Cover Story

A Hard Man is Good to Film

Arnold Schwarzenegger: Hollywood's next leading man -- The former bodybuilding champ has transformed himself into the world's most popular action star

He has built his movie career the same way he once built his body — to Mr. Universe proportions. Programmatically. Relentlessly. Positively. Bulk up here, pare down there, round off this, square off that. And it has paid off.

With Total Recall now in theaters, the already incredibly successful Arnold Schwarzenegger has reached a new level of accomplishment. With a budget estimated at between $50 and $60 million, this futuristic thriller is his most expensive film to date. He has become the world's most popular action-movie star, surpassing Stallone and Eastwood, and reportedly is earning $11 million in salary for Recall. In a rapidly changing entertainment industry in which international revenues have become increasingly important, these achievements carry a lot of weight.

Forget all this business about the Austrian Oak who became the ambitious American, the Camelot crasher. The only thing to know about Schwarzenegger is that he works. He works hard. Just as you don't build biceps like Arnold's overnight, you don't become a movie icon with one picture. You start with a plan. You start small. You play to your strength. Then you can grow. And that's what he has done. From sword-and-sorcery adventures to action to comedy. Now, in Total Recall, Schwarzenegger even gets a love interest — two love interests, in fact.

''I've added new elements to my films,'' he says, ''and cut back on old ones — but slowly, as I think it must be done. I hope to expand my range and win new audiences while keeping the old one.''

This time out, Schwarzenegger has chosen to push himself by working with the highly regarded Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who made Soldier of Orange and The Fourth Man in his native Holland before his smash U.S. hit RoboCop. Furthermore, Schwarzenegger is playing what may be his most complex role.

His Doug Quaid is a man caught in a reality-identity bind. Is he an average-Joe construction worker on Earth, with a knockout blond wife (Sharon Stone), content in every way except for strange recurring visions of life on Mars? Or is he the man of his own dreams, a heroic freedom fighter, with a knockout brunet sidekick (Rachel Ticotin), out to liberate an oxygen-starved Martian mining colony run by RoboCop villain Ronny Cox?

In the resolution of this conundrum, there are action and special effects aplenty, along with some of the humor that always enlivened Arnold's adventures. But sitting in the awning-shaded Astroturf ''patio'' outside his mobile trailer at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, where the film was shot, Schwarzenegger explains how Total Recall offers a new and improved take on both action and humor.

''Sure, there are lines that are funny,'' he says. For example, he points a gun at his wife and she says, ''You wouldn't kill me, I'm your wife''; and he, taking aim, replies, ''Consider this a divorce.'' But, in general, he has moved away from his familiar signature lines, such as Commando's ''Let's party.'' Or The Terminator's ''I'll be back.'' In Recall, he says, ''it's more the circumstances that make things funny.''

Even though Recall has nonstop action, Schwarzenegger wanted to avoid the mega-body-count shoot-outs that ended his movies like Predator and Commando. This time the climax is more personal, as Quaid faces off with Cohaagen, the evil head of the Martian colonies, played by Cox. ''It can be more powerful if there's only one guy you're going after and there are twists and a heightened mood or atmosphere, (rather) than mowing down a hundred guys,'' he says. That's why Arnold wanted to work with Verhoeven. ''He doesn't just shoot the script; he brings some extra flavor to the material.''

Part of that ''flavor'' is found in the sets that RoboCop production designer William Sandell has created for Total Recall. The scenes that take place on Earth use a number of the bulky, squat concrete buildings erected in Mexico City in the '80s, in a style architecture critics call the New Brutalism. Mars, consisting of 35 studio sets built at a cost of $100,000 to $300,000 apiece, is a metallic-modular, high-tech/honky-tonk nightmare. This is a big- budget, special-effects movie. No doubt about that.

But Schwarzenegger feels no sense of competition with the decor. ''You don't have to always be the star, at the center of the screen. Every scene doesn't have to be a close-up. I can't sell the fact that we're on Mars, but the sets can — the machinery, those fire-red skies, the catacombs, the skeletons.''

Schwarzenegger understands what makes a big picture work and can talk for hours on many aspects of the business. But when the subject turns to his own acting style and ability, he doesn't have a lot to say. No paeans to the ''preparation'' he goes through before a scene. No abstract discussion of a character's ''emotional arc.''

Action, however, is one subject he does discuss. ''When you've done as many physical films as I've done, prehistoric or futuristic or in-between, you become aware that every single gesture is important. If the character is very secure, you usually don't want to show him running at all, but walking, steady and determined, like the character in The Terminator. If in an emergency he has to run, you want him to dodge obstacles like a football player, with wrists tight and fists clenched.''

It sounds simple enough, but veteran actor Michael Ironside, who plays a coldhearted thug in Recall, came away impressed with Schwarzenegger's ''timing in action sequences. . .the way he turns and stares (shows he has) an incredible sense of what he looks like and how he functions on camera. He helped me. In one sequence, he said, 'When you're running, some of the threat in your character drops. If you tightened up your arms here. . . .'''

At the same time, Schwarzenegger, who recently tried his hand at directing an episode for HBO's Tales From the Crypt, picked up tips himself during the shooting. According to Schwarzenegger, Verhoeven purposely introduced uncertainty into the daily grind of filming. ''His preparation is incredibly thorough and he's very precise about what he wants, so we feel we're in good hands. But because he has it in mind to throw the audience off all the time, he also throws the actors off all the time. Always at the last minute he will pretend he's changed his mind, that something will work better (than what has been discussed).''

For all that, Schwarzenegger was as responsible for the atmosphere on the set as Verhoeven. While working on a picture, Arnold usually creates a positive mood with his forthright style that's punctuated by bursts of locker-room humor and practical jokes.

''It's not just that he asks about you,'' Ticotin says. ''It's that he remembers every last thing you told him.'' And asks for updates on that restaurant you were planning to eat at, that doctor's appointment, that family situation back in L.A. This is not a high-strung star who hides out in his trailer between takes or surrounds himself with an entourage of sycophants. This is a brand-new species: a 6' 2'', 215-pound, cigar-smoking yenta.

Schwarzenegger accepts an obligation for the morale on the set because a bad mood on the part of a leading actor, the director, or a producer ''will trickle down to the last guy in the company,'' he says. ''But I don't (have to) make any effort, because I naturally am a happy guy. I like what I'm doing — I like the people I work with. I love finding out what everyone is up to, where they come from, what movies they've worked on. That way,'' he concludes with happy wonderment, ''you can get a really good conversation going.''

What excites Schwarzenegger even more are acts of stoicism and perseverance. He compliments his wife, Maria Shriver, for ''joking about throwing up'' during the pregnancy that ended with the birth of their daughter in Decemeber ''instead of whining about it,'' and then praises costar Ticotin because ''you can ask her to do something (physically arduous) a thousand times and she never complains.''

All this pleasantness notwithstanding, Schwarzenegger has little patience with slackers and moaners. His good-natured imitation of costar Sharon Stone during a fight scene — ''Don't touch my hair. . .Don't strangle me!'' — is merciless.

He sits back and smiles, pleased at the laughs he's gotten from the small gathering of cast and crew members. And no wonder. The muscle-bound hunk with the heavy accent who the smart guys said would never make it in Hollywood has gone from pumping iron to pumping irony with the same impressive results.

Originally posted Jun 08, 1990 Published in issue #17 Jun 08, 1990 Order article reprints
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