Arnold Schwarzenegger Plays Hero One More Time

The former governor calls in to The Ticket from his house in California to discuss the coronavirus response.

Arnold Schwarzenegger
David J. Hogen / Getty / The Atlantic

What, you haven’t been weathering self-quarantine by feeding carrots to your mini-horse and mini-donkey or smoking cigars in your hot tub?

Arnold Schwarzenegger—bodybuilding champion, actor, California governor, and now the star of PSAs urging people to stay home—is keeping busy doing just that. It’s one way to pass the time between working out a new partnership with TikTok to transform his decades-old afterschool program into a meals provider for children out of school and donating $1 million to buy masks for nurses and doctors who need them.

He doesn’t have much choice. He’s still Arnold Schwarzenegger, he still looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger (well, with reading glasses and a beard), and he certainly still sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But he’s also a 72-year-old man who had emergency heart surgery in 2018, and who loves to ride his bicycle around but has been keeping clear of crowds for weeks.

He knows that his home in Los Angeles has a lot more to it than most homes, between the stable and the hot tub and the private gym and the outdoor fireplace. But he’s been holed up watching Outbreak and Contagion too. (Outbreak, he says, is very entertaining, but “Contagion is really exactly what is going on right now.”) He also just watched The Great Ziegfeld. That one is from 1936, a song-and-dance adaptation of The Ziegfeld Follies with Myrna Loy and William Powell. It was a nice change of pace.

Over Zoom the other night, about an hour after he got out of the hot tub—by then he’d dried off and put on a Terminator: Dark Fate T-shirt—I asked him if maybe the movies we should be thinking about more are from his own catalog. Does he think we are in the prelude to Terminator?

“I mean, not now,” he told me. “But look, I still think that if everyone stays with the program and stays more isolated and away from other people, we can overcome this with a five rather than a 10.”

You can listen to our conversation in a bonus episode of The Ticket: Politics from The Atlantic, up now:

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You’ve watched Schwarzenegger blow up all kinds of things on-screen, using all kinds of things. What you probably don’t know is that in real life he’s obsessed with disaster preparedness—and that while he’s mugging with his mini-horse and mini-donkey or pulling up the latest documentary his kids have recommended, what he really wants is to be in charge. A decade after finishing up as governor, he’s sitting at home watching the action on TV and wishing he could be showing up at hospitals and other sites to solve problems and break down bureaucratic hold-ups, even if that would mean arriving in a full protective suit. “You’re treated differently if you walk around,” he reasoned. He wants to be ordering drills to test readiness for massive patient influxes. He wants to be the one cutting through the delays in getting more beds and masks. He told me about finding out that a company had 22,000 spare cots for use in a wildfire emergency, which the state couldn’t access, because the ownership had changed and switched the locks, and no one could track down who had the passcode. He went off on a tangent about how so many hospitals have gotten waivers on earthquake-proofing that he knows California is not ready for a big one. These are the kinds of situations in which the man who played Conan the Barbarian, the Terminator, and John Kimble wants to be let loose.

“There are moments, and especially moments like this, where I feel like, oh, that would be really great to be there now,” Schwarzenegger told me.

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, has become a pandemic-response star in the past two weeks, applying his usual Machiavellian power moves to deal with the disaster. President Donald Trump continues to pick petty fights from the White House podium, interspersing false promises and hunch-based “science” with temper tantrums. Joe Biden has basically disappeared from view, doing what he says are hours of calls each day with advisers, and slowly setting up a press-briefing area in the rec room of his Wilmington, Delaware, home. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger has been riffing for his millions of social-media followers (he calls his playful, absurdist jokes “Arnold-isms”), hoping to break through to the people who have heard all the warnings from government and public-health officials but are still going to places like the Florida beaches and the Washington, D.C., cherry blossoms. “People enjoy that it’s unscripted when I do those messages. It’s not reading off a teleprompter or anything. I don’t do the political kind of stuff. I just say what my concerns are,” he said.

Is Schwarzenegger a little ridiculous sometimes? Of course he’s a little ridiculous sometimes. He revels in being a little ridiculous sometimes. But he’s also perhaps the most famous climate-change activist, regularly traveling the world and meeting with heads of state and other international players.That’s why, he told me, he wasn’t surprised to see a pandemic break out. Experts at the World Health Organization, he said, have been telling him for a while about their fears of a virus. He said the first stories out of China caught his attention right away. “I said to myself, I think this is ... the virus that they were worried about.”

He can’t believe that the president and other officials didn’t have the same realization. He’s mad that so much of the public’s attention has strayed from questions about the supply and production of masks and ventilators. He’s frustrated that the stockpiles are so low. He gets angry talking about people ignoring “the curve.” “There is no more time of waiting,” he said. “We know the writing on the wall.”

Schwarzenegger often talks about how he got his first taste of being in charge: After California’s 2003 recall election, he went to view wildfire damage with Gray Davis, the man he’d just beaten, who was heavy on government experience but short on charisma. A few years in, he was all about fire management and disaster preparedness, spending billions of dollars to upgrade the state’s levees and setting up disaster drills, then starting them two hours ahead of schedule, to make sure no one got too comfortable.

“They laughed about it and brushed it off until, of course, Katrina happened,” he said. “After Katrina happened, they came back to me and they said, ‘What was that again that you talked about?’ They called me alarmist then and they said, ‘We're just recovering from a recession. Well, why would you spend $6.4 billion on levees when we need the money for other things and blah blah blah.’”

So he’s willing to accept that Trump and others came into office not appreciating what they had to do. He’s not willing to accept that years into the job, they still didn’t know. He’s willing to accept that the response to the coronavirus is unprecedented in the history of the planet. He’s not willing to accept that in 2011, the year after he left office, state budget cuts eliminated a $1.7 million fund dedicated to building a 200-bed hospital in three days during an emergency.

Thanks to Trump, Schwarzenegger has had a weird few years politically. First he seemed to be the model that inspired Trump to enter politics. Then he wouldn’t support Trump as the Republican nominee in 2016. Then he replaced Trump as the host of Celebrity Apprentice. Then Trump started taking potshots at his ratings at the National Prayer Breakfast. Then Schwarzenegger became the black sheep of the Republican Party, hounded by reporters trying to get him to take a shot at Trump. Often, he did.

Suddenly, he’s once again above the usual politics. “A unique PSA,” Senator Ted Cruz tweeted from his own self-quarantine in Texas last week. “Schwarzenegger in his kitchen, wearing a Terminator t-shirt, giving coronavirus advice—STAY HOME if you don’t need to go out—while feeding a pony called Whiskey & a donkey called Lulu.” Charlotte Clymer, a communications aide for the Human Rights Campaign, joked back on Twitter, “I don’t believe you, Governor. We’re going to need to see more of these videos to be convinced.” Schwarzenegger has complied. On Friday, he posted a clip of him feeding Whiskey asparagus off his plate. That one got 124,000 likes.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is back.

“All I'm caring about is: What can I do to help people?” he told me. “There’s people still living in denial. And I think that there’s also some people that, you know, they even see a crisis like this through a political lens. That’s what holds us back. I mean, for anyone to say ‘This is not dangerous; it’s just another virus, and other viruses kill much more people than this virus does’ and all this stuff—this is nonsense dialogue. It doesn’t help anybody.”

Listen to him if you want to live.