WWE's Kofi Kingston on Netflix movie, WrestleMania, New Day, more - Sports Illustrated

Q&A: WWE’s Kofi Kingston on His Netflix Movie, ‘WrestleMania 36’ and the Future of The New Day

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Kofi Kingston has a significant upcoming role on Netflix, starring in the new comedy The Main Event.

The premise of The Main Event, premiering on Netflix on April 10, is that an 11-year-old WWE superfan, played by Seth Carr, finds a magical wrestling mask that allows him to compete against the larger-than-life stars of WWE. The film is directed by Jay Karas, and co-stars The Miz, Sheamus, and Kingston.

One year removed from his WrestleMania world title victory against Daniel Bryan, Kingston remains one of WWE’s most beloved, charismatic, and hardest working stars. He has spent the first three months of 2020 tagging with New Day partner Big E, and they meet longtime rivals The Usos on SmackDown in a match that will determine the challengers for the Miz and John Morrison’s tag titles at this year’s WrestleMania.

Kingston spoke with Sports Illustrated to discuss his part in The Main Event and the significance of the film, as well as many other topics, including the success of his nearly six-month reign with the WWE title, the sudden manner in which he dropped the belt to Brock Lesnar, and the reason he will not have a program against Big E.

Justin Barrasso: You are surrounded by talented, charismatic personalities in the WWE. But obviously your work stands out and resonates, too. How did your relationship build with Netflix with regard to The Main Event?

Kofi Kingston: It was awesome. I thought it was really great how on-board Netflix was. Even from before we even met, they were just all on board. They had an acting coach for me, and really welcomed me in with open arms. I’m really excited, this is something I wanted to do for a while.

This is really my first feature in a film. I got to play myself, and it’s a fun story. Everyone on set was awesome, and Netflix was great to work with, as well.

JB: What were your favorite parts of filming? Did you see parts of yourself—or the kids in the WWE fan base—in the role portrayed by the film’s protagonist Seth Carr?

KK: WWE is a global phenomenon, and so many kids around the world do look up to us. I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of us these kids that look up to me. I’m always humbled by that. At the end of the day, I’m just a dude who decided to follow his dream. The Main Event is art imitating life, to a certain extent. I felt very natural in the role, playing myself, and it was great all around.

Seth was awesome to work with. I was so impressed with the poise and professionalism of all the kids there. I had to remind myself these are just kids because they were such great actors. They had a great relationship with each other, too, and that fun, that authenticity, shined through in their acting roles. It reminded me of The New Day. A lot of people are attracted to what we do because we’re genuinely out there having fun, and they want to have fun with us. I thought the chemistry was very real with all the actors and actresses, and that will make the film that much better.

JB: I always think of the Mrs. Doubtfire film with Robin Williams, or Uncle Buck with John Candy. The adult stars played their roles perfectly, but a children’s movie is certainly enhanced when the children are superb on-screen, too. Seth Carr was extremely confident in his role, and though it must have been a challenge to cast that role, it’s going to pay dividends when both parents and children enjoy the film.

KK: 100 percent. I can’t stress the level of professionalism enough for these kids. They’re very good at what they do, their passion shines through into their work.

For me, it was uncharted territory. I didn’t know if it was going to be a non-welcoming aspect, or a standoffishness, I didn’t know what to expect. I was so glad that everyone welcomed me with open arms, especially the kids, especially Seth. He made me feel comfortable. He’s been doing this a lot longer than I have, and he’s had a lot more roles than I have. So I was bouncing off of his energy. He was so natural, and that made me feel like I could just relax and play me.

JB: When USA Basketball had the Dream Team in 1992, some of the NBA players that were rivals ended up forging really close friendships, most notably longtime divisional adversaries Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing. I mention that primarily because you spent a good chunk of time during the filming of The Main Event with co-star Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, who has been a constant foe on-screen in WWE.

The Miz certainly has a boisterous, larger-than-life personality, but he also is incredibly hard working, and he has performed in films before. Did you gain a new appreciation for him during filming?

KK: It was a lot of hi’s and bye’s with people from WWE. I saw Babatunde [Aiyegbusi] briefly, but we weren’t in any of the same scenes, so we didn’t share the set or anything like that. But I was there when he was shooting his scene, and he was there when I was shooting mine. He’s a phenomenal human being, a very kind, gentle giant. Sheamus, as well. I didn’t even know he was going to be in the movie, then I saw him on set after I hadn’t seen him for so long.

I spent time with The Miz, and you hit the nail right on the head when you said that he is so hard working. He’s one of the hardest working people on the roster and doesn’t get enough credit for it, but I’ll never say that to his face because he’d never let me hear the end of it. It was awesome to be alongside him, he’s been in so many different movies. And him and me, we went back and forth, like we do in the locker room, bantering back and forth and playing video games on “Up Up Down Down,” and we talk trash back and forth.

Even in our storyline right now, with Miz, myself, Morrison and Big E, we have this pretty great chemistry. Again, I think that was very helpful on set. Like you said, he’s done it before. I was able to feed off of him, and I felt very comfortable talking trash to him when we acted because that’s what we do in real life. He’s the guy I spent the most time with on set from the WWE roster.

Still from Netflix movie 'The Main Event' with Kofi Kingston and The Miz

JB: Last year’s WrestleMania will forever be part of your career highlight reel, and I think people would still like to see you in the world title picture. Some people have been disappointed that you haven’t had a featured singles role this year. But the experience of playing a starring role for WWE is unrivaled in your business, and that connects to roles such as your work in The Main Event. You were a key piece to last year’s WrestleMania, and now you are expanding your portfolio outside of the ring.

So I’ll follow that up with two questions: is part of what defines stardom in WWE these responsibilities and opportunities outside the ring? And is the commitment involved in these projects, like filming with Netflix, worth the short-term risk of missing live events or weekly wrestling shows?

KK: Working with Netflix is huge. It’s another global phenomenon. Everybody knows what Netflix is, everybody has Netflix, it’s so well known, so to be in a Netflix movie is amazing. I actually didn’t miss any time when I shot with them. I shot on my off-days, then would go back to wrestling on the weekends, so it wasn’t like I was missing anything.

With WWE, you have to be able to wear a lot of different hats. We do a lot of different things. We’re not just wrestlers. We’re actors, we’re athletes, we wrestle, we are community servants, we’re public speakers. We do so many different things, and when you have the opportunity to do something special, you embrace it and you try to knock it out of the park.

I was told that Netflix wanted to work with me specifically in this movie, and I was all about it. It’s something I wanted to dabble in for quite some time, especially when you start thinking about post-WWE and life outside of the ring and where you can take your career after wrestling.

As far as WrestleMania, last year versus this year, it would be hard to top last year’s WrestleMania. That was my career highlight, my childhood dream literally coming true before the eyes of 85,000 people live. I don’t know if anything is ever going to come close to that. As long as I’m still in the mix, that’s all that matters. Myself and E, we’re in the tag team title mix—and we’re also trying to set records in that field, as well. You just try to do everything you possibly can, because at the end of the day, this career doesn’t last forever. At some point in time, we all have to retire, whether our bodies give out or if your life takes you in another direction.

For the small period of time you are involved with WWE, it’s very important to maximize every opportunity given to you. I’m just so fortunate that I was given the opportunity to be in this movie, it was awesome on so many levels. And co-starring with Tichina Arnold—that I’m even saying that still blows my mind. I used to watch her all the time on Martin, and now I’m the object of her obsession in the movie. It’s just a strange, amazing, wild world we live in. You never know which way life is going to take you, and I just try to maximize every opportunity when I’m given the opportunity to do so.

JB: That’s a great segue into your wrestling career, because perhaps your memorable run with the world title is one of the reasons you drew the attention of people at Netflix.

On the subject of your world title run, let’s set the record straight on the way it ended. Six seconds with Brock Lesnar. Six. I know you had a role to play, and you played it well. My issue wasn’t just the manner of the loss, it was the lack of promo time after, as so much of wrestling is the narrative, not the action. What was your opinion of the ending of your nearly six-month, possibly career-defining run with the WWE title?

KK: I will say this: It was actually closer to eight seconds, not six. Those two seconds are a big difference in track and field [laughing]. I was in the same boat as a lot of people. When I found out that it was going to end the way that it did, I had a different version. But at the end of the day, we are charged with going out and playing the role, and that’s really all we can do. I was so blessed to have had the WWE Championship. The way that it came about, everything was just so serendipitous. From me having to wait 11 years to get a single title shot, then I was finally able to achieve the dream against a guy like Daniel Bryan, who was in the very same role as me five years before, when the people were demanding he become WWE Champion. It was the year of returns.

The President of Ghana named that year ‘Year of Return,’ and that happened to be the year I won the championship and could go back to Ghana with the championship. I was able to show that championship to children all over and show them the most prestigious title in the history of wrestling, and motivate people that way. People who had been through any kind of struggle were able to look at my story and really believe they could do something because I actually did it. People of color, same thing. It’s one thing to say, ‘Anything is possible,’ but it’s another thing to say it’s possible because it happened. I take a lot of pride in being the guy that everyone can look to. Yes, it ended in eight seconds. But I was thankful that everything unfolded the way that it did. It was picture-perfect from the gauntlet match to the Elimination Chamber, all the way through what people called ‘KofiMania.’ I try not to dwell on the way that it ended. Six months is a very long title reign in this day and age, and I was able to motivate people and push people to be the best version of themselves. At the end of the day, that’s really all I want to do in this industry. I want to push people to follow their dreams, and I feel like I did a great job of that in that title reign. That’s what I focus on. I would have liked for it to end differently, but at the end of the day, you go out and do the job you’re asked to do.

JB: You make some really salient points, and I really hadn’t thought of it this way until now, but maybe WWE did you a favor by instantly turning you back into the underdog after that loss to Brock—because it’s impossible to be the underdog when you’re reigning champion for six months.

Looking forward, the setup for WrestleMania is obviously different this year due to the impact and reach of the coronavirus. So this year wouldn’t be the right time for you, but would you explore a match at SummerSlam—with a hometown crowd for you in Boston—against Big E?

You wouldn’t have to turn on each other. It could be a battle amongst two friends, similar to the way you mentioned earlier you enjoy competing against The Miz. Xavier Woods could be the referee. Whomever was controlling the match could lead the crowd in a “New Day rocks” chant, showing the unity of the group. Is that a possibility for a future chapter of your story?

Kingston: We always talk about that, and what we call someone like you is a wedge-driver. I know you tried to put it delicately, tried to pit The New Day against each other, and we have all been singles superstars at one point in our lives, you know what I mean? We realize that we’re a lot stronger together than we are apart. There are a lot of factions out there, pretty much every single faction has broken up, or had one guy turn on the other one. We really want to be the group that never does that. We don’t tease it, we don’t want to do it.

The New Day, in and of itself, is something that is very special. The bond that we have is a special, special bond. We want to preserve that. We really go out of our way to preserve that, even with storylines. Sometimes people will say stuff like, ‘Oh, the Royal Rumble, maybe E will throw you out!’ or ‘You throw E out!’ Let’s not even plant that seed. The bond that we share is very, very strong. That’s where we’re at with it, that’s our stance, and that’s the way we’ve approached what we’ve done. Everything we’ve done together has been greater than everything we’ve done individually. Even at WrestleMania, the fact that I was wearing the title belt, I don’t get to that point without Woods or E. On a very real level, I wasn’t even allowed to even really talk on the mic until I got into The New Day. It’s one of those things where, as intriguing as many people think it might be, for us, it’s more important to preserve that bond and to be the group that never had any kind of cracks in the foundation that is the brotherhood of The New Day.

JB: Thank you, that’s a great way to describe why it hasn’t happened and why it won’t happen. Something that is happening is SummerSlam in Boston, and I think we’re all looking for something to look forward to.

Rob Gronkowski is hosting WrestleMania, a role you once had, and SummerSlam would also be a massive homecoming for Gronk in Boston. What excites you most about having him in WWE?

KK: It’s so good to see Gronk hosting WrestleMania. I got to take a picture with him when he participated in the Andre The Giant Battle Royal a few years back when we hosted WrestleMania. I have a picture of myself in a Final Fantasy cosplay outfit standing next to Gronk, so I’m looking forward to chopping it up with him. He’ll do a real great job. He’s been a wrestling fan for a real long time, and I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of Gronk. We’ve got WrestleMania for two days, April 4 and April 5. It’s too big for just one day! Gronk is the perfect host. He has way more than enough energy to host an event as energetic as WrestleMania. I’m looking forward to it.

JB: The Main Event trailer posts next Friday. With schools closed and people out of work, we don’t know where the country or the world will be by next week. What message of hope would you like to send for those in need of some?

KK: There is a lot of negativity out there. Russell Simmons had a post on his Instagram page and he listed all the positive things that are going on, with the coronavirus going down, people are working diligently to provide cures and remedies and vaccines and things of that nature. So just remember—it’s not all bad, despite all the stuff you hear out there. I encourage people to keep their heads up and keep moving forward.

With WWE, we’re trying to do the best that we can to take people’s minds off of that negativity and all the crazy things that are going on in the world today. Everyone out there, just keep your heads up. Things will get better. We just have to be positive about it, be vigilant about our sanitation and all that, but there are brighter days ahead. We just need to remain positive.

JB: My final question: Why should the whole family watch The Main Event together?

KK: It’s going to be really great. It’s a fun story, and the chemistry of everyone on-set really shined through. I think that a lot of people are going to like it. I was telling my kids a little about it, and they are waiting with baited breath for the premiere. We’re all looking forward to it, it’s going to be great, and I’m just very excited and blessed to have been a part of the whole experience.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.