'Peacemaker': John Cena and James Gunn on Stripping Down the Antihero for HBO Max (Exclusive)

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After first debuting in The Suicide Squad, the Peacemaker (John Cena) is now the center of his own, self-titled explosive HBO Max series. Created and helmed by James Gunn, the spinoff expands the world of the fan-favorite antihero and egotistical jerk, who has found himself on the wrong side of the law despite his belief in keeping the peace no matter the cost. 

While speaking with ET’s Nischelle Turner, both Cena and Gunn explain why they wanted to reunite for this project, what they’re able to do here that they couldn’t do in the film and getting the former wrestler to strip down to his undies for an unforgettable fight scene. 

“First of all, John Cena and I really hit it off,” Gunn says. “I love working with him and I thought that there was a lot of John Cena that hasn’t been seen by the public yet. He’s an extraordinary comedic actor and he's an extraordinary dramatic actor.” 

The director adds, “So, I thought Peacemaker was a wonderful opportunity to really show the breadth of John Cena’s talent.” 

And by teaming up with Gunn, Cena knows that not only is he going to get a good story to work on, but that experience is “going to make me a better professional,” the actor says. 

“We did so much on The Suicide Squad that never saw the light of day,” Cena says, adding that he and Gunn bonded over life experiences on the set of the film. So, when the director called and said, “‘I’d like to get the band back together…’ I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’” 

Peacemaker
HBO Max

Picking up where the 2021 film left off, the eight-episode series lets Cena shine as Peacemaker is once again recruited by A.R.G.U.S. as a hired assassin and re-teams with former handlers Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and Economos (Steve Agee), who are led by Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji) and joined by newcomer Adebayo (Danielle Brooks). And no sooner than when this dysfunctional team comes together does the chaos unfold. 

That includes Peacemaker quickly finding himself in trouble when he takes a woman home in the premiere. While things seem to go rather well at first, their night ends poorly, with an underwear-clad Peacemaker going from lip synching to The Quireboys to fighting for his life. 

While this may not be the unseen side Gunn intended, it certainly offers a closer look at Cena’s many assets (which are also teased in the trailer). But given the 44-year-old actor’s history with the WWE, it didn’t take much to get him to strip down. 

“He’s game for anything as long as it serves the story,” Gunn says, with Cena adding, “That scene is very powerful because it humanizes Peacemaker… Yes, he’s a dick and yes he’s heavily flawed. But when nobody’s looking, he’s vulnerable. When nobody’s looking, he’s innocent. When nobody’s looking, he’s naked.” 

“That’s hats off to James for having a fight scene with Peacemaker in his tighty whities 'cause that in itself is so abstract and so against superhero culture,” Cena continues, adding, “I’m very familiar with wearing less than a standard uniform and I’m comfortable with who I am as a person.” 

And Peacemaker’s personal life is far from calm thanks to his overbearing, racist father, Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick), and his overly ambitious and zealous wannabe friend, Vigilante (Freddie Stroma). 

Despite a penchant for causing trouble anywhere he goes, Peacemaker “isn’t rotten to the core,” Gunn says. And this series is an opportunity to explore the many facets that make up this antihero. 

As a result, “You can get a much, much deeper, richer look inside the character,” executive producer Matt Miller says. “With Suicide Squad, Peacemaker was not a main character, but a member of an ensemble… And that’s probably why he was the richest and most interesting character to spin off into a series because you get to really unpack what makes this guy tick, understand his relationship with his father and his relationship with Vigilante, and then over time, peel back the layers and maybe find some sort of redemption for this deeply broken guy.” 

And so, despite all his flaws, audiences find themselves rooting for him. “He’s such a bad guy,” Miller continues, explaining that because Cena is playing the character, “there’s such a vulnerability to him.”

Peacemaker
HBO Max

Not only that, but the series, which embraces its ensemble, can explore the surrounding cast of characters, each of which come with their own motivations, quirks and quips. “It’s such a luxury to have this amount of time to tell the story for each of these characters and build this arc for all of them,” executive producer Peter Safran says. “In this, you have time with everyone, whether it’s Adebayo, Economos or Murn, and really get to get under their skin.”  

Especially when it comes to Adebayo. She’s a character that comes with her own backstory, hangups and trepidation about Peacemaker despite finding herself more and more endeared to him as the series unfolds. And according to Gunn, that relationship is key to this story.

“The relationship between Peacemaker and Danielle Brooks' character is something that is unique. They’re people who have completely different political belief systems,” he says, explaining that Adebayo eventually sees past that and “who he is as a human being and the sadness that he’s carrying around with him.”

Gunn adds, “That relationship is really the central love story of Peacemaker to me. It isn’t about a romantic love or a sexual love, it’s a love of friendship. And that story was the heart of the series for me and the thing that drove me to spend eight episodes doing it.”


Peacemaker premieres Thursday, Jan. 13 with three episodes on HBO Max. The rest of the series will be released weekly through Feb. 17.

 

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