Entertaining Arnold

In a press junket interview, Schwarzenegger has the orange skin of extreme stardom -- and has reporters eating out of his hand.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published February 8, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Arnold Schwarzenegger comes bounding into a pokey little suite in New York's Essex House hotel, wearing that peculiar orange complexion -- a fake tan? TV makeup? A beta-carotene overdose? -- that connotes extreme stardom. He's here for a junket interview, that oft-derided infotainment moment when small groups of journalists get to spend a few minutes chatting with the stars and directors of Hollywood movies. "You guys obviously had Andy Davis already!" he beams, taking a quarter of a second to look at each of the reporters in the room individually. "That's why you're all in such a serious mood!"

He's referring to Andrew Davis, the bearded, balding, professorial director of "Collateral Damage," in which Schwarzenegger plays a firefighter whose wife and child are killed by Colombian terrorists in a Los Angeles bombing. He pursues the perpetrator through some murky adventures in the Colombian jungle and ends up almost single-handedly combating a terrorist plot to plow up government buildings in Washington. To some extent, "Collateral Damage" is an ordinary escapist action-adventure film fighting a battle against history that it can't possibly win. Its scheduled release last fall was postponed for obvious reasons, and its eerie, if clumsy, resemblance to actual events may make it seem weightier than it actually is.

Oddly enough, the film's terrorists were originally supposed to be Libyan, but Davis, who has a background in journalism, made the decision to focus on the virtual state of civil war between the U.S.-supported regime and the left-wing rebel groups in Colombia. "I felt there had been a series of movies with Arabs as the bad guys," he says, "and that it was a cliché. Instead we could address this place where there was all this hatred and maybe try to defuse it."

Whatever you think about Schwarzenegger, who at 54 is trying to reestablish himself as the movie world's biggest action hero, he understands the requirements of show business. He's working hard on this February afternoon to dispel the air of sobriety surrounding "Collateral Damage" and to counteract the gravity of Davis, who has indeed just left the room for another interview session. Davis is perhaps the leading contemporary auteur of the action genre -- he's best known for "The Fugitive" -- but he's also seen as a sort of Hollywood intellectual whose spectacular flicks contain parables of political darkness.

"Well, with me it's different," Schwarzenegger says, settling into a chair. Although he has lived principally in the United States since the early 1970s, his syntax remains, at least occasionally, that of a German speaker. "I don't do that stuff," he says, still talking about Davis. "I don't go to Colombia and study for three years terrorism. For me this is a movie about entertaining people!"

Come to think of it, there's something middle-European about Schwarzenegger's style of dress, too. He isn't attired in the sharp designer suit of a Hollywood executive or the pseudo-outdoor wear of a leisure-class American, but in a pair of dress slacks and a starched white oxford shirt, under an official "Collateral Damage" bomber jacket. Yet despite the surprisingly strong accent with its swallowed consonants and uniformly flat vowels, the almost nebbishy, enthusiastic manner and the bizarre skin tone, Schwarzenegger is in his own way an extraordinarily gifted performer.

Certainly by the end of the interview he has us eating out of his hand; we have pretty much forgotten about Davis and his dour tales of Venezuelan petrodollars and CIA subterfuge in Guatemala. We laugh uproariously at Schwarzenegger's jokes. We nod and smile when he gazes directly into the eyes of his interlocutor (pretty much the oldest trick in the actor's book). We all want to be helpful when he pretends to solicit our opinions about casting the female villain of his much-anticipated next film, "Terminator 3," which is scheduled to go before the cameras in April.

Tell us what you were doing on the morning of Sept. 11. How did you learn about the attacks?

My wife [NBC reporter Maria Shriver] got a phone call about 10 minutes to 7:00 [West Coast time]. The NBC bureau said, "Turn on the TV, there's been an accident, a plane has crashed into one of the twin towers in New York." So we turned on the news and watched basically the whole thing. The second plane went in and everyone started realizing it was not an accident, blah blah blah, all those things.

She had to go out to the airport to talk to people waiting for the passengers who were supposed to come from Boston to Los Angeles that [were in the plane that] hit the twin towers. We dropped off our kids at school at 8 o'clock, and she turned to me and said, "This means you can forget about your 'Collateral Damage' movie." I hadn't thought about it up to that point. I was just thinking about what I had just seen. I was, you know, in shock. Then I said, "You're right." I called Warner Bros. and they said they had been trying to call me to talk about pulling the movie. So we were all in sync on that one.

How did you explain to your kids what had happened?

One of the things I learned was to turn off the television right away. What is amazing about kids is that they don't see the difference between a replay and reality. My kids said to me, on the way to school that morning, "Daddy, there are 20 or 30 buildings that planes have run into." They had seen it again and again and just thought it was more planes and more buildings like that. They were confused and my wife and I just decided to turn off the TV.

Andrew Davis told us that he spent time interviewing New York firefighters for this movie, including some men who died on Sept. 11. Were you involved with that?

No, I came onboard after that. I think it was Harrison Ford that was asked first to do the movie. He was trying to sort out his life, and my wife got the script from [producer] Steve Reuther. She read it and was very persistent for me to do the movie. I didn't want to interfere with the Harrison Ford situation; it looks like you're trying to take someone else's job away. It happened to me one time with Bruce Willis on "Batman and Robin," where he was apparently promised the part and [director] Joel Schumacher came to me and asked me if I wanted to do the movie. It was an uncomfortable situation, which I don't want to happen again.

I came in late, in the spring before the fall when we shot. So I only spoke to Los Angeles firefighters. They were the ones that helped me with preparing for the various fire scenes we shot. They showed me how to get dressed in the uniform, how to do it by yourself. How to put the oxygen tank on, how to put the mask on. At what point do you put the fireproof hood over it and then put the helmet on? How do you take the helmet off? How do you give someone oxygen, if they're lying there dying? How would you do this so it looks authentic, it looks real? How do you carry more than a hundred pounds of gear around, all those axes and belts? How do you do that on ladders, how do you do it on steps, how do you chop through doors and walls with all this equipment? There were a lot of things to go through to make it look realistic. There was a fantastic group of Los Angeles firemen that helped me with all that stuff.

Do you work out less than you used to? You've had heart surgery [in 1997] and broke your ribs in a motorcycle accident [last Dec. 9]. And you're 54 years old.

Not at all. The only time I have ever sat out from working out was after my heart surgery, for a month, and after my motorcycle accident, for almost six weeks. Broken ribs -- that's worse than heart surgery! You never want to have broken ribs. Every time you inhale, you're in a tremendous amount of pain. You can't get up by yourself because you can't use your abdominal muscles. That contracts the ribs and you're in tremendous pain again. When you cough you think you're gonna die. It's a really wild thing. My Christmas ski vacation was destroyed because of it. My kids came over every day and said, "It was so beautiful up there today, Daddy! There were no crowds and the snow was perfect!" That was misery. I'll tell you, the only good thing about that accident was that it was two miles away from the house. So my wife was there literally within minutes, making sure my life insurance was paid up.

In this film you play a heroic firefighter who is almost a superhero. He protects the U.S. from a devastating terrorist attack pretty much by himself. Given all the firefighters who died as heroes on Sept. 11, in a terrorist attack they could do nothing to stop, how do you feel about the role now?

I don't think any of the firefighters were trying to be heroes. I think those firefighters only think about one thing: How can I save someone's life? That's what that was all about. Walking up 80 stories with all that crap on you -- it's so tough! I was practicing by walking 10 stories, and it was unbelievably tough. It's like squatting with 200 pounds for an hour. You can't do it! You can't even do it without any weight: squat for an hour. But that's what it is to run up those stairs, two at a time, like those guys do, really fast. I don't think they want to be heroes. They just want to save lives. It's a selfless profession.

Movies are movies. It's based on reality, but then you have to go the extra step. You want to make it entertaining and make it heroic, because that's what people want to see. They want a positive outcome. They want revenge. People are very loud and clear about what they want. When we tested our movie in November, they wanted to see a positive ending, they wanted us to kick the butts of the terrorists. Because in real life it's all so complicated. You know? Where are they? Have we found them all? We've found some of them. But bin Laden is still out there, some other guys are still out there. So there's still a dissatisfaction. But in a movie you close the deal. You close the chapter. Movies bring a certain kind of closure, a fantasy that makes people feel good afterwards.

It's no different than during the Second World War or the Vietnam War. That's how John Wayne became the big hero, along with Kirk Douglas and all those guys. Doing war movies and kicking the Germans' butts and calling them "Krauts" and all this stuff. It was great, great entertainment. They showed the Americans, losing fewer lives, you know, and usually there's a personal focus on a guy. People like to see those things under those circumstances.

With "Collateral Damage" you're coming back to action movies at a time when some people have suggested the genre is in trouble, both because of Sept. 11 and because of shifting audience tastes.

My opinion is a little different about all this stuff. My opinion is that the press writes about all this crap and tries to make something out of it, and in fact there's nothing there. I can only tell you that again in the last two years the bread-and-butter movies were the action movies. They made the most money. People are now including action -- unbelievable action, violent action -- in other kinds of movies. Animated movies or fantasy. "The Lord of the Rings" was a tough movie. It was rated PG-13! A wonderful movie, brilliant. But it was a tough movie to watch, for children. There was action from the beginning to the end. People love this stuff. It's that simple. This is why you have all these Oriental action stars who come over here and make movies for $12 and then they gross $50 million at the box office! Every year a new star is created. It's because those are the movies that make money. Even in comedies they load it up with action.

I don't think that will ever change. Action movies won in the '40s, they win now. They're different types of movies now. You can't just run around and mow everyone down, the way we did in "Commando." You have to have a good story. You have to have an emotional roller-coaster ride, like we have in "Collateral Damage." You have to have more than just a shoot-'em-up movie. But action is in and always will be in, especially as we increase our ability to do special effects.

Look at the staggering amount of money paid for the rights to "Terminator 3." Warner Brothers paid $60-some million for domestic rights and Sony paid $70 million for overseas rights. Those are huge numbers! And the movie will cost a fortune to make. But it's an action movie with a great theme and a great concept. People know that it's gonna make a lot of money.

We've heard that Chyna, the World Wrestling Federation star, is being considered for the female Terminator, the villain of the new film.

Well, this is a very interesting question. Do you go with a woman that is petite, that is young, that looks innocent, that looks like an ordinary beautiful girl? Then it creates a certain drama when she walks innocently up to a woman on Rodeo Drive and says, "Nice scarf!" [Sound of neck snapping.] Or should it be Chyna? A woman where you see her and you know, right away, oh, this is the female Terminator, and you know what to expect after that: dead bodies flying around everywhere. I don't know what the answer is, but that is the big debate. I do know this about Chyna: She has been on the cover twice of Playboy magazine. I've never seen anyone be twice on the cover. [An arched eyebrow and an expression of intense curiosity.] She must have special powers!

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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