Patrick Schwarzenegger on His Dark New Movie, ‘Batman & Robin’ and Avoiding the Traps of Instagram

Ramin Setoodeh

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Patrick Schwarzenegger has a process for reading scripts. On his first time through, he’s just trying to get a sense of the story. Then he goes back and re-reads it through the eyes of the characters. On his third pass, he tries to put everything together thematically.

Even with such a specific methodology, Schwarzenegger, the 26-year-old son of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, says he was initially caught off guard by the premise of “Daniel Isn’t Real,” about a young man named Luke (Miles Robbins) with an imaginary friend who goads him into committing violent acts. “When I first read the script, I was a little bit, like, ‘Whoa! What the f— is going on?,’” Schwarzenegger says. “And then, as I read it more, I got really interested. It brought up current issues — mental health and how pertinent it is today with young men, and the idea of toxic masculinity. Those were some of the reasons I wanted to end up doing it.”

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“Daniel Isn’t Real,” which is now playing in theaters and on VOD after premiering last spring as a Midnighters selection at SXSW, is an indie psychological thriller directed from Adam Egypt Mortimer. Schwarzenegger plays the alter ego character, which required him to dye his hair, don a wardrobe that was heavy on leather and darken his eyes with mascara.

“It was the total opposite of who I am, obviously,” says Schwarzenegger, who was inspired to become an actor by visiting his dad’s movie sets when he was growing up. “It’s always more fun to play someone that you’re not. It was probably one of the most fun roles that I had.”

Schwarzenegger talked to Variety about the role, why he “hates” modeling and how he’s avoided the dangers of social media.

Did you have to audition for “Daniel Isn’t Real?”

Yeah. I did two different auditions and then I did the director read and then I did a director Skype. It was three rounds.

What was your take on the character? I feel like the movie had echoes of “Fight Club.” I also thought of the ‘90s film “Drop Dead Fred,” which was a comedy, but had a similar conceit.

We watched “Drop Dead Fred,” “Fight Club,” “Split,” “Jacob’s Ladder” — different elements of other movies that have kind of touched on this subject before. I think that Adam [the director] took a lot of inspiration from films like this, so I think that he’d be happy that you’re bringing them up. Daniel is this guy who is extremely menacing and a terrible person, and warps you into doing horrible things. But at the same time, he’s someone who needs to be confident and swaggerish that lures you in. He’s a two-faced person. I think that’s the same thing with Luke and with mental health. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from; it’s like on the outside you can look one way but feel and act different on the inside. You can be like Patrick Bateman in a beautiful suit and be f—ed up on the inside.

Was Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho” a cue for you?

Yeah. I loved that movie and I love that character.

Did you stay in character?

When I go on a film, I like to be focused. With this one, I had not only had to change my mental mindset, but also the physicality and aesthetics, from the dyed hair to the dyed eyebrows. Every morning, I like to get up early and get my coffee and do some personal work — journaling or reading. I remember, we were in Manhattan. I got dressed in my skin-tight leather pants and jacket and this mesh purple see-through shirt and slicked black hair. I walked into a Starbucks and did my normal routine, but journaling as Daniel. I found it so interesting the different perspective that you get by doing that, and how people look at you differently.

What do you think the message of the movie is when it comes to mental health and gun violence?

I think we, as a society, focus a lot on the idea of gun violence and stuff like that, which I agree is something that needs to be addressed, and a topic that needs to be discussed and outlawed. But a lot of it comes from mental health. It’s something a lot of people don’t talk about. It’s a hard subject to tackle and bring up. That’s the reason why I liked this film. To the audience, you think the Miles character is nuts. You see that other people are judging him. That’s the thing with mental health. To the person, something is really real. To other people, it’s nothing. That’s the scary part of it. It’s something that a lot of young men don’t like to talk about and aren’t vulnerable toward and aren’t open to expressing their feelings about what they are dealing with. It gets built up, and things end up happening that are terrible. It’s a real issue, and we need to address it as a society.

Do you think we’re doing that?

I think mental health is a topic that has been brought up more in the last few years than I can remember. However, we’re still seeing the largest increase in anxiety and depression and suicide. Can I say it’s getting better? I would say no. It’s terrible that it’s taken “x-amount” of horrible, horrific acts that have [led to] the subject to be finally talked about. I hope it’s sooner rather than later that politicians and other people act upon it rather than wait for the next thing to happen. It’s definitely scary what’s going on in our country.

Are you politically active?

I love politics. I love topics that are going on, staying up on stuff that’s happening economically, socially, politically. But I’m not out there per se, if that makes sense.

Growing up, did you always want to be an actor?

Yeah. I think that I have always been interested in film and have always loved acting since going to sets with my dad. It was always my favorite activity.

What sets did you visit?

I remember the “Terminator 3” one really well. I remember “Batman & Robin.”

What was the “Batman & Robin” set like!?

I was super young. But I have these brief memories of my dad going in and becoming Mr. Freeze. And him going in as dad and coming out as this big, blue, bald guy. I have photos of me with him and my mom, and I’m, like, creepily staring at him, like I’m scared and I don’t know who he is.

Were you really scared of Mr. Freeze?

I think I was scared of him.

Do you prefer acting or modeling?

Acting. I hate modeling.

Oh — you do?

I should maybe not say that. It’s not in my passion. I love the fashion space and clothing, and the originality of that. But I don’t enjoy just kind of standing there and getting my photo taken, versus in acting getting to play someone else and be a different character.

So why do you model?

I had done some modeling shoots in the past when I first started acting. And I still do. I just did Calvin Klein, which was amazing. That’s something that’s awesome, to work with a brand that’s historic. Or Tom Ford — to work with someone like Tom who is a visionary not only in the fashion space, but in the film industry. But I never had an interest to be a runway model or walk down the catwalk.

You have more than 1 million Instagram followers. What’s your approach to social media?

I have zero technique. If you look at my page, it’s just myself — most of the photos are me with my mom or siblings or friends. It’s just life. I don’t take it extremely seriously. You’re not going to see photos of me with my shirt off flexing to get more likes. I’m going to put on what’s happening in my normal life, or me going on a date with my girlfriend, or me with my mom getting coffee. I’m not someone who is, “I need to post once a week. Or I need to post at 9 a.m. versus noon to get more likes.” I don’t believe in any of that s—, because it makes you create a person that you’re not, and it’s a horrible route to go down. It’s a dark hole to go down. Social media is a trap. I won’t fall for that.

Why is it a trap?

Because you start letting other people’s voices influence how you’re going to live your life and what kind of person you’re going to be. It’s a terrible thing and spiral to go down. My managers and agents had me meet with social media gurus in order to get more likes and get more followers. It’s all a bunch of bulls—. They tell you, “Hey Patrick, you need to be posting at noon versus 8 p.m.” Or, “If you take a photo with your shirt off, you’re going to get 200,000 likes, whereas if you post a photo of you doing charity work with buddies, it’s only going to get 15,000 likes.” And I don’t care about that. I’m more interested in showing who I am. And if those people want to join the journey or follow, great. If they don’t, then they don’t need to. That’s the way I use it. I show people who I am.

Do you think you’ll want to act for the rest of your life?

I think everybody changes over time. My dad went from bodybuilding to acting to business to politics. It’s very possible that happens in my life. But for right now, I love acting. I’m not a believer that you have to choose one path in life and stick on that forever. I think that’s old forms of thinking. My dad bent those rules, and always taught us that you can do anything in life as long as you’re passionate about it. I think you’re seeing that with more and more people today, whether that’s the Rock or Wahlberg or Kevin Hart.

Would you consider going into politics?

Yeah. I would never say no to anything. I could go into anything.

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