While governing the State of California and wrangling politicians for 7 years, Arnold Schwarzenegger was fearful of the spectre of the emergence of a new breed of action stars that would jeopardise his return to the big screen when leaving office. “That didn’t happen,” he exclaims with a sigh of relief, when I speak to him at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Yet, the trepidation didn’t ebb away, so near the end of his governing days, he decided to test the water by doing a cameo in Stallone’s The Expendables. “There was a huge cheer in the audience, so I knew that I would be accepted back again when I get back in the movie business,” he boasts excitedly.
After receiving similar excited cheers from the audience for another small role in Expendables 2, the action superstar felt confident and ready to take a lead role in a new movie The Last Stand, in which he plays a sheriff in a small Californian town, who chases after a drug lord fugitive in order to stop him from slipping into Mexico.
“I think that there is room for the animated and the special effects movies, like Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man and Superman and all those things, where there’s magic happening on the screen, but the people also want to see the more traditional action movies, where they feel the action guys are actually doing the things, rather than computer generated,” he says.
Indeed, the 65 year-old did the action himself. He falls, dives off a building, get punched and hit. He even got injured during the shoot. “Pain is temporary; what is on the screen is permanent,” he laughs.
But the real pain comes from the timing of this movie, which is imbued with thunderous gun battles that fill the screen with scores of dead bodies, a stark reminder of the recent school shooting in Connecticut that ended the lives of 20 kids. The former governor, however, fiercely dismisses laying the blame on action movies.
“I believe that our movies are very clearly entertainment. That’s all what it’s about,” he stresses with a firm voice. “I think of people saying that the bible was written in a violent way and that encourages violence or other books encourage violence or movies encourage violence – I think it’s nonsense.”
He is also reluctant to blame it solely on the lax gun laws in the US. “These tragedies happen in Europe, where a lot of people get killed. They happen in places where they have the strictest gun laws and in places where there’s no gun laws. So you have to look at it in a comprehensive way: how do we deal with parenting, our education system, security and safety in the schools and mental illnesses in our society, so gun laws is one of five or ten different things,” he stresses.
Having witnessed the tedious and futile arguments among politicians for so many years in the political arena, the former governor is fully aware that such a complex and politically-controversial issue will not be easily resolved. “I was very surprised by how much infighting there is going on amongst politicians just over political philosophy,” he laments. “If you take politics out of the arena of public service, I think you will get much more accomplished.”
Although he is happy to be out of politics and be back in Hollywood where he can get things done without wrangling others, sometimes he misses the excitement, the responsibility and challenges of governing. “Every half hour, you have a different meeting about a different subject and you learn and your brain absorbs all this like a sponge. But at the same time, there is also another side to it that you get blamed for everything, so the beating is relentless, especially if you’re like me, where you’re in the center.”
Indeed, the Republican governor endured a lot of beating during his tenure from all directions, including from his own party, which contributed to blocking some of his crucial bills that aimed to curb the massive state debt. Ironically, his major political successes were manifested in issues that were championed by Democrats and resisted by Republicans, such as proposing a Climate Action Board to curb global warming and signing the most sweeping climate control bill in the US in 2006, allocating $150 million to stem cell research and increasing the minimum wage from $6.75 an hour to $8.50.
He went even further. He proudly tells me that he was very close to implementing Obama’s Health Care in California and that many of his advisors ended up working for Obama’s administration on the same project. Hearing all this, I couldn’t resist asking him: “Then why do you call yourself a Republican?”
“I’m a Republican; I am a Republican,” he sternly says. “But I have taken on issues when I was a governor that the Democrats have monopolised.”
Yet, he is aware that his actions have confused his allies and opponents alike. “Sometimes they would say that I’m a Republican and sometimes they would think I’m a Democrat. But actually, in reality it was more about the American mentality and the Austrian mentality. Because I grew up in Austria, I understood that everyone ought to be insured. To me, it’s inexcusable that we’re in a state where 8 million people are uninsured. Everyone should be insured so that everyone should be paying. And those who don’t have the money, because they are poor, we should pay for them. But the rest are just abusing the system. It was not a Democratic issue. It was my Austrian mentality,” he enthuses.
Inspired by a Nixon anti-Socialism speech during the 1968 US presidential election, the Austrian bodybuilder, who hardly spoke English, joined the Republican party shortly after his arrival in the US. But in 1986, he married the niece of John F. Kennedy, Maria Shriver, and became a member of the most prominent Democratic family in the country. Later he confessed that his mother-in-law Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics with his help, had inspired him to public service.
In spite of his closeness to the Kennedys, Schwarzenegger remained loyal to the Republican party, serving and endorsing several presidents and presidential candidates, such as Ronald Reagan, the Bushes and John McCain.
Evidently, his political background is as colorful as his actions, but he insists that he is not driven by political interests. “I’m not ideologically stuck on the right or on the left,” he explains. “I just want to get the job done. I want to do the people’s work, rather than the party’s work. Let’s rebuild California, let’s rebuild America, let’s clean our environment, let’s stimulate the economy, let’s not worry about if this is a Democratic or a Republican idea. It’s all bogus.”
Schwarzenegger, who has moved to live in Brentwood, Los Angeles since the end of his governing term, speaks with such passion, conviction and determination about political and social issues, one gets the impression that his mind is still stuck in Sacramento and hasn’t fully reinhabited Hollywood. But he insists that it was his interest in public service and desire to make a difference that instigated him to run for office 9 years ago in the first place, albeit he admits that his star power has helped him tremendously to win the elections.
“Normally, Republicans get 8% black votes, I got 28%, because they know I’m not a prejudiced person and at the same time because of my movies. The same is with Latinos. I also got a lot of women’s support, even though women left the Republican party a long time ago, because Republicans have forgotten that women existed,” he laughs.
Regardless of his political affiliation, Schwarzenegger epitomises the American Dream. He was only 20 years old when he immigrated to the US in 1967 and within 2 years he claimed Mr. Universe title, which he followed with 6 Mr. Olympia wins, the highest title in bodybuilding, to become the greatest bodybuilder in the world. In the meantime, in spite of his heavy accent, he managed to develop successful businesses and carve an acting career that led him to become the biggest action star in Hollywood, with films such as the Conan The Barbarian (1982), The Terminator (1984), Total Recall (1990) and True Lies (1994).
Other than being phenomenally successful, Schwarzenegger is a delight to talk to and an inspiration listen to. In spite of his advanced age, he is still endowed with an abundance of energy and boundless optimism. No doubt that his affable personality, convivial banter and positive attitude has contributed immensely to propelling him from Austrian obscurity to American nobility.