[Interview] John Cena Tests His Comedic Chops in ‘VACATION FRIENDS’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

It feels like an understatement to say John Cena is a very busy guy. With three studio films releasing these past few months, you can call him the king of the summer season. He’s successfully already grabbed our attention in F9, playing the antagonistic estranged brother of the franchise’s hero, and THE SUICIDE SQUAD, playing a morally compromised anti-hero who wears a pair of very tight, white underpants.

Now, VACATION FRIENDS finds the actor in comedic territory, starring as Ron, an oblivious guy with a heart of gold, who’s a bit too suffocating when it comes to friendships. He and free-spirited girlfriend Kyla (Meredith Hagner) wreak havoc on straight-laced couple Marcus (Lil Rel Howery) and Emily (Yvonne Orji) as they attempt a relaxing getaway, and later, calm wedding.

Cena told reporters during the virtual press conference that there’s not much similarity between him and his gregarious, destructive character except for when it comes to his virtues.

“I think as performers, we always try to take either extensions of ourselves or possibly the opposite of our personality. Now if you see Ron and you see me, Ron’s probably not gonna wear a waist coat and a half Winsor. The characteristics that I find in Ron is the ability to be present – the ability to be in the now and the ability to enjoy the journey of life. He’s very emotionally connected to who he is. He’s not ashamed to be who he is and he certainly is the captain of the ship when it comes to having a good time.”

The affable actor mentioned that if he ever met a real life Ron and Kyla, he wasn’t sure of the longevity of their newfound friendship. However he’d be open to the experience.

“I believe that respect is a boomerang and you get what you give. I don’t think there’s anything truly disrespectful about the two of them. They just operate under a construct that doesn’t necessarily adhere what we think is structural society. They’re fast and loose and they really enjoy the present and that’s a very rare commodity. I don’t know how far I’d go with ‘em, but I certainly would enjoy their company.”

The wrestler-turned-actor relished getting to play someone with a bigger heart, not just bigger muscles. He loved how the comedy was grounded in the dichotomy between the two protagonists.

“It’s very obvious in how to play comedy with me. [When] you use a big guy, the first piece of low-hanging fruit is you [either] go against the physical stereotypes, or you lean into them. A lot of this was leaning in there, because this guy is, on his resume, he’s such a badass, but in life he’s really an emotional person. And I love the contrast of that. And because Rel is so wound up, it really gave great balance. And then you see this wound up dude with all this energy trying to take it out on this large, hulky man who just really wants to give him a hug. That’s a lot of hilarity between Rel and I.”

He also loved that the film’s title is straightforward.

“I love it because you know what you’re gonna get when you see the movie – the 2 words describe what you’re gonna see, so you have expectations. Any great comedy takes relatable situations and completely makes them hysterically absurd and that’s what this movie does. It puts us in a situation, but it’s so far that that’s where we can laugh at it, because these people go through these absurd situations. What drew me to the script was I’m really kinda focusing on trying to be present, trying to be more emotionally available, trying to really solidify my attachments in life. And then the hysterical absurdity stuff, that was fun in its own right.”

Perhaps most surprising is that Cena’s uproarious role has a lot of heart behind the hilarity. This gave personable performer a chance to flex his dramatic muscles in addition to showing off his gift for comedy.

“Both were quite easy, because I’m surrounded by successful, wonderful comedians. So literally I just kinda have to sit there and let them be themselves. We all did have a really cool connection on set. It was a layup. It was really fun to do. We challenged each other to bring the best out of each other, but in no way in a negative balance. The vibe on set was really good and it was really fun to make.”

He credits the time spent together after the shut-down as what made him and his co-stars get close.

“The time spent in Puerto Rico was literally like a vacation. We’re in these beautiful vistas and beautiful landscapes. A lot of it was still only partially inhabited because of Puerto Rico still going through their rebuilding process. So it was kind of just us hanging out. And then the pandemic happened, and we shut down. We were one of the first productions to go back to work. We had those bonding moments of, like, ‘Yo what have you been doing for the last how many months?’”

He continued,

“Not only was I surrounded by people who are funny and that’s what they do, so that stuff was easy, we had a genuine time to connect as people and learn about each other and, you know, learn each other’s stories off camera. I think that helped the chemistry on camera. That’s why I really hope people enjoy the movie and laugh along with us.”

He’s also got nothing but praise for his partner in the tomfoolery, Meredith Hagner (PALM SPRINGS).

“I think Meredith absolutely shines in this movie and she doesn’t know how good she is.  Like, she would do stuff and be looking around and be like, does that-are we good, is-should I go again? We’d be dying laughing. A lot of her moments come from here humility. She doesn’t know she’s as funny as she is, and she’s tremendously, tremendously funny.”

He also touted his co-stars’ individual skillsets for his ease leaning into the jokes.

“The cast is very gifted and in their own discipline. [Andrew Bachelor] has been making comedic content on the internet for so long and become so successful like that. Meredith has such a presence on screen, and her comedic personality. Yvonne and Rel are both established standups. I just let everybody do what they do.”

At the end of the day, Cena just hopes the film will make folks giggle.

“If they want to get anything else, that’s great. But I hope they’re entertained, and they laugh. Our subject matter is so relatable and so desperately needed right now, especially with people having to come up with plan B vacations and alternate plans yet again – here we are 18 months into the world changing. It’s gonna be good for people to just sit down and enjoy a film that might make them remember a moment of their life and smile a little bit.”

VACATION FRIENDS begins streaming on Hulu (in the United States) on August 27.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.