WWE Champ is a triple threat
By Kevin Eck
The Baltimore Sun
John Cena traces his rise in the entertainment business, from the mat to the mall cineplex, back to a chance conversation he had six years ago while at Gold's Gym in Venice, Calif. That discussion - with a pro wrestler-in-training - led Cena to enter a wrestling school in Southern California. Since then, not only has Cena become the top attraction in World Wrestling Entertainment, but he has used his grappling exploits to gain a foothold in the mainstream.
After releasing a successful rap CD last year, Cena is looking to lay the smack down at the box office. He makes his big-screen debut as the star of the action film The Marine, in theaters now.
"Wrestling was always so secretive about how you [break in]," says Cena, 29, who lives in Tampa, Fla. " When someone told me that there was a school to go to for becoming a wrestler, I was hooked. But I never thought I'd be making records. And I never thought I'd be making movies."
The Marine is the second project from WWE's film division, following the horror flick See No Evil, which was released last May. But unlike that film's star (WWE's Glen "Kane" Jacobs), Cena has the physical attributes and charisma that Hollywood covets in its leading men.
Comparisons between Cena and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson - who left wrestling behind to devote all of his time to his acting career - are inevitable, but Cena says he has no intentions of following in Johnson's footsteps.
"I really don't ever intend to leave wrestling," says Cena, the current WWE champion. "Sports entertainment has provided me with a great life and is something that I really do have a lot of passion for. I'm going to go full-steam ahead with sports entertainment and full-steam ahead with Hollywood."
Although pro wrestling is a combination of acting and athleticism, Cena says his work in WWE didn't really prepare him for performing in a movie.
"In a way, [wrestling] kind of hurts you because you're used to being over the top and overly animated and playing to crowds of tens of thousands of people," says Cena, who is 6-feet-1 and a muscular 240 pounds. "Whereas, when you're in that little lens, you're huge on the screen, so you really don't need to do a lot.
"I got about a month and a half of acting lessons before I hit the set and had an acting coach with me on set every day. It was just as much preparation as I could possibly cram in."
In the film, Cena, who says he did almost all of his own stunts, plays a discharged Marine on a mission to retrieve his kidnapped wife. With his square jaw and military haircut, Cena certainly looks the part, and he says the opportunity to play a Marine intrigued him.
To get into character, Cena drew upon his exposure to members of the military through his travels with WWE.
"The WWE has such a great relationship with the armed forces," he says, "and I've been able to see soldiers in all aspects of their life - in the call of duty in a war zone when we went to Afghanistan and Iraq, on the various military bases that we visit and just in recruit training."
He might have entered pro wrestling on a whim, but Cena was an avid fan of the genre growing up in West Newbury, Mass. His other passion was rap music, which he says made him somewhat of a rebel in his rural community.
After graduating in 1999 with a degree in exercise physiology from Massachusetts' Springfield College, where he played center on the football team and was a Division III All-American, Cena headed to Los Angeles to pursue a career in bodybuilding.
Once he stepped in the ring at the Ultimate Pro Wrestling school, however, Cena never looked back. WWE quickly signed him to a developmental contract, and he made his television debut with the company in 2002.
At first, the fans barely seemed to notice Cena, but that all changed several months later when he adopted a rapper persona. Channeling Eminem, Cena began delivering suggestive raps before his matches and donning throwback jerseys, baggy pants and plenty of bling.
Like that conversation years earlier at Gold's Gym, a chance encounter led to Cena's big break in wrestling.
"I was just kind of goofing off [rapping] in the backstage area, and somebody saw it and asked me if I wanted to do it on TV," says Cena, who says he has been doing freestyle raps since he was a teenager. "It was a great idea that really worked because I believed in it."
It worked so well that Cena was able to make a name for himself in the hip-hop community. Last year, his CD, You Can't See Me, debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard chart, and Cena says another CD is "in the plans."
Cena's ascension to the top spot in WWE has not come without some backlash, however. Wrestling fans have proved to be a fickle bunch, and whenever a wrestler becomes insanely popular, as Cena has, a segment of the audience delights in rebelling against him.
"Our fans are the most passionate fans of any sport or form of entertainment on Earth. They are what makes our program great," he says. "For me to say, `Listen, you can't be yourself, you have to cheer for me,' that's ridiculous."
If anything, Cena says the criticism he has received in wrestling circles has prepared him for whatever movie critics might dish out for his performance in The Marine.
"In our business, we have some of the harshest critics in the world. I have been told I [stink] by every wrestling Web site," he says. "I think people will be pleasantly surprised by the movie. At the end of the day, as long as the people paying their money to see the movie walk out happy, I'm cool with that."
Copyright 2006, The Baltimore Sun. All Rights Reserved.