Sunday, June 4, 2017

A Talk with Arnold Schwarzenegger

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of John McTiernan's sci-fi/action classic Predator, I'm reprinting the interview I conducted with Arnold Schwarzenegger in late May 1987. We met in his suite at the Atlanta Ritz-Carlton. He was dressed casually in a floral shirt, and had his trusty cigar always nearby. Shaking hands with the man was a memorable moment--I don't remember being intimidated by his height, but his width was certainly commanding, and his meathook of a hand crushed my own mitt with gentle confidence. He was kind and low-key, and he later signed my Predator one-sheet while puffing on that cigar. The interview appeared in the June 23 1987 edition of Georgia State University's Tuesday Magazine:

It seems strange to say, but it's the truth: Arnold Schwarzenegger's acting has, on the whole, been getting better and better ever since he first broke into movies back in the mid-1970s. He's may be no Olivier, but he's proven wrong those who once claimed this hulking man was nothing more than the post-1950s version of Steve Reeves, the screen's most famous Hercules. Schwarzenegger admittedly took a little time to bloom, but bloom he did, emerging tall above the star most often cited as his closest rival, Sylvester Stallone. While Sly takes himself and his movies with utmost seriousness, Arnold strikes a humbler stance, realizing what he provides audiences with is entertainment, and not necessarily great art (though, even as mere entertainment, his works approach artfulness often enough).

Schwarzenegger has been primed for success from the beginning, as unlikely as his success once seemed. A native of Austria, he began body-building before he hit age twenty. By the time he retired from the sport in 1974, he'd won the prestigious Mr. Olympia title an astounding and unsurpassed seven times. He was and still is an astonishing example of human construction and precision. But, more importantly, he's a model of determination, dedication, and willpower. "My decisions have always been, with certain things, to say 'Okay, I'm going to start at the beginning, down at the bottom, and I'm going to shoot for the top.' When I shot for the top in body-building, I was thinking of my idol, Reg Park, who was a three-time Mr. Universe. He had done several Hercules movies and opened up a chain of gymnasiums and so forth. I thought 'That's exactly what I want to do'--not just win the title, but use it as a means to an end. Have some fun, maybe get into some movies, get into the business and all those things." In 1970, Schwarzenegger even took up the beloved Hercules mantle in a little-seen B-movie called Hercules in New York, pairing him with nasal comedian Arnold Stang and too cleverly renaming Schwarzenegger as "Arnold Strong." The movie currently resides in the dustiest of video store shelves.

It was during one of the Mr. Olympia competitions that Schwarzenegger saw the materialization of his first shot at cinema greatness. Documentary filmmakers George Butler and Robert Fiore were so taken with the bodybuilder and his pursuit of what would be his final Mr. Olympia title that they decided to film the competition in full (including visitations with Arnold's closest rival, Incredible Hulk star Lou Ferrigno). Once released, the documentary Pumping Iron was a critical and box-office smash, with audiences taking note that Schwarzenegger was no mere muscle-bound freak of nature, but instead a very human being replete with wild charisma, bright humor, and a booming sense of self-confidence--traits that usually translate well to the big screen.

Once Schwarzenegger decided he'd accomplished everything he could in the world of body building, it was time for a change-up. So, with 1975's Pumping Iron garnering raves, he turned his eyes to acting. At first, no one took him seriously. He showed up in a bit role as a bodyguard in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, but was constantly being shrugged off by agents and directors because of his thick Austrian accent, immense size, and formidably long name. But these obstacles didn't sway him, of course; he immediately began to take acting lessons and speech training. In the meantime, he made a few small but significant television appearances--significant because it was one of these assignments that helped net Schwarzenegger a role in a film by acclaimed director Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens). All of the sudden, in Rafelson's Stay Hungry, Schwarzenegger was performing opposite acting heavyweights Sally Field and Jeff Bridges—and, amazingly, Arnold held his own, shining in a smart, well-observed look at the Alabama body-building scene. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association saw such merit in his performance they awarded him a 1977 Golden Globe for Best Newcomer. It's still his most personally insightful role.

The next few years, though, were relatively dry for Schwarzenegger. Demand for an actor with his imposing physical stature was then so low, so he had to stoop to appearing in such disappointing fare as Hal Needham's embarrassingly silly 1979 western spoof The Villain playing the white-suited "good guy" to Kirk Douglas' Wile E. Coyote-like title character (he did get to sport Ann-Margret as his female lead, which he recalls with a toothy smile). He landed a plum dramatic role in the TV-movie version of The Jayne Mansfield Story, cannily well cast opposite Loni Anderson as the blonde superstar's muscle-bound husband Mickey Hargitay. Even by 1982, when he starred in director John Milius' hugely popular adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Conan The Barbarian, it was apparent he hadn't yet found his niche. The film was a gigantic hit, but his performance was rather stiffly mannered in comparison to his earlier work. Still, Schwarzenegger himself can't deny the impact Conan The Barbarian and its sequel, Conan The Destroyer, had on his career. "That gave me the chance to launch an acting career that lifted me above a lot of the other guys and put me in a certain category," he says.

But Schwarzenegger's real big break--the one there was no retreating from once it dropped--came in 1984 when relative newcomer and Roger Corman protege James Cameron cast him in the diabolical title role of The Terminator. The film was an unexpected fall season sleeper--a remarkable combination of non-stop action, fresh characterizations, fast-paced direction, and mindbending science-fiction that owed much of its effectiveness to Arnold Schwarzenegger's frighteningly taciturn performance as an unstoppable killer cyborg from a decimated future. That year, The Terminator adorned many "Ten Best" lists and, with over $100 million in box office grosses, led the National Association of Theater Owners to name Schwarzenegger the International Star of 1985.

Since that film, Schwarzenegger has smartly developed a screen persona that can only be described as decidedly tongue-in-cheek. With movies like Commando and Raw Deal, two of the biggest hits of the past couple of summers, he's successfully blended his comedic, dramatic, and ass-kicking chops to create for himself a natural and engaging image for himself, comparable to the places top stars like Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood had secured for themselves decades earlier.

This summer, Schwarzenegger has delivered again. In Predator, he plays Major Dutch Schaefer, the leader of an elite rescue unit whose members, sidetracked on a mission in the South American jungle, are being picked off one by one by a crafty alien hunter. The film is a relentlessly taut science-fiction tale that Schwarzenegger strongly contends is, along with The Terminator, his best to date. "What I liked about this film, specifically," he says, "was that it was a team effort—an ensemble--rather than me coming out right on top, with the first scene establishing me as the lead character. Here, I try to blend in with a team of guys. I mean. I'm the leader of the rescue team, but everyone in the film gets the same amount of screen time until guys start fading away and being killed. Then I emerge as the lead. This is, again, a whole new concept that I'd never dealt with before." The film's director, John McTiernan, is a new name in the film business; his first film, Nomads, was released in 1986 to mild critical notices and less-than-outstanding public recognition. Yet Schwarzenegger maintains McTiernan is very much like Cameron in ability. "When I think about the way they work, the way they move the cameras, the way they visualize ahead of time what a film is going to look like after it's been edited, I am amazed at how incredible the similarities are," he says. "Cameron is a genius and I think McTiernan's a genius, too."

Even so, Schwarzenegger says he ran into a little bit of trouble with McTiernan (as he does with all of his directors) when he wanted to add certain elements of humor into Predator's most dire sequences. "For instance," he offers, "I fight with the creature at the end. I improvise on these things. I just go along with my feelings. So I said 'Wait, this thing just took his helmet off and it's fucking ugly!' And I just thought I should say that, that it would amuse the audience in this really tense moment. And John says 'Arnold, come over here. I don't want to make a big scene in front of all these guys but do me a favor: don't do this because you'll really fuck up the momentum of the whole picture.' And I said 'I realize all this, but I think it is more important to throw the humor in there because, by now, they are all very tense in the theater and now we throw in the comic relief and it makes them breathe a sigh of relief.' "

Ultimately, Schwarzenegger's instinct won out--this and a few other carefully-placed jokes were dutifully fit into Predator's final running time, to the delight of the test audiences which whom he's viewed the film; he says each gag is unfailingly greeted with gales of laughter. One may ask "If Arnold Schwarzenegger has such a gift for making people laugh, why doesn't he develop it?" He says he plans to in the near future. "Eventually, I will be doing a straightforward action/comedy. A lot of the time what happens is that ninety percent of the stuff I want to do is rejected by either the director or the writer. They think 'Wait a minute. You can't be in the middle of this battle in this village and have humor. You are there to do this job.'  So I say 'Yes, you're right. But I'm Arnold. People don't mind if it doesn't quite fit in. If Joe Blow does it, then it wouldn't work.' It's like Eddie Murphy in The Golden Child. Any other guy who might have done that film would've played the part as seriously as possible, because it was a serious matter. But he clicked in and bubbled off his stuff and was Eddie Murphy. People laughed. No one said 'That humor didn't quite fit in there.' It was enjoyable. That's why that movie--which was actually pretty crappy--did $70 million at the box office."

Although his movies are popular with audiences, they always spark a certain level of controversy due to radical on-screen violence (Commando, in particular, with its crotch stabbings and buzz-saw attacks hit a new high in this department). For that reason, his films, like Stallone's, constantly spark boycotts from concerned parents and church organizations alike (not to mention they're constantly being looked down upon by more high-brow film artists and moviegoers). Arnold has an assured mental outlook on this harshness, though. "You never worry about what people say because, remember, whatever you do, you will always have a certain percentage of people not liking your stuff and a certain percentage of people loving it. You just have to realize you're not out to win a popularity contest. You're just trying to do your best work possible."

In order to be attracted to a role, Schwarzenegger says the part must highlight a previously untouched aspect to his personality. "Every film I do, I try and reach out and find other things I haven't done yet.” And though his past performances may generally belong in the same ballpark, they indeed do each show us a new side to the actor: from the Bond-like sophistication he displayed in Raw Deal and the paternal instincts he showed off opposite Alyssa Milano in Commando ("Working with a child brings out a whole new you. You have to relate to a kid in your work and in your real life, so your whole personality changes—you become kind of cute”), then to the cog-in-the-machine feel he lent to his roles in Predator and his mechanically emotionless performance as The Terminator. "With each movie," he says, "I want people to go back and look over the entire portfolio I've collected, and feel certain that I've reached out for and hit my different emotional obligations."

Schwarzenegger has a plethora of emotional, artistic, and financial goals to live up to as well. His much-publicized marriage to journalist and Kennedy clan member Maria Schriver has just hit its one-year mark. Later on this summer, he will be seen in an adaptation of Stephen King's short story The Running Man, playing a contestant in a futuristic TV game show (hosted by kissy Family Feud scion Richard Dawson) where the object of the game is simply to survive. And, in the following months, he'll be toiling away on a Terminator sequel, reteaming him with director James Cameron.

As if that weren't enough, he'll continue putting time into his own businesses (he's a renowned real-estate developer, mail-order businessman, and art collector). Still, his first love will be acting, with body-building coming in a close second. When he looks back on his early career as an athlete and compares it to the present stage of his output, he sees very little difference. "I work as hard now as I did then. I did exactly the same things as in bodv-building. To be a good actor, you analyze what you need: you go to acting school, you go to speech training and so on. It's the same thing as having to work more on my deltoids, except now I have to work more on something like my accent. You pick certain things that are your weak points and the harder you work, the faster you grow up and the faster you can make it."

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