In the movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger has killed Vikings, vultures, clones and zombies. Now it seems that he is trying to kill me.
We are cycling through Los Angeles towards his pre-breakfast workout. It should be a gentle ride. But the former governor of California-turned-environmental campaigner does not stop at red lights; he simply stops pedalling as he skips them. A driver blasts his car horn in protest. “What’s the drama?” deadpans Schwarzenegger, an action hero who always wanted to be a comedian.
Six red lights later, we arrive at Gold’s Gym, the self-proclaimed Mecca of Bodybuilding. Here too the rules do not apply to my companion. He leaves his bike outside without locking it (a bodyguard keeps watch from a 4x4). Other gym members sign in via computer screens; Schwarzenegger does so by handing his leather jacket to the receptionist. On the walls above us are two life-size photos of him in his prime.
Biology should be catching up with Schwarzenegger even if traffic cops aren’t. The former Mr Universe is now 71. It’s nearly 50 years since he was the undisputed bodybuilding champion of the world; it’s 14 months since open heart surgery in which he says he nearly died. “I don’t work out seriously any more,” he smiles. If I am going to outcompete him, it is now or never.
It is destined to be never. I try some dumbbells, and Schwarzenegger says that he used the same ones — when he was 13. I approach a machine that he has been on, and exert my body weight. My triceps burn like Californian wildfires. “Lean forward,” says Schwarzenegger, in charming mode. “Give me three more.”
‘I only start counting when it starts hurting,’ he says. I start counting almost immediately
He then nudges me aside and doubles the weight. “It’s like Muhammad Ali used to say, when people asked him how many sit-ups did you do: I only start counting when it starts hurting.” I start counting almost immediately.
In half an hour, my arms feel like cooked spaghetti. We get back on the bikes, and I take a deep breath: only seven red lights till breakfast. It’s 8am now, and the roads are busier. “Schwarzenegger!” shouts one driver. A pedestrian carrying a computer screams: “Oh my god — holy shit!”
At this point, in one parallel universe, Schwarzenegger and I are hit by a truck. But in another, we are not here at all — because he is president.
When his term as California governor ended in 2011, that seemed the idea. He had channelled public anger at the political class; he was a Republican outsider who had appealed to Democrats. “I was kinda the first populist that was elected, when the people were discouraged and disenchanted,” as he puts it.
He was the best-known Austrian-born politician since, well, let’s not go there. And although the Constitution bars naturalised citizens from becoming president, his supporters had a plan. In the end, Schwarzenegger found himself on the wrong wing of the Republican party, the one that liked bipartisanship and solar power. The 2016 election was won by another showbiz interloper.
Since then Schwarzenegger and Donald Trump have sparred over everything from the environment to education. “Why don’t we switch jobs?” goaded the former governor in one Twitter video. Next week he will lead a meeting of the R20 in Vienna — his forum to inspire local and regional moves on climate change. Alongside Greta Thunberg, the Swedish campaigner, and UN secretary-general António Guterres, he will call for a new wave of “Climate Action Heroes”.
As we head for breakfast, I wonder: is Schwarzenegger the man who paved the way for Trump, or the sane Republican alternative?
We are shown to a private area in the Fairmont, an upmarket hotel overlooking Santa Monica beach. “Arnold” — hardly anyone in the US calls him Arnie — comes here several times a week, and the waiter instinctively brings a white pot of green tea. No proper caffeine, I say?
“I already had my caffeine,” says Schwarzenegger, confessing to an espresso at home. Ah, that explains his advantage in the gym.
The restaurant is light, floral — and an environmental disaster zone, given the outside tables have gas fire pits even in summer. I order the market scramble without the eggs, with a side of fruit. Schwarzenegger goes for “the same thing as always ... whatever it is.”
Clive James once described him as looking like a “condom filled with walnuts”. These days the former bodybuilder is more a butternut squash in a tote bag: chunky, but not outsized. Despite all the posing, he was “never satisfied” with his body. “Now it’s even worse,” he says, veering into humility.
BODY OF WORK: the many sides of Schwarzenegger
Bodybuilder: In Munich in 1967, the year he won his first Mr Universe title
Film icon: A franchise is born with ‘Terminator’ in 1984
The Governator: Celebrates California win with wife Maria Shriver in 2003
Even so, he has no interest in fad diets. The Silicon Valley elite is embracing “intermittent fasting”. “Who comes up with this shit? Remember, I wrote six books about fitness and bodybuilding, so I know how difficult it is to fill the pages. You get creative.
“Every time I did a movie when I needed to be ripped, I just cut out the bread and the dessert and I got ripped,” he adds. He scorns Americans for debating whether to eat egg yolks. “In Austria we always just ate the egg. Why do you want to separate the egg? It doesn’t make any sense.” He evidently still can view his adopted country with detachment.
Schwarzenegger’s story remains incredible. Born in Austria after the second world war, he yearned to escape poverty and his disciplinarian father. He started bodybuilding at a time when gyms were almost non-existent. He wanted to emulate Muhammad Ali. And he sort of did, dominating his sport with personality as well as biceps.
His success opened a path to the US, where his early ventures included bricklaying after the 1971 Los Angeles earthquake. Hollywood wanted muscly actors, and Schwarzenegger refused to let his accent block his way. He wanted to emulate Clint Eastwood. And he did earn more than $100m for films such as Terminator. He was proof that you could succeed in America no matter what your surname — or your acting ability.
Eventually Schwarzenegger wanted to emulate Ronald Reagan too. In 2003, with memories of the California energy crisis still fresh, he posed as the Governator — and was elected. He had a rocky, Trump-ish start, where he called opponents “girlie men” and clamped down on immigration. Then he bonded with Democrats over cigars, embraced environmentalism, and passed landmark cap-and-trade legislation, which made California the first US state to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Surveying his career, Schwarzenegger dispenses with the humility. He says he was “called” to these things because of his skills as a salesman. Bodybuilding had a “terrible image” before he became involved. Environmentalists couldn’t “really reach the mass” until he emphasised the health effects of air pollution.
“We figured out that no one cares about global climate change, because this is something that’s going to happen 20 years from now. If people were worried about 20 years from now, why would they have $20 000 debt on their credit card?” he says. “People care about what happens today. And today, as we speak, 19 000 people are going to die because of pollution.”
Schwarzenegger is helping to bring “major, major class action lawsuits” against oil companies who downplayed the risk of global warming. Will it work? “Yeah, without any doubt. Lies always catch up with people.”
The waiter brings a muffin. Schwarzenegger splits it and offers me half: “A little bit never hurt anyone,” he says, almost paternally. I try to prod him into insulting Trump, but he doesn’t bite beyond calling the administration’s environmental policies “crazy talk”. Is the beef between him and the president even real? “From my side it is.” Though still a Republican, he refused to vote for Trump in 2016, and the two haven’t spoken since.
OK, is there any point in a Republican challenging Trump for the 2020 nomination? “What we see today is no. But we dunno what happens tomorrow. If Trump trips up because of some legality ... Or if the economy goes down, that could mean a huge turnround.” Schwarzenegger sees signs that the property market is cooling.
Has he accepted that he himself won’t be president? “The Constitution does not allow me to be president.” So he’s given up? “No, no. I don’t think about it.” Would he have been a good president? “Look, no matter what I do — I go all out. I have the best team and would do as good a job as I can.” He does say he’d never run for the Senate.
Schwarzenegger’s breakfast has arrived — granola with yoghurt and a line of cut strawberries. He crumbles over some walnuts. My plate of cooked asparagus comes with mushrooms, pea shoots and a spicy salsa; it’s fine, but I wouldn’t call it breakfast.
Have you been following Brexit, I ask. “Here’s what I do,” says Schwarzenegger. I brace myself for a treatise on how to negotiate. “Every single article that comes up on my iPad, I immediately erase it, because it’s all the same shit. Hello? It’s like a documentary that’s going on too long.”
He compares Theresa May’s predicament to his own in California: voters endorsed him in 2003 on a pledge to balance the budget, but rejected his precise proposals in a special election two years later. “People are strange when they vote. It also depends, how they were talked into this decision? How confusing was it for them? Did they really know all the facts? Then eventually they learn more and they change their minds.”
What does he make of Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit party? Schwarzenegger pauses. “I think talk is always easier than actually doing something.” A few minutes later, he puts his half-finished granola to one side and blows his nose on his napkin.
Of all the many things that Schwarzenegger can terminate, his film franchise doesn’t seem to be one of them. The sixth instalment, Terminator: Dark Fate, hits cinemas later this year.
Which film is Schwarzenegger proudest of? He says Twins, his 1988 pivot to comedy alongside Danny DeVito. Plus he had negotiated a fifth of the profits, instead of a large fee. “Universal Studios still hates me because of it!”
The best thing that we know that you can do to recreate yourself is the way you bring up your kids
Terminator is just one project among many. “You have to understand that my life is like anything else — I mean, like nothing else,” he says. “It changes all the time. It’s such a rich life.” (He sounded undimmed a couple of days later, when, on a trip to promote sport in South Africa, a man attacked him from behind with a flying kick. I could have warned the attacker that it’s still a few years too early to take on Schwarzenegger.)
How has he changed over the past 20 years? “I really don’t know — I’m not that self-analytical. I’m more aware how vulnerable we are. After two heart surgeries, I’m aware that I’m not the machine that I play in the movies.”
He blames a valve defect from his mother’s side of the family. Others speculate that his past steroid use probably hasn’t helped. A knee replacement also beckons. Might he have been healthier if he had never body-built? “Yeah but then I would be sitting out on some farm in Austria yodelling in the Alps!”
The waiter brings more green tea. I start serving myself blueberries and discover that I managed to strain my neck in the gym as well as my arms.
Schwarzenegger is promising to “terminate gerrymandering” in the hope of moving US politics towards the centre. As governor, he convinced Californians to back a ballot measure putting non-partisan commissions in charge of drawing electoral districts. Last year, voters in Michigan, Missouri, Colorado and Utah all backed similar plans.
“For 200 years, people in America have accepted gerrymandering!” says Schwarzenegger, adding that it is “incredible” that a third of House of Representatives districts will now be determined by independent commissions. He doesn’t need the sexiest cause — he just needs a cause.
There is a dark lining to Schwarzenegger’s career: allegations that he groped women. He has apologised for crossing the line. Have the women accepted that apology, I ask. “I think we’re a lot more aware of where the line is,” he says.
So he didn’t pick up the phone and apologise to the women? “No, because there was no one complaining to me about it ... I read a story about it. I felt the best way to do it is the way I did it — to publicly apologise to anyone I may have offended. If I went over the line, I did not know about it. And I regret it.”
No one has complained to him? “No. I wish that people would have complained about it then and there.” It may be the most unconvincing line I’ve heard him deliver, film roles included.
Perhaps Schwarzenegger’s lowest moment came in 2011, when his wife, Maria Shriver, found out that he had fathered a son with his housekeeper in 1996. Shriver, a journalist, Catholic and niece of John F Kennedy, filed for divorce. But eight years later, the paperwork still hasn’t gone through.
“Oh, that’s something that you will have to ask her side,” says Schwarzenegger, his charm returning. “But I can tell you that she’s really happy. I was over there last night at her house, we were celebrating Mother’s Day, we were all having a great relationship, the kids, my wife and me — and it’s as good as you can be. But we can’t see any kind of way of living together the way it used to be.”
It’s now 10am, and Schwarzenegger has an appointment with the rough cut of Terminator 6. His films have always toyed with the future of humanity — the potential for artificial intelligence, time travel and regeneration. I wonder how much method acting is involved. Would he consider, for example, cryogenically freezing his own body?
“I’ve done a movie about cloning, The Sixth Day. The best thing that we know that you can do to recreate yourself is the way you bring up your kids. The more time you invest in your kids, the more they will become like you.” Like much of what Schwarzenegger says, it seems to come from a good place, even when it doesn’t make total sense.
He gathers his iPad, and launches one more call to action on climate change. “People are just waiting and saying, the UN is going to negotiate, and oh, [leave it to] the federal government. No!”
Unless he were the federal government, I venture. “Then it would have been taken care of!” he laughs. “We would have solved all the problems in two seconds.”
Schwarzenegger doesn’t believe that. Perhaps, like Trump, he believes most of all in himself and his own adventure. But these days his opportunism is a benign force. As I move to pay the bill, I think that if America had to elect a populist Republican president, it could have chosen a better one.
• Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.