The Unkillable Arnold Schwarzenegger

How does an action-hero ex-governor spend his golden years? Loudly

Arnold Schwarzenegger has spent his life turning naysayers into spectators, skeptics into constituents. Credit: Peter Yang

Arnold Schwarzenegger boards an elevator beside a mural of Arnold Schwarzenegger, ascends to a third-floor hallway lined with pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger, walks through double doors guarded by a life-size statue of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and enters his Santa Monica office. He sits in a high-backed armchair upholstered in crocodile skin, opposite a coffee table laden with fresh berries, fine china and stacks of napkins printed with the seal of the governor of the state of California. His arms are huge; his calves bulge below blue athletic shorts: He is fresh from a workout.

Schwarzenegger — back in the private sector for more than four years now, after two terms leading the state from Sacramento — takes movie and business meetings here. Against a far wall are cases displaying "my trophies from old bodybuilding competitions," he says. Behind his desk is a towering Andy Warhol silk-screen of Russell Means, the Native American actor and activist; below this sits a small photograph of Meinhard Schwarzenegger, Arnold's strikingly beautiful older brother, who died in a car crash at 24. Schwarzenegger has forgotten what Meinhard's voice sounded like. But he thinks of him often. "I have always been extremely pissed off about the idea of death," he says. "It's such a waste. I know it's inevitable, but what the hell is that? Your whole life you work, you try to improve yourself, save money, invest wisely, and then all of a sudden — poof. It's over." Arnold Schwarzenegger is 67. "Death pisses me off more than ever," he says.

Immortality — the way legacies can outlive us — has long obsessed him. One of Schwarzenegger's favorite TV series these days is Legends & Lies, on Fox News, which examines the myths around historic figures. "I watched an episode on Jesse James last night," he says. Schwarzenegger will tell you that some men are born to lead and that others are born merely to follow, but even in the former category, there is a pecking order: He gestures toward the west side of the room, where bronze busts of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan nestle closely. Set a few feet to the east is a bust of Vladimir Lenin. "The idea is to show losers" – he points at Lenin, then turns his finger westward — "and winners." Schwarzenegger grew up in Cold War-era Austria, in Thal, a rural village that lived in fear, as he remembers it, of Soviet forces. For a time, here in L.A., he surrounded his swimming pool with statues of "Stalin, Khrushchev, Andropov, Chernenko — every Russian leader but Brezhnev and Kosygin." He placed them atop ornamental columns, like the skulls of vanquished foes smushed onto pikes.

Whereas the movies that paid for that swimming pool were about killing, Schwarzenegger has a new film to promote, called Maggie, and it is a movie about dying. Maggie is a genre film — apocalyptic food shortage, attacking zombie hordes — but unrelentingly gloomy. Schwarzenegger plays a stoic farmer named Wade, and we learn right away that his daughter, played by Abigail Breslin, has been bitten by a zombie and is going to die. For 90 minutes, we watch Wade watch her die. Wade offs some zombies along the way and roughs up an insensitive local cop, but this violence amounts, in the end, to pointless flailing. "The script really had an effect on me," Schwarzenegger says. "It's a parent's worst nightmare to see one of your kids die." His salary for Terminator 3, the last thing he released before entering government, was $30 million, but on Maggie, he says, "I didn't take anything." For most of his career, he never cared about doing a drama. Now, he says, "I'm at that age where those kinds of things have much more of an emotional effect." 

This summer, it's back to basics: July will bring Terminator Genisys, Schwarzenegger's fourth movie in that franchise. A Conan the Barbarian reboot has been announced too. These are the opposite of late-career swerves into the unexpected. In the Genisys trailer, Schwarzenegger says "I'll be back" and dives from a helicopter. That dive, considered in a harsh light, mirrors Schwarzenegger's rapid hurtle from politics back into action movies: When he was a white-hot candidate in California's 2003 recall election, he inspired giddy talk of amending the Constitution so a foreigner could take the presidency. He won 48.6 percent of the vote and enjoyed a 65 percent approval rating early on; there were policy victories and a wide re-election margin. But Schwarzenegger also suffered brutal legislative defeats and found his agenda hampered by the recession. By the end, his approval was at 23 percent, and California's debt had nearly tripled. In this context, Schwarzenegger doing a Terminator movie might seem less like a graceful victory lap and more like an undignified regression.

But if you think Arnold Schwarzenegger sees it that way — if you think he has drifted one inch, in his own estimation, away from history's winner's circle — then you know nothing about Arnold Schwarzenegger. The guy has spent his life turning naysayers into spectators, skeptics into constituents. "I've always been underestimated, and that's always worked in my advantage," he says. "It's the most wonderful thing, to be underestimated."

Schwarzenegger goes for a bike ride in Santa Monica. "I do it once, twice, three times a week even, if I'm not traveling," he says. Schwarzenegger pedals to Gold's Gym. He wears a navy jacket that says "Team USA" on the back and, on his left wrist, an enormous watch. "This is just a cheap Invicta" he wears when working out, he says.

He ignores red lights and cuts off oncoming traffic to make left turns. Some pedestrians notice the former governor. One guy waiting for the bus presents a downturned thumb and makes a fart noise with his mouth. In Venice, across from Gold's Gym, a paparazzi is waiting. "Arnie! Arnie!" he shouts, feebly attempting to provoke a response. "Are you the leader of a push-bike gang?"

Schwarzenegger is impassive. "I ignore their stupid questions," he tells me.

Inside Gold's, the young Schwarzenegger — bulbous, oiled-up flesh arranged into impossible geometries — beams down from framed pictures. When he was a kid in postwar Thal, he marveled at the Venice bodybuilders in American muscle magazines. Schwarzenegger's father was a cop and former card-carrying Nazi with a dour, defeated attitude. Schwarzenegger fashioned himself a moneymaking hustler — scamming for change in the nearby city of Graz, peddling ice cream at a 200 percent markup. Images of Muscle Beach combined in his mind with Hollywood movies to form a portrait of America as the land of winners. 

He was good at math, and bodybuilding provided a quantifiable form of excellence: If he did this many reps, his biceps would get this many centimeters bigger. "The gym where I worked out had wooden walls, and I used to write with chalk all my sets, all my reps, every single progress," Schwarzenegger says. He won big competitions and headed to California. His laser focus on greatness at times seemed jarringly cold. In the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, he recalls his unsentimental reaction to his father's death: He was two months away from a competition when his mother called with the news, and he refused to interrupt his training for the funeral. "He's dead," he told her. "There's nothing to be done."

Even as he recounts this, Schwarzenegger is disconcertingly charismatic. One of his greatest gifts as a bodybuilder had nothing to do with muscles but with his ability to charm crowds. He'd get into other bodybuilders' heads, playing pranks on them, needling at their insecurities. That performative savvy carried into Hollywood, of course, and into politics. "If I give a speech," he says, "I need to be able to play with the audience like putty."

In 1986, Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican, married Maria Shriver, the author and Kennedy heiress. In 2003, California's governor, Gray Davis, was weak in the polls, and Schwarzenegger, who'd been considering a move into politics, handily won his job. At the Sacramento Capitol, one of his splashiest moves was to erect a vast smoking tent, where he puffed Cuban cigars, holding court below a moody black-and-white portrait of himself. "It was my turf," Schwarzenegger says.

Gold's Gym is his turf too. He zigzags from the pectoral fly to the overhead press to the bicep curl — reps here, reps there. He spots an octogenarian in track pants going hard on a stationary bike. "Mahoney!" Schwarzenegger calls out. Mahoney, first name Chuck, is a former bodybuilder. "This guy is guilty of once carrying two 250-pound weights, one in each hand, all the way to Muscle Beach and back," Schwarzenegger says. "It's 250 now?" Mahoney replies, smiling. "You need to get this story straight, Arnold. I did it twice — 65 the first time, 110 the second."

Schwarzenegger returns to his routine, and people keep approaching with their phones out. He will stand for pictures, he tells each one, when he's done exercising. The line grows. "After," he tells new supplicants. He grunts it between reps: "After!" 

He and Shriver have four kids together: two boys, two girls. He struggled as a dad to locate the line between giving them things he'd never had and spoiling them. "It's very tough, because you didn't have anything, and they have everything," he says. "So, of course, you always think about it: 'Why would I buy him a car at the age of 16?' But then you realize if he doesn't have a car, he'll be the only one of his friends without one. So you get them an Audi. The smallest Audi. Or a small Jeep. But the good thing is, they were always responsible." When his daughter Katherine was promoting a 2010 self-help book she wrote, she shared advice Arnold had given her: "You can't get anything done in a day if you get up past 5:30 a.m."

In 2011, it came to light that Schwarzenegger had fathered a fifth child, Joseph, now a teenager, with the family's housekeeper. According to his memoir, when Shriver confronted him, he assured her, "I'm turned on by you today as much as I was on the first date." She filed for divorce. Except to note that he and Joseph are close, Schwarzenegger refuses to discuss this now. "I don't think about it," he says. "I move forward." He began dating a physical therapist, Heather Milligan, who helped him recover from a shoulder injury. Paps stalk them. "The advantages hopefully outweigh the disadvantages," he says. "She's driving a Bugatti 180 miles an hour in France, all that stuff. So I think she's not complaining!"

His life can resemble retirement: He smokes cigars, travels, paints. "I do it usually around Christmastime, painting cards for friends and family, so I do mostly Santa Claus and snowmen," he says. He established a policy center, through which he helps to advocate for after-school programs, immigration reform and environmental protections. He remains full of ideas for his state, including how to deal with its water crisis. "This is the number-one thing: We have water, but we don't capture it. We always have our drought periods, and we always have our periods of rain coming down, and it's ludicrous for us not to have a plan."

Political short-term thinking galls him particularly. In a recent Washington Post op-ed about Indiana's religious-freedom laws, widely seen as sanctioning anti-gay discrimination, Schwarzenegger upbraided those in his party who remain focused on what he dismissed as tired culture-war distractions. He argues that his party has moved further right on such issues than is moral or sustainable. When I ask how he regards the 2016 Republican presidential field, he speaks gingerly: "The action is always in the middle — never to the extreme right." He is certainly left of the Republican mainstream on climate change, although he is less interested in criticizing conservatives or the automakers and energy lobbies, which he battled as governor, than environmentalists, for their shoddy messaging: "You can't talk about beetle-infested trees in Colorado," he says. "When you live in Texas or Iowa, you say, 'OK, the ocean rises one inch, why do I give a shit?' But people respond if you tell them you're killing 7 million people a year in the world, and 200,000 in America, with pollution-related illness. Environmentalists need to talk about that!"

When I ask about his approval ratings by the end of Term Two, he says he was a casualty, in large part, of global economic catastrophe. But, he adds defiantly, "I got an enormous amount of things done."

After his workout, Schwarzenegger pedals to the ocean for a look at Muscle Beach. It's chilly, and only a couple of tank-topped behemoths are out lifting. Vendors sell garish paintings, crappy flip-flops, carved wood tchotchkes. Weirdos laze about. "This place hasn't changed," says Schwarzenegger. "Lunatics. Drug addicts. It's exactly like the Sixties."

People notice him and cluster, abuzz. Schwarzenegger waves, says, "Hey! Hey!" He does not owe these people joy, but he seems happy to provide it to them so effortlessly. It's why he's doing Terminator again, he says: "It is one of those iconic characters people are fascinated by. I've always been in the business of entertaining people or serving people."

Before long he points his bike away from Muscle Beach, toward his office. A burnout-looking dude with a huge backpack and a mountain bike pulls up beside him. "Conan the Barbarian was your best work, man," he calls over.

"Thank you," replies Schwarzenegger, neither turning his head nor decelerating.

"I thought that was you riding past. I could tell from the back."

"From my lats!" Schwarzenegger jokes.

The guy veers toward the sand. Schwarzenegger turns inland, where a traffic light is turning red. He pays it no mind. "I should run for mayor of the Venice boardwalk!" he cries.