ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER INTERVIEWED (2000): The beginning or the end?

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ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER INTERVIEWED  (2000): The beginning or the end?
Arnold Schwarzenegger is somewhere in a scrum of photographers at the finish of a press conference for his new action movie, End of Days.

At Sydney's Hotel Intercontinental the lens-wielders jostle around him and his co-star, Robin Tunney, and from little more than a metre away fire flashbulbs in their faces.

The man we know as Arnie is gracious, grinning and obliging - then retreats to the 28th floor where he will hold court for a day of meticulously timed 15-minute interviews.

He arrived in Sydney the day before and, surrounded by security more befitting a Serbian war criminal, went shopping for koala bears and boomerangs for his kids. After this night's Australian premiere of End of Days he will fly to Japan for another day of press, then to Vancouver where he's shooting his next film.

It's a hectic schedule. He's used to that and he handles it with great humour. He pointedly thanks the media for their interest over the years ("I am a product of the press") and for their support of the charitable works he does.

Arnie the Charmer. It's Hollywood of the old style when Heston, Cooper and Fonda the Elder were as gracious and grateful for the breaks they'd had. And it works - even on the Australian press, which takes pride in its cynicism.

MV5BYWM3MTMwYTYtNTVmOC00NWU2LWJjNmMtY2YwMDM4NWM4NDhiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDc2NjEyMw__._V1_UY1200_CR88_0_630_1200_AL_When asked if he'd like to film in Sydney he prefaces his diplomatic reply by saying he has "no plans to" but would love to bring the family down for a few months. The following day Sunday tabloids banner: "Arnie to film in Sydney."

Schwarzenegger is back, as promised, this time with End of Days, a loud, stunt-heavy flick which brings the embodiment of the Devil to New York in the guise of a corporate banker played by Gabriel Byrne.

Aside from good timing - it is set in the final days of this year and reaches its climax at midnight on New Year's Eve - it puts Arnie in a less obviously heroic role.

It perhaps reflects his mood. In a two-year absence from the screen he had surgery for a faulty heart valve and was subsequently asked if he was suffering the consequences of steroid abuse from his body-building days. And last year his mother died. As part of the extended Kennedy clan (his wife, Maria Shriver, is JFK's niece) this year he mourned the loss of John Kennedy jun.

He says he wanted to come back to the screen "with a big bang, with a movie with a big scope and an important message. It has stunts, action, special effects, everything. It has an impact."

Some media bore at the press conference wants to know if End of Days further perpetrates the myth that this New Year's Eve marks the new millennium when we all know ...

"I wanted to do exactly that," laughs Schwarzenegger, who has clearly been through this a few times. "I'm so happy it's a sore point with you."

He was drawn to the script because of millennial stories in Time, Newsweek and the tabloids. Survivalist magazines in the United States were saying that people were stockpiling food, that gun shops were selling out in preparation for impending disaster, and that people felt vulnerable.

"So here's another idea for what could happen - Satan could return," he announces with a wide Arnie grin. "We just added it to the whole thing."

If Arnie is old-school Hollywood, then so is the film. Though The Matrix upped the special-effects stakes and delivered a post-modern storyline, it hasn't filtered through to scriptwriter Andrew Marlowe or Schwarzenegger, who deliver explosions, heavy artillery and special-effects straight out of the 80s.

Of more interest is Arnie's character. Jericho Cain (coincidental initials for a man who in the course of the film is crucified?) is a suicidal, alcohol-sodden former cop. It's an unglamorous part but Schwarzenegger denies that it redefines heroism.

"A hero is someone who does anything extraordinary, someone the masses admire because not everybody is able to do that in a self-sacrificial way, and there are many types of heroes out there, from Mother Theresa to Muhammed Ali to Adam Smith," says this astute businessman, dropping the name of the father of free market economics into illustrious company.

Meeting him later for the famous 15 minutes, the first impression is that Schwarzenegger looks tired. But it's now 2.30 pm and he's been being Arnie since 10 am. However, he's personable and responds openly to the suggestion that the part is giving him - at 52 and post-op - a career opportunity away from the cartoon characters of his previous action adventures.

He laughs because he reads the subtext and says, sure, the idea of playing a flawed guy was immediately appealing.

"The time of showing the hero in a perfect way is gone. That was the 80s. I only do movies for the people, so to me what works is what works for the audience.

"People now want to see movies that have a story. They want new twists, don't want to be told what the ending is, who is going to win and lose. They want to discover all that. That is a big change.

"I cannot do that [heroic] stuff because it doesn't work for me anymore. As I get older the more I want to do movies that are a little smarter than when I was 30. And the audience is also smarter than 20 years ago."

He says his new movie was shot with two endings and in test screenings "90 per cent of people didn't want the typical Hollywood ending," so now End of Days closes on a sombre note. Arnie doesn't unleash the firepower at his disposal either, because End of Days is, as much as a festival of pyrotechnics and explosions, about the battle between good and evil.

During discussions with religious groups and theologians, they insisted that Satan cannot be defeated with tools of his own making. That meant Arnie/JC couldn't blast Satan back to Hell, but rather had to lay down his arms and win the immortal struggle though faith. He happily insisted on the script change to make for a more moral film, he says earnestly.

The most obvious feature about Schwarzenegger is that he is still a serious enthusiast for the job. It's that old-style Hollywood again, and perhaps explains why this action hero is still here when Stallone, Bronson and Eastwood have all but disappeared.

He's the last action hero and you see his likeable old school persona again when he arrives at the premiere. He shakes countless hands, never stops smiling and - away from most cameras - stops to spend time with two intellectually handicapped quadraplegics, and to high-five a little kid while his minders are trying to hurry him into the screening, where he again makes a speech thanking everyone for their support.

Co-star Tunney tells me, "He's made it easy on himself by enjoying it. He's always very polite to people, enjoys making people laugh, and never looks like he's cashing his paycheck. He's excited about every scene."

It's possible to glimpse that enthusiasm close up, even when Schwarzenegger is as weary of interviews as he must be on this day.

Suggest that one advantage of the collective art of film-making is meeting different people - like theologians - and he springs out of autopilot, the lines around his eyes vanishing.

"In general we can all do that, it's just that most people are not willing after a certain age to expand and reach out," he says. "Most people go for lunch or dinner with the same pals, but what you could do is invite someone from an industry you've never dealt with, the banking or computer industry. I think people just never venture out enough and movies force you into it."

His next film, The Sixth Day, is about cloning and he enthusiastically recounts how people from that industry "who want to clone pets and organs" came and showed him the process on computers. Fascinating, he says.

And he's still a movie fan, too. He beams when talking about veteran actor Rod Steiger - who plays a priest in End of Days - and how he wanted "to learn the inside scoop about working with any of those people, the way they did it in the old days ... and what was his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor," he laughs.

"The same with Gabriel Byrne, who comes from Ireland and has this fascinating and different outlook on acting coming from the stage."

A minder nods and my famous 15 minutes are up. But between the handshake and the admission that he's limiting himself to one cigar a day now, he finishes his train of thought - albeit with his engaging, garbled syntax and defiance of logic: "The hardest thing would be maybe one day not doing it. But I've not dealt with that yet. That time will come, but I'm not going to lose sleepless nights over that."

I guess what he's saying is, "I'll be back."

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