But after leaving office, Schwarzenegger signed onto two parts: a small role in last summer's The Expendables 2 and The Last Stand, where Korean director Kim Jee-woon makes his English-language debut. Working with Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables for four days proved to be "a great warm-up, the perfect transition" for the much larger follow-up role.
As The Last Stand cast and crew debated how they should refer to the star, Schwarzenegger jetted in ready to rumble.
"People wanted to know, 'Should we call him Governor? Should we call him Arnold?''' Schwarzenegger says gleefully. "I said I didn't care. We just have to grind this movie out. We have to work, work, work."
All business on the set
The fiscally conservative Republican took his leader status seriously for the modestly budgeted $40 million action film.
"Everyone got the cue. Don't (mess) around," Schwarzenegger says. "If we're shooting a scene late, don't complain, there's a reason for that. When the call time is for 7 o'clock, I was there at 7 o'clock. That's what kind of movie this was."
And while Schwarzenegger had laughs with co-stars Johnny Knoxville and Jaimie Alexander between scenes, they knew when showtime started. "He worked his butt off," Alexander says.
Luis Guzmn, who plays a deputy, said he was impressed that Schwarzenegger was willing to show the vulnerability of age in the movie.
"It would be a mistake to make a 65-year-old man act 35," Guzmn says. "But, fun fact: That guy's still got the moves."
For Schwarzenegger, the screen vulnerability comes naturally with age -- even if he remains active and works out for 80 minutes every day. "Automatically it gets dialed into your brain whether you want to or not. You look at things totally differently. You look down the black diamond hill more cautiously when skiing. In the old days, you wouldn't think of it. Now I look at it and think, 'Where's the best way to get down?'"
Despite that, Schwarzenegger also was eager to do as many stunts as needed, strapping on the safety harness for one key fighting sequence that leads to a building fall. In another scene, he is thrown through a door and announces, "I'm old."
They shot some scenes three times, which was fine in his book.
"They were very much aware, 'Let's use Arnold, but let's not abuse Arnold,'" Schwarzenegger says.
Yet the hardest days were the relatively mundane stunts where, for example, Schwarzenegger had to jump over the hood of a car. "You have to do it over and over again. And your pants are too tight and you cannot lift your leg up high enough to get it over the hood."
Ironically, his worst injury was a fluke that came while he was walking off the set as the camera crew was rehearsing a shot.
"I put my jacket on to walk away and all of a sudden the camera comes in and smacks into my forehead and the blood is gushing down," he says.
Maintaining his tough-guy image, he was whisked away to the local emergency room, took four stitches and zipped back for more shooting.
"The director said the wound could be removed digitally. So we continued."
Wade Allen, one of the film's stunt coordinators, recalls Schwarzenegger skillfully driving his Camaro in an intricate cornfield car chase with him repeatedly slamming into his screen foe's car -- "It was fantastic, and with Arnold driving!"
The star also dutifully took on the prolonged hand-to-hand combat scene in the finale.
"There was a lot of physicality in that last sequence. It's (Schwarzenegger) throwing punches and dropping the other character on the side of a bridge. There was not a lot of Hollywood tricks," Allen says. "At the end of the last day, he was moving a little slower. He had that look of an action star that has given his all and was a little tired. But he did a great job."
More action on the way
It's a work ethic and energy that could bust Arnold right back to the top of the Hollywood game. He already has shot another two action movies since leaving office: The Tomb, alongside Sylvester Stallone (due Sept. 27); and Ten, alongside Sam Worthington as a member of an elite DEA task force (2014).
While shooting The Tomb, the 66-year-old Stallone injured his calf in a scene while carrying a heavy pack down a ladder. Schwarzenegger decided to warm up to prevent the same injury.
"And then I pulled a calf (muscle) warming up, I didn't even do anything," Schwarzenegger says. "So I went to Stallone's trailer and it turns out we pulled it in the same place. Same injury, same calf."
Stallone got on the phone and asked for an additional cortisone shot. "The doctor gave us the shots and we were fine to work again," Schwarzenegger says.
He says that was another fluke that had nothing to do with age ("It's the unexpected moments you have to watch out for no matter how old or young you are") and he believes he can keep doing action films as long as he wants. Just like Clint Eastwood.
"It's the way the movies are done," Schwarzenegger says.
"The reason we put faith in guys like Arnold and Clint is that we want them to decide what's right and wrong," says di Bonaventura. "They don't have to be invincible. It's not an age thing. It's a hero thing."
One thing for sure, Schwarzenegger is certainly not going to be like his small-town Sheriff Owens in Stand, content to sit back and let the world go by. He even refuses to sit in a plush leather chair for a photograph, preferring to sit in ready position on the chair's arm.
"I don't kick back, that's not me."
As far as the movie business goes, there's simply no talk of retirement.
"I cannot be happy if I'm not useful. It's that simple," he says. "I get up and I have work to do. I am happy on a movie set. I wouldn't be happy to sit back. And do what? That's not my style. I will be doing things until I'm 6 feet under."
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