Following less than stellar reviews for 2016’s Suicide Squad (outside the brilliant portrayal of Harley Quinn by Margot Robbie), fans were concerned the property was tainted beyond repair. Jump ahead five years to 2021’s The Suicide Squad, a sequel that thrives thanks to the writing and directing of James Gunn.
The two-time Marvel hit maker (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1 & 2) delivered a deeply hilarious and complex tale that allowed for genuine emotion and character bonding with a killer soundtrack and more bloodshed than a 1980s Stallone film (in this film Stallone actually portrays a Shark).
The next jump is to January 13th, 2022, when HBO Max premiered its DC comics series Peacemaker, based on John Cena’s portrayal of Christopher Smith AKA Peacemaker in The Suicide Squad.
In this first-of-its-kind DC series (already renewed for a season two), Cena and the audience finds the misguided superhero returning to his roots following the near fatal shootout with Idris Elba’s Bloodsport.
Set five months after the events of the 2021 film, his character wakes up in a hospital with no idea what Gunn has in store for his traumatized crime fighter. “I didn’t think the character was alive after The Suicide Squad. I got a call from James (Gunn) in the middle of the pandemic saying he wants to do a show and I figured it would be a prequel”, recalls Cena.
Any opportunity to work with Gunn was an easy decision for rising star, who left wrestling to tackle Hollywood with praiseworthy performances in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, Paramount’s Transformers spinoff Bumblebee, and now DC’s most patriotic and eagle-loving hero.
Gunn’s greatest strength continues to be his craftsmanship of well-defined characters that arc brilliantly over the course of the narrative. In this instance, he cast a very talented collective of performers including Robert Patrick (Peacemaker’s father Auggie Smith), Danielle Brooks (Agent Adebayo), Jennifer Holland (Emilia Harcourt), Steve Agee (John Economos), Chukwudi Iwuji (Agent Murn), and Freddie Stroma (Vigilante).
Cena spoke to Awards Focus about previously working with legendary screen antagonist Robert Patrick (Terminator 2: Judgment Day), hitting James Gunn during an emotional time with his piano playing, and being terrified of filming one scene in particular (no, not that near-naked fight scene).
Awards Focus: Peacemaker creates such a captivating and emotionally rich journey for its titular character. Were you excited to expand on Christopher Smith’s journey?
John Cena: It is amazing to be a part of this project. I think a lot of it rests on the broad shoulders and in the beautiful mind of James Gunn. When he gets committed to something, especially in a storytelling avenue, there isn’t a better captain for the ship. I think it’s because he is involved in all aspects of making it, from the first words in the notebook all the way to the final edit. He is in every piece, as far as the visual effects, the scoring, the way it is shot, the way it is presented… he really is hands on all the way, and I’m just happy to be a player on the chess board.
We got all scripts for the eight episodes at once and that was well before we filmed. James is such an amazing writer, you have a prolific picture painted in your head. You don’t have to reach very far as a performer with James’ writing.
AF: I know James Gunn wanted Robert Patrick in the role of Auggie Smith early on. You two have great chemistry together. I would say this is the best pairing with Robert outside of ArnoldSchwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. You guys have such an interesting dynamic and it is played so well. Could you talk about finding that rhythm on set?
Cena: Thank you for that compliment. I have known Robert for a long time, we did a film together back in 2004 called The Marine. That was my very first experience on film and he was my hub of knowledge to lean on and he did a spectacular job on that film.
To get to work together again on Peacemaker was amazing. James asked a lot of him, that was a brave part to take on and Robert really embraced all of it. We had fun with a lot of the awkwardness in their relationship, but at its core… through all the controversial material, it is just a son who has a troubled relationship with his father.
I think there are a lot of people who can gravitate towards that. And that’s what was extra special with working with Robert. Each of us being able to see that as where we start and all the other stuff coming from there. It was great to work with him.
AF: Could you talk a little about the reaction to the show. Was there anything that especially surprised you?
Cena: Candidly, the whole series has been a surprise. I didn’t think the character was alive after The Suicide Squad. I got a call from James in the middle of the pandemic saying he wants to do a show and I figured it would be a prequel and he said he has it all figured out. Of course I said I would love to work with him again. Honestly, I’m just floored by the fact that is exists at all.
Some people have said that they can’t skip the dancing rock intro credits. Something like that is a really special thing. All of it is very surreal and I have taken a moment to really appreciate that. We took this big gamble and HBO Max took a bit of a gamble on James and his kind of ragtag crew. We did some work that people enjoyed, and I think that’s really special.
AF: On top of the drama and more emotional moments we see, you are such a great comedic performer as well. The near-naked fight scene comes to mind. Can you talk about shooting that and the preparation that went into it?
Cena: I really enjoy that in the very first episode you get to see a guy who so desperately wants to be grouped amongst the Mount Rushmore of superheroes and envisions himself in that conversation. And then in the first forty-two minutes you see him get his ass kicked by an arch enemy who doesn’t seem to be his equal in Peacemaker’s eyes. I am sure Chris Smith would put himself well above that competitor. It is an unlikely fight and it’s a vulnerable fight all the way through. The whole thing, including the fact he is in his underwear. I really enjoyed that. I really love the fact that he has a tough hill to climb in the first forty-two minutes. He is thoroughly embarrassed.
AF: Are you the type of performer who wants to do his own stunts?
Cena: I leave those types of decisions up to the professionals. I learned this from my WWE days – you do what is best for the story. It’s not about it being real or not real, the goal is to tell that story.
When it comes down to stunts, comes down to performing, there is no badge of courage I need to win. I am really comfortable in my own skin – both on the screen in the tighty-whities and at home when I look in the mirror.
AF: I am really curious about that piano scene. Is that something you’ve always enjoyed, playing the piano?
Cena: That scene was a bit tough for me because I mess around with the piano strictly as a hobby. I simply do not have the talent to make it anything more than that but I really enjoy it. It forces me to be present and it’s my way of meditating.
The inclusion of that scene in the series actually came from being in Panama, filming The Suicide Squad. James was having a really rough, emotional day and I was playing piano in the lobby bar and apparently the playing really moved him.
I have tremendous performance anxiety, so I was very nervous to play “Home Sweet Home” by Motley Crew in that very still scene, where my character is feeling broken. I know I have such a long way to go in terms of my piano skills, so filming that scene was tough. I just wanted to play it well and I am so glad that they could use the footage of me playing the piano in the show… and my version is slower and definitely more painful.