'I don't have to look tough, or act in a certain way'
Wrestling star John Cena battles blazing infernos and family chaos as a strait-laced fire superintendent in Playing With Fire. The actor, a former WWE world champion, talks to Georgia Humphreys
John Cena is a man who can laugh at himself. That comes across not only when you meet the wrestler-turned-actor in real life, but in his latest film, Playing With Fire.
The family comedy sees the 42-year-old American, who made his WWE television debut in 2002, play uptight but lovable fire superintendent, Jake Carson.
And it involves "really fun, laugh-out-loud gags that make us look ridiculous", he says - going against his role in the professional wrestling world, as "the guy who saves the day".
"After seeing what I've done for 15 years, to be able to sit down and see that mystique and wall broken down, at my expense, for the fun of the viewer, I think it's funny," notes the former WWE world champion, who was born in Massachusetts.
"And I'm comfortable enough with who I am to do it; I don't have to look tough or act a certain way or project a certain image. I'm comfortable in my own skin. And if I can put a smile on someone's face while I make a fool out of myself, I'm happy with that."
Jake is no normal firefighter; he runs a crew of dedicated "smoke jumpers", whose job is to use helicopters to fly into remote forest in California and tackle blazes.
His whole life is his job. That is, until he and his comical comrades - Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), Rodrigo (John Leguizamo) and Axe (Tyler Mane) - rescue three kids from a house fire.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
The gang take full-of-attitude teenager Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), little brother Will (Christian Convery) and baby Zoey (Finley Rose Slater) back to the fire station to look after them until their parents arrive, where chaos ensues.
We're talking poop gags, soap gags, and, yes, diving into fire stunts...
"I enjoyed the fact that most of the action is meant to get a smile and a laugh," suggests Cena.
"I've come from a world where a lot of the action needs to be serious and impactful and prove your worthiness and striving towards being a champion, and then you take this fearless group of smoke jumpers and put them through action which is meant to make people laugh.
"I really think that's the heart and soul of the film, being able to watch with everybody and have a fun afternoon at the movies."
Cena has been busy carving a career in the film industry in recent years.
There have been comedies (notably his star turn in Blockers), kids animations (he voiced the title role in Ferdinand) and a Transformers spin-off (Bumblebee, in which he played the bad guy, agent Jack Burns).
What was it about the character of Jake that appealed?
"I've always been so focused on work, and I love my work, and I enjoy my work," says the charismatic star, who made his red carpet debut with new girlfriend, Shay Shariatzadeh, at the New York premiere of Playing With Fire, in November.
"But, only recently, I've taken a look around and gone, 'Wow, life is also really cool'.
"So, I really resonated with the fact that this guy was so focused on one single goal and being the best at that goal - a lot of his ability to look around at this wonderful world that's out there was lost.
"And it took a certain series of events, the kids coming into his life, for him to look around and imagine, 'Wow, this could also be valuable to me'."
He adds: "I know that's intrinsic and sappy, but that's really what drew me to this story; it wasn't fighting fires or jumping out of helicopters, it was the struggle the character goes through, that I am currently going through."
As much as Cena is embracing his move to the silver screen - next up is the ninth instalment of the Fast And Furious franchise - he doesn't want people to forget where he came from.
"I hope they always view me as a member of the WWE, because I am. Whether it's watching the events or being able to participate, any chance I'm given to answer this question, WWE is my family. It's weird that the culture is, you either do this or you do that, and for 20 years I've been trying to tell people, 'No, it's all really cool'.
"So I don't ever want to not be known as a WWE superstar. I can't perform as much as the current ones, because I'm a little bit older, and I have these cool opportunities to do other stuff, but in doing other stuff, I'm not saying that world is shut off.
"I'm trying to bring this world with me, so we can all be involved in a movie conversation, or a WrestleMania conversation."
He is known the world over for his skills in the ring, and one thing he particularly loves about being in London is how much he is approached by long-time fans.
"Because it's such a global city, you get people from all over, and 99 times out of a 100 it is, 'I saw you when I was young, I watched WWE as a kid'," he gushes.
"I never get tired of hearing it; it's basically people saying, in so many words, 'You have had an impact on my life'. That's the coolest thing anyone can ever say to you. The UK loves WWE so much, it really is special to hear that."
Playing With Fire is in cinemas now