Early one cool morning in late July, Arnold Schwarzenegger climbs onto a bicycle with fat tires and chrome trim and sets out on a two-and-a-half-mile ride from Santa Monica to Venice, California. The rest of his crew for the day—me; his chief of staff, Daniel Ketchell; his old friend Dieter Rauter; and a new friend, actor Gabriel Luna, who stars with Schwarzenegger in this fall’s Terminator: Dark Fate—are supposed to ride alongside him, but within a few minutes that plan has evaporated, mostly because nobody else in the group rides as aggressively as Arnold does.
He blows through red lights and stops signs with an ambulance driver’s assertiveness. At one point he blazes right past a cop car, helmetless and unconcerned. Eventually, he whips around a corner and we lose sight of him entirely—dusted by a man who will be 72 in five days. He doesn’t even appear to be pedaling that hard; he just will not slow down.
The first Terminator movie was released 35 years ago this October. A string of bodybuilding championships and a glowering, oiled-up turn in Conan the Barbarian had already made Schwarzenegger a sensation. But The Terminator, the second feature by a young director named James Cameron, made him an icon. It was cheap and eerie and relentless, and its story—presciently paranoid sci-fi that looks past the nuclear threat to the dawn of malignant AI—pulled from Arnold the most unforgettably unemotive performance through which an actor has ever forged an emotional connection with the public. It’s the most important Schwarzenegger movie because it’s the beginning of both the legend and the joke of Arnold, of both Arnold and Ahhhhhnul
It’s the reason every man in the English-speaking world believes he can do an Arnold impression. It launched a million jokes and inspired an army of pop-culture figures, from Hans and Franz to Rainier Wolfcastle, who were themselves jokes about Ahhhhhnuld. One key to Schwarzenegger’s success is that he never seemed to mind being a punchline to people; he understood it as another way he could live in their heads. So let them make jokes.
Arnold’s onscreen introduction plays like a prophecy: The T-800 materializes out of nowhere, jaybird naked, and surveys the lights of Hollywood from the top deck of Griffith Observatory, as if preparing to crush all resistance, possibly with his glutes. Within 20 years, Schwarzenegger was the governor of California, after unseating Democratic incumbent Gray Davis in a recall election whose also-rans included Gary Coleman, Arianna Huffington, and Larry Flynt. He was nicknamed “the Governator,” but the important part was that he was the governor of California. It was the most improbable case in American history of a tide of voter resentment sweeping a celebrity without political experience into public office, for a time.
The original Terminator was a merciless robotic killing machine sent from a post-apocalyptic future to snuff out all hope. Its subsequent iterations have mirrored Schwarzenegger’s evolution as a cultural icon. The kinder, gentler T-800 in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day—reprogrammed to protect the innocent and bark catchphrases such as “Hasta la vista, baby” and “Chill out, dickwad”—was akin to the cuddlier persona Arnold was trying out in comedies like Twins and Kindergarten Cop. These days, he has a snowy gray beard, and in Dark Fate so does the T-800. He also drives a van, answers to “Carl,” and will presumably join forces with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, returning for the first time since T2) to fend off a new, nightmarish future that puts a 2019 twist on Cameron’s vision of a world-ending in fire. “I think people fear that less,” says Dark Fate director Tim Miller about the whole “end of the world” scenario, “than they fear the many other ways that AI can make us an unimportant footnote in biological history.” Hamilton agrees: “Our devices are actually changing human anatomy. We are closer to the brink than ever.” And Arnold is once again waiting for us there.
The stage is set for a cyborg spin on what Logan borrowed from Unforgiven, with the T-800 as a grizzled antihero saddling up for one last showdown with a newer, faster, meaner version. Luna plays the next-generation Terminator Rev-9, whose upgraded features include the ability to separate his black-metal endoskeleton from his shape-shifting liquid-metal body, doubling his terminating capacity. “There are moments [in Dark Fate]where you kind of feel sorry for Terminator, for the T-800,” Schwarzenegger says. “It’s like, ‘I hope he gets destroyed, but I hope he wins against this.’ ”
Miller says that once Schwarzenegger agreed to do the movie, there was never a question about whether to have him play his actual age. “I didn’t want to do a digital Arnold, that’s for fuck sure,” he says. “We’re [embracing]the reality of what it means to be a person of a certain age who is called upon to be heroic. I love that. I always liked stories like Rooster Cogburn and True Grit, things like that—flawed heroes are so much more interesting than young, perfect ones to me. And he looks great. There were so many women on the set who were like, ‘Oh my God, this is the best Arnold ever looked.’ It’s different from Mr. Olympia—he was a god, but there’s something about him at this age. He has this regalness.”
I have never walked into a Catholic church as part of the pope’s entourage, but I have now crossed the threshold of Gold’s Gym with Arnold Schwarzenegger and his retinue, and I imagine the two experiences are not dissimilar. He’s dressed to blend into the crowd, in a gray American Eagle T-shirt, blue shorts, and black slip-on sneakers. But he’s still Arnold, and although Gold’s has moved a few blocks inland since he started coming here in the late ’60s, this is still symbolically the place where his story began. When he enters the gym, heads turn. Lifters pause mid curl to do double-takes. The buff young man working the front desk steps out from behind his computer and begins striking bodybuilding poses for the maestro’s approval. Schwarzenegger studies his form and shouts words of encouragement: “Yes! Bend the knee! You are the most muscular!”
In the evening, Schwarzenegger exercises at home, but when he’s in town, he prefers to do his morning workouts at Golds. He likes the crowd and energy. He talks to other regulars as if he were just another fit old guy saying hello on a Thursday morning, and they go along with it and talk to him as if they also believe he’s a normal guy. Everybody gets a perfect single-serving Schwarzenegger interaction to take with them as a gift. Thank you for coming to Golds.
“You can easily be overwhelmed because he’s a historical figure,” Luna says when asked what it’s like to meet Schwarzenegger for the first time. “But he doesn’t place himself on a pedestal that way. He always makes sure to look at people’s eye-to-eye. And in doing so, I think you disarm the craziness, y’know?”
Luna and Rauter—a 50-year-old Austrian who is Arnold’s occasional stunt double—drift into the next room to watch Ketchell attempt a personal-best deadlift. Schwarzenegger stays behind and slides into the seat of a pullover machine. He had shoulder surgery in 2012 to repair a torn rotator cuff; since then, he’s given up free weights in favor of machines. This one is his favorite.
Arnold doesn’t seem deeply invested in whether I break a sweat here today, but he really wants me to try the pullover machine, so I do. I grab the bar and start moving it up and down; immediately I hear him say “No” and feel his cool, dry hands on my wrists, expertly moving my hands to exactly where they’re supposed to be. I wake up the following day and the two days after that with my triceps feeling like they’re on fire, but that is probably not the machine’s fault, or Arnold’s.
Schwarzenegger has also had hip surgery and knee surgery, and last year he had a deteriorating pulmonic valve in his heart replaced. These days, when he walks from machine to machine in the gym, there’s a heaviness to his movements. Like the outside of a T-800, Arnold is made of living tissue and living tissue ages. Up close, the tan skin around his grapefruit biceps appears to have a crepey texture. But when he does the pullovers, the years seem to melt away, and suddenly it’s like he’s drawing power from a different source like he’s just been saving it for these moments.
Schwarzenegger landed here in October 1968, in the tumultuous weeks before Richard Nixon was elected president. He’d hang out and watch the news with bodybuilding photographer Artie Zeller and his wife. Hubert Humphrey’s speeches sounded too much like socialism; Schwarzenegger liked how Nixon talked about opportunity and decided right then to be a Republican.
It was an interesting time to move to America, he says. “The Democratic Convention. Police beating up on the protesters. And there was all this madness—the Vietnam War, the bombing didn’t stop. And the hippies. And we went to San Francisco; there was the hippie kind of . . . the park there. Everyone’s getting stoned and loaded. It was chaos, everywhere you look,” he says.“I said, ‘Wow, did I come over here at the right time? What is going on here?’ ”
He remembers meeting Sunset Boulevard beat cops at Gold. “I’d say, ‘Oh, Sunset Boulevard—are you gonna get the drug addicts there arrested?’ And they’d say, ‘We don’t arrest people. We pull those hippies in the fucking backyard and just beat them up.’ That was the normal attitude! There was wild stuff in those first few years when I came to this country—all the way up to Watergate.”
That experience informs his understanding of the present; he knows that on some level, America always exists in a state of irreconcilable tension. This is not to say he doesn’t recognize that right now is another wilder-than-usual passage in the country’s history. Despite not having held the public office since 2011, he’s directly embroiled in the madness of this political moment; to this day, President Donald Trump will take any opportunity
to publicly ridicule Schwarzenegger’s low-rated stint as the replacement host of what turned out to be the final season of NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice.
“I think he really—he’s in love with me,” Arnold says when asked why the president of the United States can’t let this beef go. “That’s the reality of it. With Trump, he wants to be me.”
Does he fear you?
“I don’t think he fears me,” Schwarzenegger says. “But I remember that in the old days when we went to the wrestling matches, the way he admired people with bodies, and the way they would jump around in the ring, and to perform physical stunts and stuff like that—he had great admiration for that. And the showmanship—he had great admiration for that. He asked me, How do you do that, with the movies? I mean, it’s so believable. He drilled down to specific questions that fascinated him. It was about How do you sell something? Like, a scene. How do you go and act out a scene so that I get affected emotionally? He was fascinated by that. How do you do this when you do interviews—that you penetrate through it and you then are totally believable?”
By 7:45, after a good hour of focused exercise and even more focused golf-foursome ball-breaking, everyone senses it’s time to go because Rauter and Schwarzenegger have started trading old Rodney Dangerfield jokes in their respective Austrian accents: My wife can’t cook at all. She made chocolate mousse. An antler got stuck in my throat. Dangerfield had a million of ’em; Rauter and Schwarzenegger have them all memorized.
The guy at the reception desk wants to flex for Arnold again. Arnold stops, watches, murmurs directions—Good, good—and then barks, “Drama! DRAMA!” as the guy hits a hard pose. Arnold begins to mirror his movements; he does something with his arms, and all of a sudden, in a way I can’t fully explain, it’s like he becomes Conan before our eyes, to the point that you expect him to produce a sword out of nowhere.
The reception-desk guy stares in awe. Rauter shakes his head and says, “This is what we go through, every fucking time.”
Arnold gets back on his bike, and the rest of the group get back on theirs. I try to keep pace with him, but within a minute or two I’ve fallen a few car lengths behind, which means I see all the morning commuters, hard-hatted construction workers, and sidewalk-
camping homeless people a split second after they see a guy go by
on a bike who they could swear was Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Before long, he’s left us all at a red light.
“That man’s desire to be first,” Luna says wonderingly, “is probably greater than anyone I’ve ever met.”
A few minutes later, Schwarzenegger is sitting at a large, round table in a private dining room at the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica, waiting for some breakfast. I ask if the competitive instinct that fueled him in the old Gold’s days is still in him somewhere if he’s had to find different ways to channel that energy.
“I don’t really see myself as competitive,” Arnold says, and everyone else in the room laughs knowingly at what is obviously a highly debatable assertion.
“Just don’t play chess with him,” Rauter says from the other side of the table. “I could win six chess games in a row and lose the last one, and he thinks he won.” He drops his voice, does an Arnold impression: “You leave da house as a loose. I’m da winnah.”
“Well, the way it is defined,” Arnold says calmly, “if you lose the last game, then you lose. Then you leave the house as a loser.”
The current chess score is 193 to 145, not that Schwarzenegger is counting, or even particularly proud.
“It’s not because of my victories,” he says, looking at Rauter. “It’s because of his fuck-ups. I cannot take credit for that at all.
A waiter brings in a little platter of cut-up pastries. Arnold looks at it and says, “This is mean-spirited.” He orders some tea and reaches straight for a slice of pain au chocolat. Health, he points out, has many different connotations—economic, mental, spiritual, physical. “This,” he says, “is for immediate mental health,” and then he takes a flaky bite of pastry while studying the menu.
“The thing about competition,” Arnold says, “is I needed training partners around. Most of the time, it was other people that motivated me. Also on the set—you talk about the scene and notice stuff and kind of pump each other up and motivate each other.”
On the set of Terminator: Dark Fate, he forged that kind of relationship with Luna. In addition to veterans Schwarzenegger and Hamilton, the film features a number of actors new to the franchise, including Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis as an android-human hybrid and Natalia Reyes as a young woman marked for termination. But no one is as excited to be in this movie as Luna, best known for playing Robbie Reyes, the demonically possessed Ghost Rider, on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The Austin-born actor remembers the day a TV and VCR on a cart were wheeled into his gym class to show a video Arnold had made to promote the President’s Challenge physical-fitness test. “I have an image in my mind of him doing those pullups,” Luna says. “I did three, I think.” He and his brother watched the first two Terminators and other Schwarzenegger classics like True Lies “until the tape popped.” Now he’s 36, and a few days after we talk he’ll be at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 72nd-birthday party, which will be a surreal experience in part because Luna was such a fan as a kid and in part because Arnold’s birthday party will have an Oktoberfest-in-July theme involving a bunch of animals. There will be an alligator and a lemur and a turkey vulture and a lynx, and Schwarzenegger will wear lederhosen and one of those little hats.
It’s clear Luna still can’t quite believe where he’s ended up, although Miller says the actor was the best choice for the kind of Terminator story he wanted to tell. “We decided early on that with the advances in AI, it doesn’t make any sense for this new Terminator to not be more human than human, which is why I picked Gabe—because he has this wonderful facility. He’ll be charming one moment and then go dead in the eyes and be the craziest motherfuckin’ serial-killer-looking dude ever.”
Luna plays a Rev-9 Terminator that can fix its own face.
I ask Luna what he did to get ready to meet Arnold on set for the first time if there’s any way to prepare yourself for a situation like that. Luna says he started training the minute he landed the first audition. “I knew I had to get my body into a good place,” he says, “because at the time, I was drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes and all this other stuff I didn’t need to be doing if I intended to play this role. I knew I’d eventually have to stand in front of this guy”—he gestures to Arnold—“and my motivation was, I want him to see me and see a formidable foe. I don’t want him to see me and think, I could squash this guy with my thumbs.”
Somehow it hadn’t dawned on Arnold until this conversation about Luna growing up watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies that his friend and costar is exactly half his age.
“You were born what year?” he asks.
“Nineteen eighty-two,” Luna says.
“Eighty-two,” Schwarzenegger says, and as he accesses the relevant memory bank, an almost dreamy note enters his voice. “Eighty-two was when we released Conan.”
He met his friend Ralf Moeller that year. Went to Germany with the movie. Maybe he was onstage in Munich or Essen, showing Conan to people, the day Luna was born. He’d already had a whole career before Luna took his first breath, and now they’re in this movie together, pretending they want to destroy each other.
Luna plays the Rev-9, the most advanced Terminator yet with the power to separate into two Terminator units.
Luna says his costar didn’t volunteer too many tips on how to play a Terminator. “I only asked him once, when we were in the gym,” the actor says, “and he let it be known to me that he wanted me to create something of my own. But what he was able to offer when I pressed him a little further was that it’s effortless. Everything has to be done in an effortless way. When you fire a weapon, you fire it from the hip—there’s no reason to look down the sight [of your gun], because you have a target already, in your eyes. . . . No blinking, just automatic gunfire.”
“The no blinking,” Arnold says, “is very difficult to do. In the first movie, we made mistakes where I did blink.” You can see it, he explains, if you look closely at the scene where the Terminator kicks in the door of one of the other Sarah Connors before shooting her. “And then when we got to the second movie, I said to Jim [Cameron], ‘There’s no room for mistakes. There will be no blinking, ever.’ ”
When the first Terminator was being cast, Orion Pictures chairman Mike Medavoy wanted Schwarzenegger for the role of Kyle Reese, the human resistance fighter sent back in time to save Hamilton’s Sarah Connor from termination. Medavoy’s pick to play the machine was O. J. Simpson; Cameron wasn’t having it. He just couldn’t picture the genial new announcer on Monday Night Football as a killing machine.
When Schwarzenegger read the script, he says, “I got fixated on the Terminator.” Still assuming he’d play Reese, he went to meet with Cameron but spent the whole time talking about the android—how he’d be able to take apart and reload guns without looking at them, how he’d mow people down without a trace of emotion. “He’s a machine,” Arnold says. “So everything has to be matter-of-fact. I told Jim that. I said there should be no joy, no gratification, no kind of victory lap of any sort. Just the mission, complete. I go through these points. Jim, afterward, says to me, ‘Fuck, you analyze it better than the way I have written it. Why don’t you play the Terminator?’ ”
Schwarzenegger demurred at first (“I said, ‘The Terminator only says 27 lines,’ ” he remembers) but ultimately relented. The role of Kyle Reese went to Michael Biehn; the rest is film history. Even if you choose to see Arnold’s decision to play the T-800 as that of an inexperienced leading man recognizing the limitations of his instrument and finding a way to work with them, the performance speaks for itself. It’s hard to imagine another actor underselling the line “I’ll be back” straight into the history books the way he did. “He was pitch-perfect,” Hamilton says of Schwarzenegger’s performance in the first film. “Still, his long and varied career has been a great surprise. I didn’t see it coming. Shows you what I know!”.
Schwarzenegger believes it was the Terminator’s lack of humanity, ironically enough, that won audiences over. “People really admired the character, because he was able to do things they all wanted to do,” Arnold says. “Everyone wants to wipe out a police station when they get mad at the police. We had a test screening. We showed it to 50 cops. They all applauded when I wiped out the police station—because it was not a human being doing it, it was the machine doing it.”
I ask if there’s anyone in the game right now who Schwarzenegger
thinks has the same long-haul potential. “You cannot ignore the Rock,” he says, “who’s done some really extraordinary movies and has grossed a lot of money—$2 billion, or whatever it is.” Schwarzenegger goes on to mention Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. But you can tell the question isn’t really of interest to him. Only a competitive man would dwell on it.
Schwarzenegger has started looking at his watch, but once I bring up politics I get his attention back. As governor of California, he broke with Republican orthodoxy on LGBTQ issues, the decriminalization of marijuana, and environmental protection. It’s hard to imagine a prominent Republican, even at the state level, going roguelike that in today’s hyperpolarized political climate. He shrugs.
“I think in general it was the same kind of situation [back then],” he says. “But I just did not care.”
Arnold teams up again with Linda Hamilton in the Terminator: Dark Fate.
He’s proud of having led the way on those issues. He regrets calling for a special election in 2005 to push through four ballot initiatives, all of which California voters rejected, instead of waiting until 2006 and working things out with Democratic lawmakers. When I ask him what he learned from his tenure in the governor’s office that one could learn only by running a vast and fractious state like California, he gives rehearsed answers about coalition building. But when he talks about calling the special election, he ends up explaining what the governorship taught him about himself.
“I always complain about Trump not being able to shift from Trump to the president,” he says. “Well, the reason why I say this is because I saw that with myself, that I was not able to shift from Arnold to the governor. I was still stuck as Arnold. Arnold always gets things done. I forced my way in there, then I do it and do it and do it and do it until it gets done. And I felt the same thing I can do with politics. But I learned quickly that that’s really not the way it works. You got to be able to bring people together. It takes much more time, much more effort, but that’s just the way it is. If you don’t like that, don’t get into politics.”
He says he feels like he got a little better at this stuff, for a while—bringing people together, working things out. “And then, of course, we were hit the last two years with a recession. And the shit—the shit hit the fan.”
Arnold gets a FaceTime call. Arnold loves FaceTime.
“I’m on the way home,” he says into his iPad. “This writer here has promised me now, after 16 times today, that this is the last question. Just one more.”
“All right, well, I’m waiting for you,” says the woman on the
other end. “All right,” he says.
“I threw him under the bus immediately,” Schwarzenegger says to the crew. “You see that? Do you see how fast I threw him under the bus? Huh? It didn’t even take one second.”
I have one more question. This is what I choose to ask him about. Arnold became a U. S. citizen on September 16, 1983, along with 2,000 other people at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, which would become the home of the Academy Awards in the early 2000s. There are a bunch of photos from this day. Arnold smiling while being sworn in by a judge. Arnold smiling with his future wife, Maria Shriver, an American flag in the pocket
of his suit jacket. Arnold smiling and cutting the cake at his citizenship-ceremony party in a sleeveless American-flag tank top. Arnold posing in front of an American flag while waving a little American flag and wearing a little American-flag hat.
In these photos, Arnold looks happier than anyone else you’ve ever seen. I ask him if it’s still possible for something like this to happen, or if we’re closing the doors of this country to people who might share the young Arnold’s desire to come here and be great, and suddenly it does not matter that Arnold has somewhere else he needs to be.
“Well, I see it in the gym,” Schwarzenegger says. “I see guys I meet in the gym that are from Austria. They’re aggressive. They’re from Israel, they’re from France, they’re from Germany, from Russia, from all kinds of different places. And they find their way because what happens when you’re a foreigner is, you have the work ethic. You know that you have to struggle from the beginning; otherwise, you wouldn’t be leaving your country. If you had this wonderful, rosy atmosphere, you would not want to leave.
“Let me tell you something. When I travel around the world, the most common thing that people always come to me about—and I’m a very accessible kind of guy, right?—people come up to me in the gym or at a restaurant and say, ‘America.’ America. People everywhere, no matter how much they dump on America, no matter how much people laugh at Trump right now all over the world—they want to come to America. Because they know that one president, one man, cannot change this country.”
He’s for comprehensive immigration reform. He still sees a big difference between legal and illegal immigration. “But I don’t blame anybody that tries to come here illegally,” he says.
Now he really has to go. He gets up and walks out and waits in the driveway as his driver brings a massive black Yukon around so that he can strap Arnold’s bike onto the back of it. While this is happening, we stand there looking up at the enormous tree in front of the hotel. It’s a Moreton Bay fig tree, and it happens to be one of the biggest fig trees in California. The biggest one is in Santa Barbara. The one in front of this hotel is 140 years old and was supposedly imported to this country as a sapling by an Australian seaman in exchange for the forgiveness of his bar tab, although that part is probably a lie. It’s a brawny, incredible tree, a tree James Cameron would be proud to have computer-generated,
a bodybuilder of a banyan exploding out of a tangle of white roots as thick around as swole thighs.
“What pisses me off,” Arnold says, breaking a momentary silence, “is that that tree is still going to be here, smiling, when we’re all dead and gone.”
With that, he climbs into the Yukon and slams the door. Perhaps the tree will have the last laugh. But he will not wait around for it.