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Arnold Schwarzenegger: the man, the myth, the gun show

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ShortList’s Tom Bailey meets Arnold Schwarzenegger – the man, the myth, the gun show – as he makes a triumphant comeback as the Terminator… 

You’re fired!” barks Arnold Schwarzenegger, addressing a suited film-studio executive. “Actually, get me some coffee first. Then you’re fired.” Everyone in the suite at the London West Hollywood hotel, Los Angeles, bursts out laughing. Which is a relief to me – and most likely the suited executive too.

It seems terminating people comes naturally to the 67-year-old Mr Universe-turned-action-hero-turned-Republican-politician-turned-Terminator once more. Today, instead of a motorbike jacket and a cybernetic eye, Arnie is dressed down (like a post-apocalyptic line dancer) in a crisp Western-style short-sleeved shirt, cowboy boots and a pimpin’ silver skull ring the size of a golf ball.

Offering a hand that resembles a JCB scoop, he greets me warmly in that familiar guttural Austrian: “Sit down, relax.” Something that, incidentally, is quite hard to do when all you can think is, “UZIS! CHOPPERS! McBAIN!”

I ask about his ring (“It was a gift. People know I collect skulls, so they try to outdo themselves”) and whether fusing his on-screen persona as the Terminator with the real Arnie was a conscious decision. “Yeah,” he says thoughtfully. “We all know what people like: characters that have a certain coolness; that don’t get nervous under pressure. Clint [Eastwood] was an inspiration of mine. I enjoyed the way he always played stable characters and didn’t get involved with any drugs or madness.”

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The unbelievable true life-story of Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger began when, aged 21, he arrived in America. The barrel-chested Austrian Oak dominated the bodybuilding scene, used 1977’s critically acclaimed documentary Pumping Iron to jump-start an acting career, became the highest-paid star in Hollywood, and served two terms as Governor of California between 2003 and 2011.

He would have liked to have run for President, he says, but for the small matter of the US Constitution: “[Governor] was the best job I could have as a non-born US citizen,” he tells me. “So I decided to go back to what I originally intended to do. It’s great to be back. I promised I’d be back, right?”

And on that spine-tingling, ‘sh*t-he-just-said-the-line’ bombshell, Arnie expertly steers the conversation back to the reason he’s granted ShortList an interview.

The fifth Terminator film will be released next month, marking his return to the career-defining franchise – his very own Clint Eastwood moment – that has become a cultural touchstone, spawned countless soundboards and is generally accepted to be – duh – the most bad-ass sci-fi action series ever made.

You’ve seen the first two, right? James Cameron’s 1984 low-budget cyber-slasher, The Terminator, tapped into Cold War paranoia, while blockbusting follow-up, 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, smashed records as one of the most lucrative and popular films of its time. Then the franchise lost its way thanks to two damp-squib reboots: 2003’s Rise Of The Machines and 2009’s McG-directed Salvation (chronically Arnie-less, save for a CGI cameo).

“We started talking about Terminator the day I finished my governorship in January 2011,” Schwarzenegger reveals. “It’s a gigantic project, you know, and it’s a franchise with a lot of history so there is a certain amount of pressure on everybody to make sure that they don’t fall short… because the fourth Terminator fell short.” 

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The life of the LAST ACTION HERO

Seven months prior to this candid, slate-wiping admission and I’m in New Orleans, home to the set of Terminator Genisys, which is being graciously referred to as a ‘soft reboot’. Inside a 15,000 sq m DIY superstore abandoned post-Hurricane Katrina (past Sudsy’s $7 car wash, left at Chicken Fingers restaurant), vast green-screen drapes hang from the ceiling. In one corner, a munitions cave has been blasted open, spilling rubble and gun racks all over the floor. Opposite, on the set of an electricity substation, Schwarzenegger is running purposefully across a metal gantry sporting two hours’ worth of futuristic Terminator slap, scooping up Sarah Connor (Game Of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) in one arm and brandishing a blazing gun in the other.

“Cut!” yells director Alan Taylor, a man who was not short of offers, having helmed Game Of Thrones and Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World. I anticipate that, like a heavyweight boxer, Arnie’s ‘corner’ will rush in with a stool, vitamin drinks and a stack of iced towels. But no. Nothing happens. Instead, Arnie does push-ups on a metal railing while the crew re-group for the next take. “That’s Arnold,” shrugs a crew member. “He’s never had a bullsh*t entourage.”

But although the man himself might not be as intimidating as he first appears, the task of penning a new Terminator script – one that would revitalise an expired franchise and capture the imagination of millennials – was a formidable one. “I was mildly terrified, given the amazing world that Jim Cameron created,” says Genisys co-writer Patrick Lussier, when I ask how he felt about the damned-if-you-do job. Only once James Cameron had given the project his blessing did Lussier dare to take the gig: “It’s a time-travel story that is respectful of the canon,” he says. “While we’ve gone off in different directions, it’s always in the spirit of the originals.”

Great. So it’s Walkmans, tough guys with big ol’ Eighties hair and charmingly dated visions of robots taking over the world? Well, no. But if you’re a fan it’s fair to say that you’ll find Terminator Genisys’ arc reassuringly familiar. Kicking off in 2029 – the Year of Darkness – John Connor (Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, Suicide Squad) back in time to save his mother, Sarah Connor.

Except, thanks to some nifty time-hopping, the events of the first two films have already happened and John Connor is now under attack from the past and the future. Skynet is still bent on exterminating mankind with an army of machines risen from the ashes of a nuclear war, but the film acknowledges today’s growing appetite for artificial intelligence. As producer David Ellison succinctly puts it: “Skynet no longer needs to beat down your front door because you lined up in front of the Apple store and invited the wolf to dinner.” Quite. We knew that thumbprint-ID button on our iPhone was up to something. 

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Breathe and enjoy the ride

Fun fact: when Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a movie he hires a writer solely to dream up new one-liners. “Yes, that’s true,” he tells me, slumping down on a sofa between takes. I ask if he really takes them that seriously. “When you do a really intense action sequence, a one-liner is like handing the audience an ice-cold beer. ‘Breathe, and enjoy the ride.’”

Has he, I ask, already spotted a potential new catchphrase in Genisys? “I don’t know when I say a line that it’s going to be iconic,” he tells me. “When I said, ‘Hasta la vista, baby’, I didn’t have the foggiest that anyone would ever quote this line. Same when I pinned someone to a building with a knife and said ‘Stick around’. I mean, it sounded to me like a made-up line. There are some in Genisys, but I couldn’t tell you which are the ones that might be repeated.”

One thing that Arnold Schwarzenegger is very confident about, however – and has been ever since the moment he first sat down with James Cameron in the spring of 1983 – is the convincing nature of his portrayal of the Terminator. “I locked into the character pretty easily because I understood exactly the difference between acting as a human and acting as a machine,” Arnie tells me. “I think that’s why I was offered the job in the first place, because I was meeting with Jim Cameron in order to play Kyle Reese. [OJ Simpson was lined up to play the Terminator]. But during lunch I talked so much about how the role should be played – how a machine shouldn’t blink when it shoots; how it shouldn’t look down when it reloads – that Jim turned to me and said, ‘You should play the Terminator.’”

As observations go, it was a pretty astute one. Arnie wasn’t too keen initially – he’d wanted to play the hero rather than an evil robot with a grand total of 18 lines – but he was also determined that the Terminator be played “correctly”.

Both men had plenty riding on the success of the film. Cameron was then a second-time director with a CV comprising Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (clue: the title wasn’t the only thing that sucked). Schwarzenegger – going by the stage name Arnold Strong and taking accent-removal lessons on the (mis)advice of industry contacts – was enjoying mixed success as 1982’s campy, loincloth-tastic Conan The Barbarian. Or, as Newsweek dryly suggested, “a dull clod with a sharp sword… who’s got less style and wit than Lassie.”

“My goal was to make $1m a movie,” Schwarzenegger shrugs, without a trace of arrogance. “It was very clear that I would never be an actor like Dustin Hoffman or Marlon Brando.” Hence ‘box-office demi-god’ suited him down to a tee in the Nineties, earning him not $1m a movie, but $15m.

“He’s a man who defined a whole period of cinema,” Jason Clarke tells me, when I catch up with the 45-year-old Australian actor on the set of Genisys. “Him and Stallone changed the way a whole chunk of not just cinema, but the business itself, worked. They changed the way franchises are set up. Whether you like it or not, Schwarzenegger is a big part of cinema history now.”

Since he returned to acting, however, it’s no secret that Escape Plan, Sabotage and The Last Stand have been the three lowest-grossing Schwarzenegger films to date, taking less than Eraser, True Lies and Total Recall made on their opening weekends. A terrifically raw turn in the heartbreaking zombie-drama Maggie recently won him plaudits, but – once again – the King of Action has a lot riding on Terminator.

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JUDGEMENT DAY

Back in the London West Hollywood hotel suite, garlanded with wisps of Patargas cigar smoke, Arnie is enthusiastically holding forth on everything from being sexually active at 67 (“It’s never over”) to Boris Johnson (“I like his attitude to the environment, with the bicycles and so forth”). He says he’d love to do the Twins sequel, Triplets, but that “the script isn’t there yet”. He chuckles at Jean-Claude Van Damme (“a relentless complainer”) having to wear a “bulky lizard suit with the head of a duck” during the jungle scenes in Predator. And he recounts the gloriously daft argument with Jim Cameron over whether “I will be back” would sound more machine-like.

Not that Schwarzenegger usually spends much time looking back. Life isn’t about survival, he says, it’s about conquering. And besides, death ‘p*sses him off’. Which is just as well, because if Terminator: Genisys is a hit with both fathers and sons, as he hopes it will be, it will become the first in a new trilogy. The sixth and seventh instalments of Terminator are due to be shot back-to-back in 2016, meaning Arnie may spend his 69th birthday diving out of ‘copters and straddling jack-knifing lorries. Personally, I’m exhausted just thinking about it. So, seriously, can someone get this man a cup of coffee…

Terminator Genisys is in cinemas nationwide from 2 July

(Images: Rex

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