“You can call me 70, I don’t mind rounding up,” he jokes. “I’ve passed the halfway point.” He came to Cannes for the first time 40 years ago, to promote the influential bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron, and claims to “feel the same way” he did then. Of course, a lot has happened in the intervening years, and life, he says, has taken him “on a fantastic ride”.
As a boy growing up in Thal, Austria, Schwarzenegger had “a lot of goals... and I accomplished them. But I did not know it’s going to go further,” he says, with the tsunami-like positivity of a motivational speaker. “There’s always coming up new dreams and new goals, and I didn’t expect that.”
From an early age he looked towards the future, saw what he wanted and went after it. “Some people have the ability of visualising things very clearly, and I was one of those guys. I don’t know where I got this from but I could see the goal. I could see me standing on a Mr Universe pedestal and winning. I could see me being in New York and arriving among the high-rises. I could see me getting into showbusiness, in one way or another.”
Driving him partly was a desire to escape the suffocating gloom that had permeated Austria since the end of the Second World War. “I hated it!” he recalls, banging the table with a meaty fist. “I hated the atmosphere. I hated everyone was drinking. The guys were all depressed. They’d lost the war and there was all this dialogue about the British occupation. There were tanks driving around and the whole thing was kind of weird. So the first time I saw a documentary about America, I said: ‘Ah, now I know where I’m going to go’.”
I tell him I read that he had to try harder than his older brother Meinhard (who would die in a car accident at 25) to win the favour of their WW2 veteran father Gustav, imagining that this might have added to his sense of purpose. Schwarzenegger laughs and grins toothily.
“Yeah, well, I’m not a shrink; I can’t analyse those things,” he says, becoming suddenly less animated and more pensive. “The only thing I know is that I was very fortunate that I had a father that was very discipline-oriented and made us do 200 push-ups before we were allowed to eat breakfast. And he always said: ‘Be useful whatever you do’.”
The Terminator star seems to have taken this advice to heart and lived it – no more so than when he unexpectedly announced his intention to run for the office of governor of California, during an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. This was one of the turns in his life that he hadn’t seen coming. And the way Schwarzenegger tells it, he even took himself by surprise. “Remember, I just decided from one day to the next,” he says, laughing. “I had no team, nothing. I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to run for governor’, and people bought in.”
A signature of his two terms, between 2003 and 2011, was a focus on the environment, and his personal and political transformation into a passionate advocate for green issues. This unforeseen twist is why he’s returned to Cannes as the narrator of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s visually ravishing and technically innovative environmental documentary, Wonders of the Sea 3D – a film whose beauty, Schwarzenegger hopes, will lead to action.
“The idea is brilliant,” he says. “You present something so beautiful to people that they fall in love with it and want to protect it.”
He admits that it wasn’t until he became governor that his own passion for
saving the planet was ignited. Key, he says, was
“I appreciated the environment because Austria was very environmentally friendly, always. But when I became governor, then I saw the facts and figures about what is happening, about how many people die because of pollution, what fossil fuels do and how we pollute our ground, all this stuff.”
Although a Republican, he courted Democrats to help him pass the “toughest environmental laws in the United States”. When the Bush administration stood in his way, they sued the government. “I took my own party to the Supreme Court and won,” he says proudly.
Donald Trump is now threatening to take major steps backwards on the environment, but Schwarzenegger is not disheartened. Out of office, he continues to promote action through his organisation R20 which, he says, is giving states and regional governments
power, rather than wait for the national government or the UN to step in.
As for Trump, he’s just one man; Schwarzenegger believes in people power. “I’m not that concerned because I think that everything will sort itself out... We do not have a dictatorship, we have a democracy. Our constitution has been written so well that we have gone through Watergate and all the different troubles, and America always came out well. So this is a little hiccup for America, but I think that America will work its way through it.”
And you can bet he will do what he can to make sure it does. A few days ago, in the wake of the white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, he pledged $100,000 to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre to “help advance the centre’s mission of expanding tolerance through education and fighting hate all over
On screen, Schwarzenegger once wanted to destroy humanity. Now he wants to save us and the world we live in. When he sees things he doesn’t like, he will go on the attack, he says, because “that is what we do”. But he’ll do it with “no hostility”, he adds.
“Because, remember, I don’t believe everyone ever will agree with every single thing that I say. So there will always be people that think differently and have their own opinion. The key thing is that we don’t just wait for this one person [the president] to make a decision, but that we all know we have the power to make changes.”
*Terminator 2: Judgement Day 3D is in cinemas now. Wonders of the Sea 3D will be released later in the year