Born and raised in Southern California, John Hennigan was destined to become a star. Throughout his meteoric rise, he has proved time and time again to be one of most versatile performers in the entertainment business. He has been wrestling professionally since 2002 and has been a shining star in the U.S. and Mexico, where he also has competed for Lucha Libre AAA Worldwide. He is a crossover star, appearing on various TV shows, including “Days of Our Lives,” in addition to numerous film credits, including “Boone: The Bounty Hunter,” which he created, co-wrote and served as executive producer. Hennigan recently tied the knot with Taya Valkyrie (aka Kira Forster-Hennigan) this past June, with many personalities from their wrestling lives attending, including WWE Superstars The Miz, Dolph Ziggler and Zack Ryder. Ironically, Hennigan wasn’t around for much of his wedding planning, as he was instead in Fiji, filming Season 37 of the hit CBS TV show “Survivor,” which kicked off in September.
With each passing year, Hennigan continues expand his resume by taking on challenging projects in a variety of mediums. Whether it’s brining his passion project, ‘Boone: The Bounty Hunter’ to the screen or stepping behind the camera for his upcoming flick, ‘The Iron Sheik Massacre,’ this star-on-the-rise continues to push his creative limits and shine as a storyteller. This Fall, it’s man versus nature when Hennigan teams up with acclaimed actor Stephen Tobolowsky (’Silicon Valley,’ ‘Deadwood’) to play ‘leapfrog’ with mutated amphibians in Ojala Productions’ epic eco-thriller ‘Strange Nature.’ Based on true unsolved outbreaks of wildlife mutations, fall fright-fest the film marks the directorial debut of fx maestro James Ojala (‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army,’ ‘Thor,’ ‘Tron: Legacy,’ ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’) and stars Lisa Sheridan (“Invasion”), Stephen Tobolowsky (Memento), Tiffany Shepis (Victor Crowley), and Carlos Alazraqui (The Funhouse Massacre).
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Hennigan to discuss his life inside and out of the squared circle, the challenges he has faced along the way, his role in Jim Olala’s ‘Strange Nature’ and what the future holds for him in behind the camera!
You’ve spent the past decade building a tremendous career for yourself. What drew you to professional wrestling as a young man?
I feel like it started with the larger than life characters. When I was a kid, I grew up on pro-wrestling and action movies. I moved to a new place in 6th grade and I was a wrestling fan who watched it all the time. When I got to the new town, as the new kid, pro-wrestling was the first thing that I bonded with kids in my school and neighborhood over. We’d watch wrestling and try to put each other in Boston crabs or sharpshooters in each other’s backyards after we would watch on Saturday or Sunday! [laughs] I feel like when you’re hooked on something like that when you’re a kid, you’re always going to be nostalgic for it and have a soft spot for it. As I grew up, I went to high school and college before starting collegiate wrestling. At one point, I was even going to try to be an Olympic wrestler, but I ended up falling into training for fight choreography in action movies. At one point I had this epiphany that professional wrestling was the thing that had been motivating me to do everything I had been doing in life. That’s when I ended up training and started doing “Tough Enough.”
Who had the biggest impact on your from the worlds of professional wrestling and action movies?
Action movie-wise, when I was a kid it was probably a toss up between Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Stallone. I got really, really into Jackie Chan when I got into intermediate school. He is definitely my number one movie influence! It made me want to do high school wrestling, flips, kicks and martial arts. When I got to college, that kind of action was the kind of stuff I was going for. With professional wrestling, it’s another example of how your tastes change over time. When I was really young, it was all about The Ultimate Warrior, Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage. As I got older, I got into HBK but I never stopped liking Macho Man! [laughs] I also got into some of the ECW stuff with Rey Mysterio and Rob Van Damme, when I was older. It’s tough to pick just one person as my biggest influence. They are all so good!
It takes a lot to make it in the world of professional wrestling. What are the keys to success and longevity?
Patience. Passion. You know that speech that Rocky gives in “Rocky Balboa”? He says, “It’s not about how hard you hit. It’s about how much you can get hit and keep moving forward.” I feel like that’s very true for pro-wrestling. Obviously, it’s a nice analogy because you take bumps and get up in the ring but on you path of getting into and learning the business you hear the word “no” so many times. You have to have this clear vision and belief in yourself. If you don’t have that, eventually your motivation is to wane, you are going to find something else and stop training. If you have that clear vision and belief in yourself, then you can do anything you set your mind to and that’s really what it takes.
Who had the biggest impact on you behind-the-scenes? Did anyone serve as a mentor or give you a push when you needed it most?
So many! Tommy Dreamer has been there as a friend/mentor since I started in Louisville with OVW. I put Joey Mercury in that same category and Al Snow from “Tough Enough.” I also learned so much from Lance Storm when he was training at OVW. The way pro-wrestling works best, in my opinion, is that when you start wrestling a ton, the guys that you are in the ring with teach you more when you are in the ring. When the bell rings then you can learn more there than you can by talking about it, thinking about it or watching stuff on tape or on TV. All of the vets that I was in the ring with were all mentors to me.
That’s a great outlook. Was this work ethic of yours something that was instilled in you early on in life or something you had to work toward?
Wow! Man, this is a crazy interview! [laughs] Both! Growing up, I feel like the way that I validated myself was achievement oriented. When I first started wrestling in high school it was the first thing that I was really good at and I had a lot of early successes. For example, I won the championships the first year in high school and that made me focus, double down and try that much harder. It’s never a really good idea, especially as you get older, to see yourself only on what you’ve accomplished but that is what I did when I was younger. It made me really ambitious and it’s something I have carried with me since I was a kid.
What do you consider some of the biggest obstacles you have faced and overcome along the way?
Wrestling is tough. Sometimes it can get monotonous and you might have doubt. I don’t know if the coin has been turned but it’s kind of like “creator’s guilt” or “artists guilt,” when you reflect on the things that you are doing and ponder things like “Is the story I’m telling currently, or the time I’m spending to tell it, what I should be doing or the best use of my time?” Ruminating on that sometimes is an obstacle for me because the answer to that question is subjective and it changes. Sometimes it’s tricky. I don’t know if that’s the answer you’re looking for. You might be looking for an answer speaking to the physical aspect of the job. I tore my MCL in 2007, had neck surgery in 2011 and just dislocated my elbow three months ago. The first time I’m going to wrestle without my elbow brace is on Sunday at Bound for Glory. It’s hard to come back from injury but I think the mental and emotional obstacles are more difficult for me.
How do you feel you have most evolved over the course of your career, both inside and outside the ring?
At some point in pro-wrestling, you have that Neo moment where you can see the Matrix, so to speak. [laughs] For me, those moments when I know exactly what I’m doing, and everything makes sense, happen sometimes. It’s not like a switch that is flipped on or off, where you constantly know everything. You have to fight to stay relevant, keep everything you are doing fresh and figure out what people want. What people want changes and that’s one of the hardest things about wrestling. If you can figure out what people want, then you pretty much have the answer to everything in life! That idea of keeping yourself fresh and motivated is a big part of it. It’s less about keeping yourself relevant and more about keeping yourself interested in what you are doing and motivated to move forward.
Your arrival in Impact Wrestling is a huge deal for fans. What made this the right move for you at this point in time?
I’ve been all over, and I have worked for most of the companies in the world. When I came to Impact, I felt it was one of the only places with a roster of talented people who I hadn’t worked with that much. Currently, I believe Impact Wrestling is at a really interesting spot. The roster has evolved into a younger, hungry, talented roster. If you look at the comments that people are making when they watch a lot of the Impact Wrestling shows, it feels like something really great is happening at Impact and it’s happening now. That makes me excited to be a part of the company. It’s fun to be a part of an organization that’s evolving and changing into something that people really like!
You recently tied the knot To Taya Valkyrie (aka Kira Forster-Hennigan). Congratulations! Pardon the pun but you two clearly make a terrific tag team. What do you feel that you bring out in each other creatively?
[laughs] That’s a long answer! It’s tough because in this business so people say, “Never date anyone in the business.” When I met Kira, I instantly felt like I was with someone who understood me, my motivations and the business of pro-wrestling. We connected on so many different levels. As far as what we bring out in each other creatively, I think it starts with us understanding and accepting each other. That leads us to double down. She believes in me enough so that I feel like whatever I feel like doing, I just do it and I know she is going to be cool with it. For example, on our honeymoon, we wrote this crazy horror-comedy thing that we shot in our house a few weeks ago. It’s going to take a couple of months to finish it. I’ll just say that it’s crazy and that we destroyed our house. The whole house is covered in fake blood and stuff from the movie. I feel like that’s the kind of thing where both of us said, “Should we do this?” The answer is “Yeah, why not!” If we’re going to make a cool little horror movie, let’s go all the way with it. That’s what we did! I think that’s one of the reasons we love each other so much. We support each other, and we are all in.
I’m excited to see where that project leads. You’ve already established yourself in the film industry. Are there parallels between the worlds of film and professional wrestling?
Movies, pro-wrestling, television and theater are all forms of storytelling. For me, it’s cool to be able to tell stories in each of those different areas. In film, it’s really about storytelling just as much as it is in pro-wrestling. The type of stories you can tell with movies can be a little more complex or intricate because of the medium. It’s fun to think about the different type of tools and ways you can tell a story. It’s definitely something I’m eager to explore more in the future.
When did you come into your own as a storyteller within the realms of wrestling, film and television?
That’s another tough one. There are a ton of moments. I’ve had so many more moments in the world of pro-wrestling than I’ve had in the worlds of film and TV that they seem more profound because they are on a bigger stage! [laughs] For wrestling, there were a couple of tag matches that I had at OVW, when MNM was first clicking, versus Mac Johnson and Seth Skyfire. That was an early moment where I felt like I knew what I was doing and I understand who Johnny Nitro, who I was at the time, really was. I knew what my job was and what the crowd really wanted and what they didn’t want. A similar moment was when we debuted on Smackdown and MNM wrestled Eddie [Guerrero] and Rey [Mysterio]. I also had a moment against CM Punk in 2007 where I felt I made a big jump and I finally understood what it finally meant to be a heel. In 2010, in Baltimore, versus Jeff Hardy was another standout moment. Now, with Impact and Lucha Underground, they continue! I feel like that’s one of the addicting things about professional wrestling. You have these moments and thoughts and when you execute your plan, you get instant feedback. You feel it from the crowd and that lets you know if you’re right or wrong! [laughs] Wrestling fans aren’t afraid to let you know that you’re not right! With movies, it’s weird. Like I said, I feel that wrestling, movies, TV, theater and rock concerts are all about storytelling and conveying emotion. For an actor, in my category, it’s all about figuring out what people want to see from me, what I really like and conveying that emotion. Having that as my base is something that took me a long time to figure out. That’s not to say that if I’m in a movie that I have to be goofy all the time. However, if that is who I am when I start and what’s in the script and story creates circumstances that my character goes through, figuring out that starting point is something that a lot of actors never really figure out. For me, going through the process of “Boone: The Bounty Hunter” was a true learning experience. I worked on that, wrote it and re-wrote it so many times and worked on it with my acting coaches and finally did it on set. That helped me discern my best starting moment that I feel is correct for me. I carried that over to “Strange Nature” as well.
How did “Strange Nature” land on your radar?
The first thing that brought me to the project was Jim Ojala. We met through Seth Skyfire [aka Steve Adkins]. He helped me on a project called “Darkness Descending,” which I was a co-producer of and I wanted to have sweet tats! He was the best practical effects guy that Seth Skyfire knew, so he introduced us. Jim helped with that project. I also wanted to do a thing called “Ghost Puncher” about a guy who punches ghosts and Jim and Seth both came on for that. I just really dig Jim. He is really quirky and smart! [laughs] When I found out he was working on “Strange Nature,” I was excited to be a part of it.
What made you want to be a part of bringing the film to life?
This has been his passion project that he’d been working on for years. He came up with the idea for “Strange Nature” something like 15 years ago, so it’s something that has been marinating in his head for a long time. It really wouldn’t have mattered too much what he wanted to do because I had so much faith in him but it turned out to be even better because the story is based on facts. It’s a fictional tale about mutations in frogs and what would happen if you expanded on that phenomena and what it could mean to society with its political and ecological implications and, what’s most interesting, how it affects people. That’s really what the heart of “Strange Nature” is. Jim is a horror guy, so there is a great horror slant to this thing, which I think is really cool!
What did you bring to this character that wasn’t on the original written page?
Biceps! [laughs] Ya know, I really brought myself to it. I came in with an open mind. I think Jim did a really good job of writing the character with some depth. It wasn’t just a superficial, redneck, small-minded guy. The psyche of the character I play in “Strange Nature” is based on personal experiences. The way that the character deals with things makes sense logically but is also not very nice.
What do you look for in the projects you take on at this point in your career?
Depth. With both acting and wrestling, I’m looking to work with talented people who like to create stories that I believe in. As an actor, I’m looking for a multi-layered character who is like a layer cake — delicious, creamy and filling! [laughs] I’m just constantly on the lookout for stuff that is interesting!
Earlier, you mentioned shooting a horror film in your house with you wife. Can you give us insight into this intriguing new project?
It’s called “Iron Sheik Massacre.” It involves the Iron Sheik, who is helping out. Jim Ojala helped to produce and do all the effects for the film as well. The exact idea of it we haven’t really put out there yet. It’s in post and we’re not rushing it. I feel like you get the best results if you take your time with post and we don’t really have a firm deadline. I think “Iron Sheik Massacre” will probably be completed next year, maybe Aprilish, and we plan on submitting it to festivals.
Are you serving as director on the “Iron Sheik Massacre?”
Oh yeah, this is the first thing that I’ve directed in a very long time. It’s the first truly substantial thing I have directed since film school. I’ve directed shorts, skits and online things but this made me realize that directing is not easy.
What is the biggest thing you took away from projects like “Boone: The Bounty Hunter” and “Strange Nature?”
I’ve learned so many things. If you are working with the right people, a lot of the potential problems are already going to be solved. All the jobs on set exist for a reason. Your line producer, first AD, camera op, assistant camera op, digital image technician (DIT), script supervisor are all there for a reason. If you hire or happen to be really good friends with talented people in those categories, you’re going to free yourself as a director or producer to focus on creative stuff and that is way more fun than putting out fires and getting permits! By fires I mean the little things that go wrong like people not being able to find the place or the catering being late — all of those little things that come up with production. The faster you take care of something correctly, the less you have to learn about it later.
What the biggest lesson we can take away from your journey so far?
If you believe and invest in yourself, you’ll never regret it, even if it doesn’t pay off the way you want it to. That’s a good bet. Always bet on yourself!
Thanks so much for taking time out to connect with me today! I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us in the years to come.
Great talking to you today, Jason! Thank you so much! I hope we talk again soon!