Muscle-bound action stars are a dime a dozen, but the way people respond to John Cena and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson speaks to another level of celebrity.
There is something about them that people gravitate towards in a way that few hunks of man-meat have achieved. What is it that makes them so magnetic? Is it possible that it all ties back to their origins as professional wrestlers?
In the early 2000s, both of these men were already superstars, but their passionate fan bases were relatively limited. If you weren't familiar with the fact that you can't see John Cena or the questionable smell of The Rock's cooking—along with The Peoples' various body parts—you weren't really a fan. They were the beloved babyfaces of the squared circle, but outside of that realm, they were basically non-entities. That's no longer the case. Both men have since made a name for themselves as actors in both comedic and action roles. And both men are considered to be among our cultures most lovable celebrities—continuing the legacy of Andre the Giant.
If the endless memes don't attest to that love, it's worth noting that both men have been floated as potential presidential candidates. Just today, they are both trending in news stories because John Cena revealed that he is a BTS fanboy and Dwayne Johnson's father, Rocky Johnson—a wrestling star in his own right—passed away. One story is light and silly, the other is sad, but in both cases the outpouring of love from the Internet is unequivocal. So what makes these crossover stars so special? Perhaps it's related to the way that stardom works in wrestling.
Despite the common persona of the invincible, ultra-manly behemoth, wrestlers actually have to be pretty approachable and emotionally intelligent. A wrestler's success is closely tied to their interactions with the audience. They cultivate call and response routines with fans in the stands, and they feed off the energy of the crowd. Most performers don't have that kind of relationship with their audiences. Actors generally have a camera and a screen between them and their fans, and even in a theater setting the respectful hush functions as a similar barrier. But wrestlers need the jeers and the cheers. They need the audience to feel a personal connection to their fate in the ring—because the slapstick action and soap-opera storylines wouldn't play otherwise.
It's the personal connection—the charming smile that comes out when they aren't mean-mugging—that sells the image of a burly badass with a soft heart. It's what makes it so fun to watch Dwayne Johnson goofing off with Kevin Hart, and it's why John Cena breaks records with his make-a-wish visits. It's all about those personal connections. They both come across as so genuinely sweet and open, because they both got their starts as wrestlers. They each spent years making stadiums full of screaming fans feel like they had a one-on-one relationship, and now we all get that pleasure when we see them on TV and in movies.
The point is, don't be surprised when A.J. Styles and Becky Lynch end up starring in the next Judd Apatow movie.