Arnold Schwarzenegger on Portraying John Wharton in ‘Sabotage’
WRITER’S NOTE: The following article was written in 2014.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has had a hard time regaining his status as an action movie star as “The Last Stand” and “Escape Plan” both disappointed at the box office, but this looks to change with “Sabotage,” the latest film from writer/director David Ayer who is best known for his realistic action films “End of Watch” and “Harsh Times,” and for writing the screenplay to “Training Day.” While we have come to expect Schwarzenegger to play the hero, this film has him playing a different kind of role than any he has played previously.
In “Sabotage,” Schwarzenegger plays John “Breacher” Wharton, the commander of an elite squad of DEA operatives, and the movie starts with them infiltrating a drug cartel safe house to steal $10 million dollars for themselves. But when they try to recover this money, they discover someone has gotten to it before them and soon find themselves being killed off one by one. From there it’s a race to figure out who the assassin is before they all end up dead.
I was in attendance at the “Sabotage” press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills where Schwarzenegger was the biggest star of the day, and he talked at length about how different his role of John “Breacher” Wharton is from the ones he is famous for. Wharton is a morally grey character as he fights crime, but he could easily be a criminal as he has been investigated by his superiors for illegal activities.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: I think that from an acting point of view it was the most challenging because I’ve never played a character like this. The characters I usually play are black and white. I’m the good guy that wipes out the bad guys, and then there’s a little bit of humor throughout the movie and that’s it. But this script and the character were written quite differently, and I think that’s what was appealing to me. And of course, I knew of David Ayer’s writing and his directing, and I thought it would really be great for me to be challenged like that.
For those familiar with Ayer’s “End of Watch,” you know he put Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena through some seriously rigorous training so they could get fully into the mindset of being LAPD officers. With “Sabotage,” he put Schwarzenegger and his co-stars through SWAT training which was very intense and designed to have them get into the mindset of their characters in a similar way. Schwarzenegger described the kind of training he endured before the cameras started rolling.
AS: When we got together, David had a whole list of things that he wanted me to do. I loved that he pushed me because sometimes directors get intimidated when they meet someone like me and they say that I’m looking forward to working with you and let’s just figure out how we are going to get ready for the movie and those kinds of things. But David came in and was very clear with the set of things that needed to be done like the weapons training and I said, “Why do I need weapons training? I’ve shot more guns than anyone in movie history and I’ve killed more people than anyone, so I mean why do we have to go through weapons training?” And then he said we have to go down to the SWAT team and we have to figure this out. But the thing was that all of this built the character and made me perform the way I did. It was the rehearsals that we did and the talking about the character, learning how they think because that was one of things David wanted me to do; to hang out with those guys, learn how they think, why they are the kind of guys that they are that are willing to risk their own lives to save others. What kind of a mentality does this take and the conflicts in the training and the dedication and all of those things? It’s a very complex world.
Schwarzenegger also compared the SWAT training to his early days of bodybuilding, some of which were featured in the documentary “Pumping Iron.”
AS: I come from a world of reps. The more reps you do, the better you get so I believed in what he (Ayer) said. The more you go down there and do this training with the SWAT team, the better you will be on the set and that’s exactly what happened. What we have learned was that they don’t hold the gun the same way as many in the military or when you just play an action hero, and the authenticity of this was really important. How did you hold the gun? How do you shoot? How do you aim? Do you have your head down or do you bring the gun up to your eye? They are all the time making adjustments. This is what made the movie look good because of those kinds of suggestions.
Of course, we all know Schwarzenegger took a number of years off from acting when he was elected the Governor of California. When he returned to making movies, he was not blind to how things have changed. This had us wondering how he dealt with those changes and how he sees filmmaking today.
AS: Today it’s not like in the ’80s and ’90s when a studio throws $100 million dollars to get a great action movie. That was the old days, now we have half of the money and you have to be very frugal and you have to really rehearse and be prepared, so to have all this stuff be second nature I think is very important. I think that the style of shooting is different, the kind of directors that are out there is much more the younger crowd that is being hired, and there are new visions and new ideas and all that. Movies are made a lot of times by committee and go through the studio route. There’s a bunch of young guys now making decisions whereas in the old days there was one guy sitting there making the decisions, so there’s a lot of changes like that. Budgets are half of what they used to be, the rest of the money is being used for the franchise movies and the big sequels and stuff like that, so it’s a different world that you have to adjust that.
In the past few years, the action genre has taken a bit of a hit as the superhero and comic book movies have dominated Hollywood. But for Schwarzenegger, he doesn’t see the genre disappearing anytime soon. From his point of view, action movies have always done very well, especially those with great stories.
AS: There are action movies that are multilayered and have really interesting characters, and they always will be popular. The key thing is to entertain people, and I think that people are fascinated about this world that we are dealing with in this movie. So, we hope that this movie is going to be successful and is going to be seen by a lot of people. But I think that what this movie has to offer, unlike most action movies, is realism. It is so realistic in the way it was researched and that is why we had so many experts on the set. We had a director that was insisting on being as real as possible and he was basically a fanatic about that. It all paid off and I think people will really, really enjoy this film.
Other action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis have seen their careers go up and down on a regular basis while Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal seem to be forever trapped in straight to video hell. Schwarzenegger, however, still has a strong presence in movies even if his most recent efforts were not well received. Now that he has been in show business for a few decades, we wonder what direction he would like to see his acting career go from here.
AS: Well, I think I’d like to challenge myself. You think about would this movie be appealing in the United States and also all over the world because sometimes you read a script and you say, well, I think this will play really well in America, but it’s not going to play well overseas. I don’t think I have much interest in that. I like to entertain the world and that was my mission. That was what bodybuilding was all about for me and what acting was all about. So, it’s always about what is the most entertaining project and what is the most challenging project for me, or it could be doing a sequel to” Twins” called “Triplets” with Eddie Murphy. That’s the same type of story, but to me, it’s just a fun project. There is a comedic side just to me that I can play in that role really well. Or we could do a sequel to “Conan (The Barbarian),” “King Conan” or something like that. “Maggie” was the last movie I did which is a very little movie where I just play a farmer whose daughter has this zombie virus. It’s all about having a good time but challenging yourself and always stretching and entertaining the world.
Now it’s no secret Schwarzenegger is not the young action star he used to be. When movie stars reach the age of 40, everyone expects they will not have many of the same opportunities they once had. At one point, the emcee asked Schwarzenegger if it is great to be over 40. He responded he thinks it’s great to be over 60, and his outlook on aging proved to be quite healthy.
AS: I don’t think about when I go to the gym, oh I’m now older or something like that. I just think about how I want to get in shape, and it’s the same when I do a movie. I don’t think about what age I’m in. I just do the movie and I do it as well as I can and go all out. I’m very fortunate that I exercise every day so that I start out already in good shape so that when someone like David Ayer comes along and says, “I want you now to do the martial arts training and I’m going to send over some guys that are cage fighters and then this and then that,” I can also deal with that. To me, I never even think about what is my age.
Schwarzenegger’s performance in “Sabotage” is one of the best he has given so far. Many still see him as not much of an actor even after such memorable turns in “The Terminator” movies and “Total Recall” (the original, not the remake), but he’s always been a better film actor than we give him credit for. Here we get to see him play one of his most complex roles to date, showing just how much range he has. Now he looks more than ready to graduate to the next level of being a grizzled action hero.
PLEASE CHECK OUT THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW I DID FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED WITH ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER AND OTHERS ON “SABOTAGE” DOWN BELOW.