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Arnold Schwarzenegger Looks Back At The Roles That Redefined His Career

The action icon has broken into acting, then stardom, then comedy, then politics, and back again. He talks to BuzzFeed News about rebranding himself as a dramatic leading man in Maggie.

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Forty-five years into his acting career, Arnold Schwarzenegger is showing us a new side of himself with Maggie, his new indie film opening in limited release on May 8. The action icon and former politician makes a go at being a serious leading man in what is, zombie apocalypse setting aside, actually an emotional drama about a father and his dying child. Schwarzenegger plays Wade Vogel, a Midwestern man living in a near future in which the "necroambulist virus" has civilization on the brink of collapse. When Wade's teenage daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) gets bitten, he brings her home after making a promise he has no intention of keeping — that when she starts hungering for human flesh, he'll put her in quarantine.

What's refreshing about this choice isn't that Schwarzenegger wanted to do the role — the Austrian actor is no chameleon, but he's been consistent about pushing himself on screen. It's that it works so well. The larger-than-life star, who's soon to be reprising one of his most famous roles in Terminator Genisys, is still formidable as hell at 67, but he looks and feels more human-scaled. Wade is a man used to and still very capable of fighting his own battles, but there's nothing he can do for his daughter as she slowly transforms into something that could be dangerous to him and to those around them. "The story was interesting to me because it gave me a chance to play a more vulnerable character rather than a 'throw the grenade and blow everybody up' type of thing," Schwarzenegger said when BuzzFeed News spoke to the once Governator about other times in his screen career when he tried to show us something new.

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Schwarzenegger was in his early twenties and fresh off a few Mr. Universe wins when he made his big-screen debut as "Arnold Strong" in this goofy low-budget fantasy in which he played a bored son of Zeus looking for fun in the Big Apple. "My dream was to come to America and to build my bodybuilding career," the actor said. "Then, when I'm finished, to get into movies." That second part came together much faster than he'd planned or expected when six months after coming to the U.S., muscle mag publisher Joe Weider called to tell him, "They're looking for a star in a Hercules movie. I recommended that you were the best.'" Schwarzenegger laughingly recalled that Weider sold him as a "'German Shakespearean actor' — there's no such thing!"

His first leading man gig arrived about five years before Schwarzenegger felt he'd be ready for film, but he found the chance to take on a role he'd seen childhood idols Steve Reeves and Reg Park play irresistible. When it came to making the movie, though, he doesn't remember it as an ideal experience: "I couldn't even understand the script — my English wasn't good enough at that point. I remember I took English classes to get up to speed very quickly, and acting classes with this acting coach in New York." He admitted that he was "thrown in there and I really was not prepared at all for that," but in the end, "I was happy that I did it." Hercules in New York was recently added to Netflix's streaming service.

After his turn as Hercules, Schwarzenegger worked at his nascent showbiz career with the same dedication he used for training at the gym. "I definitely got firsthand experience of what acting is really about, and that if I want to get into that, there's a lot of work ahead," he said. "I started taking acting classes and speech classes and every class that you could think of."

After appearing as a deaf-mute hit man in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye and as Lucille Ball's object of lust in a TV movie, Schwarzenegger got a supporting role alongside Jeff Bridges and Sally Field in Bob Rafelson's gym dramedy Stay Hungry. "I felt really good that I was prepared — now it all started making sense and coming together. From that point on I always felt comfortable with it." It probably didn't hurt that in playing a bodybuilder prepping for the Mr. Universe competition, Schwarzenegger wasn't exactly venturing into unfamiliar territory, but his performance in the film won him a Golden Globe for the no-longer-in-existence category of Best Acting Debut. "That was nice," he recalled.

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The best of Schwarzenegger's early roles, all of which traded on his award-winning physique, was as an exaggerated version of himself in Charles Gaines and George Butler's docudrama about competitive bodybuilding. The movie tracked the rivalry between Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno as they worked the 1975 circuit, adding in some pre-reality TV style tweaks to their relationship. "I would say that 95% was me — the personality was me," Schwarzenegger said of the movie, in which he famously compared working out to sex and delivered highly quotable lines like, "Milk is for babies. When you grow up you have to drink beer."

While the competitions were real, some of the personal dramas were engineered or amplified. Schwarzenegger pointed out that one of the more famous scenes, in which he plays mind games with Ferrigno in front of his parents, was arranged after Butler requested some confrontation. "It was set up, the scene, but then everything else that we played out was real conversations," Schwarzenegger explained. "Lou always looked at me much more with suspicion after that. He couldn't believe what happened! It was funny. We had a good time."

The movie that introduced Schwarzenegger as one of the definitive action leads of the '80s was this sword-and-sorcery saga based on Robert E. Howard's pulp character, with the actor playing a barbarian bent on avenging his parents. It was Schwarzenegger's first chance at a major studio film. "Universal Studios sold movies internationally, and Dino De Laurentiis was the biggest producer and had more awards on his shelves than you can even imagine," he said. "You have Oliver Stone write the script and have John Milius rewrite it and then direct. Really, I felt like I had arrived."

Still, Schwarzenegger admitted, he was aware that he'd been hired for his looks and muscles more than a focus on his acting. "It was very clear that I've arrived in a movie where I have to rely 50% on my body and 50% on my acting," he said. "The trick really was how do I slowly switch to 60/40, 70/30." He credited The Terminator with being the "the first movie where I was able to play a character and not rely on a body. Only the arriving scene was naked."

Schwarzenegger always felt he was funny, but for most of the '80s, all he was offered were action projects: "Everyone gave me the same type of a script. Action, heroic, kick-ass — one script would be 78 kills and the other would be maybe 54 kills, but it was all the same kind of thing. It was often ripping off the shirt and showing the muscles to make sure that they understand that yeah, I am the real true action hero." To get a chance at a comedy project, Schwarzenegger, who was a big fan of Ghostbusters, had to lobby director Ivan Reitman.

"I met Ivan Reitman in Aspen, and Robin Williams, and we all were having a good time hanging out there. They both said to me after, 'You should do a comedy because you're very funny.' I said to Ivan, 'Go ahead, develop something for me.' And he did." The result was Twins, in which Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito played unlikely twins who were separated at birth. It was Schwarzenegger's first big comedy, but he wasn't intimidated going into it. (Talking to him, you get the feeling he has rarely, if ever, been intimidated by anything.) "I have a funny side of me, and also this innocent side," he said. "I was not able to show on a screen because of the way action movies are written — it's much more one-dimensional. The rhythm of a comedy is quite different; the way you talk is different than in an action movie."

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For someone whose movie career has been synonymous with action, Schwarzenegger has only had one major brush with the reigning blockbuster genre of recent years: the ignominious final installment of the Batman series of the late '80s and '90s. "I looked at the history of that, Danny DeVito playing the Penguin and the Joker by Jack Nicholson, and was like, OK, Mr. Freeze, that's going to be an interesting character," he said. His main memory of the movie is of the four to five hours he had to spend in the makeup chair every day. "It was unbelievable, I had to go in there at five in the morning and sit and then put all this stuff on — it was a nightmare."

After taking the better part of a decade off to serve as governor of California, Schwarzenegger made his return in a leading role in this action comedy directed by South Korea's Kim Jee-woon. But he prefers to look at it as more of a continuation than a return: "I've taken a seven-year leave of absence from acting, and now I'm just going to go back. When [producer] Lorenzo di Bonaventura came to me, I took the script. It looked like a good project, so we did it."

Schwarzenegger isn't sure he could have done Maggie earlier in his career. "Now, being a father, I can relate to it much better," he said. Also, he might not have been interested as a younger man. "In the '80s and '90s, when I had so many action movies offered, someone gives you a little script like that, you don't pay that much attention," he said. "Now I'm not on that ambitious drive where I have to make the most money … when someone says this is a little movie, and we cannot pay you anything, it doesn't matter, because today I don't look for that."

Maggie is director's Henry Hobson feature debut, but Schwarzenegger wasn't bothered by the prospect of working with a new filmmaker. "That never worried me," he said. "What worries me is, no matter how many movies anyone does, if they don't have a clear vision of where they want to go, that worries me." Hobson, who's also worked as a graphics and title designer, won Schwarzenegger over with a book of images that were reference points for what would eventually become Maggie.

Actually, the years of screen history that Schwarzenegger brings to the movie inform its story as much as its young director does — the ultimate screen tough guy coming undone. "I don't look vulnerable," Schwarzenegger agreed. "My whole baggage that I bring to the movie is not vulnerable, and now all of a sudden I'm a vulnerable character there. I thought it was more powerful this way."

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