John Cena took on his first major super hero role in The Suicide Squad when he debuted as Peacemaker under the direction of James Gunn. Gunn and Cena enjoyed working together on the DC Comics project so much that the writer and director decided to go ahead and write a Peacemaker spinoff series which Warner Bros. and HBO Max picked up before The Suicide Squad was released. With Peacemaker's HBO Max debut arriving, Cena has now opened up about just how hard it has been to get cast in a major Marvel or DC role, having been rejected by both before landing this current gig.
"I can't tell you how many superhero roles I've been rejected for. Shazam is certainly one. There was a brief try at the Deadpool universe, rejection," Cena said on the Happy, Sad, Confused podcast. He had auditioned for Cable in Deadpool 2, losing out on the role which ultimately went to Josh Brolin and the titular role in Shazam! would go to Zachary Levi. "Shazam! was Dikembe Mutumbo. There was a few in the Marvel universe, rejected. But you know, I kept trying."
By the sounds of it, the Shazam! rejection might hacve stung a bit more than others as Cena expressed a thorough interest in the lighthearted super hero role. "I think like a child, so Shazam was super interesting to me," Cena explained. "And when I read the script, a lot of times, like... this is the thing, I don't just chase 'I want to do this,' I always have to read it."
When it comes down to it, Cena was always going to open to working with Gunn. Prior to The Suicide Squad, Gunn became best known for his work on Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel but had previously helmed titles like Slither and Scooby-Doo, with reactions to the writer and director's works earning him preemptive trust from people like Cena. "James Gunn is the only person who gets a free pass," Cena said. "The only reason he gets a free pass is his reputation as a storyteller. He just does not let up, he claws at every piece, and I know it's gonna be good, because he starts from a blank page and that's it. But I always read it, I always read the story to make sure one, I like it, and two, it falls within my skillset. I do want to challenge myself, but I don't want the first time I do something to be on screen for a paying customer. I want to get practice and perform at a level that's consumer quality."
With The Suicide Squad, Cena was prepared for the worst as expectations built from the previous Marvel and DC auditions had lead him to believe it wouldn't happen. "I read all those scripts, and I read all those parts, and I was like, 'Man, I really think I could add to this,' and just rejection after rejection after rejection after rejection," Cena said. "But I guess that's what... the lows make the highs high. And the crazy thing was, I wasn't first on the list for Peacemaker. James had a long list, and it happened by accident, too. He's like, 'Hey, I'm in Atlanta, I'd just love to come and talk to you for a second.' We sat down in his pre-production office, which was literally like a war headquarters where you could see the whole movie in posterboard taped around his office, and he started talking about Peacemaker, and he's like, 'I think you should do it.' So I'm not rejected? They usually say, like, 'Hey, love you man, but we're just going in another direction.'"
The rest is history, with The Suicide Squad having been released in 2021 and Peacemaker currently releasing new episodes starring Cena in the titular role on HBO Max.