“Hello,” he says,“I’m Arnold Schwarzenegger,” and what strikes you is just how much he sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is only one thing louder than the boom of his machine-gun accent, and that’s the voice at the back of your mind repeatedly shouting one phrase: That’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man so famous that the iPhone autocorrects his name, which is probably just as well.
We sit down in the conference room of an Atlanta hotel. The lining of his jacket reveals itself. The stars and stripes, wrapped around his body. The body. You expect a giant. You expect Conan The Barbarian. You expect The Terminator. You expect Dutch, painted in mud. But you get Arnold Schwarzenegger at 65. All right, he’s still far more muscular than most people who travel for free on a bus, but you realise, it’s more than a decade – spent in politics – since you last saw this man do what he does better than anyone else. Be an action hero. And he’s still got it.
My time with Arnie is split into two. “Will you be back?” I ask, in hope more than anything, as the break arrives. He turns at the door and doesn’t miss a beat. “I’ll be back.”
It’s just like in the movies. Right when you think he might retire he’s being pulled back in for the explosive finale of an incredible career, starting with the lead in The Last Stand, playing, erm… a sheriff about to retire who gets pulled back in for an explosive finale to an incredible career. So you finally get to grips with the fact that he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, ex Mr Universe, former highest paid actor in Hollywood, one-time Governor of California and multimillion-dollar businessman, and one problem remains. Where to begin…
(Note to readers: the interview is significantly better if answers are read in your best Schwarzenegger voice.)
In Planet Hollywood they serve ‘Arnold’s Mum’s Apple Strudel’. Is it really your mum’s apple strudel? I don’t believe it.
Yeah, it was my mother’s. It was my favourite dish. Even today, when I go to Austria to the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, they always make it fresh for me. Fresh apple strudel, with coffee, exactly like my mother did.
What’s it like walking around a museum of yourself? It’s in your old childhood home, isn’t it?
Yeah, that’s right. It’s wild. Back then I thought there was nothing going on in this boring town and I was always complaining about it. Now I see it and think: “Look at the luxury I had.” I was able to grow up in a playground that in America people have to create. Now I have to go to take the kids down to the beach and to the swings, or to some special place where they can ride on a pony, or to somewhere else where they can see a cow or something like that. I grew up literally across the street from a castle. An 11th-century castle. My kids, when they went over to visit, they were like, “Oh my God, look at this.” I got a can and I milked a cow. I told them that I used to do it at six every morning. Back then it was a boring life. Today I look at it as a rich life. Especially for kids. Even though it was a post-war upbringing and there was poverty, I grew up much more normal because of that environment. And today in the US, that is something you don’t always have.
The action films that you made in the Eighties were often playful and self-aware, but in the past decade they’ve been more angsty. Has there been a change of attitude?
What has also contributed a lot is that no new action star came out of the Eighties. Action movies are not meant to be serious. It’s not like my old films were set in Berlin in 1943 against some historic event. That has to be done seriously. But with us it was like, “Hey, let’s blow up some cars, let’s kill some people, let’s swing through the trees, blow up a building and move on.” And in the meantime we wanted to tell a great story that sucked people in emotionally, so that’s what it is about. It lends itself to humour. It’s the same with The Last Stand.
Was it nice to pick up some guns again and blow stuff up?
Yeah. But the funny thing is, when I was Governor of California and I was visiting sets, I always walked away and thought, “Nah, I could never do that again.”
I had absolutely no interest because I had such great joy being governor. I remember I was visiting a Spielberg set [War Of The Worlds]. He was directing and Tom Cruise was hanging upside down on a harness and fighting some creatures up there on a spaceship or whatever it was. Then he came down from the harness and they turned him over so he could stand up and he wanted to say hi. We shook hands and had some laughs and talked about the good old days. And you think, “What the f*ck is this?” I was happy to be out. Then the governorship ends and I get sucked back in. Next thing I know I’m on a set and I’m standing in the cold and the dark freezing my ass off.
If you arrived in Hollywood today as a young man under the same circumstances, would you make it?
Yeah. Today it is much more accepted to be an immigrant, a foreigner with an accent. When I started getting into the movie business, the people who really wanted to help me, like Jim [James] Cameron, even they said, “It’s impossible. No one in history had made it in the US without a US accent. Americans are so into their American accents that when they hear a French, German or Italian voice they can only accept it as a character in a movie, not as the leading man.” So everything they felt was wrong with me I, fortunately, turned into an asset. The accent – eventually they got comfortable with it. Jim Cameron said that if I didn’t talk like that, like a machine with the German accent, then he couldn’t have cast the Terminator. It only works with that accent. When he says, “I’ll be back” and that sort of stuff, it couldn’t work with a US accent.
What’s it like to be one of the most imitated men in the world? Do you ever get sick of things such as McBain in The Simpsons?
It’s great. When I see, for instance, on these late-night talk shows, the hosts making a joke about me it proves that perception has changed. It is no longer frightening. In the Seventies, people were frightened of the German accent. People said it gave them goosebumps. They were like, “This guy scares the sh*t out of me,” and, “Oh f*ck, are they back?!” All this stuff, right? But all this chat show shtick and people imitating me came about, so more people could hear it and it became part of America. It’s a negative turned into a positive.
How did you get yourself back into shape for movies?
I’ve never been out of shape. But it is a little different when you’re 65 to when you’re 35, there’s no two ways about it. When I was 35, and when I did the Conan movies, I was never really sore the next day. Now I’m like, “Oh man, I’ve gotta take some Advil.”
You must have met a lot of presidents. Who was your favourite?
Reagan and Nixon were very impressive figures. From overseas, I would say Gorbachev and Mandela. I will always remember talking to them and being in awe of the way their minds work.
You had an extraordinary run of films in the late Eighties and early Nineties. If you were on a boring flight and these were the only films available, which would you watch and why?
It’s a hard pick. Maybe right off the top I would go with True Lies. It has everything – all the action, all the humour and it’s a great story. Great twists and all that stuff.
You’ve been in politics for a long time. Does anything about that world still shock you?
What shocks me about politics is the lack of courage in political leaders. There are always great leaders, but in general, if you think that there are thousands of them, the vast majority are timid and afraid of risking anything because they all want to protect their position, their job. Look at a marine in Baghdad or Afghanistan: their main interest is not to keep their job. Their main interest is wiping out the enemy and in the meantime they might die themselves. They take unbelievable risks. So all you ask of a politician is to risk their jobs, not their lives. But they won’t do that, so that’s pitiful. So you get stuck. They are not courageous.
Do you feel old?
It’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? “How is he going to deal with it? Does he still think he’s an action hero?” I know I’m not the young action guy any more. I know that when I get up it’s like this [stands up slowly holding his aching back]. So in The Last Stand we acknowledge that. People know they are watching the older Arnold and they are comfortable with that.
How old do you feel?
I feel the same as I did when I was 25. The only thing is my body doesn’t feel the same. My mind feels the same. The body is less forgiving. But it happens gradually. You still enjoy life in the same way but you make certain adjustments. You realise that you’re not a machine.
Finally, what is the secret to your success?
A lot of it’s in the genes. A relentless drive, a hunger, a need to be the best. To be restless. If you don’t have that, if you grow up comfortable at home, you will never have that drive. It’s abnormal, in a way. Normal is to be happy. To work. To go home. To do your job. That’s what everyone does. With me it could have been competition with my brother. It could have been growing up after the Second World War with no food or nothing around. It could have been the brutality at home when people were abused physically and beaten because the men were angry about losing the war and at being occupied by four countries. The other thing is that I don’t think I’d have made it if I hadn’t had the ability to see things. I very clearly saw what it would be like winning Mr Universe. I saw myself as a leading man in Hollywood. Everyone laughed about it, but I felt very calm about it. I never felt frantic like, “Oh my God, this is never gonna happen.” I had faith, total faith, like a spiritual thing, to just relax and let people laugh because I knew that I would get there.
The Last Stand is at cinemas nationwide from 24 January
Words: David Whitehouse Images: Art Streiber