If he had his druthers, Arnold Schwarzenegger would continue his 30-year-plus streak of voting Republican in the upcoming presidential election.
In his perfect world, he'd be casting a ballot for himself.
That can't happen, of course, because the actor-politician-businessman-bodybuilder-philanthropist-advertising pitchman is a native Austrian, from a bleak working-class town called Thal. But a rags-to-riches immigrant can dream, can't he?
"If I'd been born in America, I would've run," he tells Adweek one early September afternoon in the offices of the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "Because now? This was a very good time to get in the race."
What a different contest it would've been. Though purely hypothetical, political observers say the man dubbed "the Governator" during his two terms as California's top politico, from 2003-2011, could've bested his friends Ohio Gov. John Kasich and eventual nominee Donald Trump in the primaries. Meaning Schwarzenegger would have been the one facing off against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, pushing his fiscally conservative, socially liberal version of the GOP, and also possibly reliving sexual misconduct allegations leveled against him in 2003 on the eve of the gubernatorial election. (He admitted back then that he had "behaved badly" and that at least some of the accusations were true, commenting, "Where there's smoke, there's fire." He apologized and, days later, won his first term with 48.6 percent of the vote.)
As the strangest presidential campaign in recent U.S. history winds down, Schwarzenegger is focused on interests beyond politics—entertainment and advocacy among them—and when it comes time to pull the lever, he says, he will be voting for anybody but Trump, as he urged his nearly 4 million Twitter followers to do. The tweet from Oct. 8 reads: "For the first time since I became a citizen in 1983, I will not vote for the Republican candidate for president. As proud as I am to label myself a Republican, there is one label that I hold above all else: American. So I want to take a moment today to remind my fellow Republicans that it is not only acceptable to choose your country over your party—it is your duty."
(The tweet went out the day after a controversy erupted over Trump's lewd comments about women on a leaked Access Hollywood tape. Schwarzenegger has not commented publicly on the election since.)
Those close to the action hero say the move was vintage Arnold, a closely considered decision shared in a way and at a time that suited him. This is the man, after all, who used NBC's Tonight Show as the kickoff of his first campaign for California governor, donned a disguise and punked exercisers at Gold's Gym in a fundraising video for one of his pet projects, regularly takes to the social site Reddit and (move over, millennials) has become the king of Snapchat at 69 years old. Schwarzenegger is a master of media and spectacle (see: his Austrian army tank destroying stuff for charity) and a born marketer who started building his personal brand long before there were best-selling books on the subject.
"I realized early on in bodybuilding that you have to be able to sell yourself, your ideas, your position to the public," he says. "You have to set yourself apart, whether it's policy or movies. How do you make them remember you?"
That's certainly not an issue at this point in Schwarzenegger's life. Counting Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, he boasts more than 27 million followers, and his Q score is in the healthy double digits. For his leadership and visibility across a variety of fields—from his environmental activism and national after-school programs to social media heft and blockbuster films, tough-guy-with-a-twist Super Bowl ads and debut in January as a TV reality show host—Schwarzenegger is this year's Adweek Brand Visionary.
"Arnold is completely true to himself, and people know what he stands for," says Paul Wachter, founder and CEO of Main Street Advisors, an investment adviser and dealmaker for the entertainment elite and a longtime Schwarzenegger friend. "Brands all over the world strive for that kind of consistency. As a human being, that's incredibly hard. But he doesn't disappoint. He doesn't turn into something else."
Wachter adds that the star is "incredibly driven and disciplined," while filmmaker and Schwarzenegger collaborator James Cameron notes that he has "a winning strategy, without being a butthole about it."
Schwarzenegger rarely stands still, dividing his time among projects like the Arnold Classic bodybuilding and athletic competitions around the world and the healthy-lifestyle/healthy-planet message of eating less meat he touts via Cameron-produced videos in Asia. His business interests range from real estate to jumbo jets. He recently appeared at an event in California to celebrate a precedent-setting law he passed as governor to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Days later, he left for China to shoot an action movie with Jackie Chan, not long after wrapping his role in the spy comedy Why We're Killing Gunther in Canada. And he's about to become a TV boss, judge and mentor to a group of would-be entrepreneurs that includes Boy George, Jon Lovitz, Vince Neil, Kyle Richards and Laila Ali when Celebrity Apprentice reboots Jan. 2, the first time the long-running NBC franchise hasn't had Trump at the helm. (The show was shot in Los Angeles earlier this year.)
The network gave Trump the heave-ho when he stepped into the presidential race (his alleged behavior behind the scenes is part of the ongoing controversy about his treatment of women and minorities), and executives set about finding a replacement who could boost ratings. They heard that Schwarzenegger, already a fan of the show, was interested and "jumped at the chance" to hire him, says Paul Telegdy, president of NBC's alternative and reality group.
"He is incredibly famous and represents action, adventure, athletics, culture, business, politics and family, as well as struggle and triumph," says the exec, noting that Schwarzenegger has a "well-rounded and extremely well-known brand with many touch points, which makes him accessible and relatable to the masses." Having the Terminator and Expendables star attached has brought worldwide interest in the show, Telegdy adds, "combining two strong brands," which boosts its revenue potential at a time when networks are under growing competition and intense financial pressure. (Read more about the future of The Apprentice franchise here.)
Schwarzenegger, a multimillionaire and proud self-proclaimed capitalist, says he's looking forward to spreading his gospel of "turning one dollar into two," and coining a new catchphrase. "Hasta la vista, baby," is one option, naturally, with losers possibly being shuttled off in a helicopter instead of a limo—making the well-worn but somehow still funny "Get to the chopper!" another possibility. Look for the reveal on premiere night.
He plans to delve even further into TV because it's on an even playing field these days with film, says Schwarzenegger, who has several projects in the works, including a scripted drama called Pump about bodybuilding in Venice Beach in the '70s. The seven-time Mr. Olympia is expected to produce and star in the show, which is shopping for an outlet. True Lies, based on his 1994 hit film, could be resurrected for TV, where it was once in development for ABC. Meantime, the second season of the Emmy-winning National Geographic Channel docuseries Years of Living Dangerously, which focuses on the effects of climate change, features celebrities like Gisele Bundchen, Jack Black, Sigourney Weaver and Schwarzenegger (who is also an executive producer) traveling to the world's trouble spots.
Schwarzenegger's environmental advocacy is nearly as high-profile these days as his entertainment projects. He starred in a Cameron-produced public service announcement this summer highlighting the effects of global warming. It aired during the Democratic National Convention, though Schwarzenegger has taken pains to separate the issue from politics. At the recent Years of Living Dangerously premiere, he said: "There is no conservative air. There is no liberal air. We all breathe the same air."
He and Cameron are also creating videos for China, which may air in the U.S. and other markets, encouraging people to eat less meat because of the environmental damage from animal agriculture. Schwarzenegger appears in Cameron's upcoming documentary The Game Changers, about elite athletes who eat plant-based diets. "There's no better spokesman than the most iconic bodybuilder of all time," Cameron says. "When this physical specimen tells you to eat less meat, it's not like hearing it from a pencil-necked geek like me."
High-profile ad campaigns have also become part of Schwarzenegger's CV, and their quirky, self-deprecating nature have made them fan favorites. He (barely) hid behind a Bjorn Borg getup to play Ping-Pong—which he dubbed "tiny tennis"—in a Bud Light spot during the 2014 Super Bowl that ranked as one of the game's most popular (and inspired the Adweek cover of that year's Super Bowl Issue). In this year's big game, he appeared in a spot for Machine Zone's war-themed mobile game Mobile Strike.
To raise money for After-School All-Stars, the renowned national program he created, he starred in a PSA in which he pretended to be a manager at Gold's Gym in Venice, Calif., telling anyone who recognized him that they must've seen him on the FBI most-wanted list. In the video, he coaches a gym rat to do reps on the water fountain and taunts a slacker with "This is not a baby gym." The ad has racked up more than 21 million views since its 2014 release.
"He has a fabulous sense of humor about himself," says Wachter, who notes that he first met Schwarzenegger at a Halloween party in the early '80s where the brawny Conan the Barbarian star was dressed in lederhosen. "He loves people who give him shit and make fun of him. He never gets his back up about that."
Nor does he shy away from the spotlight or his fans, adds Michael Kives, his agent at Creative Artists Agency. When he sets down at a location, Schwarzenegger insists on just a few things, like riding a bicycle around town and eating at the busiest restaurants. "He sits smack in the middle of the action—no private room," Kives notes. "It doesn't matter how recognizable he is. He wants to be out there."
Schwarzenegger cops to being a relentless self-promoter from way back, but says he never thought consciously about creating a brand. He pursued bodybuilding after seeing magazine photos of Reg Park, a British star of the sport from a similarly hardscrabble background who went on to star as Hercules. He went AWOL from the military to take part in his first competitions. Says Schwarzenegger: "I thought, 'Maybe that's something I can copy.' I had a clear vision of standing on a pedestal like him, and I never doubted it."
When he started making movies, Schwarzenegger was billed as Arnold Strong, with a physique that was in demand for B-flicks like Conan. He convinced himself, and others, that he could be a leading man (see: The Terminator) and later a comedic actor, graduating to jobs where he could "keep my clothes on most of the time" (see: Twins). "The biggest mistake with Arnold is to underestimate him," says Cameron, recalling his work with Schwarzenegger on The Terminator and their discussions about the acting process. "He said, 'Let me be clear: I don't want to be an actor. I want to be a movie star.' I kind of laughed into my sleeve because it seemed unfathomable from where he was starting. But within a handful of years … "
Schwarzenegger says he can't pick a favorite job or single out one career that defines him, though he considers being a public servant one of his most important roles. "I didn't love politics, but I love policy," he says from the USC think tank, which, he adds with a laugh, is run by "one of my liberal friends." That would be Bonnie Reiss, global director of the Schwarzenegger Institute, whose lobby greets visitors with a life-size Schwarzenegger figure wearing a tailored suit, "created with love and respect," according to a plaque, by Stan Winston. The piece originally sat in Schwarzenegger's production office in Venice, but Reiss asked that it be brought to campus so the globe-trotting benefactor (he donated $20 million to start the center) would always be on hand. Plus, students like to take photos with it.
Schwarzenegger says he is most obsessed with whatever project he's working on at the moment. Adding that he's happy to be back in the Hollywood fold for the time being, he's not sure what will come next.
"It has to sound appealing to me, it has to be challenging, it has to be something I can get consumed in," he muses. "It's fun to climb the mountain rather than sit at the top."
Check out all of Adweek's 2016 Brand Genius winners.
This story first appeared in the October 24, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.