WWE star John Cena strikes an imposing figure when he walks into a meeting room at Dubai's Kempinski Hotel, and his handshake is even more imposing, as hands the size of my head grip my own puny digits like a fleshy vice. There can be few actors more appropriately proportioned to voice the title character in Blue Sky Studios' (Ice Age, Rio) latest animated adventure, Ferdinand – a lumbering, peace-loving, fighting-bull hero.
With almost 10 films now to his name, Cena can reasonably add actor to a CV that already includes professional wrestler, TV presenter (Cena has co-hosted NBC's Today programme numerous times) and occasional racing-car driver. Ultimately, though, Cena sees his role in life as, quite simply, entertaining. "I'm just a human being that loves telling stories," he says. "Everything I do – the movies, the wrestling – it's all about telling stories. That's my passion."
It seems slightly surprising to hear a pro wrestler being so candid about the fictional side of their sport, but Cena insists it shouldn't be. "We're open about the fact we're entertainment. It's even in our name, World Wrestling Entertainment," he says. "We don't try and put it past people that we are anything more than entertainment, whether you like our particular brand of entertainment or not. We enjoy what we do and there are people around the world that enjoy the stories that we tell."
Cena may be no stranger to film sets, but he has typically played characters very close to himself – soldiers, wrestlers – and, usually, human. I ask if he found the process of playing an animated bull different to his previous film experiences. “It was different, but I have full faith in our director [Carlos Saldanha] and the people around us, the animators and everyone,” he says. “They know what they’re doing. They know what they need from a voice and they know how to make you let your guard down. I think in many ways that was the most important thing. That fear of: ‘Oh man, am I not gonna look cool doing this?’ But I was completely comfortable throughout the sessions and that’s testament to Carlos and the whole team. They’re animated people by nature and they get really excited when you’re doing the voice. That’s infectious and it really shows on screen.”
As something of a bull of a man himself, I wonder if Cena identified any similarities between himself and Ferdinand – a bull bred to fight, but who would rather be sniffing flowers with his furry friends in a meadow? “Well, we all have our ways of relaxing and easing the stress,” he asserts. “The major correlation I have with Ferdinand is that he is surrounded by people in his life telling him how he needs to be because of the way he looks. He’s big and strong and he should be a certain way, and that’s certainly something I can relate to.”
As to whether Cena shares Ferdinand's love of flowers, he says he does, and reveals that his favourite is the rose (colour dependent on circumstances), which wasn't an admission I had expected from this man mountain at the start of the interview. Having watched the movie directly before my meeting with Cena, I suggest to him that bullfighting, a practice that is both contentious and divisive across Europe, and particularly in its Spanish heartlands, is perhaps an unusual choice of subject for a children's film. He admits that he has considered the issue. "What you have to remember is that the story has been in publication for many years," he says, referring to Munro Leaf's 1936 novel The Story of Ferdinand, on which the movie is based. "You have to understand that culture changes. Just look at the culture of sports entertainment for example. In days of yore, there were gladiators in a stadium and they would fight to the death; now we're on television telling stories and we're open about that fact."
Indeed, Cena even sees the movie as catalysing the debate about bullfighting. "If the movie can be at all a vehicle to appreciate the culture of when the book was published, and maybe even help that culture evolve, then that's a wonderful thing," he says. "If not, I still believe in the movie. I still think it's a great movie and I have every respect for Spanish culture. I think everyone will have their own opinion on Ferdinand when they see the movie. But regardless, I think the message of the book is still a good one – if you don't want to fight then that's OK."
Ferdinand has its premiere at Diff at 2pm today, with its general cinema release from December 13