In the recently released trailer for "The Expendables," the action movie directed by Sylvester Stallone about a group of aging mercenaries on a rebel mission in South America, big-screen graybeards such Stallone, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke (along with the more youthful Jason Statham and Randy Couture) are plotting a coup when an unexpected face suddenly materializes.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, apparently taking a break from the budgetary troubles that have dogged him during his governorship, appears on screen with Willis and Stallone, utters a crisply satirical line ("Give this job to my friend here -- he loves playing in the jungle," he says about the "Rambo" star) and, as quickly as he appeared, turns and walks away.
As the governor prepares to beat a retreat from Sacramento at the end of the year, the scene dangles a tantalizing possibility. Forget low approval ratings, tax hikes and an education crisis -- fans and entertainment-business insiders are asking more pressing questions. Is the appearance in the Aug. 13 release "The Expendables" -- a testosterone-drenched shoot-em-up summer movie, if testosterone-drenched shoot-em-up summer movies were cast in action-film retirement homes -- an acting swan song before Schwarzenegger stalks off to a new political adventure (a post in the Obama administration, perhaps)? Or is it a trial balloon for another foray into Hollywood?
Since landing in the governor's office nearly 6 1/2 years ago, Schwarzenegger has taken on a task that can seem as mercenary as any in "The Expendables." In fact, after all the political powder kegs, legislative trench warfare and spray-and-pray news coverage, he may have wished they'd given this job to his friend. (Or his enemy.)
But Schwarzenegger is unlikely to let his work in the Capitol serve as our lasting impression of him. "When politicians leave office, they almost always try to re-ingratiate themselves with the public they've inevitably disappointed," says pundit and Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, a frequent chronicler of the politics-celebrity nexus.
In Schwarzenegger's case, that could mean a humanitarian role à la the one inhabited by former President Bill Clinton. Or it could mean an actual movie role.
Schwarzenegger, after all, has shown a remarkable capacity for reinvention over his more than three decades in the public eye. The Austrian immigrant made the unusual transition from bodybuilder to B-movie star before ascending to the A-list, then recast himself as a comedic actor, before finally making the leap from dominating the multiplex to running the biggest state in the union. Along the way, he's incorporated parts of his earlier self; as governor, he's put his show business experience to use by relying on catchy sound bites right out of a studio marketer's playbook.
Since America loves a comeback, what would be a better move, for a man famous for promising he'll be back, than a return to the big screen, especially as he's been edged further out of a Tea Party-minded Republican mainstream? As Klein puts it: "Acting would be a way for Schwarzenegger to restore himself in the eyes of the public."
For years, celebrities who crossed from entertainment into politics ( Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono) didn't boomerang back to their former profession. And politicians who leave elected office to dabble in television celebrity are often just holding their place until they can return to the public sector (the Sarah Palin way, if she indeed returns).
More recently, however, entertainers who made the jump to politics leaped back when their political run ended. Jesse Ventura (Schwarzenegger's costar in "Predator," "The Running Man" and "Batman & Robin") left the Minnesota governor's mansion to become a radio personality and indie-film actor. After an ill-fated presidential run in 2008, former Sen. Fred Thompson returned to TV and movies and launched a radio career.
A radio career may be a stretch for Schwarzenegger, who has been mum on his post-gubernatorial life. (He declined to be interviewed for this piece and declines to talk about the subject generally -- possibly because, as some in his inner circle say, he doesn't know his plans.) But those who've gone from politics back to acting say it can be rewarding.
"Leaving politics and getting back into the business is kind of liberating," Thompson says. "You're used to dealing with a lot of people on your staff, and then you get to a situation where you're on your own and it's your own deal. And at the end of the day you can go home and forget about work until the next day."
With that in mind, we scoured some of the brightest minds inside and outside the entertainment business and beyond to determine the options for an Arnold reentry into Hollywood, how it could be executed and how it would be received. We offer six possibilities:
A starring role in a big action movie
The most tempting option. It takes Schwarzenegger back to his roots and takes us back to how we best remember him. In the 1980s, when guns, biceps and cheesy one-liners were bursting off the screen, no one burst bigger than Schwarzenegger, who in a remarkable five-year stretch starred in eight action movies. "In today's world we need heroes, which means we need Arnold," Aaron Norris, a film producer and brother of '80s action star Chuck Norris, says (before adding that we also need his brother). "Who are the kids quoting? It's Chuck and Arnold. We need to bring them back. Our action movies have gotten too artsy."
But it may be more than machismo-fueled nostalgia that gets Arnold strapping on the AK-47 again. Several A-list Hollywood producers point out that he's one of the most recognizable stars in the world, and action remains one of the most reliable genres overseas. Plus he's a lot more on our minds now than he was before he took office.
The elephant in the room? Action heroes generally don't fly with audiences after they hit their 50s. (Schwarzenegger will turn 63 this summer.) And for all the curiosity that a return to tank tops and bullet belts would bring, Schwarzenegger may not bring crowds into movie theaters. Apart from the third "Terminator" in 2003, he hasn't had an action hit since 1994's "True Lies" -- despite half a dozen attempts that included clunkers "Collateral Damage" and "The 6th Day." And that's to say nothing of whether he can still go shirtless; " Twilight's" Taylor Lautner, after all, has upped the six-pack ante.
A starring role
in a smaller action movie
The biggest problem with Schwarzenegger starring in a franchise action picture is that few financiers would be willing to spend $100 million making a movie with a risky quantity at the center. Budget that movie more modestly, however, and you could be in business.
"Until there's a young crop of actors that can fill the gap left by the testosterone brigade, there's going to be a lot of interest [from financiers] for movies from Stallone and Schwarzenegger," says Stuart Ford of IM Global. "But they wouldn't buy it at a $90-million budget. At $20 [million] or $30 million, on the other hand, they'd take a bit of a gamble."
Stallone is the model: He made 2008's "Rambo" and "Expendables" at midrange budgets outside the mainstream studio system. (Stallone also declined to comment for this piece.) But Ford cautions that the role Schwarzenegger takes would still need to build in plenty of self-knowing irony. And to get a buzz among younger audiences, he warns, "it would probably still need to be a good movie."
A supporting role in a big action film
If it's tricky for Schwarzenegger to carry a movie, he could pair himself with a younger actor, someone who could bring in a youthful crowd and also handle the jumping-off-the-building stuff (think the coupling of Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull").
"I'd be hesitant to cast him as the lead," says Mike Medavoy, the veteran Hollywood producer and studio executive who oversaw the release of monster Schwarzenegger hits such as "The Terminator." "But if you get a terrific director and a young star and put them together, I think the combination would work."
A role on reality television
It sounds funny, but there's a precedent for politicians doing reality TV. Especially Republicans with shaky political futures (see "Dancing" star Tom DeLay). Besides, if you're going to launch your political career on late-night, as Schwarzenegger did, what better way to give your post-political career a jolt than with an appearance in prime time?
"The characteristics that make a politician connect in terms of charisma are the exact same characteristics that help you connect to a reality-television audience," says Chris Coelen, the veteran producer behind reality shows such as "Don't Forget the Lyrics" and " Shaq's Big Challenge." " 'Dancing With the Stars' would be a great platform since it's high-profile and quick," Coelen adds. "But I wouldn't be closed to building a series around him. Schwarzenegger can do an upbeat brand-building show after he leaves office and it would be a huge ratings draw. And there would be no tarnish for him."
A lead comedic film role
OK, so "Junior" wasn't a high-water mark in modern film history. But with the trio of comedies Schwarzenegger made with Ivan Reitman ("Twins" and "Kindergarten Cop" were the others), he has proven appeal in the fish-out-of-water comedy. And in office he's shown a flair for the deadpan.
"I don't see him playing an arrogant action hero," Klein says. "But I can see him coming back in a self-deprecating role." Or as Thompson says, "I think the public is much more tolerant these days of seeing different sides of public figures."
If Mike Tyson can mock himself in "The Hangover," Schwarzenegger can do the same in a Todd Philips or Judd Apatow vehicle. Of course, there is the question of gravitas: It's one thing to mock yourself when you're a former boxer who's had deep-seated financial trouble; it's another when you're a former governor who's overseen a state with deep-seated financial trouble.
A role in a drama
It's been a long time since Schwarzenegger has done something more character-driven or worked with a top-flight auteur. So long, in fact, that Jimmy Carter was in the White House when he last tried it.
But the guy began his acting career in a Robert Altman noir ("The Long Goodbye") and a Bob Rafelson film ("Stay Hungry," for which Schwarzenegger won his only major award, a Golden Globe).
True, his cameos while in office would hardly pave the way for an Oscar run (they include " The Kid & I," "Around the World in 80 Days" and the Oscar contender that was "Terminator Salvation"). But there would be a neat closing-of-the-circle in any post-gubernatorial film role: Movies helped launch his political career, and the prominence he maintained while in office could help put him back in movies.
And even his political detractors might have reason to buy a ticket. If he's gainfully employed in Hollywood, they might reason, maybe he won't run for another political office.