John Cena Explores His Vulnerability and What He Brought to ‘F9’

Franchise newcomer John Cena unpacks his career and tells us a harrowing, true street racing story. Photo-illustration: Observer; Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Twenty years and more than $6 billion later, the Fast and Furious franchise is still burning rubber. Over the course of its gasoline-fueled lifespan, raising the stakes to impossible highs has proven irresistible. What started as a simple street racing gear-head fantasy has morphed into a globe-trotting super spy adventure. Highway chase scenes have been replaced by physics-defying set pieces of epically ridiculous proportions. Hot Wheels sports cars of the mid-aughts have been returned in favor of tanks, submarines, and magnet planes. And what began as a tight knit cast has transformed into a sprawling diverse ensemble.

Ludacris, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Gal Gadot, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba. Practically every major star who is up for some nos-soaked fun has joined The Fast and the Furious ranks (we have our own absurd time travel suggestions for the future of the franchise). The latest supersized addition is John Cena, who has been aggressively growing his blockbuster franchise profile since his WWE days. The star recently chatted with Observer about coming into this long-running film franchise as a newcomer, transitioning to movie stardom, and more.

Observer: The Fast and Furious franchise is a film series built around upping the ante every time. Did you give any consideration, as a newcomer to the series, as to how you were going to contribute to that?

John Cena: Fast has so many wonderful people behind it. Justin [Lin] at the helm, and Vin [Diesel], the heartbeat of the franchise. A group of performers that have been upping the ante, so to speak, for two decades now. In that regard, I’m just trusting the process. As the new invitee, I don’t think it’s my place to be like, “Yo guys, we should do this!” It’s my place to look at the material, that the experts and the people with the 10,000 hours have created, absorb the material the best I can, ask as many questions as I can, and pretty much leave it all on the lens and hope it works. I don’t have to come forth with ideas about how to make cool magnet weaponry. I just have to focus on Jakob.

I once damn near totaled my Dad’s car. And man, it was bad. I was street racing some kid and I’m driving the way I shouldn’t have been driving.

Can you give an example of one of the questions you did feel you needed to ask in that environment?

Yeah, so me being a fan of the Fast & Furious, and then finding out that I’m Dom’s younger brother, a lot of that is: Okay, what was going on? Why now? Why do we find out about Dom’s younger brother now? Why was he absent? What could he have possibly been doing while he was absent? What was the reason for the absence? What was their relationship like before? Just the standard questions that most or all performers would have, and then you continue to go deeper and deeper, and it gets very deep into how performers and performing arts people hone their craft… and that’s not really basic, I don’t want to dive too deep into the weeds, but you basically ask “How can I be the best Jakob?”

Fast & Furious 9 John Cena
Vin Diesel and John Cena in Fast and Furious 9. Universal

So how did you feel as a newcomer coming into such an established franchise where everyone else has developed a familiarity?

It was not without its sizing up, which I actually like. Here I am, a new invitee, to a franchise that’s globally successful and known throughout the world, pretty much getting a golden opportunity. This franchise is a success. They don’t need me to further that success. I’m getting a lucky invite to be a part of something. That’s really special.

I don’t blame the performers for making sure my intentions are to contribute, rather than to take away. If I walk on that set as the new guy, saying “This story is about me, I’m going to take as much as I can and vault away after this,” as a performer that’s given 20 years of my life to a legacy such as this, that might be off-putting. But I think when everyone saw that my goal is to make the best installment of this franchise and help it move forward to a conversational end, as has been discussed, I think everybody’s happy about that, because it protects the work that they’ve done. I’m not a parasite in that regard. I’m trying to contribute.

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Vin Diesel and John Cena in F9. Universal

As a self-described car head, do you have any slightly crazy car stories from your youth when perhaps you got a bit too ambitious on the road?

You know, I once damn near totaled my Dad’s car. And man, it was bad. I was street racing some kid and I’m driving the way I shouldn’t have been driving. But I was a young individual and thought I was bulletproof and invincible. I lied to my Dad. I told him some guy hit me in a parking lot. And that was the worst cover up lie ever in the history of anything. He believed it, or so he said, and we moved on.

Right when I began to get some notoriety and success in the WWE, the very first thing I did was make sure that my father would never have to pay for transportation ever again. So since then, he’s had a flood of new ways to get himself around town. But that was absolutely one of the stupidest ‘effin things that I ever did. And I believe it was like a Ford or 1988 Hyundai too, so I didn’t really have any business doing performance street driving. It taught me a valuable lesson that I’m not invincible.

When someone sees someone of physical stature, they put them in a category of certain traits. Being vulnerable isn’t necessarily associated with being a large muscular man.

Speaking of invincibility, what do you think your physicality brings to your work as an actor?

That’s an interesting question. I think a lot of people would lean into the fact that they’re capable of doing physical things. Now, keep in mind, there are so many gifted stunt performers and second unit performers that can make impossible action look great. I’d rather lean into or play against stereotypes associated with people who are physically fit. I mean, perception is what we have to judge people on. We’re human beings… we all judge. When someone sees someone of physical stature, they put them in a category of certain traits. Being vulnerable isn’t necessarily associated with being a large muscular man.

I love leaning into that side of myself. And I love showing that on screen and a lot of that comedy was harnessed for Trainwreck. Here’s this broken, confused guy who maybe wants a relationship and maybe on the other hand is confused about his sexuality and is shamed from being dumped and not giving enough attention. All of that stuff in a physique that doesn’t dictate any of those conversations, I think is fun. So that’s what I choose to lean into. I’ll never stop training. I love physical fitness and wellness. But I’m a human being who continues to research self and develop and grow as a person. I think it’s cool to lean into or against those stereotypes associated with with physical fitness.

I think if people choose to view me as they want, I mean, I’m comfortable with who I am. I never get tired of walking down the street hearing  “John Cena!”

You’re obviously an imposing figure on screen. But you also play against type to great comedic effect in Trainwreck and Blockers. Honing your mic skills in the WWE is great practice, but are there any other exercises or training you do to prepare yourself as an on-screen performer given how different the mediums are?

Man, you came ready for battle today. These are great questions. I am still certainly trying to find my way… and what I will say about my time in the WWE is there there are multiple paths to success. My path to success, and my skills and the things that I think are important—someone else can be completely different and still achieve success.

I think the performing arts are that way. Anything interpretive, I believe is that way. So me learning, I literally just memorize the work way ahead of time, so I don’t think about it. And then I trust the people I work with. Castmates, and certainly who was ever in as director and I realized that my job is not to craft the film, my job is to be a piece in the film, and allow the person directing to craft the film.

So I memorize the work, be completely present and try to do my best to be there. And just trust the process.

Fast and Furious John Cena
John Cena in F9. Universal

You first came to prominence in the WWE and you’ve spoken fondly about it on multiple occasions. But is there any desire or conscious effort on your part to, not so much distance yourself from your in-ring persona, but to make sure that both casting directors and audiences don’t only view you through that single lens?

No, not one. I think if people choose to view me as they want, I mean, I’m comfortable with who I am. So I don’t want to influence anybody’s perception. I’ll take opportunities as they come to me and do my best with opportunities. And I think that’s the best way to change perception.

Saying I don’t want to be known as this or distancing myself from something I love so much. I love when people are like, “Why is he interviewing a blank chair? Because nobody can see him.” I never get tired of that. I never get tired of walking down the street hearing  “John Cena!” [Hums tune of his entrance theme “The Time Is Now.”] I love that that means that something I did in my life affected someone in some sort of way. Why would I want to distract from that?

I understand sometimes how frustrating typecasting and judgment and perception can be, but it goes back to the conversation we had about physical appearance. I know there’s more to me than what you see. I have to be confident with that. I can’t be frustrated in the fact that you don’t know that. And that’s okay. And one project at a time. I really didn’t think I’d ever be here. But one thing at a time, I had to start from scratch over again with a new philosophy and a new perspective. I think that starts with being okay with who you are and being okay with what you’ve accomplished and then moving forward one thing at a time.

Transformers, Fast and Furious, DC Extended Universe. You’ve been in some of the biggest film franchises in the world. Are there any others you’d like to find your way into in the future?

I’ve been asked that question a lot and my response doesn’t change. I don’t look at life like that. I didn’t have any of these things on a checklist. When they asked, I showed up. I think opportunity finds us, I don’t think we find opportunity in that regard. We just have to be ready when it’s there and be brave enough to swing. So I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ll be part of next. But I’ll know when the opportunity shows up.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

F9 debuts in theaters June 25, 2021. John Cena Explores His Vulnerability and What He Brought to ‘F9’