than $1.2 million.

He’s currently promoting WWE’s new video game, “WWE 2K15,” available Oct. 28, in which he recites Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” He also curated the game’s soundtrack, that includes Flo Rida, Florida George Line and B.o.B, and raps on two bonus tracks with Wiz Khalifa. The soundtrack has been released on Apple’s iTunes, while the musicvideo for “All Day,” is on YouTube.

Even if his new comedies don’t do well, he still had that meeting with Apatow and Schumer as a fond memory.

“If nothing else,” he says, “it was very cool to sit down with them, be a goof, and not get booed out of the room.”

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