Arnold Schwarzenegger: Total Control
Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't get where he is by accident. And he sure as hell isn't going to let any accidents happen now.
On my way to interview Arnold Schwarzenegger, I can't help but notice that the few blocks that separate my home in Santa Monica, California, from his Venice business offices are filled with proof of just how successful his teutonically systematic assault on pop culture and commerce has been. A convenience store magazine rack showcases the man: Spy magazine contains a piece likening Schwarzenegger to brown condom filled with walnuts.
A TV Guide cover photo has him hoisting a TV set on one shoulder. On GQ's cover, he stands fully-dressed in a pool, looking like he has wet his drawers. On Premiere's cover, he's submerged in the pool. For the covers of Smart and Vanity Fair, he looks as if he's posing for an addition to Mount Rushmore. And at the cashier, National Enquirer headlines--quoting a new unauthorized biography--scream that he "Took Money From Wealthy Gays," "Had Any Woman He Wanted," and "Was Branded The Perfect Nazi." The menu at a nearby omelette emporium offers "Schwarzenegger's Body Builder" ("Diced ham, shredded Swiss cheese and chopped fresh tomatoes. Look what it did for Arnold!-- $4.85").
Another block down on Main Street I catch sight of the $10 million building Schwarzenegger owns and leases (just one of the investments that have increased his personal fortune to something estimated at well over $40 million). And World Gym, another fixture of this neighborhood, is the location of Schwarzenegger's regular top-of-the-morning workouts. Yes, Arnold is everywhere. He arrived in America 22 years ago--penniless, strapping, and self-assertive. Today, he's a Kennedy in-law, a one-man industry, and an actor whose "yes" makes a movie go. Welcome to das Schwarzensaga.
Precisely orchestrated negotiations that involve a web of studio and personal publicists precede my audience with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whens, wheres, for how longs, and under what circumstances at last ironed out, I show up at Oak Productions, named in self-tribute to "The Austrian Oak," as Schwarzenegger came to be called in his iron-pumping heyday. Schwarzenegger's tastes in office furnishings run to such conservative Republican-style flourishes of Americana as an enormous Stars and Stripes and a vintage barber chair. (This is, after all, a guy who had himself photographed dressed as Uncle Sam after he won his U.S. citizenship.)
As exercises in star clout go, the auspices might have been more subtly stagemanaged. Into the fray of ringing phones and bustling staff members strides ICM agent Lou Pitt, architect of the Twins deal that reportedly made Schwarzenegger $20 million richer. Pitt explains to a secretary that he thought he should personally drop by some important papers (all the way from Beverly Hills?), and also mentions that messages await from Mrs. Schwarzenegger--Maria Shriver, the NBC news-hen and niece of the late John F. Kennedy--and Mario Kassar, chairman of Carolco, backer of Total Recall.
I first glimpse Schwarzenegger through the windows of his office. His 215-pound, six-foot-two bulk towers over a knot of Asian businessmen-types who are gathered around him, staring up with moony, star-struck grins at the gilt-edged Gulliver recently declared second only to Tom Cruise as Hollywood's most bankable overseas attraction. Up close, the 42-year-old Schwarzenegger appears more, well, realistic! than he did earlier in his well-oiled-pecs-and-codpiece Conan days. With his hair expertly shaded, his skin practically translucent, his gaze clear and utterly remote, he offers a firm handshake and flashes half of his wall-of-teeth grin. Then he slips into a chair behind his massive desk.
On the wall behind him, Warhol's silkscreen rendition of Maria Shriver stares out like a pop goddess torn from the pages of an Italian fumetti comic. There are fussily arranged shelves of improbably fancy smoking pipes and framed photographs of Schwarzenegger's salt-of-the-earth-type mother as well as assorted liberal Kennedys cheek-by-jowl with various Fortune 500-type Republicans. There's also a humidor stocked with the long, ebony, $30 Davidoff stogies favored by the man George Bush recently appointed to chair his Council on Physical Fitness.
"The tea is cold," Schwarzenegger croaks in a disembodied monotone, summoning his assistant to attend to the outsized teacup in front of him, which could comfortably accommodate a family of goldfish. "And will you turn off the radio? And close the curtains, too?" He half-smiles, as if to signal that he may be spoofing his early Hollywood reputation for being a moody control freak. No dice. Schwarzenegger has honed his acting chops since Conan the Barbarian director John Milius declared him "not a natural," but one can still hear whirrs and clicks when he shifts expressions.
For that matter one can almost hear the doors slam shut whenever a topic arises that does not scan with Schwarzenegger's interview program. Take Total Recall, the main reason Schwarzenegger has agreed to talk. His placid grin congeals slightly when he is reminded that street talk has the movie weighing-in at $73 million--maybe the most expensive film, ever. "Every studio in town has an expensive movie this summer," Schwarzenegger says, after a moment. "What it really comes down to is whether the movie is expensive and still turns out to be nonsense and sh*t. Did anyone complain that the first Back to the Future was expensive? Or that Roger Rabbit's budget was so hideous nobody even knows it?"
I ask Schwarzenegger how much the movie did cost. "Our movie would have been $70 million if it had been shot in L.A. We shot in Mexico and we ended up at almost $50 million. Every studio in town is pointing fingers at each other saying, 'We're all right because they have the most expensive movie of the summer.' "
On to another subject: ArnoldAn Unauthorized Biography, Wendy Leigh's tabloid delight that portrays its subject as opportunistic, mean-spirited, money-mad, and manipulative. Schwarzenegger's publicist has forewarned me that Arnold has already won an apology from Leigh's British publisher, and from her co-author, for a defamatory article in News of the World. But when I ask for his reaction to the book, Schwarzenegger will only say, "I haven't read it because I don't read junk." The irony, of course, and one can assume it is not lost on Schwarzenegger, is that even if the book were all true, what damage could it possibly do to his reputation? He is, by marriage and by inclination, a Kennedy and the Kennedy clan is second to none when it comes to magisterially riding out such indiscretions as infidelity, addiction, and tragic accidents that end in manslaughter.
Schwarzenegger's merger with Maria Shriver has already yielded notable dividends. For one thing, Schwarzenegger says he found in Shriver "a great advisor on scripts. We always talk about any career decision, hers or mine." Their four-year alliance has also produced a baby Schwarzenshriver for whom Arnold says he'll "be the parent who is in charge, not one who disappears to work and leaves the kid roaming the street." And merely in terms of power, Schwarzenegger's being a Kennedy puts him far above his station as even the movies' ranking, multi-millionaire action star. "I'm fortunate to have in-laws who are funny as hell," Schwarzenegger says, taking the just-folks tack toward the Kennedys that has served him well with such other interviewers as Barbara Walters. "Anything that could normally be a heavy trip, they make into a fun event. When the baby was born, they all descended on the hospital with parties and balloons that had Maria laughing."
Today, after the freak $73 million success of Twins, Schwarzenegger's career can no longer be said to rest solely on flex appeal. Twins has offered him new options--physical and even romantic comedies--that might be the envy of Eastwood and Stallone, let alone such beefcake antecedents as Johnny Weissmuller and Steve Reeves. Schwarzenegger appears to view these new options as established inevitabilities. "I came on the scene way past that," he tells me, with a touch of disdain, referring to such sixties-era hunks as Reeves, plucked from Mr. Universe contests by fast-buck producers and shoved into cheesy European-made costume epics. "I felt that I could start where they left off, not do a Hercules movie, but something beyond that."
As I begin to discuss Arnold's background with him, it becomes apparent that his policy of total control doesn't mesh perfectly with the concept of total recall. In fact, in 1968 at age 20, Schwarzenegger, billed as "Arnold Strong," played--you guessed it--Hercules in the low-budget offender Hercules Goes Bananas. With faint annoyance, Schwarzenegger recalls the film as not a "regular Hercules movie; it's more than half of me dressed in suits, jackets, pullovers, and sweaters" before quickly changing the subject.
During these early years, Schwarzenegger juggled writing articles for mentor Joe Weider's muscle magazine and leading $75-a-day fitness seminars. Schwarzenegger is disinclined to talk about those days, except to differentiate himself from his body-builder peers as being, "by nature [an] aggressive guy that says 'I want to go through the roof.'" Gaze firmly fixed on The Big Picture, Schwarzenegger saw world class bodybuilding as a mere stepping stone to world class image-building. "Let's be honest," he says, with a conspiratorial grin and faintly dismissive shrug, "to stand on a podium in front of thousands of people flexing in little posing trunks is not the answer to life, or anything. You have to put a perspective on the whole thing." Perhaps to gain such perspective, Schwarzenegger in 1974, before officially retiring from the professional beef circuit, hired a publicist to cross-promote himself and the sport perceived by many as a freakshow for egoists and a smokescreen for gays.
As body-building's most visible and vocal partisan, how did Schwarzenegger react to last year's self-declaration of homosexuality by Bob Paris, a former Mr. Universe? "I only care about the sport," Schwarzenegger says, his gaze level. "Bob Paris has a terrific physique has been a terrific competitor and is a hard-working guy. That's the only thing I want to see of anyone when you talk about body-building." Despite Schwarzenegger's flagrantly heterosexual carousing before his marriage, I ask whether anyone took him for gay. "I know it was around," he says, with a man-of-the-world shrug. "It never happened to me. I never had those problems."
Schwarzenegger's movie career lurched forward in 1976 with Stay Hungry, an amiably oddball movie about body builders in the South. To prepare Schwarzenegger for the role of Sally Field's fiddle-playing, bruiser boyfriend, director Bob Rafelson sent the novice to Eric Morris, the well-respected acting coach and author. "[Rafelson] really gave me confidence, and took so much effort and patience to make me understand how to act from here," Schwarzenegger says, thumping his solar plexus.