Back in cinemas in family comedy Playing with Fire, wrestler-turned-actor John Cena's latest big screen character is a wilderness firefighter whose climb up the career ladder is halted by three tearaways - teenager to tots - he rescues from a log cabin blaze.

Below, Cena tells Harry Guerin about finding his way into comedy, working with young co-stars and taking nothing for granted.

Harry Guerin: Is part of the attraction of films like Playing with Fire and Blockers the opportunity they provide you to send up your need for control in real life?
John Cena: I think it's very relatable. I think we all have this sense of control, or false control, like, 'Everything's going to be fine'. And when it's not we all can relate to things going crazy and absolutely haywire. So I think there's a [resonance]. Not only for me, but yes: absolutely. I think it translates for every audience member. I don't think it's just pointed at me. I think everyone has had, 'Ok, this is my life. I've got everything figured out', and then it all goes haywire.

So are you as buttoned-up as your Playing with Fire character Jake Carson?
There's very close relationships as far as work focus, regimen and being goal-oriented and being buttoned-up. I say WWE is often your authentic self, amplified. This is a rare situation where it's my authentic self, amplified. 

"I think everyone has had, 'Ok, this is my life. I've got everything figured out', and then it all goes haywire"

Was big screen comedy always on your bucket list, or did it just evolve that way?
I've always been a joker. I got my first notoriety in the WWE by being a parody of myself, essentially. I just didn't think it was possible [to have a comedy career], and I think that was short-sighted of me. I thought, 'Ok, the only chance I'm going to get is to be a big action guy because I'm a big guy and they - the weird body I can't put a physical name to - will only allow me to be this'. That's BS. To say, 'They only allow me to do whatever' is just BS. I've just had to take some extra steps to convince folks that, yes; this is what you see, but there's also more to what you see.

What was the breakthrough moment?
Just getting other people to believe that I'm more than the cover of the book. Like, there's more to offer than what you see physically. And a lot of that [is] laughing at yourself, making yourself absolutely the joke. And I think that's where it starts, especially for someone like me. A lot of people who have a physical presence, that's pretty much their identity - and they protect that presence with a tough guard. I just let my guard down and I'm an idiot! You end up being the punchline of a lot of jokes, but you get people laughing. And then maybe another chance and another chance. 

"I was the end of a lot of the jokes on the set"

You have three young co-stars in Playing with Fire. What have you learned from working with children?
Oh man, that it's a beautiful process. Not only working with kids... Kids are honest. They're pure. And when they're overtired they'll let you know, when they're happy they'll let you know, excited, upset, angry. There's no posturing or game playing; they're just straight to it. And I enjoy that, both from a co-worker perspective, and from having them in the audience. And on top of that they're really smart and insightful. If you actually pay them the time of day to listen to what they have to say it's pretty unique. 

Do you get much more enthusiastic about work when they're on set?
More respect [for them] because, man, it's tough to do as an adult. And as kid... I never fail to try my best to put myself in their perspective. And yes, it's fun and it's a dream job [and I'm] super grateful [but] I don't know how effectively I could do it at a young age. It's just gave me a newfound respect because they just did it so well, consistently, over the entire shoot of the movie.  

Playing with Fire is in cinemas now

How merciless were they?
Eh, the environment was fun! A lot of the comedy in this movie bounces off me, so cast members young and old had a good time! I was the end of a lot of the jokes on the set. 

When you were starting out in films with the action-adventure The Marine did you think 'I'll get to this point in movies' or 'It'll last for x amount of time'?
I couldn't even quantify any of this. Like, none of this is supposed to happen anyway! So I don't put a time on it. Very much like my career in the WWE, I guess I've just always known that everyone, no matter what, is replaceable. So you don't want to look back on your efforts and say, 'I could've done more' or 'I should've done this'. So instead of being like, 'Yeah, I'll kick around with this for five years', this is what's in front of me right now, Playing with Fire. I gave my all to the movie; it's time to let the world know to go see it. We'll release it and we'll have a pivot point of what to do next. And then we'll move on to that opportunity. So instead of timetabling it with a year plan I just try to be 'in it'.

With Playing with Fire co-star Judy Greer

So has the concept of success changed over the years?
Totally. Man, we could dive into pre-programmed things about culture as a young kid - you know, 'Go to school. Success is doing well in school'. Or if you choose athletics or whatever you choose. And then you go on to university and then you go into the career world.

There comes a time when all of the cultural posturing is over - usually it's around late twenties to mid-life - where you look around and it's like, 'What have I been doing all this for?'

To me, success is just being able to chase passion. Being able to do what you love. Say you work 9-5 but you love being on a lake in the boat. The 9-5 may be a grind but man, as soon as you are in the middle of that quiet lake in the boat life is good. And you had to go through the grind to get on the boat! So any chance that I still have a shred of doing what I love - and what I love is entertaining audiences, telling stories - no matter the grind, it's all good because I still am chasing passion. To me that's true success, just doing what you love.  

Playing with Fire is in cinemas now.

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