I only knew Arnold Schwarzenegger as a champion bodybuilder and a Hollywood actor. But I didn’t know anything about his life. Did you know he was already rich before he even started acting? He arrived in America, built a successful bricklaying business, and used that money to invest in real estate.
What incredible hustle and drive. An extraordinary life. Reminds me of this segment from Bill Burr’s standup:
“Anybody here thinks they could move to Austria, learn the language, become famous for working out, then be a movie star, then marry into their royalty and hold public office? How many lifetimes would you need? I’m on my third attempt at Rosetta Stone Spanish.”
In weeks that followed, I refined this vision until it was very specific. I was going to go for the Mr. Universe title; I was going to break records in power lifting; I was going to Hollywood; I was going to be like Reg Park.
After that, I never went to a competition to compete. I went to win. Even though I didn’t win every time, that was my mind-set. I became a total animal. If you tuned into my thoughts before a competition, you would hear something like: “I deserve that pedestal, I own it, and the sea ought to part for me. Just get out of the fucking way, I’m on a mission. So just step aside and gimme the trophy.”
I was sharing the room with Roy Callender, a black bodybuilder based in England who had also been in the London competition. He was very sweet, talking to me about my loss. He was much more mature than I was and was talking about things I did not quite understand. He was talking about feelings.
“Yeah, it’s hard to lose after such a big victory in London,” he said. “But remember that next year you will win again, and everyone will forget about this loss.”
This was the first time that a man had ever been that nurturing with me. I knew that women were nurturing: my mother was nurturing, other women were nurturing. But to get real empathy from a guy was overwhelming. Up till then, I’d thought that only girls cry, but I ended up crying quietly in the dark for hours. It was a great relief.
To be successful, however, you must be brutal with yourself and focus on the flaws. That’s when your eye, your honesty, and your ability to listen to others come in. Bodybuilders who are blind to themselves or deaf to others usually fall behind.
We were constantly on the lookout for new exercises and variations: it could be something as significant as the thousand-pound calf presses I learned from Reg Park, or as subtle as doing a curl with the wrist turned a certain way. Once each week we would choose an unfamiliar exercise and each do sets and reps until we couldn’t do any more. Then we’d analyze the next day which muscles and sections of muscles were sore, and note it down. Working this way, we spent an entire year making a systematic survey of our bodies and building an inventory of hundreds of exercises and techniques. (Eventually this provided the basis for the Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, which I published in 1985.)
A key discovery we made was that you can’t just copy someone else’s routine, because everyone’s body is different. Everyone has different proportions of torso and limb and different hereditary advantages and disadvantages. You can take an idea from another athlete, but you have to understand that your body may respond very differently from his or hers.
My preparation for going up against Sergio didn’t stop at the gym. I bought a movie projector. I assembled a whole collection of his performances in competition, and I watched those films at home again and again.
Actors like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were muscular and had terrific bodies onscreen. They were working out, but in secret. Whenever somebody commented on their muscles, they’d say, “I was born this way.” But that was starting to change, and weight training was becoming more acceptable.
On his bricklaying business
Franco and I had noticed that Americans loved foreign names: Swedish massage, Italian design, Chinese herbs, German ingenuity. We decided that we should highlight being European. The fact that Franco was Italian was especially good. Look at the Vatican! You can’t beat Italian architecture. I’d also noticed that Americans like to bargain a little bit and feel like they’re getting a deal—unlike Germans, who are more willing to accept the quoted price. So Franco and I had a whole routine. I’d bring a tape measure and take measurements and come up with the estimate—which was always in meters and centimeters, adding to the European mystique. Then I’d show it to Franco, and we would start arguing in German in front of the client.
The guy would ask, “What’s going on?”
“Well, I don’t have to tell you about Italians,” I’d say, rolling my eyes. “I don’t get it why he thinks this patio will cost eight thousand dollars. He wants to order x number of bricks, which is way more than we’re going to need. I mean, between you and me, I think we can build it for seven thousand. We’ll have all these extra bricks, and we can return them and get the thousand dollars back.”
The guy would start to trust me right away. “That’s really nice that you’re trying to give me the best price.”
“Well, we want to be competitive. I’m sure you got other estimates, right?”
“Oh, yes, yes.”
“You see, Franco?” I’d say. Then we would argue some more in German, and the guy would be happy with the $7,000 deal.
Pretty soon I realized that in an entertainment interview, you could just make up stuff! I’d say things like, “In 1968 Playboy did a survey, and eighty percent of women hated bodybuilders. But now it’s turned around, and eighty-seven percent of women love guys with muscles.” They loved it.
Lucy gave me advice about Hollywood. “Just remember, when they say, ‘No,’ you hear ‘Yes,’ and act accordingly. Someone says to you, ‘We can’t do this movie,’ you hug him and say, ‘Thank you for believing in me.’ ”
He was teaching me to access all the emotions that were stored in my mind. “Everyone has them,” he said. “The trick in acting is to summon them up in the quickest way. Why do you think certain actors can cry when they want? Not just mechanical crying, but real crying, where your whole face contracts and your lip quivers. It means that the actor can recall something very, very upsetting very quickly. And it’s very important for the director to capture that in the first two takes, because the actor can’t do it again and again without it becoming mechanical. You can’t mess with the mind that often,” he said.
When you’re an actor and when you’re a director, you deal with all of those problems. No one gets up in the morning and says, “I’m going to be difficult today,” or “I’m going to derail the movie,” or “I’m going to be a bitch.” People just have their hang-ups and in- securities, and acting definitely brings them out. Because it’s you who is being judged, it’s your facial expressions, your voice, your personality, your talent—it’s everything about you so it makes you vulnerable. It’s not some product you’ve made or job you’ve done. If someone tells the makeup guy, “Can you tone this down a little bit? I have too much powder there,” he says, “Oh, sorry,” and just wipes it off. But if someone says, “Can you get rid of that self-conscious smile while you’re doing the scene? You have something weird going on in your face,” you feel like “Jesus!” Now you don’t know what to do with your face.
“Arnold, you’re an idiot,” I told myself. “You spend all this time on your body, but you never think about your mind, how to make it sharper and relieve the stress. When you have muscle cramps, you have to do more stretching, take a Jacuzzi, put on the ice packs, take more minerals. So why aren’t you thinking that the mind also can have a problem? It’s overstressed, or it’s tired, it’s bored, it’s fatigued, it’s about to blow up—let’s learn tools for that.”
They gave me a mantra and taught me to use a twenty-minute meditation session to get to a place where you don’t think. They taught how to disconnect the mind, so that you don’t hear the clock ticking in the background or people talking. If you can do this for even a few seconds, it already has a positive effect. The more you can prolong that period, the better it is.
On marketing and promotion
To promote the movie, it was important to work every possible angle. We used special-interest magazines to build an audience—stories on sword fighting for the martial-arts magazines. Stories for horse magazines. Stories for fantasy magazines that were into swords and sorcery. Stories for bodybuilding magazines on how you needed top conditioning to be Conan.
I knew another reason for their reluctance to send me on a PR tour was that very few actors like to sell. I’d seen the same thing with authors in the book business. The typical attitude seemed to be, “I don’t want to be a whore. I create; I don’t want to shill. I’m not into the money thing at all.”
I saw myself as a businessman first. Too many actors, writers, and artists think that marketing is beneath them. But no matter what you do in life, selling is part of it. You can’t make movies without money. Even if I had no publicity obligation in my contract, it was still in my interest to promote the movie and make sure it made as much money as possible. I wanted to be involved in the meetings. I wanted everyone to see that I was working very hard to create a return on the studio’s investment. I felt it was my responsibility to pump up the grosses.
In Hollywood, you get paid for how much you can bring in. What is the return on investment? The reason I could double my ask was the worldwide grosses. I nurtured the foreign markets. I was always asking, “Is this movie appealing to an international audience? For example, the Asian market is negative on facial hair, so why would I wear a beard in this role? Do I really want to forgo all that money?”
Whenever I finished filming a movie, I felt my job was only half done. Every film had to be nurtured in the marketplace. You can have the greatest movie in the world, but if you don’t get it out there, if people don’t know about it, you have nothing. It’s the same with poetry, with painting, with writing, with inventions. It always blew my mind that some of the greatest artists, from Michelangelo to van Gogh, never sold much because they didn’t know how. They had to rely on some schmuck—some agent or manager or gallery owner—to do it for them.
You have to cultivate your audience and expand it with each film. With each movie, it was crucial to have a certain percentage of viewers say, “I would go see another movie of his anytime.” Those are the people who’ll tell their friends, “You’ve got to see this guy.”
Nurturing a movie means paying attention to the distributors also: the middlemen who talk theater owners into putting your movie on their screens rather than somebody else’s. The distributors need to know you’re not going to let them hang out there by themselves. Instead, you’ll appear at ShoWest, the National Association of Theatre Owners convention in Las Vegas, and take pictures with the theater owners, and accept an award, and give a talk about your movie, and go to the press conference. You do the things that the distributors feel are important because then they go all out in pushing the theaters. Later that week, one of them might call you and say, “You gave that speech the other day, and I just want you to know how helpful it was.
Maria was the first girlfriend I ever had who didn’t treat my ambitions as an annoyance, some kind of madness that interfered with her vision of the future: namely, marriage, kids, and a cozy little house somewhere—and the stereotypical all-American life. Maria’s world wasn’t small like that. It was gigantic, because of what her grandfather did, what her father did, what her mother did, what her uncles did. I’d finally met a girl whose world was as big as mine.
People were always talking about how few performers there are at the top of the ladder, but I was always convinced there was room for one more. I felt that, because there was so little room, people got intimidated and felt more comfortable staying on the bottom of the ladder. But, in fact, the more people that think that, the more crowded the bottom of the ladder becomes! Don’t go where it’s crowded. Go where it’s empty.
If you’re anxious, instead of making fallback plans, think about the worst that can happen if you fail. How bad would it be? You quickly find out it’s really nothing.