Surprise! Arnold Schwarzenegger Is Fantastic in His New Indie Drama ‘Maggie’

I’ve seen some strange things at the Tribeca Film Festival — this was, after all, where Robert De Niro met Lil’ Bub. But if there’s one thing I wouldn’t have imagined seeing at this, or frankly any other, film festival, it’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. And in the Q&A following last night’s world premiere of his new film Maggie, the former Terminator and governor expressed the same surprise. “I never dreamt in my life that I would one day be here at Tribeca, and getting this kind of reception.” The reception was the real deal, and so was his performance — a serious, heartfelt, dramatic turn, and he totally nails it. I’m as surprised as you are.

He plays Wade, a Midwestern farmer and father whose oldest daughter, the title character (a wonderful Abigail Breslin), has fallen prey to a terrifying viral epidemic. She’s infected and contagious, and soon she’ll turn into a zombie; the custom is to allow families a couple of weeks with the sick before turning them over for quarantine. But that’s easier said than done; there’s an argument to be made for just hanging on and hoping for the best, or avoiding the subsequent pain and misery by administering a quick death. That, too, is easier said than done.

Joely Richardson, Henry Hobson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Tribeca Film Festival Premiere of "Maggie"

In other words, this is some fairly heavy emotional stuff — but sifted into a genre picture for safety’s sake (and a pretty good one, at a moment when everybody loves the zombies). And he’s certainly taken his time shifting his career path; in a 1991 appreciation, Roger Ebert wrote, “He does not cast himself in Ibsen or Shakespeare, or place himself in the hands of David Lynch or Martin Scorsese. He knows exactly what he can do best, and is not tempted to make a fool of himself by wandering far afield.” He’s still not doing Shakespeare, but this is something akin to playing Zombie Hamlet’s father.

Yet his casting is indeed fascinating. Look, no one’s ever branded Schwarzenegger a great thespian; his star-making performance was as a robot. But if you weren’t aware of his bodybuilder’s physique, you might not see it here — his costuming is heavy on baggy jeans and loose flannels. The strength he projects isn’t in his body, but in his resolve, and it’s a role less about physique than about presence, the authority that he’s accumulated after all these years. Director Henry Hobson spends a lot of time looking at his star’s eyes, and they may be the one place where Schwarzenegger shows his almost 70 years. Those eyes have seen some things.

Joely Richardson, Henry Hobson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Tribeca Film Festival Premiere of "Maggie"

“I would not have been able to play this role 30 years ago,” he said Wednesday. “But now, for the last 25 years, I’ve been a father, and I think that I could relate to this situation.” Yes, those number are right; even in the midst of our perpetual anniversary-celebration machine, it’s easy to forget exactly how old our man is, even if his recent run of, to put it charitably, box office misfortune indicates that his days fronting action movies are indeed numbered. In that way, making a small movie like this one is just smart career exploration for the savvy star, who is credited as a producer. “I had a great time doing this film,” he said, immediately adding, “It was probably the lowest-budget movie I’ve ever done in my life — I think the budget was six million dollars! The only other movie that was a low-budget movie like this was Terminator 1, which was six and half million dollars — but that was in 1984!”

It’s been a long time since 1984, and Schwarzenegger is wise to adapt. Maggie has some problems, most of them related to dialogue that slides a bit too easily into cliché. But it’s a thoughtful consideration of an apocalyptic event’s human toll, and Schwarzenegger is a surprisingly effective human presence at its center, creating a modest, close-to-the-vest performance that projects real honesty and tenderness.

“I hope to get more dramatic pieces like this,” he said, “because I really enjoyed doing this film, and to do something small like this, where you concentrate on performances and on scene development, rather than just rushing through those type of scenes and then shooting days and days of big action, blowing things up — which is great! After this movie, I did Terminator 5, where we blew up enough stuff, and had enough chase scenes and action scenes and flipping buses through the air and those kind of things. But you don’t spend as much time on those kind of movies on scenes like in a dramatic piece like this. It’s a totally different kind of film, and I’m looking forward to doing more of this kind of work.”

Maggie screens this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s out May 8 in limited release.