Arnold Schwarzenegger still wears a symbol of his seven-year Sacramento adventure — it's hard to miss the heavy ring on his right hand that bears the California flag — but the 63-year-old private citizen said he now yearns for his old Hollywood firepower.
"I can step very comfortably into the entertainment world and do an action movie with the same violence that I've always done," Schwarzenegger said in an interview this week. "I can have the same amount of heads coming off — and any other body parts — and as far as that goes, I don't blink."
Schwarzenegger the action hero said he would be back and now, here he is, tanned, trim and ready for his show-business comeback. The question though is whether the world's moviegoers are any more excited to see the aging Tinseltown lion than the California constituents who gave him a dismal 23% approval rating as he packed up his office.
On Thursday, sitting on a red, alligator-skin chair in his Santa Monica office, Schwarzenegger was the picture of confidence as he munched on mixed nuts and predicted that he would be on set of his next feature film by the end of the year.
"The calls are coming in," he said and while he wouldn't comment specifically his team hints that first leading-man work since 2003 would be in Korean director Kim Ji-woon's English-language debut "The Last Stand" (about a small-town lawman hunting down a Mexican drug kingpin) or perhaps Antoine Fuqua's "The Tomb" (about a prison designer who is locked up inside one his own high-tech designs).
Schwarzenegger started the week in France at a key television-industry conference in Cannes, announcing his first post-politics project, an animated series for children featuring Schwarzenegger's voice and cartoon likeness. It's a superhero show called "The Governator" and a collaboration with Stan Lee, the 88-year-old co-creator of Spider-Man, and Schwarzenegger says it has the chance to be an international sensation.
"I always like to surprise people and do something that's unexpected," Schwarzenegger said. "This project became the thing that is totally unexpected.... It's a feel-good show; no one could attack it because maybe it's too violent. This … is comedy, this is action, this is a good message for kids."
It may also be part of Schwarzenegger's plan to connect with young moviegoers and their even-younger siblings. He said the schoolchildren who came to the state Capitol on field trips would recite his old movie catchphrases — "I'll be back" and "Hasta la vista, baby" — so he knows that television reruns and home video have kept his pop-culture echo going.
Though some actors wince at the idea of the covering the same ground, Schwarzenegger made it clear that he would love to return to the old box-office hits. The star walks past props, including the pincer-faced alien from "Predator" and one of the killer-robots from "Terminator" films, when he enters his office and he would love to add new versions to the foyer.
"I'm very proud of the various different movies that I've done and I would be delighted to do sequels to a lot of them, the ones that people enjoy, if it's 'Twins,' 'Kindergarten Cop' or 'Predator' or 'Terminator' or 'True Lies,'" Schwarzenegger said.
Schwarzenegger has said that his time in public office probably cost him $200 million in lost Hollywood paychecks but there may be another hidden cost to his political foray. It's no secret that Hollywood leans to the left and the same executives and producers who organize Pacific Palisades fundraisers might hold a grudge.
"There are some people in town that will always have a hesitation dealing with a Republican but at the same time I've had the benefit that I'm not stuck in ideological corners," Schwarzenegger said. "I worked very comfortably with Democrats. I never saw them as the villains.... The Hollywood people, a [Steven] Spielberg or a [Tom] Hanks, they feel comfortable with me because I'm not stuck in the right."
Perhaps, but the actor may be stuck in the wrong decade. This summer, the mega-franchise releases include the latest installments of "Harry Potter," "Transformers" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," movies that star Daniel Radcliffe, Shia LaBeouf and Johnny Depp, respectively, three actors whose combined weight is far less than Schwarzenegger's bench-press in the Reagan years.
Still, Dwayne Johnson, the beefy ex-wrestler who stars in "Fast Five" this summer, said that some things never go out of style.
"The challenge of Arnold's comeback is to find a space where he can utilize all of his bankable resources — the great screen presence and the charisma and knack for making audiences laugh," Johnson said. "He's going to make a very smart choice very soon and he'll dominate again."
Schwarzenegger's last hit was "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," which pulled in $433 million in 2003, but leading up to that was a string of duds that included "Collateral Damage" and "End of Days." It's interesting to note that new film versions of "Total Recall" and Conan the Barbarian, two of the actor's notable successes, are underway with younger men in the lead roles.
Industry insiders offer mixed views of the star's viability. Some, such as veteran producer Mike Medavoy, have said he might be better suited as a supporting actor with a younger lead, others have said the key is smaller budgets with less risk.
Schwarzenegger, no surprise, is thinking big, not unlike his character in "The Governator," who has high-tech spy gadgets, power suits and no shortage of super-sized foes. An action star with an AARP card is not unheard of these days but, judging by his reviews through the years, Schwarzenegger may not have the acting chops to slide into a later-years mode that worked for Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery and Harrison Ford, and is based on more gravitas than chase scenes.
Still, last summer's "The Expendables," directed and starring Sylvester Stallone, pulled in $274 million in worldwide box office with its old-school commando fantasy and aging action-hero cast, including a fleeting cameo by Schwarzenegger. The 38th governor of California watched those receipts with considerable interest and he also smiled as he watched Liam Neeson, now 58, "kicking in doors" in the surprise hit "Taken" three years ago.
"The whole industry has not come up with a new line of action heroes so [people say] let's go see the mature ones — that's what I call them, the mature ones — because there's nothing new around," Schwarzenegger said. "That's good news for me."