All about Arnie
ARNOLD Schwarzenegger has a huge cigar ... and he knows it. As an audience of timid journalists waits hesitantly high up in a Tokyo hotel suite for a 'conversation' to begin, perhaps the most powerful actor in the movie world toys with what he likes to call his 'stogie'. He admires it, blows it, sucks on it. Then, through a pall of expensive smoke, he barks out a command: 'Fire away. Let's get this thing started.' But how? Schwarzenegger has already demonstrated his interview technique at a packed press conference. It entails talking about the movie in question (in this case the comedy Junior) and little else. Most questions are chewed over by vast, action-man jaw muscles then answered in slow, measured, dry tones.
To his left, co-star Danny DeVito is an explosive bundle of good-humoured fun; to his right, director Ivan Reitman smiles benignly. But the man in the middle just sits there, occasionally uttering a promotional sound-bite, very, very occasionally essaying an anecdote but forgetting how to deliver the punch-line. Maybe he is just talked-out after a publicity blitz surrounding the film's launch.
Now he's slap bang in front of you, demanding a question, and knowing as well as you do that you're going to be mighty lucky if you end up getting the allocated 20 minutes of interview. Matters are complicated by the fact that the movie itself - in which Arnie plays a doctor who becomes pregnant in the name of scientific research - never really takes off in the way you expect it to, despite the presence of DeVito and Emma Thompson.
Then there are the words of a seasoned showbiz writer who has 'done' the big man before and confidently declares: 'You won't get much out of him. He's out to sell one thing and that's the movie.' Gulp. Er, Arnold, is this the first film in which you've cried? 'Hmmm. You know, I really don't remember. Er, there were some pretty tender moments in Twins.' Back to the stogie. Muscles flex under his black T-shirt and - golly - he looks big.
OK then. Let's fight fire with fire. Comedy didn't work well for Sylvester Stallone and now he's dropped it, so isn't Schwarzenegger taking an unnecessary risk by appearing in another comedy? That's better. The smoke clears, that muscular mask of a face comes into focus and it looks interested. 'I think there was a certain risk involved in doing a part like that,' he admits. 'I think that it was really pushing the envelope, but I felt very comfortable with the idea of playing the character, thought I pulled it off. You know, if you put your mind to something you can do anything ... if you have the right director.
'I can only tell you the test screenings we have had [showed] that people enjoyed it thoroughly. I assume that the movie will go the same sort of way as Twins worldwide. There are always going to be some action fans who say, 'Wait a minute, I like to see Arnold just blowing away people, I like him to be the heroic guy', and maybe [they] will be hesitant about seeing the movie unless someone really tells them it's great. I have seen guys from the gym, for example, who say, 'I don't think I can handle you like this'. But some come out with tears in their eyes.' Alas, I don't believe that. Neither do I believe Schwarzenegger is doing any more than trotting out the party line - all that Hollywood-babble about pushing envelopes and making a big 'stretch'. The big fellow seems to be reverting to type. After all, when was the last time you read an interview with him which made you sit up and say 'well, there's a thing', or watched a movie in which his performance gave you a surge of emotion - either positive or negative? And what about his sex appeal? Sure there are excitable young Japanese women in the lobby downstairs, but - and this causes a laugh or two - it turns out they are hoping to see Italy's AC Milan soccer team which is also staying at the hotel. Nope. It takes something special to get emotion out of Arnie. Something like Last Action Hero.
Until that film came along, we'd all learned to like or lump Schwarzenegger. Long gone were the days when we could guffaw at his accent and barbarian acting skills. Through hard work, and thanks to a couple of lucky breaks, he had become a major player. His massively expensive movies (many of which we liked, didn't we?), Planet Hollywood involvement, real estate investment, marriage to high-profile journalist Maria Shriver and presidential support for his drive to put the dumbbell back into America, had made him a vast, immovable object on the showbiz horizon.
Then came Last Action Hero. It became the weapon with which anyone who hated Hollywood chose to batter the former bodybuilder. Leaked studio financial statements, rumours of unsuccessful test screenings and furious studio denials ... the film received Bad Press with capital letters. And Schwarzenegger's limited interview technique (he still has a habit of saying things like 'every studio knows that if I am in an action movie that is well directed there is no chance of failure') wasn't up to it.
Now, though, he not only takes Last Action Hero questions in his stride but deals with them in an intelligent, ironic fashion. Maybe it's due to input from his wife, perhaps he speaks with greater abandon these days, but for the first time in the interview, the humanoid becomes human.
'I think that as soon as you look a little bit inside the workings of Hollywood and show what's going on behind the screen, it rubs people up the wrong way,' he says of the Hollywood spoof. 'People like the real hard-core movie critics, the writers. Look at all the movies that have done this. They have all been destroyed before they even came out and I think that we just had the usual attack by the press. A year later you come up with True Lies and before they have even seen the first frame they call it 'the number one movie of the summer'. So you can't complain about the one and enjoy the other. That's just the way it goes.' Suddenly, Schwarzenegger seems a lot more likeable. He's a great one for eye contact and makes good use of it. He smiles, discards the cigar, is tolerant of questions from Manila-based film writers who attempt to compare Last Action Hero to the work of Ingmar Bergman, and answers a question about roles he wished he'd taken with, 'Maybe the dinosaur in Jurassic Park'.
Suddenly, he knows where we're coming from. We want the real Arnie, and we don't want platitudes about a film in which he gets to cry, experience morning sickness and take a pro-life stance just so audiences can see a caring sharing Schwarzenegger, rather than the blow-'em-away toy doll. We don't need obvious comments about his wife's three pregnancies preparing him for an absurd role.
'Why not show the other side of me ... an emotional side, a sensitive side?' he asks when asked whether he took the Junior role to provide good PR for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nice Guy. 'People only see you as one, not the other. They form this opinion that you are only good at playing one side, whereas, in fact, I am much the other way. Personally, I am much more in touch with sensitive feelings than violent feelings. I consciously try to put that on screen but I don't do it because I feel the need to show that I love children.
'I don't need to do that. When you have children, people know exactly [what you are like] when they see you with kids, or when they come to your house.' Er, like everyone gets to go to the Schwarzenegger house, a US$3 million (HK$23 million) Pacific Palisades mansion that used to belong to Dynasty's John Forsythe.
'You would be surprised,' he counters. 'Because the people that come over to the house are writers. Maria is a journalist so she invites journalist friends over, producers of news programmes, CNN ... you can't hide. And I think that word goes around really quickly.
'I have no reason to promote that [side of] myself - it doesn't sell any extra tickets or anything. So there is no real conscious effort for me to promote that I am a great father - I am what I am. I happen to believe that I am a great father. I happen to believe that I work well with children in movies because I love kids.' The funny thing about Schwarzenegger is that he has the capacity to spring surprises with the most mundane of comments. There is nothing surprising about his talk of exciting new projects - like a re-make of Planet Of The Apes and the big-budget movie, Crusade - or his claim to want to direct small, people-oriented movies rather than action epics, or even that he cites Dustin Hoffman as an actor he has always admired.
Those kind of comments are to be expected. As is his response to questions about money and whether he really needs to make any more of it. ('It's nothing to do with money,' he says. 'Money is only to give you a certain value for yourself. If I had a choice between a great script and director, and no money and a so-so script and director and $20 million, I would rather choose the first.') No, the real surprise comes when you quiz him on his motivation, expecting lofty answers about public service or even - God forbid - art. And then he says something like this: 'It's just having a great time and doing the things you want to do. It's so much fun doing a movie. You get to travel around, you play and you can be like a little kid again, acting out all these things.
'I have a great time - I do exactly what I want to do and this is the ultimate: to be a father and have a great time with your family, to make movies, to have a chance to direct, to do Planet Hollywood and have a great time with the restaurant business, with the real estate things, the political campaign with the governor [of California] to make sure he gets into office. It's ideal. It's fun.' The 20 minutes have passed, DeVito and Reitman have headed off in search of some rest and recreation, but Arnie is still going. 'Talking to the press is part of the responsibility, part of the job,' he purrs. 'With each of my films I have been behind the studio to go out and talk about and promote the film.' Uh, oh. Here we go again - PR-speak. Or is it? 'And I have to say,' he continues, 'people pay a fortune to go to their shrink every day so that someone listens to them, and I get this for free. You are all my shrinks and you charge nothing.' Hey, we're getting to like this guy. Interview over. Handshakes. The End.