John Hennigan is a professional wrestler and actor, who is best known for his work in the WWE where he was better known by his ring names John Morrison and Johnny Nitro. Most recently he starred in the new movie ‘Hercules Reborn’, and he took some time with us to discuss his career and upcoming projects.
Your latest film ‘Hercules Reborn’ was a bit of a surprise. When I initially saw it was produced by The Asylum, who are known for their ‘mockbusters’, I was thinking this would be a swords and sandals version of Sharknado, but I was pleasantly surprised. The production values and acting were all first rate and it looked like it had a much larger budget that it probably did. How did you get involved in the project?
I had auditioned for a couple of projects for The Asylum and usually the feedback I get from every audition is ‘you’re too big and your hair’s too long’, but when the call came out for Hercules my agent submitted me and I ended up getting it. They were looking for a big dude with long hair (laughs). Having seen me at previous auditions I had impressed them enough and they thought I was a good actor. You know at one point there was talk of having creatures in the movie – which I thought could have been interesting, and still think could be great for a sequel – and by creatures I do not mean Chimera or Pegasus but monsters and zombies, which is more The Asylum style (laughs). The budget for this movie was extremely low, probably lower than you think or even what is posted on IMDB but the production value is ridiculous. Everybody involved in the project was wearing a lot of hats. The sound guy played a part, DIT (digital imaging technician) guy Jeremy M. Inman who plays ‘Tymek’ was on a mountain bike riding back and forth dumping the cards that the cameras were shooting on, and back to the set to ride horses and act, plus the producer Dylan Vox plays the main bad guy ‘Nikos’. I think I got really lucky to act with Jimmy Duval and Christian Oliver. Those guys really elevated my game. Marcus Shirock is a hell of a character – something like this is a collaboration of a lot of people and sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle and I think this Hercules movie was that for Asylum and myself.
There is a fair bit of sword work in addition to the acrobatic moves WWE fans are used to seeing from you, did that take a lot of preparation?
It should have. (laughs) I laugh about this still. We had one sword rehearsal where it was a forty on five fight scene, where we had eight stunt guys and we worked out some choreography. When we got to the day of shooting the scene, we could only afford three stunt guys and forty extras. The extras didn’t speak English, didn’t speak French, had no training and were deathly afraid of me and everyone. We did these super long takes and would rotate the stunt guys; knock one off a horse and he would then fight with a sword, then he would be getting punched etc., so in between I would be fighting the extras which to me was awesome yet horrible at the same time. They were all standing with their shields and axes – I would hit one guy and ten fall down. I would turn around and scream and three more of them would drop their weapons and run away while the rest were just standing there like deer in headlights, wondering what I was going to do. On other takes I just went for it; dragging one extra around by his wrist, hit a shooting star press on another. Then the stunt coordinator explained to me that the extras were not being paid very much so I had to take it easy on them. (laughs) It was all fine though and I think those moments really captured the vibe of what was happening throughout the shoot.
The last time you portrayed Hercules was in a third grade play – did you feel any pressure stepping into that role again considering all the names who have played that classic character?
Someone has been ‘Googling’ me! Sure; one of the most iconic roles in the history of worldwide culture – absolutely. Arnold Schwarzenegger was Hercules, Lou Ferrigno was Hercules, Kellan Lutz, The Rock, a lot of talented people and big dudes have been Hercules. Being a lead in a movie puts a lot of pressure on you because people are counting on you to be a draw, combining that pressure with a role that meant a lot to me as a kid and one of my favourite stories from Greek mythology; yeah a lot of pressure.
Making the transition to movies seems to be becoming more the norm for many people with a wrestling background now. Ironically, you went to the University of California at Davis and studied film. Did you always plan on working in front of the camera?
Yeah, that’s what I wanted to do when I was in school. I was a film major and I made four short films and all of them were action shorts. ‘The Foot of Death’ – about a dude with a very dangerous foot. ‘Kung Food’ about a restaurant where Kung Fu happens regularly – and stuff like that. I was also the host of a live music show on a public access channel, where a lot of the time it was just me and a mic taking callers questions to things I did not have an answer for. So I was writing, and taking acting classes and I was preparing for a career that I hoped would be like Jackie Chan. In my senior year I wrote, produced, directed and starred in a feature film called ‘Point and Shoot’ that turned out terribly. But when I saw ‘Tough Enough’ (a professional wrestling reality television program produced by WWE where participants undergo professional wrestling training and compete for a contract with WWE), I was like ‘this is exactly what I have been preparing for’. Its entertainment, its acting, its action and wrestling was my first love as a kid. I never missed watching Saturday morning wrestling and I would go out in the yard after and beat up my buddies – put them in a Boston Crab or tap out to a Camel Clutch. I was an avid wrestling fan all through school and that’s why I started wrestling in high school, because I was a huge WWF fan. Then I was on the wrestling team at Davis and started training in gymnastics and martial arts, got distracted by girls, and found I did not have the time to watch wrestling anymore, but when I saw ‘Tough Enough’ it was like the light bulb went on that it was what I was meant to do and I did it and it worked out. So now to have had that career and an awesome time doing something I really love and be back in TV and film is really cool and not super surprising to me.
You mentioned the martial arts training and you are also big into parkour. How long have you been doing that?
Honestly, since about 1999. (laughs) When I first saw the movie ‘Rumble in the Bronx’, I watched it over and over again. I would hop on my skateboard and ride to the movie theatre on Saturday and Sunday and watch it, then do the same the next weekend. Really what Jackie Chan was doing in that movie was stunt fighting, a lot of Wushu based choreo and parkour. Of course it was not mainstream like it is now, thanks to David Belle and the movie ‘District 13’, it has really become part of pop culture. But me seeing ‘Rumble in the Bronx’ and just loving it made me realize that all that time I spent in college jumping blocks and trying to do wall flips was really parkour and that’s what the kids are doing these days. I started getting into it heavy in probably 2009. I would go to the gym on my off days, which we only had one or two days a week off when you are on the WWE schedule, and I would also do some in the arena on the day of a RAW or Smackdown taping. When not in the ring or on camera, a lot of what you do at those tapings is sit on your ass or eat food, so I decided to get off my ass and jump over boxes instead.
I have to say that it was amazing some of the things you did, that have never been done before or since in the WWE.
Thanks; and I think honestly I still have a lot to offer. Wrestling is always going to be my first love and I know my best matches and best days are still in front of me. I am in better shape now than I was when I left and being creative and pushing the limit as far as parkour and movement all ties together. Whether it’s boxing, Wushu, Jiu-Jitsu, collegiate wrestling, or pro wrestling, everything is movement based and I am a big fan of learning different styles and moves and trying to apply them to something where they can be appreciated. Put it in the ring – put it on screen – that’s what I like to do.
Anyone can see that you were born for action movies. You could easily be the ‘American Scott Adkins’ and do films like ‘Undisputed 2/3’ or ‘The Raid’.
I’m flattered. I just wrapped a movie last Thursday that I think is going to be my ‘Undisputed’. It’s called ‘Boone: The Bounty Hunter’. I wrote, produced and star in it. Boone is a reality show bounty hunter who ‘Boones’ celebrities. The movie starts with Boone chasing Kevin Sorbo around Value Village and hitting a full twisting senton off a twelve-foot roof and landing on top of him. Then giving a ‘Kevin Sorbo you just got Booned!’ When his reality show starts failing he decides to go after a real criminal and heads down to Mexico to ‘Boone’ this drug dealer and finds himself and his crew up against a very drug cartel and that forces Boone to get real. The action is parkour, stunt fighting and pro wrestling infused in a different package than you are used to seeing from John Morrison, which is why I feel this will be my breakthrough and I am really excited about it.
And what was the genesis of this project?
I started with a blank screen about just wrote the script about two years ago and started attaching talent. I had done a film for Hoplite Entertainment called ‘Dangerous Games’ (a ‘Romancing The Stone’ style action comedy due out next year) and I had already finished the ‘Boone’ sizzle trailer with help from a good buddy of mine Brady Romberg, Nick Searcy (‘Justified’), director Patrick Fogarty and a lot of talented people. I showed this trailer to Hoplite and they were super excited about it and they helped me find some investors, we polished the script, attached a director, cast actors and I started calling up everyone I knew. There is Rampage Jackson, Kevin Sorbo, Lorenzo Lamas, Spencer Grammer, Osric Chau (‘Supernatural’), Dominique Swain, and Jonathan Lipnicki (‘Jerry Maguire’) who does MMA now. We put together a really bad ass ensemble cast and a great director in Rob. Kirbyson who took my acting to a whole new level, so I can’t wait till it’s released in 2015.
Acting, writing and producing – any plans to direct?
Yes! I am working on a short right now called ‘In Complete Dark’ but it is still a fair bit away. I think that anybody on the creative team of a film set should know every part. In film school when I had to edit my feature point and shoot, it became blazingly apparent to me why it’s so important to have a gaffer, and a sound guy and do everything right, not run and gun. So yes, if all goes according to plan we will shoot ‘In Complete Dark’ in October.
How much of the persona of John Morrison is part of John Hennigan and vice versa?
Good question. I think the most successful wrestling personas are just people being themselves with the volume turned up. So John Morrison is the narcissistic parts of John Henningan, the showboat parts of John Hennigan, the parts that are a big fan of action and being loud and turn up the volume on all those to a ten, and that’s what you see in the ring. I would say the same is also true for any great acting role. If you can hook yourself into a role and it becomes real to you, then it becomes interesting for people to watch.
‘Hercules Reborn’ is out now on Blu-Ray and DVD.