Bodybuilder, actor, governor. Arnold Schwarzenegger won worldwide fame with all his roles not just because he had – and still has – ambition and stamina, but because he has always had a vision too. His “Mister Universe” title stands for much more than just an impressive sporting achievement. More than half a century ago, he was already making environmental concerns a major social issue and putting them at the centre of his work and deeds. We visited a man in Los Angeles for whom the word “impossible” is simply not an option.
If you’re going to do it, do it well
The sun has just risen above the horizon of the endless Mojave Desert. Coffee and vegan-vegetarian breakfast snacks are being set up on the folding table in front of the motorhome at the “Pine Tree Wind Farm” car park in Kern County. The tiredness and stiffness that follow the long drive from Los Angeles suddenly disappear with the words: “HE’S COMING!” A dark van approaches. While other superstars would probably have insisted on a helicopter ride, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 74, has also set off at dawn. He gets out, is pleased to see his old pal Tom Junkersdorf again, greets everyone, tidies up inside the motorhome first and then settles down for styling and make-up. We are set to be on the road for 13 hours, taking pictures and talking. He still speaks German – with an Austrian accent and dialect from Thal, his hometown – and switches to English when things become important. He gets on well with our photographer, Michael Muller, who has a good sense of humour, is well prepared, quick and takes some fantastic pictures. It’s only right at the end, during the second part of the shoot with his daughter Christina on Malibu beach, when the sun is setting, that he becomes a little restless – “no more jumper changes, please”. Also, he has another appointment and punctuality is important to him.
It was his suggestion to go to the desert. Here, in the barren, high rock formations, he had the first state wind farm built in 2008 as governor of California. And we wanted to capture some symbolic images. That’s why the desert, the wind, the sea, Christina. And the beautiful clothes. Climate, strength, future, confidence. His big themes – and ours too.
Video Frank Fastner
ICON: We are all experiencing how much the weather is changing, that summer is no longer a real summer. Do you remember the weather of your childhood?
Schwarzenegger: Yes, sometimes it was freezing cold, 30 degrees below zero. And then there were sunny days. We had everything – a beautiful autumn, fantastic summer, wonderful spring. And the winter was great too. We went ice-skating and sledging. There were storms, thunderstorms and everything. But not like now. Today it’s much more extreme.
When did you first hear the word environmental protection?
When I moved to America in 1968. In Los Angeles there was a discussion that we had to get rid of the smog. I remember that I often had tears in my eyes. First, I didn’t know what was causing it. Then people explained to me that it was the smog. At that time, it was kind of yellowish. Ronald Reagan was governor and he and his wife Nancy were so upset about the smog that he set up an independent Air Pollution Control Board. It was to control pollution, not politicians. Because if politicians do it, it will never happen. Politicians traditionally lie to get elected. Ronald Reagan was different, he was a genius, he created the Air Pollution Control Board, which was absolutely critical to achieving our environmental goals in California.
And then you made it your political issue too.
That was when I started running for governor. Kennedy Jr. called me and said, “Arnold, I want you to win. But it will be easier if you get someone on your team who is an environmental expert. I have one, because I know you care about the environment.” And I said, „Yes, I do. Who do you have?“ It was Terry Tamminen. An environmental strategist, lecturer and best-selling author who is now, by the way, CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Kennedy got me this guy. I said to Terry, “Look, I want to be governor. And when I’m governor, I don’t want to just do normal things, I want to do big things. Because if we have the power, we can do big things.” And so we put together a programme that no one in California or anywhere else in America did to reduce greenhouse gases: put up a million solar roofs, put in 50 per cent renewable energy, created a low-carbon fuel standard. A big vision. Everyone said it was impossible, it would destroy the economy. We made our promises a reality, and we’re number one economically in America. So, environmentalism doesn’t destroy the economy. We’re not just the number one economy in the US.
We have the fifth largest economy in the world – behind Germany, China, Japan and the US. And with the strictest environmental laws. After I had met with scientists, I became fanatical because I saw, “Oh, my God – this is really a problem. We have to do something.”
What drives you?
The most important thing is that there is a reason for everything you do. If I get up in the morning and I have no goal, why should I be happy when I get up? Today I got up at 4.45 am. But full of vigour, because I wanted to get out into the desert and see the hundreds of wind turbines and the solar panels that were built in 2008 when I was governor. We took great photos for ICON to promote the idea of renewable energy. ICON sells hundreds of thousands of magazines and you are online too, so your work can be seen all over the world. The larger population is always my greatest concern. Politicians communicate with each other, but not with the people. In this respect, I was very happy when I turned on the coffee machine this morning, got dressed and got ready. Even when I’m on holiday in Sun Valley in Idaho and I put on my ski suit in the morning, it’s like a little mission to go up to the mountains to ski. I’m always full of energy and full of enthusiasm. You need a goal, a dream. Something to pursue. We are hunters by nature, we need to chase something. Happiness results from that as well as contentment. Today, I could look at myself in the mirror and know I did something good, like a winner. When I see people in the gym who don’t seem to have any vigour, I sometimes ask them, “Why do you work out?” And then they say, “I don’t know either … the doctor told me to do it.” That makes me think they are doing what the doctor advises them to do instead of imagining what it would be like with ten kilos less or with stronger muscles. I like to compare it with an aeroplane: you can have the most sophisticated aeroplane, but if the pilot has no idea where to go, the aeroplane will eventually crash.
People like you – and us too – are privileged. What about those who live in barren environments, without jobs. How can you reach those people and get them excited about environmental issues?
It sounds like a luxury problem, but it is not. Everyone has to ask themselves, “Do I want to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” It doesn’t matter if you are poor or rich, sick or healthy, employed or unemployed, white or black. You always have to ask yourself: how can I be helpful? When a storm comes and everything around you is swept away, there’s something that you can do for others. Everyone has the power to decide whether to buy a product that comes from far away or one that is produced in their country or even in their region. Every time we buy something from overseas, it has to be shipped. The 15 largest cargo ships in the world cause more pollution than all the cars in the world.
But the products from your own country are much more expensive, and you have to be able to afford them.
Then you have to buy less. Seven million people die every year because of pollution! But at least I bought it cheap, that’s what many people think … That’s when I say, “Next time it’ll be your turn and you’ll be in hospital.” Since 2019, we have had a 33 per cent increase in green jobs in California, despite the pandemic. Despite the turmoil, we’ve been able to provide jobs. So, you can have both, you just have to deal with it.
Are we a bit too spoiled by our lifestyle? Are we paralysed by what we think is a comprehensive political guarantee?
Of course, the state should help people. But you have to take responsibility for yourself, that’s how it used to be. How can I help myself so that I can help others? That’s what it should be about. In times like the pandemic, politicians promise you all kinds of things. That’s a lie. You yourself have to get off your butt, because then the politicians will too. Don’t wait for gifts! Take my mother-in-law Eunice Shriver, for example: she realised that the government was failing when it came to everyone getting education and jobs. So, what did she do? She stood up for people with mental disabilities, had worldwide success with her organisation in cooperation with governments. You can achieve something if you get involved: in the private, public or non-profit sector.
Today, everyone talks about work-life balance, the work ethic has changed. All we really know in the western world is prosperity. Our environmental problems are a product of this attitude: either you don’t care or you don’t want to deal with it.
There is no “you can’t deal with it”. And it is certainly a question of education too. But you always have to remind people that we can only be successful together. In sport, in a team, it is no different. In basketball, if one player doesn’t pass the ball, the team won’t win in the end. The same is true in life. Big problems can only be solved together. We live in a global economy, and therefore in global competition. The mistake that Joe Biden is making now, and Trump before him, is that they only ever talk to their own ranks and their own voters, so they don’t pass the ball.
You gave an impressive speech at the climate summit in Vienna and said that politicians only ever spread negative messages in the environmental debate instead of motivating people and giving them hope. What is going wrong?
What the environmentalists say is true. It’s not that people are not telling the truth. It’s just that you can’t bombard people with negative news from morning to night. I believe that people also need hope. It’s like someone who weighs 300 pounds and goes to the gym. You’re not going to say to that person, “What the hell happened to you?” It would be wrong to attack that person. You would say, “You know what, I’ve had three clients who weighed more than you. And they got down to 200 pounds. And you know how? Because they exercised every day and changed their diet. They stopped eating pizza, they stopped eating sweets. Instead, vegetables and fish.” By doing that, you push that person because they see that there are ways to make it. We have to do the same with environmental issues. You have to encourage people. You have to let them know that there is good news. Many nations in the world promise people that they as nations will reduce greenhouse gases. And they don’t keep their promises. Yes, that is true. But at the same time, we have to say that there are some countries that are doing a great job. And as far as the private sector is concerned, the technology is now very advanced. If you think about Tesla – I’m not promoting Tesla, I just think so highly of it because the company was founded in California – they are going to reduce greenhouse gases enormously because many millions of cars are electric and no longer run on fossil fuels, so the technology helps. If smart meters are used, that helps too. In California, we’ve passed laws to reduce the amount of energy used for appliances, cooking, watching TV and all those things. There are great technologies all over the world that are being discovered all the time. And we have to show people that individual actions matter: what can I do to keep the environment clean? You have to ask yourself whether you want to be part of the solution or part of the problem.
There are fires in California, huge floods in Germany. And these are just a couple of examples. It’s hard to stay positive.
No matter what, we have to give people hope. We are all seeing now that climate change is becoming a reality. We see the storms, the forest fires, the floods and all these things. It is important to communicate that in the right way. You can talk about climate change all you want, but nobody knows what you are even talking about. If you ask someone on the street, “What is the definition of climate change?”, people will give you a hundred different answers. But if you say “pollution”, “Ah, you can see that.” It’s coming from the big smokestacks and factory buildings, it’s hanging over every big city in the world, you can see it. That’s why we need to talk more about it, because it’s easy to understand. That we have to stop pollution because it kills seven million people every year. That’s the message we need to get across instead of talking abstractly about climate change and all the things that nobody really knows what it’s about. How can I help fight those things if I don’t know what they are?
Do you have hope that we can still save our beautiful world?
We have no other choice. We have to do it. Once environmentalists and governments come together and people finally understand the power they have, everything will change. Right now, the environmentalists are only talking to the environmentalists. They speak a language that nobody understands. And then the government talks to the government, they can’t achieve anything. You have to involve the people. Think of the civil rights movement in America. It was started by people who marched and protested, they went out and took things into their own hands. And why? Because Washington couldn’t solve the problem, but then the people did. And then the laws followed, just like the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Discrimination was solved by the people, not by Pretoria, South Africa’s capital. The same is true for the Indian independence movement, for the women’s movement. All the great changes in the world were achieved by the people. Who brought down the Berlin Wall? It was the people. The politicians turned it into a photo opportunity. And that’s what I want for the environmental movement: for people to get involved. We can only engage them if they understand what we are talking about.
That’s why I say: let’s communicate properly. Then we can really do it.
You have discovered the digital communication channels for yourself faster than others, you have over 22 million followers on Instagram alone. Is that a new power?
I have always taken every opportunity to communicate with people. Because if you don’t communicate to people what you have to offer, then you have nothing. You can have the best product in the world, but if nobody knows about it, you won’t sell a single item.
Ten years ago, you ended your political career as governor. It seems like you have more influence today without political office.
You have a certain power when you are in office, certain powers when you are governor. And then there’s a certain power that you don’t have in that – that’s what I have now. Because now I can talk quite openly to Republicans and Democrats, and they tell me everything because they know they can trust me and I don’t make political announcements out of our meetings. That’s a real advantage because now I can work with all parties and bring them together through our Schwarzenegger Institute at the University of Southern California. That’s fantastic. Whether it’s issues of homelessness, health care, infrastructure, immigration or the virus. We bring together Democrats and Republicans, the brightest minds at local, state and national level, to discuss these important issues.
You left Austria 53 years ago and have been living in Los Angeles ever since. Karl Lagerfeld emigrated to Paris. But the older he got, the more important his northern German homeland became to him. Is that the same for you?
I realised quite early on that I didn’t want to be adopted by a new country and leave the old country behind. For me, it was always more about complementing than replacing. I’ve always considered Austria a great country and I really appreciate what I learned there. However, my home country had little to offer me as a bodybuilding champion. If I had wanted to become a musician or a painter, it would have been different. I knew I had to go to America. I started with the movies, and Hollywood was ideal for that, of course. That doesn’t mean I don’t like Austria, although I hated certain things. I remember a classical concert in Graz with my brother, that wasn’t my thing at all, and I just thought, “How do I get out of here?” I wanted to see Elvis and the Beatles. Today, on the other hand, I’m happy when I can take someone to Salzburg for the festival. With time you become more mature, you look for other forms of stimulation and you can appreciate things better: the skiing, the nice people, the crafts. Austrian craftsmanship is so great.
There is definitely a new appreciation for local products.
Of course, but you have to make it economically possible for small businesses to exist. I was looking for a hand-knitted jumper with cable stitch in Austria. I have some from Ralph Lauren, of course, but I wanted a hand-knitted one. I couldn’t find a single shop! My mother used to knit them and then sell them. It was a way to earn some extra money. Those kinds of shops are gone. But then I discovered Meindl: fantastic! Every country should have its own identity and produce its own products. We need individuality. I also like Frauenschuh a lot. Do you know who I have to thank for that? Christina, my daughter. She said: “When you go to Kitzbühel, you absolutely have to go to Frauenschuh.”
During the shoot today with your daughter Christina, there was something of an intimate father-daughter relationship there. Are you a good father?
I don’t know if I was perfect. But I was good.
As a parent, you can never be perfect.
I was strict. We were disciplined, I didn’t want the children to grow up spoiled. There was a tendency to do that because my wife grew up with staff in the house and always someone who tidied up and did things. I was worried that the children would think they didn’t have to do anything, I didn’t want that. It was like that at the Kennedys, but I’m not a fan of that, so we found a compromise between what Maria thought was good and what I liked. It was clear that the maids did not make the children’s beds. Everyone had to wash their own bed linen – I showed them how. We had two machines, one for us and one for the children, they turned them on before they went to school. And I warned them, “If I catch anyone cheating, I’ll throw the mattress out the window!” And that’s what I did. So, they might have to bring the mattresses back up to make their beds – I was pretty strict about that. My daughter Katherine was here two months ago, and she said she was doing the same thing now with her partner Chris Pratt’s eight-year-old son, that she had thrown his shoes into the fire. Just like I had done after warning them twice when they hadn’t put them away again. At the time I made her and her siblings cry. For me, the greatest compliment is when the children thank me afterwards for the discipline.
Talking about discipline. We started the shoot very early today, just after sunrise in the desert. You were not only on the set on time, but even ahead of time. Other superstars like to keep you waiting …
That is work ethic. When you go to work, you go to work. I do everything to be there on time. And I give everything to do my work perfectly, that’s also a question of attitude for me: if you’re going to do it, do it well. I love that. Otherwise, don’t do it at all. Don’t do things half-heartedly. All right, I can play golf half-heartedly, I’m a miserable golfer. But it was never my goal to be a good golfer. But in most of the things I do, I go all out. Whether it was in my political life or as a bodybuilder, in showbiz, in business or with my family. “Work hard, play hard. That’s it.”
Has it always been like this?
It’s my upbringing. In Thal in Austria, where I grew up, everything was very strict. That’s where I learned it. My father always said: you have to commit to something and then do it. Be useful. I took that seriously. I was hungry to be a better bodybuilder. To train harder and longer. To know more about nutrition and my posing. It was the same in politics as a governor, to make the state better. I realised I didn’t know everything. So, I had to learn really fast. The Capitol in Sacramento became a university for me. My head is like a sponge. I love learning, generating knowledge.
It’s part of my philosophy to stay hungry. I have always tried to improve myself – no matter what it was or is.
The pandemic has changed many people. They are having a hard time with it. You get your pony and donkey into the kitchen and have fun.
I realised that you can’t go through your life with everything being perfect, that’s not reality. The sun doesn’t shine every day, sometimes it rains. Sometimes it’s stormy. And that’s how it is in life. There are days that are fantastic. Like today. We worked great together. You bring these wonderful clothes from Italy and France and style me. So, this is a great day and we’ve achieved a lot. But tomorrow it could be different. I’ve had times when I was at my peak, everything was perfect. And then suddenly the doctor said, “You need heart surgery. You need open heart surgery” – and I had to deal with that. It’s the same when an earthquake hits Los Angeles. Then we have to rebuild everything. We have to take care of the injured. There will be dead people, families to help. It’s not always perfect. That’s why I think it’s important that we’re able to adapt and adapt very quickly. We have been spoiled over the last few years with economic growth, with job growth. Houses that once cost a hundred thousand dollars are now worth two hundred thousand dollars. And then suddenly we are hit by a pandemic. Everything is a little different now. For some people it’s not much different, for others everything has changed – they lost their job or their business. It’s very dramatic, terrible and sad, but you have to be prepared. Keep some warm clothes in case it’s freezing. Have an anorak in case it rains. Put some money aside, don’t just live on credit. Always put something aside, like the generations before us did, like my mother and grandmother did. You have to put money aside for the bad days, a rainy-day fund so to speak. We couldn’t make a couple of films. But so what, if that’s the worst! As long as I’m not six feet under, I’m happy. Nothing can really throw me off track.
But how do you deal with it when something really hits you? How did you fight your way back to health after the heart operation?
Well, you’re depressed, but that’s normal. The medication wears you down, the anaesthesia wears you down. I’ve had four heart operations now. But I just have to accept the fact that I inherited this from my family – on my mother’s side. She had a heart valve problem, her mother had a heart valve problem, and her mother had one too. It runs in the family. I’m lucky that I grew up with a will to succeed. I’m lucky that I grew up with the fact that you have to go to work to earn a living. That’s one of my rules for success: don’t take shortcuts. There are 24 hours in a day. So, what do you do with those 24 hours? I saw my mother work very hard. I saw my father work very hard. I saw the neighbours working very hard to save the farm on the other side. That’s how I grew up. And that’s what I’m used to. I’m glad that I got a good education. I’m glad my parents inspired me to be ambitious and to always look for better things. There are so many things I brought from my upbringing: that I have a heart defect – I won’t let that throw me off track. I come from a great, strong family, even though we had problems. My father was an alcoholic and all these things, and there was violence. But we still grew up strong. And that helped me for the rest of my life. I’m happy when I look back on my life that at 74, I’m still curious, I’m still hungry, I still want to go on and do more.