I recently sat down with John Cena, who voices a polar bear named Yoshi in director Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle, which is now in theaters. While sitting in his trailer on the Universal backlot, Cena and I had a wide-ranging conversation about getting to be part of Dolittle, how much changed during the recording process, his amazing relationship with Make-A-Wish, being part of James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad and Justin Lin’s Fast & Furious 9, how much he cherished getting to work with Jackie Chan in Project X-Traction, his future in wrestling, and a lot more.
As you’ve seen in the trailers, Dolittle stars Downey Jr. as the famed doctor that can talk to animals. After his wife dies, Dolittle retreats behind his castle walls until being tasked to try and save the young Queen (Jessie Buckley) from a deadly illness. As he travels the world looking for a mythical island, he’s joined on his quest by a young apprentice (Harry Collett) and numerous animals that are voiced by Emma Thompson, Tom Holland, Rami Malek, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, and Marion Cotillard. Dolittle also stars Michael Sheen, Antonio Banders and Jim Broadbent.
Check out what John Cena had to say below.
COLLIDER: I wanted to start with the thing that I love about you which is the stuff you do with Make-A-Wish.
JOHN CENA: Thanks, man.
I have to ask: How did that all happen? I think you’ve done like 600 Make-A-Wishes, which is like the record.
Well, WWE has been working with Make-A-Wish for, I think, 40 years (or over 40 years) now. The company connection was essentially already there. I was kind of offered to be a part of it and once I found out what it was, it’s literally the most flattering thing that someone can do. If you were given one wish, what would you want to do? Right from the very first experience, I had a great perspective of not only how flattering it was to me, but how important it is to be a piece in the wish-making process. Then through time, through meeting all these wonderful children and families, you see the happiness it provides. Happiness in many cases can provide hope and hope can provide our most priceless asset: time.
At this point, is it sort of like, are you on speed dial?
If need be, yeah. For somebody to say, “Hey, I’m up against some really tough stuff and I’d like to just hang out with John Cena.” I mean, we all have our daily lives to attend to, so unfortunately I can’t at every whim just drop what I’m doing and do that. But there are many cases where I’m certainly not busy and will do whatever I can to make that happen. I just think it’s the coolest thing, man.
You have a pretty large social presence. You are very, very positive on Twitter.
Thank you. Thank you.
It’s another thing that I respect. Do you do a lot of second guessing before you hit tweet?
No, no. I actually — I actually have my phone. I’ll show you. I use it more as a journal. I give a few hours to myself every day to reflect on what’s been, to be present in the now, and to look forward to what’s going on. In that time, if a thought strikes me or a concept kind of hits my mind, I’ll just jot it down. [Shows account and what in his drafts] I’ve got all these thoughts and I never stop. It’s not like I’m like, “Oh, I got to put this out.” It’s just, “What am I thinking that day? What am I feeling? What do I want to [say]? What conversation do I want to provoke in the universe?” Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s self-promotion. There’ll be some Dolittle stuff on there. So many people, because it’s easy, use it as a dumping ground because we all got a lighten the backpack, dude. We all got to let those emotions out and it gives an avenue for not a lot of accountability so you can just get whatever out there you want to get out there. I’m just trying to do my best to go the other way.
No, and I appreciate it and I also think that it’s important for positive messages to go out there because it can be a real cesspool sometimes.
Yeah, it can. I’ve got no qualms with people trying to lighten that backpack and voicing their opinions. I just think, a lot of times, people don’t take accountability for what they say because a lot of times it’s very hurtful, especially in the way of social media bullying and that is just very hurtful. Our words have gravity. I think people throw stuff out in the universe and they don’t take accountability for how it makes others feel. I’m just trying to balance Lady Justice a little bit.
I completely agree. Jumping into why I get to talk to you today… I’m curious: How much did you pay to be a voice in a Robert Downey Jr. movie?
Enough to where they had to bounce the check. [Laughs] You are coming from the right train of thought, man. This one’s a gift. It really is. Not only that but to be able to be in a conversation with not only Robert Downey Jr. but all of the talent involved in this movie — this one’s an awesome opportunity. On top of that, the script went really good. It’s not just “I’m doing it because so-and-so is involved.” I’m doing it because I like the material and they put together the Olympic All-Star team as far as the talent that are going to be in the movie.
Yeah, it’s one of those things where it’s preposterous. Every voice you hear is like —
— It’s a notifiable. Like, “Oh that’s this person and that’s this person.” Yeah.
I saw it last night with a ton of kids. They all loved it. Have you seen it with an audience yet?
I’ve seen it with one other person and really it was in a screening room, which is like a small theater of probably 60 seats and we sat right in the middle. Usually those are really tough environments to see a movie, but I really enjoyed it. I left with a smile on my face feeling happy.
Now, the first time I’ll see it in front of an audience is the premiere. Having seen it and already being okay with it, that to me is great because now I can just go in and if I feel like just watching the people — which is a lot of what I do for WWE — and see what they absorb and what they enjoy and what they laugh at and their overall sense of take away from the film — that’s a cool experience.
Well, first of all, thank you for saying that. As somebody who advocates animal rights, I think the fact that you can sit down and watch this movie and have that takeaway is astounding.
I never ever want to back [a ticket buyer] into a corner of what they should take from the film. There’s going to be all ages, there’s going to be all walks of life watching this movie and if I tell them that, “Hey, this is the takeaway you should have.” [Previous sentence is slightly incomplete but the thought here is clear. May need to editorialize it slightly] The one takeaway for every project I have is to be entertained. Sit down and be entertained. If someone wants to spark up a conversation about advocacy of animal rights or trying to reduce cruelty to animals by seeing a work that a bunch of us had fun making, that’s really awesome. Someone could take away the concept of family and the origins of family and how you can choose those that are close to you. There’s a bunch, I mean Craig Robinson’s character, Kevin the squirrel, goes on a nice little cycle of revenge and then takes a little bit of a turn. That could be a talking point that you could take away.
I think most importantly, I want as many people to see the movies I can and I want to be entertained. But the fact that you can sit down, watch a movie that is essentially made for the whole family, and walk away with an advocacy of animal rights take away, that’s a cool thing.
I mean that’s a huge thing in my life.
Talk a little about the recording process for this. You’ve done a lot of voices and so how was it on this and maybe how did it change along the way because every movie with voiceover, a lot can change.
Every rendition of the animation goes through a different process. They have to render the characters and then usually they get the voices so they’ll get you to come in. Then they’ll show you some of the animation, but they always record you when you do the [voice-over] so then the animators watch that back and if they see anything that’s like, “What is that he just did that didn’t even know [he did]?” They’ll take some of the nuance and then re-add it into the animation.
In something like Ferdinand for example, which is true whimsical animation. The nuances are… It’s not even nuance. It’s more WWE. It’s huge. It’s over the top. All the expressions are wild and easily readable. In live action, because you’re playing next to human beings, the nuances kind of have to dictate that, where it is true animated creation of what you’re seeing is real, but still whimsical, but you can subtly see those nuances. If I do this [gestures], an animator may take that but tone it down just like you would do if you were acting in a film camera rather than hitting to section 310 in Madison Square Garden [as you do in the WWE]. It’s cool to see the difference between this in something like Ferdinand, whereas they’ll steal a little bit from your performance, but it’s not up to 10 it’s like on a 2.
When did you start recording for this and when was the last time you did a session?
All within this year.
Yeah, all within this year.
In 2020, you started —
— No, no, no. Sorry, all within the confines of 2019.
I’m just playing with you.
All within the confines of 2019.
Oftentimes I speak to a lot of people that do animated movies and what they start saying on day one and what they say on the last day is radically different.
It was. In thinking about it from January to October, it was about a seven month process, which is … Ferdinand was like two years.
Yeah, that’s actually very fast.
Yeah, and I think that a lot of that has to do with the fact that there’s real humans on film. What you have captured, you can’t go back. With animators, they always want to keep perfecting and keep re-animating it. If the whole scope is animated you can ditch the movie and start again if you want to. But with this, what you shoot is what you got. You can’t really reinvent that much.
When you were recording, were you actually seeing any of the film in front of you or were you just actually just at the microphone, the director is in the other room and you’re sort of playing off that?
Because it’s live action, you see renderings as you go across. The earlier in the year footage was very raw and the last session you do is very real and it’s very close to what you’re going to see onscreen.
Got it. I would imagine sharing a movie with Robert Downey Jr, as I said at the beginning, he doesn’t make that many movies.
It’s selected if you will.
He’s incredibly talented.
If I’m not mistaken, you got to also work with James Gunn on The Suicide Squad.
Currently working with James Gunn on Suicide Squad.
I noticed you’re in a lot of upcoming things. There’s a lot going on with you with acting. Do you feel like all of a sudden, like you’ve won like an actor’s lottery, if you will, with what you’ve been able to get to do recently?
It kind of mirrors the path that I was fortunate enough to take in WWE. I came from obscurity kind of like most all of us do. There are only a few WWE superstars that are chosen from the second they walk in as like, “Hey, we’re going to push this guy as a main event guy. This guy’s going to be a player.” I kind of struggled to find identity and had to earn every inch. Not saying that the other way of the process is bad. But when you begin to make connections and you believe in your work and you have passion in what you do, you start getting larger and larger opportunities which are merely a chance to either make or break yourself. You bet on yourself. Throughout almost a two decade span in sports entertainment, I began to work my way up the ladder with working with these top-tier names. Then the transition became, “Now you’re the top-tier name giving your equity back to the younger generation.”
When I took chances on myself in a part, like even playing Fred’s dad [in 2010’s Fred: The Movie] and those Nickelodeon movies where I’m living in the fridge, but wanting to just unwind the typecast. That was the beginning of that snowball rolling downhill and then you get us a small role like Trainwreck or Sisters or Daddy’s Home or a drama like The Wall or a small piece in Bumblebee and so on and so forth. It’s so sports cliché, but you give all you can to the projects and you want to try to surround yourself with good folks. Dude, it’s a… I don’t know how any of this is happening. I mean, I’m promoting a movie with Robert Downey Jr. I’m currently filming a movie, a superhero movie, with James Gunn. It’s mythical to say that stuff but I never walk into those things feeling like I don’t belong.
I also think that… I’ve been doing this now for almost 15 years and I have definitely encountered people that are really good people and people that are difficult. The people that are difficult, a lot of them have been lost along the way and you’re a very positive person. People want to surround themselves with positive people.
That’s also when people have to go on an expedition where like, “Hey, for the next nine months we’re going to be doing this thing for 14 hours a day” and a kid shows up on time and he’s easy to work with. That also works. As I hone my craft and learn more skills every time out, at least I pride myself in being on time and knowing the material and having the utmost respect for any project I choose to go in. I won’t do anything if I’m not drawn towards it.
I’ve spoken to people — I don’t want any spoilers because I don’t play that way — but I have spoken to people that tell me that the script for the Suicide Squad is fantastic.
What was your reaction reading it for the first time and what has it been like being part of this really anticipated movie?
Having seen the first movie and then reading the new script, I was blown away. The first 10 pages [are] like a movie in itself. It’s really, really special. That’s because the guy steering the ship [Gunn] is committed to narrative and committed to creating characters that we connect with and sending them on an awesome journey. I mean what he did with [Guardians of the Galaxy] is really special. To take a group of unknowns — and I’m not saying that to the people attached to the comic book universe. I’m what you would call a casual fan. When I watch Guardians, immediately I’m connected to these people and I walk away with a certain takeaway from that movie. It has nothing to do with the preconceived notions of the comic book characters. I watched the movie for the movie and I enjoy it.I’m also a storyteller at heart. I got to go out there on a nightly basis in WWE and entertain Birmingham, Alabama and make them want to believe that they want to see a WWE title switch or that so-and-so hates so-and-so or whatever story we’re trying to put together for that night. So I tip my cap to a great storyteller. James is a writer and a developer and he has great vision. The first time I met him, he had the entire movie story-boarded through his office. It was like wallpaper like the artwork that’s on magazine covers that makes a larger picture.
The whole thing’s story boarded. I’m like, “Man, this guy already knows the movie and if that wasn’t flooring enough, I’m in some of the storyboards.” It’s like, “Whoa, that is … Okay. That’s really awesome.” You want go to work with people who jump out of bed every day and want to go to work. [Gunn] is the epitome of that. He cares so much about what he’s doing and I think especially when he’s put in a position to write, develop, and do this by his rules essentially. He chose the franchise. He kind of dictated his terms and now he’s really betting on himself and I hope everybody enjoys seeing it as much as we’re enjoying making it, because it’s awesome.
What was it like on the first day putting on the costume?
Awesome. Awesome. There’s folklore about like, “Yeah kid, wait till you do a superhero movie.” I guess I’m used to my costume being jean shorts and a tee shirt. So, it’s a nice little change up that I didn’t have to wear a ball cap and wristbands, but it was really cool.
You also did Fast and Furious 9.
Another one of these movies that I am so, so looking forward to. What was that experience like?
Dude, that one was awesome in many respects because this is a franchise, like a legacy franchise. The cast in that movie has essentially been working together for 20 years. It is a family environment and it is one that the world views as their family as well. They’re into the storyline, they’re into the characters, and they’re into this 20-year, eight- installment narrative that, in a lot of cases, [is defining]. This is a lot of what you’re known for in entertainment and what people come to expect.
On top of that, they’ve managed to build an almost superhero environment with real people. The first movie was about street racing and then it’s evolved and been able to pivot into this crazy thing that is still so plugged in with car culture. But now, [also] as a global narrative and it always outdoes itself in the form of, like, “What are they going to do next?” but at the same time remains grounded in the story of family. It’s incredible and it’s incredible how digestible it is throughout the globe too, how worldly the story and the saga’s become.
Has it come out who you play in the movie?
Not at all.
So you can’t even mention who you’re playing?
It won’t be by my watch.
I will say I’ve heard a little bit about Fast & Furious 9 and the story that I’ve heard is very interesting and I think fans are going to be very excited.
Like I said, it’s already a globally-appreciated franchise and I think Fast 9 will be a wonderful adrenaline shot for the franchise.
I really cannot wait. In every Fast & Furious movie there’s some great action set pieces. Did you get to be part of any of those?
Those things are really challenging to film and they take a really long time.
Talk a little bit about maybe what surprised you about making a Fast & Furious action set piece?
How awesome they make it look and how absolutely safe it is. On film, I will cheat death but it’s so safe. I had no fear in any of the processes. When I saw small renderings of what it’s going to look like, I’m like, “What the fuck?” It’s awesome and I think by making the actors feel that sense of like, “Hey man, we’ve set this up so you are going to be all right. Just go for it.” You get the best performance from your actors rather than somebody going, “I don’t know about this.” You know the famous last words of a stuntman: “I think you’ll probably be okay.” You never have that sort of environment. It was unbelievably safe but also unbelievably creative.
I don’t want to pressure you with more information because I don’t want you to —
You can pry. It’s a tough box to open.
There’s other things I want to talk about, which is that you got to work with Jackie Chan.
It’s called I believe Project Extraction.
Again, you’re with Jackie Chan. Which is ridiculous. So again, what did you pay for that movie?
What is that like working with him?
In WWE, it’s a trash talking business but our stories are told physically; that’s why it’s so global. You could turn the volume off and be like, “Good guy, bad guy. I get it.” Jackie is once-in-a-generation, maybe, possibly the last, just because of the way things are done and the way entertainment is skewing. He certainly our generation’s great physical storyteller. You talk Keaton and Chaplin and Chan is in that conversation and his process is just… dude, I have goosebumps. It’s awesome and at his age; he defies age. He defies time. He is always creative. No job is too small. He will sweep the floor. He treats his crew like family. I could waste every minute you have saying the praises of Jackie Chan and I believe he’s underappreciated in America.
We filmed [Project Extraction] in China. He has the time to do his action sequence, the time, the budget, no restrictions. They do very little fight choreography until they get there and they walk in and be like, “I’m going to use the Kleenex and the fridge and the knife on that. I’m going to pour a hot cup of coffee on myself and pretend to drive the bus.” It’s amazing how he integrates environment because that’s what we try to do in WWE. So I’m like, “I get this,” and it was literally like walking into the … Like the mathematician in Good Will Hunting, watching Matt Damon solve the problem and then realizing your life’s work is down the shitter because this dude is just that much better than you.
It was enlightening and it was one of the best experiences in my life. It’s fucking awesome.
Well, the other thing is he’s essentially, well, I would say it would be like he’s Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt together in terms of celebrity in China. He’s like…
I don’t think there is a quantifiable equal. He can’t go anywhere ever, but he always goes everywhere. He’s always amongst everybody. Man, he’s so kind and giving and so damn professional too. He’s the reason why I get excited for [this]. I’m already excited for doing this stuff, but just to see him and be like, “How am I going to tell you, my last interview of the day, I’m tired?” It’s your first one of the day. I just can’t do that. It’s inspiring to see a dude operate like that. He has taught me and helped me more ways than he will ever know in one experience. If I ever get a chance to do it again … Usually I say I have to read a project to be riveted by it. That is one name where if it’s like, “Hey, Jackie wants to do this,” I’m sold. It’s that effective. He’s this barrel of fucking wisdom and he is trying to give it away and it’s awesome. He’s just awesome to be around.
I mean, as a longtime fan of his work, it’s just, it’s one of those things where you’re sitting across from someone and you’re like, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Yeah dude. He just has a way of making anything look natural when it comes to action. I know who I am, I know who I’m not. There are certain things I can’t pull off, but I’ve seen some footage from Extraction. It’s a lot of good action in there, dude. I was so overwhelmed to be like, wow, these guys are really the best at what they do. It’s really special.
How did you first get involved with that project? Were you are as much of a fan of Jackie before going over there?
Well, I begin to be really enamored by Chinese culture in 2012 when the WWE first went to Shanghai. When you land in the Shanghai airport and you go into the city, it’s like 10 New Yorks stacked up on top of each other. The WWE didn’t have a presence in China, so I’m looking around going like, “We’re all over the world. Why the hell aren’t we here?” The audience just doesn’t understand what we do. They don’t know if it’s real. They don’t know if it’s entertainment. They don’t know how to take it. They don’t know if they should cheer, if they should boo. They don’t know who they like, who they don’t like.
I began to study Chinese culture. I tried to pick up a little Mandarin. I continue to try to study. When you begin to research culture, especially culture and entertainment, you find out about Jackie Chan right away. Then the correlation of what he does and what I try to do and then just looking at how he sets up action is just… He’s just so far ahead of everybody else.
We did that, what, two years ago. I’m studying Chinese for five years, wanting to go over there and do a movie in China. That was really something I wanted to do and he had someone else scheduled for Project Extraction and it fell through, thank goodness because he was able to do it locally and then one of his production assistants is like, “Hey man, check this out.” I did a press conference in Mandarin, remedial Mandarin because that’s all I speak, but Mandarin. He’s like, “Wow, this guy really cares enough to learn the language.” I really do find the culture and the whole system over there really enthralling and intriguing. He’s like, “I want that guy.” Then I heard, “Hey, Jackie Chan wants to do a movie with you.” I thought it wasn’t real. Then it was like, “Jackie Chan wants to do a movie with you in China.”I was like, “Whoa.”
For a lot of entertainers, especially domestically, going to China is a tough jump for them because it’s a world away and it’s a different culture. I was like, “Man, let’s go, let’s do it.” It was a long shoot, but it was awesome. Like I said, there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t have some “Epic Jackie” moment where it was like, “That’s my takeaway for the day. This has been more than worth it.”
Did you study a lot more Mandarin before going over?
I had studied [before] going over, but then I’m immersed in China. Not just like Shanghai proper, which is a very cosmopolitan city. I mean inner Mongolia for seven months. It was awesome. It was really a great cultural experience as well as a tutorial for how to tell a good story.
Completely. I got to go, but my last thing for you —
By the way, thanks for bringing that up. Like I said, I can’t say enough about Jackie. He’s a great human being.
Let me ask you this last thing, 2019 was the first time you didn’t wrestle in a Pay-Per-View match in 15 years. How did that feel and are you itching to get back in the ring?
Well, of course I am, but I’m 42. I’ll be 43 this April and I think… WWE is my heart. It’s my soul. It’s the thing that I feel the most fluid at. I just love it. There’s no other way to describe it. But I’m at that point where I either become a step slower and perform worse and the last impression people have of me is like, “Oh man, he should’ve been gone a couple of years ago.” Or, I realize that I’ve been just blessed with a 17 year existence [in this industry], 15 of those main eventing an absolutely financially-driven model that has been successful over the years and really left a lasting impression on people. I’m not saying I’m done because I can be used.
New York was a great way, in WrestleMania, to come out as a kind of a retrospective look at the Doctor of Thuganomics, the little small thing I did in New York. I came back as the rapper guy that I started as. IT was a cool use of the character. The year before I was a fan. I bought a ticket to WrestleMania and then ended up in a match. I think there’s ways for me to be integrated in the product, but to be continuously on these pay per views, you have to be involved in the narrative, the week to week narrative. Which means you have to have the skills to do that. I’m not unable to do that now, but I’m right at the razor’s edge of continuing or realize that that’s a part of your life, but it’s not all that defines you.
Dude, all this stuff is great, but if it all stops tomorrow, I’m still okay with me. I know the good things that define me and I know the qualities I have as a human being. I’m going to move on and go forward. I know that all this is borrowed. I’m just grateful to have it and grateful to be able to contribute. I don’t want to be greedy as a performer and I see that a lot in sports entertainment.
The movie, The Wrestler was centered around a guy who can’t let go. I’m being a shitty human being because I can’t let go of this thing. I invested my life in that company and then there’s no one, whether they like my performance or not, that will argue that. I think after the extended period of time that I put in, it’s okay for me to take a step back and reflect and be like, “Okay, I need to have more than that in my life because if that’s all that defines me, that’s a depreciating asset.” Every sunset that happens, I get a little slower and a little older and a little slower and a little older and it’s eventually going to end.
That’s been three years of hard conversations with that dude looking back in the mirror and I’m at peace with where it’s at. I want to contribute where I can. I’ve even talked about coaching or mentoring. Like I said, it’s the environment I feel the most fluid, so I can sit down and talk to you about WWE as long as you want to talk, but what I don’t want to do is take somebody who has spent 50 bucks on a ticket for themselves, their partner, their families, they bought souvenirs, they bought popcorn and paid for parking and have look at me like, “He used to be something.” You know?
I completely understand where your head is at. I think it makes the most sense and I also think that there’s a place, but it’s just not front and center.
And the pay-per-views are so often and the engine never stops. It’s a demanding profession. It really is a demanding profession. I think once you’re there, you know the investment it takes to be there. Plus, I’m also really super passionate about this and it takes all of your heart and soul to be successful in that arena. It takes all of your heart and soul to be successful in this room. I tried to split them before in 2004, ‘05, ‘06 when I did all those movies for WWE. The movie thing failed because my heart wasn’t in that. Now my heart is in this. I have to enjoy this and not long to be someplace else, not have that fear of missing out. As much as most of the people who tell me that I suck at the top of their lungs are like, “Man, you got to come back.” I’m invested in this and I really am enjoying the ride.