Arnie's still hungry for success

Comeback action star Arnold Schwarzenegger does many of his own stunts in Sabotage.
Comeback action star Arnold Schwarzenegger does many of his own stunts in Sabotage.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES

Back in movies after a career in politics, Arnold Schwarzenegger says he is prepared to work his way up again

Arnold Schwarzenegger's big Hollywood comeback is not going quite as planned.

Since stepping down as Governor of California in 2011, the actor-turned- politician-turned-actor-again had starring roles in two action films last year: Escape Plan with Sylvester Stallone and The Last Stand, the first movie he headlined in a decade.

Both tanked in the United States; now, so has his third and latest effort, the crime thriller Sabotage, which is about an elite squad of drug-enforcement agents who rob a drug cartel. It scraped up a mere US$5.2 million (S$6.5 million) when it debuted in the United States two weeks ago - a career low for a man who was once the biggest action star, with hits such as The Terminator (1984), Predator (1987) and Total Recall (1990) to his name.

Yet the 66-year-old seems undeterred - he has already signed on to do the upcoming sequels to The Terminator and two of his other big successes from the 1980s, the comedy Twins and the Conan the Barbarian fantasy franchise.

Speaking to the media ahead of his new film, which opens in Singapore today, the Austrian-born former bodybuilder says he did not think for one second it was going to be easy returning to show business.

"I think if you want to get to the top, whether it's in your profession or mine or politics, it's always a grind, it's always tough.

"And so I don't look at it as, 'Is it going to be easy or tough?' I just say, 'That's what I want to do, I want to get back into the movie business', like I always envisioned. And I'm going to start by again working my way up until I have successful movies again.

"You know, whatever it takes, I will do, and I will take my work seriously."

And lest anyone doubts that he had the same work ethic during his two-term stint as Governor of California from 2003 to 2011, he emphasises that he started thinking about acting only when he left office.

"Until the last day of my governorship, I refused to have any meetings with studio executives to talk about my future or doing a movie.

"Because I always said I cannot do this job and represent the people if I'm still thinking about myself. What I was doing as governor was much bigger than myself; you're representing a state with 38 million people and the eighth largest economy in the world. This is so big that you cannot all of a sudden start thinking, in the last six months of your governorship, 'Oh, well, what is the movie I'm going to do three months after I'm finished with this?' So I had my first meetings after Jerry Brown was elected and sworn in."

But just as Schwarzenegger always planned to return to acting eventually, he has not left politics behind completely either.

In 2012, the card-carrying Republican spent US$20 million - his own money and that of donors - to launch a policy think-tank at the University of Southern California, the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy. Its goal: to find bipartisan policy solutions to political, economic and environmental reform.

The talkative actor is a relentless name-dropper when it comes to his political connections. Upon seeing a French reporter at the Sabotage press event, he says: "France! I almost went to France a few months ago, to meet your president. We had scheduled some discussions but postponed them to a little later."

And he volunteers that the first thing he did after stepping down as governor was to make speeches, not movies.

"I made a bunch of speeches around the world because that's what you do when you come out of politics, right?" he says, laughing.

"The Washington Speakers' Bureau calls and says, 'We can get you hundreds of thousands of dollars for a speech', and that I already have 18 speeches lined up. So you try that, and you run into all those guys - George Bush and Bill Clinton and Colin Powell. You bump into each other in all these different places, weird places like Nigeria, where they have more money than anybody to give you for speeches."

With a net worth estimated at around US$300 million, it does not seem like he would need the cash, but perhaps it is that work ethic again - and the drive that took him from a small village in Austria, where his family struggled to make ends meet on his father's police-chief salary, to international fame and fortune as an actor.

He says he instils that same drive in his four children, aged 17 to 25, with ex-wife Maria Shriver, drilling it into them that they will never get anywhere without working hard, no matter how rich and famous their dad is.

"You just have to say, look, the only way you're going to be successful is if you work your a** off. I mean, there are other principles - such as having a vision of where you want to go, not taking no for an answer, not listening to your critics - but the one thing you've got to do is work your butt off. It's as simple as that.

"That's why I think sports are so important, they're the best equaliser. If you go to the gym, 100 pounds is going to be 100 pounds, no matter how rich you are. So I was a big believer in my kids doing sports. Because they learn that the harder you work in sport, the further you go, and the same goes in real life.

"My son, Patrick, wants to be an actor too, but he knows it's a grind, there's no freebie out there. Luckily, my wife was very good with the kids, because when I was out there working she was there spending all that time with them and teaching them these values," says the actor, who is reportedly dating Heather Milligan, a 38-year-old physical therapist, as his divorce from Shriver is finalised.

Shriver, 58, filed for divorce in 2011 after it emerged that Schwarzenegger had fathered a 14-year-old son, Joseph, with their former housekeeper.

As proud as he is of his children - he speaks glowingly of their achievements throughout the interview - he concedes that they will probably never be as driven as he was.

"They will never be as hungry, no, forget it. If you grow up with no safety net, like I did, it makes you a totally different person. My kids have a safety net, they know that they have money put aside for them and that if worst comes to worst, they're never going to starve.

"But look at Donald Trump - there are many people out there who have come from a successful background and become 10 times more successful. So the key thing is you direct them and educate them and let them hang out with the right people, so they get hungry and develop a vision."

His own hunger to succeed is still as keen as ever - it is something that he brings to his action roles the same way he always did, even though it has been more than four decades since he started out in the business.

"I'm not a retired person like the kind you sometimes see in the movies, with a rocking chair and a pipe, dozing off every two minutes and talking about the good old days," he says with a smile.

"I jump into these movies and we work on it in such a way that we all come to an agreement over whether or not I should do the stunt, and where the stunt guy comes in."

As a tough-as-nails Drug Enforcement Agency officer in Sabotage, Schwarzenegger did many of his own stunts, including those for a bone-rattling scene where he is tossed around in the back of a truck during a high-speed chase.

The actor, who still looks impressively buff up close, says he never thinks about his age during these moments.

"I don't get on a truck and think, well, now I'm 66 years old, so be careful because if you fall over you're going to break your hip. I broke my hip already 15 years ago, and I broke my knee when I was 23.

"You just get in and try and figure out, if they make the turn at 30 miles an hour or 50 miles an hour, if they zigzag back and forth, what do you need so you don't slip, what kind of boots do you wear.

"You work on those things rather than think, 'Oh, at 66, you shouldn't be in the back of the truck in a shoot-out."

Sabotage opens in Singapore today.