After two decades in a pro wrestling ring, John Cena’s no stranger to uniform commitment. For years he entertained thousands wearing jean shorts, ball caps, throwback sports jerseys, Reebok Pump basketball shoes and occasionally a padlock chain around his sizable neck.
Still, it’s quite the surprising sight when the 44-year-old wrestler/actor hops on for a video chat interview clad in the shiny silver helmet, blue gloves and tight, dove-bedecked shirt of Peacemaker, his patriotic super jerk in “The Suicide Squad” (in theaters and on HBO Max Thursday night).
“I’ve locked myself in this hotel room because people chased me up here thinking I was some sort of performer on Hollywood Boulevard," Cena deadpans before heading to an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in LA with “Squad” co-star Margot Robbie and writer/director James Gunn.
Why is he wearing a Peacemaker outfit in public whenever he can, including Monday's premiere? “We have a wonderfully beautiful, absurd movie that nobody is ready to see but everybody needs in their life,” Cena says of “Squad."
After recently wrapping up the first season of the HBO Max spinoff series “Peacemaker” (premiering in January), Cena's now back in wrestling gear: WWE’s “Summer of Cena” has him working shows and getting ready to take on Roman Reigns for the Universal Championship at SummerSlam Aug. 21.
Always a good guy when he returns to the ring, on screen is where Cena gets to play the heel. In “F9” this summer, he played antagonistic little brother to Vin Diesel’s franchise antihero. And in “Squad,” Peacemaker is one of several supervillains running black ops missions for the government.
Peacemaker is “so ridiculous,” Cena admits, thanks to his cocky, often clueless attitude. In one scene camped out in the jungle, the Squad wakes up in the middle of the night when one teammate tries to eat another one, and everybody’s wearing battle gear – except for Peacemaker, showing up in his tighty-whities underwear. It’s the kind of revealing physical comedy that Cena’s gleefully embraced in movies, like his hilarious sex scene with Amy Schumer in 2015’s “Trainwreck.”
Performing for the WWE half-naked in jorts didn't ready Cena for those moments – it was years of heckling fans. “There's two ways you can go when you're told you suck every day,” he says. “You can wallow in that shame and believe that opinion, or you can look yourself in the mirror and realize you are enough. That (self-love) allows me to do things that are a little bit obscure in some sense, most of the time wearing very little clothing.”
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All Cena is hearing in the ring these days is cheers. But he also knows his role now is more of a WWE supporting act and mentor figure than star player. “Man, I wish there was some sort of fountain of youth where I could be a full-time contributor,” he says. “The longer they continue to bet on an aging prospect, that makes (WWE's) future a little bit less stable.”
In films, he’s still maturing, learning from the likes of "Squad' mates Idris Elba and Robbie who “really went full tilt with everything,” says Cena, now in his "second chance at the movie business.” In the 2000s, he admits he made a lot of “bad movies” – including action films like “The Marine” and “12 Rounds” – struggling with the change of pace between a relatively slow movie-set existence and his fast-paced wrestling life.
“I used to chastise people for not working as efficiently as the WWE. And as a young man, I failed big,” Cena says. “I was judgmental and I was apprehensive and I wanted to be back in the ring because I loved that immediate gratification.”
It wasn’t until “Trainwreck” and “a chance for me to be weird” that he discovered an appreciation for filmmaking. “I'm very grateful that I was at least self-aware enough to know that I was really effing up big time.”
Directing a movie and then the HBO Max show starring Cena, Gunn saw up close how he’s both teacher and student. “John simply has more integrity than almost anybody else I've ever met in my life," the filmmaker says. "I absolutely adore the guy."
In the past year, Cena’s Twitter feed has become a “mini journal” of wise self-help missives for himself and his 13.1 million followers. “I'm speaking of what's going on in my own head, but I'm also talking to folks out there,” he says. Cena also married Shay Shariatzadeh in October, though he’s less revealing about getting hitched during a pandemic: “That's a story you're going to have to earn the right to hear.” (Gunn reports their relationship "is just really a beautiful thing.")
Cena does confess that working on his “emotional fitness” and looking out for his mental health has become important.
“There's a lot of shame involved with openly saying, ‘I need time for me,’ ” says Cena, who next stars in the spy thriller “Argylle” with Henry Cavill and Dua Lipa. “People view that as selfish, but if you're running correctly, then you're just easier to deal with and everybody around you is going to feed off that energy.
“I just love what I do so much. I want to make the most of it.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Suicide Squad': John Cena juggles his Hollywood, WWE identities