‘The New Celebrity Apprentice’ boss Arnold Schwarzenegger says cast ‘a lot to handle’

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Celebrity Apprentice - Season 15
Art Streiber/NBC
Arnold Schwarzenegger

Wanted: head Honcho for The New Celebrity Apprentice. Candidate must be larger than life. (Political experience a plus.)

As far as job vacancies go, the one at NBC’s reality competition—created when longtime host Donald Trump stepped away in order to begin his successful bid for the presidency—is pretty tricky to fill. So it’s a good thing that Arnold Schwarzenegger just happened to be available.

The hulking Austrian import’s colorful résumé already includes stints as a professional bodybuilder, headliner of blockbuster films like the Terminator franchise and, of course, his 2003–2010 tenure as governor of California. And now the 69-year-old will flex his muscles in a starring role on TV for the first time, calling the shots while 16 famous contestants battle it out to raise money for charity. (Although Trump will retain his executive producer title—and financial stake—he recently tweeted that he will devote “zero time” to the series moving forward.) Here, Schwarzenegger reveals how he’ll put his own stamp on the boardroom—and what he really thinks about his polarizing predecessor.

The New Celebrity Apprentice - Season 15

THE NEW CELEBRITY APPRENTICE — “In Here You Call Me Governor” Episode 1501 — Pictured: (l-r) Carnie Wilson, Brooke Burke-Charvet, Porsha Williams, Laila Ali, Nicole “Snooki”Polizzi

Let’s start with the obvious: How’d you end up with this gig? The whole thing happened in an organic way. I don’t watch much TV, but this was one of the few shows that I have enjoyed over the years. So when I heard that Donald Trump had decided to discontinue his involvement with it and run for president, I texted my friend [Apprentice executive producer] Mark Burnett and said, “If you’re planning to continue it, have you ever thought about someone like me?” We started talking, NBC loved the idea and it was a perfect fit.

What is it about the premise that appeals to you? It’s really great when you see a bunch of celebrities stepping out of their comfort zone to complete an assignment. This season it will be the women against the men, and there’s one task after the next, like coming up with marketing campaigns and planning a halftime show for the Clippers basketball team, that forces them out of their usual grind. They have to create something—without their agents!—and be part of a team.
The winner will be named during a live finale on February 13. Now that you’ve seen the game unfold before your eyes, does it live up to your expectations? I’d always thought, “That must be a lot of fun.” But I tell you what, guiding the contestants and being right there for the arguments was the most extraordinary experience!

You’ve been in the entertainment industry for decades but never headlined a TV series. Any nerves? Everything new is a little scary. I knew I could do it, but actually sitting in that seat for hours with 16 cameras on me, running the whole thing from beginning to end? You don’t know what anyone is going to say or what the outcome will be, so you have to be very quick on your feet. I like to take on things that are difficult or that people may think aren’t possible for me. It’s a lot to handle [contestants] Jon Lovitz, Boy George, Carson Kressley and Vince Neil in the same room!

The location has moved from NYC to Southern California. Is the whole vibe going to change? How much gold lettering can we expect? We have our own lettering. New York is known for its big deals, banks, Wall Street…and that’s what the boardroom looked like. Now imagine coming out to Silicon Beach—home to Snapchat, Google, YouTube. This is the new Celebrity Apprentice headquarters. It’s much more bright, upbeat. When you look out, you see sunshine. It’s totally refreshing.

What else is different? We’re not going to fix what isn’t broken—the formula plays like gangbusters. The only thing that’s really changing is that Donald Trump is Donald Trump, and Arnold is Arnold. We have different personalities, and my personality is that I do things more with humor. In tense moments, that’s how I break the ice.

The exact lingo that you’ll use to fire contestants is being kept under wraps—but what an embarrassment of riches to choose from! That’s the question I’ve gotten the most. I was just in China, and I was being asked about it there! Will it be, “You’re terminated”? Or “Hasta la vista, baby!”? Maybe “You won’t be back”? Everyone wants to know, and I’ve been doing a poll.

You’ll be getting on-air input from entertainment lawyer Patrick Knapp Schwarzenegger, your nephew, as well as heavy-hitting advisers like Tyra Banks, Jessica Alba and billionaire Warren Buffett. Did you have to tap into the favor bank? Warren and I have been friends for a long time. I admire him as a decision-maker but also as a mensch, and when you have a good relationship with him you don’t have to talk him into anything. I told him, “I’m going to be hosting Celebrity Apprentice,” and he said, “Fabulous, I love it already!” Tyra and Jessica are fantastic businesswomen and entrepreneurs. And Patrick is family. He’s been my confidant for many years.

There’s quite a motley crew of celebrities this season [See “Who’s Hired?” at right]—including an actual member of Mötley Crüe! Did you know the contestants prior to filming? I’d met about half of them. When I saw the list, I had to learn quickly who everyone was and what charity they were playing for, so that if they got tired and slacked off I could remind them what they were fighting for.

How about the reality stars? Were you familiar with, say, Jersey Shore alum Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi? I had not seen Jersey Shore, so I had to do some research on Snooki. When I checked out the Real Housewives, Kyle Richards and Porsha Williams, I could see what they’re capable of. They are very experienced at being manipulative—it’s almost like they’d done this [competition] before! No matter what I asked Porsha, she knew how to turn it around. It’s the wildest thing. I’ve never seen anything like it!

As a boss, what’s your biggest pet peeve? People avoiding my questions. If I ask, “Who was the weakest link on the team?” don’t give me, “Oh, we all worked hard and did fantastic.” There’s a reason you lost—don’t say there’s no weak link! I will drill down to what is important and find out who’s accountable.

You’re also active behind the scenes, as an executive producer. Do you have the last word on who gets the boot? The decision is totally up to me, but I don’t like to run things as a one-man show. I believe in a lot of collaboration. Without coaches and teachers to open up doors, I never would have had a chance in bodybuilding or Hollywood. If anyone thinks you can be a star by yourself, they’re an idiot.

Trump has always been synonymous with the Apprentice brand. Does that feel like a tough act to follow, especially given what he’s up to now? Whether he won the election or not, they’re big shoes to fill. He did a great job on the show. In the boardroom, you didn’t know who was going to get dumped on. It felt very much like Trump’s show before, and I think the idea is that now it will feel like mine. We’ll find out.

Which is harder: Being a politician or hosting Celebrity Apprentice? The most challenging—and the most rewarding—position I’ve had, clearly, is being the governor of California. You cannot screw up; it affects too many people. But whether you’re on a reality show or in politics, you have to try to quickly figure out how it works, and there’s a ramp-up time. Even if you’re really on top of your game, you might start out at an 8 and eventually develop into a 10.

You understand the demands of leadership first-hand. What advice do you have for Trump? My only advice for any politician is to be a public servant and not a party servant—because there’s a big difference. Politics can get in the way. You’re here to serve the people, no matter what it takes. Whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican, they need freeways and schools and affordable housing. They need clean air and water and good educations and healthcare coverage. There are all these things to grind out and do—and a lot of obstacles and special interests—and you can’t complain about it, because it’s part of the game. If it’s too hot, get out of the kitchen.

How do you think this new administration will fare? From his business dealings, Trump understands the art of bringing people together and being inclusive, and how important that is. I pray that, as president, he uses those principles that made him a success.

Do you think Trump will be tuning in from the White House? Since he still owns a part of the show, I’m sure he will watch just to contribute to the viewership!

The New Celebrity Apprentice, Series premiere Monday, Jan. 2, 8/7c, NBC @ApprenticeNBC