Arnold Schwarzenegger had a ritual.
The “Austrian Oak” would stare at his naked body in the mirror as if he were a living work of art, a figure to be sculpted to perfection by lifting hundreds of pounds of iron in endless repetition. His goal was to shatter bodybuilding records and then become Hollywood’s biggest action star — and it worked. Now, decades later, when Schwarzenegger sees his 75-year-old body, what does he like about it? “Nothing!” Schwarzenegger says, smiling yet serious. “My whole life I look at the mirror and see the best-built man, and all of a sudden I see a bunch of crap. It’s terrible! You get these wrinkles under your eyes. You get wrinkles under your pecs. You see the fucking poodle!” The poodle? “Budle,” he corrects. “It’s Austrian for your stomach sticking out. Where the fuck did that come from? It’s not pleasurable. But you cope with it.”
Schwarzenegger says this lounging in a cabana on his 6-acre Brentwood estate with a palm-sized Yorkie named Noodle in his lap. Noodle is one of the action icon’s uniquely sized, Instagram-friendly pets that wander surreally about. There’s a mini-donkey (Lulu — a bit aggressive when being fed cookies), mini-horse (Whiskey — standoffish) and a hulking Alaskan malamute (Dutch — happy and floofy). Schwarzenegger takes a quick call about acquiring a pig to join his menagerie and his assistant generously offers, “You can break the news of the pig.”
Rising above Schwarzenegger’s pool is a taunting reminder of his past — an 8-foot bronze statue of Arnold at his bodybuilding prime. It’s his vision of the ideal male form, achieved and frozen in time, while the man himself ages on.
Despite his years, Schwarzenegger is hitting new levels of productivity. He’s making his series television debut with a Netflix action-comedy, FUBAR, that premieres May 25. A couple of weeks later, Netflix drops a three-part documentary, Arnold, chronicling his life. He has an upcoming self-help book, Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life, and is doing nonstop fitness promotion (his new, self-published daily newsletter has racked up 432,000 subscribers) and elder statesman activism (his viral video about the Ukraine war generated 100 million views).
Below, in a blunt and wide-ranging discussion, the father of five (and a father-in-law to fellow action star Chris Pratt) discusses the future of his Terminator and Conan the Barbarian franchises, his relationship with ex-wife Maria Shriver, life-extension efforts, identity politics, why feelings are overrated (“This country was not built by people feeling good!”) and revisits some of the darkest shadows from his past.
Let’s start by looking back: You were the biggest box office star for a stretch in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a level of stardom only a few actors reach. What did that time feel like?
I couldn’t give you an honest evaluation because I don’t analyze myself like that. I never felt like a star. I felt that I’m lucky I’m one of the few to be happy in his professional life and personal life. But I never felt like I was on top of the world — even in my bodybuilding days when I was winning Mr. Olympia. I always was hungry to do more and to do better.
Everybody knows your hits; what’s your most underrated role?
Last Action Hero. It was slaughtered before anybody saw it. It was literally a political attack because I was campaigning for (former President George H.W. Bush), but Bill Clinton won. Last Action Hero was great — it wasn’t fantastic, but it was underrated. Now, more and more people are seeing it and saying, “I love this movie.” I’m getting the residual checks, so I know it’s true. It made money — that’s always an important thing for me. Because it’s show business, right?
The Terminator franchise — it feels done now?
The franchise is not done. I’m done. I got the message loud and clear that the world wants to move on with a different theme when it comes to The Terminator. Someone has to come up with a great idea. The Terminator was largely responsible for my success, so I always would look at it very fondly. The first three movies were great. Number four (Salvation) I was not in because I was governor. Then five (Genisys) and six (Dark Fate) didn’t close the deal as far as I’m concerned. We knew that ahead of time because they were just not well written.
The last thing most actors want is to be associated with catchphrases that follow them around. Yet you’ve embraced yours. What does a line like “I’ll be back” mean to you at this point?
I think about how it was an accident. (Terminator director) Jim Cameron and I were debating how to say the line because I was not comfortable with saying “I’ll.” I said, “I think it’s stronger to say, ‘I will be back.’ ” Cameron said, “Are you the scriptwriter now? It’s just one word. Don’t tell me how to write. I don’t tell you how to act.” I said, “You tell me how to act every fucking minute! What are you talking about?!” So he says, “Arnold, you think it sounds weird. It doesn’t. What makes it great is that you sound different than me or Charlie over there. That’s what makes it work. So just say it 10 times. Say it different ways. I’ll keep rolling the camera. Then we’ll choose one.” So they set it up, and I say: “(Flatly) I’ll be back … (cheerful) I’ll be back! … (guttural) I’ll beeee baaaack …” It sounded stupid.
The movie comes out. I’m in Central Park. This guy comes up and says, “Say the line!” … Now, a few days ago, I was skiing in Aspen, and the concierge comes up asking me to say the line. So that’s where it started and where it ended up. It’s wild. I’m the last one to get complicated and say, “I don’t want to compare myself to my movies or use a line from my movies.” Hell, Clint Eastwood takes the clothes from his movies and that’s all he wears. So why would I be worried about using a line?
Lately you’ve been engaging more online, becoming a bit of an influencer.
Because there’s so much negativity out there. The internet chat is so negative. When you give people a compliment — somebody loses 200 pounds and you say, “Congratulations,” they say, “Oh my God, you are the greatest guy in the world.” People appreciate that more than ever. I’m always trying to figure out a way of making a better world and to be useful.
When motivating people, you’ve always loved being blunt. Have people become too sensitive?
They maybe have, but remember what Nietzsche said: “For every attack, there’s a defense.” If people are sensitive, let’s figure out what we can say. I say at a seminar, “When you’re fat …” and then somebody afterward says, “Maybe instead say, ‘Lose weight’ or ‘Extra pounds.’ ” It’s not hard to do. We have to make an effort and not say, “This is outrageous, now they want (to change how we say) this.”
“Be useful” was your father’s advice. In your Ukraine video and your recent message against far-right extremism, you were more critical about him than I had heard before — you previously avoided the word “Nazi.” What made you decide to be more candid?
My goal was to not have people go that direction, so it would be a good idea to be straightforward and say: “Look, my previous generation were Nazis. The people I grew up with were Nazis.” Generations can be different. I don’t need to do the same things my dad did. I don’t need to be prejudiced. I don’t need to be an alcoholic. I don’t need to beat my kids. I can make a break. That’s why I started bodybuilding and came over here. I wanted to make clear that the other way loses all the time and creates misery; love and inclusion brings happiness.
Your book is aimed at disaffected young people, particularly young men. Some of these guys call themselves “alpha males.” What do you think of the term?
I just don’t identify anyone with anything. The more we label people, the more people fight amongst each other and the more there is negativity. I always see everyone as a person. It comes from my bodybuilding days. Everyone onstage was equal. It didn’t matter what color or religion you were. If you’re Black and lost 200 pounds or if you’re Chinese, it makes no fucking difference. This is how I try to operate — not that I’m perfect, or that I haven’t been prejudiced or disrespectful. I’m trying.
You’ve described your dad’s abuse as fuel for self-improvement; you became so big and so strong that nobody could ever hurt you again. But you can’t do that to a kid and have it only result in positive motivation. It had to have some negative impact on you, too.
Well, look at my brother (Meinhard). We were opposites. He was more fragile. He got the same treatment and became an alcoholic and died drunk driving. What tore him down built me up. It goes back to Nietzsche: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger — and he got killed. It’s like in Conan when James Earl Jones, as Thulsa Doom, says, “Why do you want to kill me? I created you.” He killed (Conan’s) parents, he created this fire in the belly, which is why (Conan) became the warrior, became the king. He was the spring-well of my strength. So I can look at it in a negative way and dwell on that. Or I can go, “But the good thing is …” And the good thing is it made me hate my home so much that I left when I was 18 to start my own life that’s different. Was there anything negative left over? Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t have nightmares about him. I can’t complain.
You seem pretty Zen now. So what gets under your skin?
We all know the rules of life: Hardship and struggle makes you stronger. So I always look forward to discomfort. Why do I go skiing in Aspen for three days in high altitude that wipes you out? Because it’s tough to do, especially at my age. Everyone is talking about their feelings. That’s OK if that’s how you want to occupy yourself. How I feel is irrelevant. I don’t give a fuck how I feel. What I care about is: What can I do to make it better? Sometimes I get out of bed and feel shitty. But I get on a bike or go feed the animals and suddenly I feel great. This country was not built by people feeling good. This country was built by people working their asses off. We have to work our ass off and stop worrying about feelings. Just swallow it. If you feel shitty, don’t think, just do things.
It’s also important to have a mission. If you have a mission, it’s so much fun. If you wake up (uncertain), “What am I going to do today?” That’s bad news. Because then the mind starts wandering and you never know where it will take you. If you’re thinking, “I have to do this, so let’s get going …” Then you accomplish things.
Your charity, public service and humanitarian efforts go back decades. But I’ve also read anecdotes of some horrible behavior toward women, which you’ve apologized broadly for. (After the actor was accused of groping women, Schwarzenegger admitted in 2018 to having “stepped over the line several times.”) How are you a person who cares so much about helping people yet has also cared so little for people’s feelings in specific situations?
I think it’s very easy to understand. We are not perfect. We try to be, but there’s only one that’s perfect — God. My mouth is great, but it gets me into trouble. My brain is great — it has the will to make a better world — but sometimes I fuck up. I make mistakes. I behaved badly. All of those things I’ve addressed in the past. I feel bad about it. But I cannot roll the clock back. I have to be careful and be wiser. I’m smarter. I’m more sensitive about other people’s feelings.
Was there anyone — an actor, director or producer — who stood up and said, “Hey, that’s not OK.” Or were people too intimidated to say anything?
No one said anything. Look, the bottom line is that even though the times were different, it doesn’t matter if it was 100 years ago or today. You have to treat women with respect and you have to treat people with respect. None of it is an excuse. I should have behaved better.
When did you start to change, and what made you change?
I just think as time goes on, you just become wiser. You start thinking more about other people and not just about yourself. Not just what’s fun for you, not just what makes you look ballsy. … Also — and this is hard to explain to someone who has never had this experience — but once you’ve been in the governor’s office for seven years, you see all the problems out there and all the hardships. It turns you from a “me” person to a “we” person. You become much more aware of what’s going on around you. And then all of a sudden when you walk away, you say, “I’ve got to continue with the policy stuff. We’ve got to fight for the environment. We’ve got to fight for redistricting reform.” And to speak out about the war.
How would you rate Gavin Newsom as governor? He seems to be champing at the bit to run for president (which Schwarzenegger was ineligible to do because he was born in Austria).
I think (Newsom running for president) is a no-brainer. Every governor from a big state wants to take that shot. What do I think about his performance? When you become part of the club, you don’t criticize governors — because you know how tough the job is. It’s impossible to please everybody. Before I ran for governor, I had an 80 percent approval rating. As soon as I announced, I had a 43 percent approval rating. Immediately, half of the people said, “Fuck him! I’m not going to see his movies anymore.” I would run things differently (than Newsom), but I’m a Republican, so of course I would. I don’t criticize him for not doing it my way.
How about Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis?
I was against some of the stuff he did with COVID. But who am I to judge? That’s for the people of Florida. My style is different; his is too conservative for me. That doesn’t mean I think he’s terrible. He’s just not my style.
Next, you have FUBAR. Fans have long clamored for a sequel to True Lies. FUBAR is said to be inspired by the film, except your super-spy character teams up with his daughter instead of his wife. What’s the relationship between the show and the film?
(Executive producer) David Ellison came to me with the idea of a TV show. I said, “It has to be something where I can use all my aspects and talents. It has to be fun. It has to be action-packed. It has to be sweet. And we shouldn’t try to get around my age — let’s play my age.” He came up with the idea of doing a True Lies-type thing.
Did you have any conversation with director James Cameron about it? He produced CBS’ True Lies TV show (which was recently canceled after one season).
He was involved with (the True Lies show) for credit’s sake, but that’s it. We keep in touch. We went motorcycle riding when he was out here for the Golden Globes. I’ve never met anybody in the movie business who has so many different talents. I saw that right away on The Terminator; he always knew exactly what he wanted. He never said, “Let’s try this,” it was always, “Let’s do this” — without any doubt. Now he tells me most people mistakenly think they need food to get energy. He says it robs you of energy. He says, “On my sets, we don’t have lunch because it drags down the performance for the next two hours.” He sometimes doesn’t eat for three, four days, and look how energetic he is at his age! It must work.
How was it working with your co-star Monica Barbaro (who broke out with Top Gun: Maverick)? Given this is your first series, you might have more shared screen time with her than any other actor in your career.
Unbelievable actress. There were days that were miserable — freezing cold and we’re working at night and she had to have this flimsy outfit on, but she never complained. She’s a serious player who is going to go all the way in her career because she’s willing to work hard and believes in herself and has this great energy that makes you come to life — because acting is not a one-way street. You need a partner who is really punching back.
(When asked about working with Schwarzenegger, Barbaro replied, “I’ve heard horror stories, and I know big stars can act in all kinds of ways. But he was super professional and awesome. He could have shown up late and asked for cue cards and have gotten away with it. But he was spot-on and worked really hard.”)
Your FUBAR character is divorced, and his marriage partly failed because he cheated. Was that deliberately autobiographical?
We were laughing about it — it feels like it’s a documentary. The difference is, in the show, he doesn’t consider it cheating because (seducing CIA assets) was part of his profession. His wife moved on because he never was home, and now he has this dilemma with the daughter because she has the same job and it’s going to screw up her relationship, too. But in (my real-life marriage to Shriver), it was my fuckup. It was my failure. Also, in the show, he’s deep down still in love with his wife.
Do you miss being married?
No. (The divorce) was very, very difficult in the beginning. Eventually, you move on. I have a wonderful girlfriend, (physical therapist) Heather Milligan, who is very successful. I’m really proud of her, and I love her. At the same time, I love my wife. She and I are really good friends and very close, and we are very proud of the way we raised our kids. Even though we had this drama, we did Easter together, Mother’s Day together, the Christmases together, all birthdays — everything together. If there’s Oscars for how to handle divorce, Maria and I should get it for having the least amount of impact on the kids. The sweetness and kindness you see in them, that’s from my wife. The discipline and work ethic is from me.
Looking ahead, is there any update on Triplets (an in-development sequel to Twins that had Ivan Reitman attached to direct until his death last year)?
Jason Reitman fucked it up! Jason Reitman literally stopped the project when his father died. His father wanted to do it really badly. I wanted to do it really badly. Danny DeVito wanted to do it really badly. We had the financing. When his father passed away, Jason says, “I never liked the idea” and put a hold on it. I’m developing another movie with Danny; he’s so much fun to work with and so talented.
And the pending Conan sequel The Legend of Conan?
It’s been pending for the last 10 years. (Fredrik) Malmberg owns the rights. He comes to me and says, “Oh, I have a deal with Netflix,” and when we ask Netflix, they don’t know anything about it. It’s one of those crazy things. I hope he figures it out. I think you do it like Unforgiven, where you play the age. There’s a great script out there that John Milius wrote, and others have written one. The story is there. There are directors who want to do it. But he has the rights, and until he sells the rights for one or two movies, or for the franchise, there’s nothing you can do about it.
You’re a huge Yellowstone fan. Would you ever team up with showrunner Taylor Sheridan like your friend Sylvester Stallone has on Tulsa King?
Absolutely! I think he’s very talented. And the cast on (Yellowstone) is phenomenal. Today, I see much more of other people’s performances than I did in the ’80s, when I was only seeing myself. I was thinking: “I have to win.” It was a competition against Sly, against others. “I have to be number one.”
You’ve said “death pisses me off,” that it’s “such a waste.” Some wealthy people have invested in life-extending efforts. Is there anything that you have tried that goes beyond the usual?
No. I never had cosmetic surgery. I never tried any gimmicks. Years ago, I (went to) UCLA, where they have world-renowned experts on aging. I asked if anything has been created, or that is about to be available, that reverses aging. He says, “Absolutely nothing, end of story.” The only thing you can do is the old-fashioned stuff. I could wipe out earlier because I smoke cigars, but then it gets counter-balanced by me eating well and then exercising.
When you first started out, you had a whole vision for your career, but Hollywood was only part of that. Aren’t you a little surprised to still be acting?
None of that has anything to do with age. I still work out every day, I ride my bike every day, and I make movies — show business is another part of my life. I add in my life, I never subtract. I don’t need money. I get money because you have to have a certain value and the agents negotiate. But I have a great time doing it. I love everything that I do. There’s no retiring. I’m still on this side of the grass, so I’m happy. My plan is to live forever — and so far, so good!
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.