Power and Poise
By Violet Wilder
Arnold Schwarzenegger is a controversial figure but you can't keep a good man down. Sorted finds out more.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been nervous of talking about his faith, and faith is now a hot word in Hollywood, from the enduring dedication of the Jonas Brothers, to the occasionally wily but always redeemed Justin Bieber.
In recent months, Covid and Black Lives Matter have, in very different ways, asked us to reflect, reacquaint and readjust. And yet, while thanking God and looking to him for guidance has been a staple of many an Academy Award acceptance speech, it’s not always been ‘cool’ to preach the faith, lest stars attract criticism or alienate a chunk of their possible fanbase, particularly in these ‘woke’ times.
For Schwarzenegger, however, alienation was never a fear, for he was an anomaly on the streets of California – the very definition of a ‘legal alien’. Having built up a formidable reputation as a body-builder in Europe – he began lifting weights at 15 and won his first Mr. Universe title at the record-breaking age of 21 – the power-packed self-starter arrived in America with a divine sense of purpose and an unquenchable enthusiasm for his adopted homeland.
‘I was always very hungry, and I believed in the philosophy of staying hungry… as soon as you climb one mountain, go and look for the next mountain and climb that, and then the next mountain. Some people would call it restlessness – I find great joy always in trying to do things that people think are impossible; but I think America is just an extraordinary country because here is someone who came here and saw all those doors of opportunity opening up. These are doors of opportunity that I would not have had in Austria or in Japan or in the Middle East or Africa or anywhere else. It's just this is a very unique place.
‘I came over here to be a body-building champion because of Muscle Beach, and I’ve ended up… well, I’ve done other things,’ he says with perfectly hidden modesty.
With his compass set for California’s Muscle Beach, Arnie inadvertently ended up just a stone’s throw from the heart of Santa Monica, Venice, Hollywood – all the places where ordinary people become stars, apparently.
‘Everyone working out at the gym in one way or another was involved somehow in the movie business – they were extras or agents. My workout routines were more like a very early networking exercise!’
Thanks be to God!
After 60 movies and 50 years in the industry, he has always attributed his success to an external source. ‘I was blessed by God, and for everything that I have achieved in my life and career, I owe a massive amount of gratitude to God.
‘I have been asked to name moments where God has pushed me through to achieve something – my response is that I can’t name any specifically, as that’s not the sort of relationship I have with him … it is more like a presence that always sits in the background of who I am and what I do. I can rely on my faith at all times, and yet I won’t burden it by asking too much of it at once … no matter what we are all doing, we wouldn’t be doing it without God.’
So back to the late Sixties and, starry-eyed, invigorated by the burgeoning opportunities in front of him, and undeterred by a clumsy grasp of English, he set out to cement his status as a record-breaking bodybuilder – he earned the Mr Olympus title a breath-taking seven times – and to become a film star, joining thousands of ambitious wannabes on the streets of Hollywood.
‘Determination in anything in life will see you climb out of a place where you are fighting to get noticed. It doesn’t matter what you do – have a vision, believe in your vision 100 per cent and remove doubt, because if you have a doubt about yourself, how are you going to expect other people to believe in you? Trust you are special – I always believed that from my bodybuilding days; I had this vision of becoming world champion in bodybuilding and everyone told me it couldn’t be done. Then five years later, in London, I became the youngest ever Mr. Universe. I just trained every day like hell and did it.’
In a modern era where the trappings of success, recognition and adoration seem more accessible to the young generation so connected to celebrity culture across television and social media, Schwarzenegger offers caution.
‘We have a problem where everyone is permanently in audition mode,’ he says. ‘You can style your persona to an agent just by recording something in your own bedroom, yet this showreel isn’t authentic. In my day you had to get up and go somewhere! That’s how people knew you were seriously about stuff – you had to physically move!’
Yet despite Arnie’s commitment in relocating some 6,000 miles away from his native Austria, the bigwigs at the Hollywood studios remained unconvinced that such an unconventional character could ever win over global audiences. Not only was his physique much larger and more muscular than that of the average leading man, many were worried his thick Austrian accent would be impenetrable to the average American cinemagoer.
‘I like to think I broke the mould a bit on that one. It was really just a matter of being out there enough to have people hear my voice – that's why I did so many radio interviews where people didn’t see me but heard the voice. Eventually it became so identifiable that directors like John Milius [Conan the Barbarian director, 1982] came out and said, “If we didn't have Schwarzenegger, we would have had to build one!”’
And the dream begins…
So less than two years after arriving on American shores, Arnie landed his first acting role in Hercules. Starring under the rather bland stage name ‘Arnold Strong’ and with his lines over-dubbed in post-production to conceal his accent, it was an underwhelming debut, but set him up for a most unpredictable and astonishing career, where muscle and vocal tone synergised perfectly to form arguably the most formidable influencer of a generation of movie stars.
He gave a superb performance in The Terminator, the sci-fi thriller about an autonomous hitman and the infamous ‘I’ll be back’ line. The accent was synonymous with the persona and this otherworldly presence. Were we to be told that Schwarzenegger really was a machine, some experiment emerging from a Soviet f laboratory somewhere, we would have believed it. The triumphant Total Recall followed, then an unlikely turn as a comic star in Twins opposite Danny DeVito; on into Last Action Hero, Collateral Damage and The Expendables franchise. Schwarzenegger was embraced as a fully-fledged American action hero.
To understand his success, we must look at both his upbringing and the values it instilled in him. Born into a strict Catholic family – his father was the local chief of police and had served in the Second World War – the Kindergarten Cop star was raised in a rigorous environment defined by routine and hard graft, to which he credits his determination.
‘I was brought up by such great parents, with me and my siblings having so much love from my mother and the discipline from my father. My relationship with him was, admittedly, a lot more regimented, and there was strictness in the way he wanted us to approach the world, but there was love there. Our upbringing allowed us to have the structure in our lives and the foundation to start us on our journeys.’
In many ways, that strong work ethic, an expectation to flourish, a sense of endless possibility and the ongoing presence of faith is a sizeable slice of the American way. ‘As I’ve always said, in life, we cannot just rely completely on God. We need to make sure we try our utmost to do the best that we can in life – God gives us the tools to do that.’
Arnie has maintained his iconic status in various ways: he is a businessman, investor, philanthropist, and has even served two terms as the 38th Governor of California (from 2003 until 2011) – perhaps the ultimate playing out of his once astronomical ambitions.
In recent years, so much of the bullishness that accompanied his work in that golden era of the early 1990s has dissipated. Perhaps years of reflection have made him realise how futile the film industry really is; or maybe he is just winding down into a place of peaceful solitude. Certainly, the topic of self-isolation has been prevalent this year in wake of coronavirus. In that typically light-hearted manner that patterns his temperament these days, he released a series of ‘pep talks’ from home, in which he fed carrots to his miniature horse and donkey, and smoked cigars in the hot tub.
There was also the small matter of the $1million donation he made towards face masks. ‘I had emergency heart surgery in 2018, so as much as I really wanted to be a supportive face of this crisis, I knew it could only be from a place of genuine self-isolation; but that didn’t mean I couldn’t still be a force of hope and positivity – that was my intention.’
By his own admission, he is far from perfect. In 2011 he separated from Maria Shriver, his wife of 25 years, after it was revealed that he had fathered a son 14 years previously with Mildred Baena, who was employed in their household. In total, he is the father of five children, four children with Shriver.
Schwarzenegger is not a man to admit defeat. He has resurrected his film career in recent years, notably through Terminator: Genisys, having wisely skipped Terminator Salvation (the Christian Bale film that was widely panned), by virtue of his duties as Governor of California. Across Dark Fate, Kung Fury 2 (currently in post-production) and the recently announced Legend of Conan, there is little to suggest he wants to wind down, even if he is relieved his stint in politics is over.
‘It is a 24/7 job – you can invest absolutely everything but there will always be someone you haven’t served. I never aspired to reach the sort of heights you see some want to get to. It takes a special type of person to go all the way, and not always a good person,’ he says, aiming a shot at old adversary Donald Trump.
Certainly, there appears little regret that his duty to the American public has ultimately been to entertain, rather than serve as a politician. You sense that doing anything else would have been at odds with his faith.
‘The vision I had of what I wanted to make of my life, has been a big part of the reason that I have achieved success and the type of success that I wanted. It’s no fluke, and that has been enough. Sure, I was put on this Earth to do something special. I guess if I hadn’t succeeded, then I may have been the type of person my parents wanted me to be; a man who worked on a farm and had an army of kids, like the Von Trapp family from The Sound of Music! I never took myself too seriously, no matter what I did. I see some people in this industry and they look so unhappy all of the time. I want to say to them, “Smile, enjoy it – it could be your last chance!”
‘I guess the only things I took seriously were the issues that I tackled on a social level. So when I became the chairman of the President's Council on Fitness, I went through all the US states and into the schools, to promote the idea of hiring more physical education teachers; I went out to get an extra $500million for after-school programs; I joined the battle in convincing people to get off fossil fuels and into renewable energy, since we have an abundant amount of that. So those issues I took very seriously, but beyond that… not really.’
But doing something mattered…
‘My father always said to me, “Be useful.” To be useful, it's very important to do something that is bigger than you are, but have a good time at the same time. Smile, have a good time, have a positive attitude and see that the glass is half-full rather than half-empty.’
Becoming a grandfather
Half-full certainly describes his relationship with son Joseph (the son he fathered with Baena), despite acrimony with Joseph's mother. He and the lookalike 22-year-old are often seen spending quality time with each other, either at the gym or cycling around the streets of LA. Then of course, there was the recent joyous news that his daughter Katherine is expecting her first child (and his first grandchild) with husband and fellow devout Christian, Chris Pratt.
‘To have God so prevalent in the family fills me with a lot of hope,’ he says. ‘When people you welcome in have good faith, there is instantly a level of comfort and joy, and this has always been the case with me. When this happens, I have the feeling that there is extra power, extra strength coming from elsewhere. You cannot put a price on that!’