Arnold Schwarzenegger on ‘Aftermath,’ 30 Years of ‘The Running Man,’ And His Greatest One-Liners
If you’ve been ignoring Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies since he returned to acting after seven years as the Governor of California, you’ve been missing out on some of the most interesting roles of his career. Though Schwarzenegger’s comeback kicked off with old-school action schtick like The Last Stand and The Expendables sequels, his recent output has seen him shift into darker, sadder territory. In the new movie Aftermath, he plays a man whose entire family is killed in a plane crash. There are no terrorists, no hijacking; a simple human error causes a tragic mid-air collision. The airline tries to buy off his silence, but Schwarzenegger’s Roman cannot let the tragedy go. He wants an apology for what happened, and no one will give it. And so he becomes fixated on the air traffic controller (played by Scoot McNairy) who was responsible for the fatal accident.
This is a very different Ahnuld than the one who mowed down hundreds of goons in the ’80s. Like several of Schwarzenegger’s late-career efforts, it’s a movie about fathers and families and what it means to lose everything you care about. When I got Schwarzenegger on the phone earlier this week, I asked about why he’s been moving into more serious and melancholy material. We also talked about The Running Man (which came out 30 years ago this November and was set in the far-flung dystopia of 2017), his best one-liners, and whether he’s interested in making a scripted television series. We also discussed the future of the Terminator, Conan, and Twins franchises, which you can find here.
This is a very intense story. How do you prepare for a role like this?
I come from a bodybuilding background, so everything is about reps. So I go through the script many times. By the time I get to the set, I never have to touch another script the entire time I shoot. I have the lines there, the scenes in my head, I have the other people’s lines. That’s really helpful because that gets you into the character much better — if you really understand the character.
What also helped me in this particular case — I was very much aware of the real drama that happened in the early 2000s, when there was this real plane crash over in Europe between Germany and Switzerland, on the border there. It was a really sad story, the way it unfolded. It was all in that script that was presented to me, it was based on that story. So I knew the real story and it was not so difficult to get into it — but it is, from an emotional point of view, it takes everything out of you when you do those scenes. Because you have to be in that state as if you’d really lost your family, and you have go through that trauma. That’s heart-wrenching, there’s no two ways about it.
Since you’ve come back to acting, you’ve made a series of movies — this, as well as Sabotage and Maggie — about these men dealing with grief and loss. What about this theme particularly interests you?
It’s not so much that it interests me. What interests me is to do something different that I have not done before. When you look at my total body of work, you will find a lot of different dimensions. This is why I always wanted to do comedy, and then luckily one day I found Ivan Reitman, who helped me to do Twins, and Kindergarten Cop, and so on.
When I came back to acting after the governorship, I felt like “Okay, I have enough money. It’s not like I should go and try to figure out a way of making the same money that I did. Let’s do something I have not done.” So I told my agency “I’m looking for projects. First of all, I’m not just looking for work. I don’t need to do that, I have plenty of things to do. I want to go and find good movies that are interesting.”
So that’s why I’m doing those things — because I never really had the chance in the action movies to spend much time on developing a character with the way they were written and the way they were directed, where there’s much more time spent on setting up a huge action shot or a huge fight scene or a huge shootout or whatever. This gives me a much better chance to do that and to show that in fact I can do it, I feel comfortable with that, and that I have this range.
It also has something to do with age. I think when I was 40, I would have had no interest in that, because I was on such a roll with the action movies. And now I feel like, let’s go and do things that I really would like to do and explore and grind out, even though I’ve never done it before. Let’s give it a shot.
Another thing I find interesting about these recent movies, particularly Aftermath and Maggie, is that after decades of playing killing machines — often literal killing machines — these characters are really grappling with what it means to kill someone. And they’re less violent movies as well. Has your attitude towards violence onscreen changed at all over the decades?
No, not at all. I enjoy all the movies that are out there that are big action movies, and all that stuff. I just think that it’s now more believable.
The thing is if I were to have played someone like this in the ’80s, where one [movie] was bigger than the next, and there was a competition with me and Stallone, where everyone tried to shoot a bigger gun and we ended up with machine guns that normally are mounted on helicopters and tanks, and we were running around holding them with one arm and shooting [laughs] …You know, “Who kills more people? Who kills them more creatively? Who has less body fat?” and all that stuff. In the middle of that whole madness in the ’80s, it would have been odd if all of a sudden you did a movie like Aftermath. People would say “Wait a minute, I want to see Schwarzenegger running around in the jungle killing Predators. I don’t want to see him grieving.”
I’m older now. I’m more mature about all that stuff. I think people really enjoy that, to see another side — even though these movies are not as commercial as the others are.
This year is the 30th anniversary of Predator, which you just mentioned, but it’s also the 30th anniversary of The Running Man, which was set in a dystopian version of 2017. I’ve already seen several articles written about how prescient the film was, and the opening title card pops up on social media very frequently. What do you think when you see people reengaging with that movie, and the ways in which it did or did not depict the real world of 2017?
I like it, because every so often it’s nice when you do a movie that is a little bit deeper, even though it has the obvious action. When you think about the idea of The Running Man, I think that it was fantastic. It predicted a crazy future, and it was a thought-provoking movie in many ways, even though it was also an action movie. The same was also the case in The Terminator, where you really questioned where this was all going to go with us developing the computers, and everything is becoming more machine-like, and eventually machines are going to be able to think for themselves and then they become self-aware, and that becomes the most dangerous time.
So they were thought-provoking kinds of films. And I enjoy that after all these years and decades, people still talk about those projects. It’s an honor. I cannot take responsibility for it; it’s really the producers, directors, the people who wrote those things that are responsible. But I’m very happy that I was part of it.
You have so many great one-liners. And fans, we constantly debate which is the best one. Definitely now and for all time, what is the best Arnold one-liner?
I think there is really no best. It’s very odd how it moves around. Because, for instance, there was a time when everyone said “I’ll be back.” And that became the most used line. But lately I would say that “Get to the choppah!” is actually being even more often used. For instance, I was just doing a lecture in Australia and someone screamed out during the Q&A “Can you say ‘GET TO THE CHOPPAH!’?” And then I went just a few days before to the Arnold Classic Sports and Fitness Festival in Melbourne. And kids, as I was going through, because we have thousands of kids participating in martial arts and boxing and all the different sports, kids were screaming out “GET TO THE CHOPPAH!”
It doesn’t matter where you turn, that line seems to have really caught on. There’s a whole new life with that no matter where you go. And sometimes it’s “Hasta la vista, baby.” Sometimes “I’ll be back.” But lately “Get to the choppah!” has been the most popular. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best. It changes all the time.
I just hosted a Predator screening in Brooklyn, and there was spontaneous applause in the room when you said that line.
It’s really funny. People always ask me “Why are your lines more memorable than some other actors’ lines?” The same line could have been said by some other actor, and no one would remember it. It’s just because I pronounce everything wrong!
[laughs] It’s like [even more exaggerated pronunciation] “GET TO DUH CHOP-UH!” If you would spell it, it would be totally wrong! People think “That’s funny!” I remember when we did Kindergarten Cop, and I said to the kids “It’s not a tumor! It’s not a tumor at all!” they laughed because I said tumor with a ‘d’ sound instead of a ‘t.’ So they laughed and thought that was funny the way I pronounced ‘tumor.’ And Ivan left it in the movie because we thought “Well if the kids laugh, the audience will laugh too.”
For instance, in Terminator, Cameron always said “If Schwarzenegger wouldn’t have talked like a machine. It wouldn’t have worked.” [laughs] I don’t know if I should take that as a compliment or what, that I talk like a machine. It was just my German accent that just happened to work. I think it’s just the way I say things that makes people say “That’s funny.”
You’ve got all these movies you’re working on, you have your political projects, you’ve done reality television. The one area you haven’t really tried is scripted television. And the way TV is these days, I could see you doing very well there. Is that something you’d be interested in?
As a matter fact, I’ve been offered lately a few of those. It could easily be that I would try something like that. But we haven’t made a decision yet, and we want to keep time available for those other movies.