'The Wall' Star John Cena on How He Close He Was to Joining the Military and His Inspiring 'We Are America' PSA

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
John Cena at CinemaCon (Getty Images)

John Cena makes for a convincing soldier. The WWE star, who began as wrestling’s resident battle rapper before adapting a “goody-two shoes Superman” persona, has the look, the build, and even the parlance down pat. He keeps a regimented schedule, too: Publicists warned this writer that Cena’s interview with us would run precisely on time, and it sure did.

Unsurprisingly, the 40-year-old Massachusetts native revealed to us that he came extremely close to joining the military in real life — right before he was offered the chance to try out for the WWE. That life-altering, star-making decision ultimately lead Cena to acting, and, thanks to comedic turns in films like Trainwreck and Sisters, his new career is flourishing.

The new war thriller The Wall marks the most prestigious acting role yet for Cena, who returns to the ranks of onscreen military for the second time since WWE Studios-produced 2006 film The Marine. Directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow), the film pairs Cena with Aaron Taylor-Johnson as soldiers dispatched to investigate an attack as the Afghanistan War winds down in 2007. They soon find themselves trapped in the crosshairs of a sniper, who taunts them over radio (think Phone Booth meets American Sniper). Here’s what Cena had to say about enlisting in the tense psychological thriller and more.

Did you go through any military training? I know you’ve played a serviceman before in The Marine.
This was different. Tactically we were very correct because we had a wonderful consultant, Nick “The Reaper” Irving, he’s an Army Ranger sniper…. But this movie is much more about a soldier’s mind and how they operate, and honestly for me that’s where Nick came in just huge. Because he would talk to me and Aaron openly and candidly about his life. And that helps you in the decision-making process in creating this [character].

When the movie is over it does feel like you’ve just watched a psychological thriller more than a traditional war movie.
And this is what I love about the movie, that it’s based on psychological warfare and through it all we take the viewer on their own version of it. You think you have something going on, and then chaos happens. And you follow the trail of movie breadcrumbs and think something’s going on and then chaos happens again.

John Cena in ‘The Wall’ (Amazon Studios)

How does an experience like this change your perspective on the military?
I have a pretty good perspective. They are my heroes, period. And that’s been my stance loud and proud for quite some time, ever since I could send a message publicly. Even as a young man I drew from the discipline and the backbone and the gung-ho attitude of the military. It was a very strong force in changing the dynamic of my onscreen character in WWE from hip-hopster to who I kind of am now. It’s been directly responsible for the last 10 years of my success. I do whatever I can in any atmosphere I can to show tribute to our men and women who don the uniform.

As a young man did you ever consider enlisting?
Yes. When I was out in California, I was pretty much working a dead-end job at right about the age you need a career, and I went to college to play football, which I don’t recommend. And I did it at a small Division III school [Springfield College], which I also don’t recommend because you don’t play football after that. I did get a degree in exercise physiology, which I still use today because it’s the study of how the body moves, imagine that. But I couldn’t find a way to apply my degree to an honest, long-term trade. I was like, “Well, I belong in the military. I’m gonna go for it.” And right about when I was going to enlist, a friend of mine asked me to come down and try my hand at being a professional wrestler. And I fell into it by happy accident.

I read that you applied to 60 colleges. Is that true?
I did.

That is a lot. You were just covering all your bases?
The application process was covered by the school that I went to, and when I found that out — I literally came from nothing and I realized that applications cost money — that our school was going to cover it, so I was just like, “I’m going for it,” and I applied everywhere. My goal was I really wanted to continue to play football and I found a wonderful school in Springfield, Massachusetts, that gave me not only a chance to play and celebrated that, but also gave me a wonderful education.

You mentioned studying how the body moves. As a solider who gets wounded in the early goings, you don’t move all that much in The Wall. How much time did you spend lying face down on the ground in this shoot?
In the dirt. It was a long time… I had to lay in the desert sun for a long time, in full gear just sweating my keister off, but it shows on screen. And it sends the message like, “Man, he’s been there forever.”

Did Doug Liman do anything to amp up the harshness of the atmosphere?
Doug did not have to create harshness. He just brought us to hell, pretty much. It was hot as hell. At one point I looked over and Satan himself was going, “It’s too hot.” It was just that hot.

Where’d you guys shoot?
In the desert [in Southern California]. We were dealing with 110-degree heat, and sandstorms like crazy. So much so that we added the sandstorms as an element in the film. But it was all fun. It’s not a fun movie, but everyone was excited to make it.

Taylor-Johnson and Cena in ‘The Wall’ (Amazon Studios)

Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a Texan and gives one of those performances that’s so convincing, if this is your introduction to him, you’d be shocked to find out he’s a very proper Englishman.
He very much pulled that on me. He talked extremely Southern, to the point where I was like, “Where you from, Georgia?” And he’s like, [in British accent] “No man, from Britain.” It was amazing. He is very good at what he does.

So he was in character from the get-go?

Aaron has to do a lot by himself in this movie.
Yes. He shoulders this movie. He knocks it out of the park.

What do you think the film says about the fog of war, particularly with the U.S.’s recent activity in the Middle East?
I think that the best thing about The Wall is that it will invoke a conversation. I like to use the term “powerfully honest.” It is powerfully honest. The first time I saw it was at the premiere in New York, and it left a powerfully honest feeling in the room after it was over. And everyone began to talk. It’s not one of those movies that you’ll just see and leave the theater.

I loved the PSA you did last July, “We Are America.”
Thank you very much. I was so fortunate to be a part of it. I’m thankful to the Ad Council for choosing me to send a message on patriotism. It was awesome.

How’d that come about, what was the origin?
The WWE has a relationship with the Ad Council and they wanted to do this message on patriotism. And I am kind of the flag-bearer for the WWE of national pride and patriotism. I am certainly one [who wants] to send a message of “Don’t be afraid of who you are.” This was kind of a meshing of those two things, and letting everyone know that you cannot claim you love this place if you don’t love its inhabitants. So I was very proud to send that message.

What kind of feedback did you get from doing that?
I think everybody enjoyed it. I didn’t do that to get feedback, I did that to send a message. If you don’t like the message, you don’t like it, but I’m proud to send it.

What type of movie role haven’t you done yet that you’d really like to? Do you have a dream role?
There is, but I’ll know it when I read it. Because it’s one of those things where I don’t know. But when I read a script and I’m like, “I can’t put it down.” That’s when you know you got something good.

I’m surprised we haven’t seen you do a superhero movie yet. Is that your bag?
I don’t want to say it’s not, because man they’re making really good superhero movies now. The franchises have become so well-developed and well-polished that they’re just good movies, they just so happen to lean on superheroes as the backbone. Who knows?

Have you had any conversations about any?
There’s been some, but that’s a tough industry to get into my friend, so we’ll see.

Well, you’ve been impressing a lot of people with your comedic work in movies like Sisters and Trainwreck. You dabbled in that stuff with the WWE, but does that style of performance come pretty naturally to you?
WWE is PG programming, so you can only go so far in the realm of adult humor. I’m a 40-year-old man, I like to laugh, so I like adult humor. Which means if I get the venue to do stuff like that, I don’t mind being a goof, or I don’t mind being the butt of the joke. So as long as people are laughing with me, I get to tell more jokes.

Are you still writing raps?
No, no. That is a young man’s game.

The Wall is now in theaters. Watch the trailer:

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