For Their Next Move, Zac Efron and John Cena Crush the R-Rated Comedy SuperNayr

Icebreakers are probably not too necessary when it comes to people like Zac Efron or John Cena, who started this interview with IndieWire gushing over the previous interview they had just Zoomed into together: a roundtable with college journalists. (“It was awesome!” Cena said, beaming.) But if someone wanted to ease into a conversation with the amiable movie stars, here’s the ticket: wrestling.

Asked how much the pair talked about wrestling when they first met on the set of Peter Farrelly’s “Ricky Stanicky,” Cena laughed. “Guilty!” the actor said. “I started it, and I always talk about it because it’s something that I love. Zac had just come off of finishing ‘The Iron Claw,’ and I’d seen pictures that got leaked, and I was very excited about what a story about the Von Erichs might look like. That’s kind of how I broke the ice with Zac. And once I start talking about sports entertainment, I don’t shut up.”

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For Efron, being able to talk to Cena about the experience sounded kind of cathartic. “It was great for me because I finished ‘The Iron Claw’ and went straight into filming this,” Efron said. “I hadn’t talked about that experience with anyone. After spending 10 minutes with John, I realized that probably nobody knows more about what I’ve just been through in that experience than this guy right here.”

They even worked out with the same people — Efron was trained by Chavo Guerrero, with whom Cena used to wrestle. So, yes, “we bonded over it immediately,” Efron said.

In “Ricky Stanicky,” the pair’s characters bond, too, but in a slightly more heightened environment. Based on a Black List script that circled around Hollywood for nearly 15 years, the Farrelly feature follows a trio of long-time friends (played as adults by Efron, Jermaine Fowler, and Andrew Santino) who, years ago, cooked up a fake friend (named, of course, “Ricky Stanicky”) to blame all their worst exploits on.

When pinning things on “Ricky” takes a turn, the trio need to prove he exists, leading Efron’s Dean to hire down-and-out Method actor and wild musical performer Rod (Cena) to play the part for an afternoon. Rod — and Cena — take the job to crazy ends, and Dean and Rod face off (and have lots of high jinks in the process).

The pair are delightful together — both on the screen and off — playing off each other with ease, listening to each other’s answers, getting silly. So, how did this somewhat unexpected tag team come to be?

Director Farrelly recalled a friend mentioning to him “Peacemaker,” telling him that he had to watch the Max series, as “John Cena is incredible in it.” Farrelly ran with it. “I don’t ordinarily watch those kind of shows,” he said. “I watched one episode, [and] I ended up watching the whole [season] — because of [Cena]. He’s a huge star, and so brave and commits and is not afraid. So that was a no-brainer as soon as I saw him.”

The director knows that Cena’s comedic chops aren’t new to his many fans (“Blockers” hive, rise up), but he believes their first outing will put the actor into new territory (he is, after all, taking on a role that Jim Carrey once considered playing). “I think you’re gonna be shocked at how funny Cena is,” Farrelly said of his work in “Ricky Stanicky.” “I know people know he’s funny — if you’ve seen ‘Peacemaker,’ you know how funny he is. But, man, is he funny in this. He’s really breakout funny.”

‘Ricky Stanicky’Amazon MGM

That’s not always easy to pull off. Asked how he picks his roles — and how much of that involves subverting any expectations put on him — Cena turned thoughtful. “I think there’s a misconception with those who have curiosity about how these opportunities happen,” Cena said. “You can craft out things you would love to do. But a lot of it, especially from my lens only, is you have to look at the opportunities that are in front of you.”

Cena frequently slips into wrestling metaphors — understandable — and laid out an extended one to explain how he goes about choosing his film and TV roles. It’s not about what he wants to do, but doing the most with the opportunities he has. Anyone can say they want to do XYZ on the screen, but Cena is cognizant of how much that can all be out of his control.

“I’ll give you a WWE example: I can say that I want to turn heel, but I’ve never had that chance because I’ve never been given that chance,” he said. “It is beyond my control. So each day I would simply look at the audience and my body of work in front of me and said, ‘How do I operate as the best good guy I can?’ Even if I personally have all these avenues that I want, I think you’re wasting time, effort, and brainpower in saying, ‘Well, I’d like to do this.’ I understand the concept of manifesting something, but I’m more of a believer in what is in front of me. How can I use my talent and strengths and give to the best of my ability? Are the people around me going to make me better? Can I make a good movie? Can I offer myself into this project and make it better?”

The film marks Farrelly’s second outing with Efron after “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” which relied more on the actor’s dramatic chops. Placing him in a comedy wasn’t worrisome for Farrelly, even if others might not initially get it – he pointed to the fight to cast Jeff Daniels in “Dumb & Dumber” as another example. “I thought Zac was incredible in ‘Beer Run,’ and I knew he could do anything. I’ve always felt that any good actor can do drama or comedy,” Farrelly said.

Efron, who listened intently to Cena’s answer to the same question about choosing roles and breaking out of expectations, offered his own take.

‘Ricky Stanicky’Amazon MGM

“There’s several different factors that come in,” Efron said. “I enjoy operating outside of my comfort zone a little bit, so trying new things has always helped facilitate that and makes sure that I’m pushing myself. I love learning new things, so learning a new skill set to play a character [is appealing]. The main thing is, I always try and make sure that I love what I’m up to and what I’m doing. I believe we can make something really special. That’s probably the primary criteria.”

Something they both seem to love? R-rated comedies. Farrelly’s newest film, just like so many of his previous iconic features made with his brother Bobby (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Me, Myself & Irene”), is decidedly raunchy. And while it won’t play in theaters, the MPA has indeed rated it R for “language throughout, some drug content, and sexual material.”

“We had a hard time getting it made for many, many reasons. One of them being that we are pushing the envelope, it’s an R-rated comedy. People were like, ‘Nah, you can’t do that. It’s gonna piss people off,’” Farrelly told IndieWire.

Efron said he’s a fan of R-rated comedies even just as an audience member — and yes, he probably saw plenty of Farrelly’s classics “too young to be watching rated-R films.” (Cena jumped in: “That’s all right, baby!”) 

“Pete and his work and all of the actors that he’s worked with, all those films really informed my sense of humor,” Efron said. “When he gives notes and when he’s talking to you, you can hear all your past favorite films [in those notes].”

‘Ricky Stanicky’Amazon MGM

“He’s got tons of wisdom,” Cena added. “This industry and the sports industry, from my experiences, are industries where there’s a lot of ‘what the fuck’ moments, like [being] genuinely starstruck. … There’s a lot of moments, where you’re like, ‘I can’t even believe I’m sitting here doing this.’ Certainly, getting to work with Peter is one of those, because I don’t think there’s a person in our bracket and beyond that can’t quote at least one line from a memorable Farrelly brothers comedy.”

But yes, unlike some of those other memorable Farrelly brothers comedies, “Ricky Stanicky” won’t be in theaters. Instead, it will be available for streaming on Prime Video. Both Efron and Cena would have loved to see it in multiplexes around the country, but they’re trying to embrace the possibilities of being in a film that can be watched anywhere at any time.

“My vision is to have someone on a subway on their phone laughing out loud. If you can digest what we’re doing on that small screen and can’t contain yourself in the company of the public, we’re doing something right,” Cena said. “I know this isn’t a movie that we can coax you into taking a seat in a theater, and I do wish it was, ’cause I love the theater experience. People are going to watch it at home, and I think they’re going to love it. But, man, I look forward to that public transportation moment when someone just laughs out loud, and the person next to you is like, ‘Hey, what is that?’”

Efron nodded. “I echo what he says,” Efron said. “There’s a lot of movies where I would want everyone to have the full movie in the theater, but I think this comedy is uniquely suited to enjoy anywhere. And so I don’t mind, don’t really have a preference. I think on any device you’re going to be able to enjoy it.”

While “Ricky Stanicky” makes the first 2024 film for both actors, each also starred in popular 2023 outings: Cena was Mermaid Ken in Greta Gerwig’s smash hit “Barbie,” while Efron turned in one of the most lauded performances of his career in Sean Durkin’s “The Iron Claw.” With a little hindsight, how do the actors reflect on those special films?

Cena laughed. “So, how crazy is this? Because if you say, ‘Hey, there’s two guys sitting here: One was in “Barbie,” one was in “The Iron Claw,”’ you’d probably do this,” he said, using his hands to indicate a swap between the two stars. Pointing at Efron, he said, “So, I mean, Ken, of course, and I’m a 16-time WWE champ. What a cool thing to say and what a cool perspective, because snap judgment, it’s the opposite of what you would think.”

Efron still seems intensely connected to Durkin’s film. “Bottom line is, it was a tremendous experience making that movie, I can’t say enough about Sean Durkin and all of the actors that worked on that movie, we had a really great time and it felt special. It was a very special experience,” Efron said. “It’s very close to my heart, so I’m proud of the film. I’m really happy that everyone’s enjoying it, and I’ve been getting a lot of really, really great feedback. So that means everything to me.”

And when Cena was asked for his take on the potential legacy of “Barbie,” Efron jumped in: “Ken, explain it for us!”

“I’m not a big believer in legacy. I think that’s beyond your control,” Cena said. “I think if you try to curate moments that you’re present in to how somebody will feel about them years from now, in my experience, it’s just a waste of my time and effort. What is the legacy of ‘Barbie’? I’ll tell you in 15 years. What I do know is the now, what’s in front of us. The movie did gangbusters, which means a lot of people saw it around the world. When you ask a lot of people what they thought, they were entertained.”

Like Efron, he can’t say enough about the people who made the film, pointing particularly to Gerwig and star and producer Margot Robbie.

THE IRON CLAW, Zac Efron as Kevin Von Erich (center), 2023. © A24 /Courtesy Everett Collection
‘The Iron Claw’Courtesy Everett Collection

“They didn’t stray from their vision, and they entertained the world. So what does it do for us now?” Cena said. “One, it opens up the door for female directors and female performers. Two, now, a whole bunch of more properties are on the table to make movies. Man, anything can happen, anything can be done. And three, people want more. I don’t know what the future is, but the now is a movie can still make a billion dollars around the world. Those are three things that I can take away now and apply in my life and look forward to seeing hopefully in the near future.”

He added, smiling big: “It needs the right mix of people, it needs the right magic formula, but it’s still out there. So that’s my takeaway, that it is still out there, that it can still happen. And holy hell, what a way to kick the door open for women in entertainment and put them right at the top of the list, which I think is extremely important.”

Efron smiled at his co-star, a little bit in awe, definitely in agreement. “Man, that’s exciting,” he said. What a team.

Additional reporting by Tony Maglio.

“Ricky Stanicky” starts streaming on Prime Video on Thursday, March 7.

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