A job in politics: Working as Arnold Schwarzenegger keeps actor Lyndall Grant at the gym. (Photo courtesy Lyndall Grant)

Livin' la Vida Arnold with Lyndall Grant

Justin Juul March 23, 2009

Finding a niche in the entertainment/film industry may not be easy for anyone, but for some, the challenges are unique. Lyndall Grant, who trained to be an actor in the Bay Area, was reminded at every audition that he couldn’t exactly dissolve into the role because ... he looked just like the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger. Demonstrating great flexibility and a little imagination, Grant decided he’d just go with it—bought the Ray-Bans and played the only part he was seemingly fit for. If living in San Francisco—a city where local cover bands like AC/DSHE and MANdonna are more respected than their mainstream counterparts—can teach you anything, it’s that a little identity tweaking can be great for your career. This past month, I caught up with this Bay Area professional tribute artist, who just took a role as "The Governor of California" in the film 2012 with Amanda Peet and John Cusack.

SF360: So, how did you become the worldwide leading professional tribute to/[double of] Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Lyndall Grant: This all started about 12 years ago when Nash Bridges was filming here in San Francisco. I was taking acting classes at the time and trying out for small parts, but I kept getting shot down. The casting agents would be like ‘Look man, you got a great thing going here, but, well, you look exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger.’ One day I went for a casting call at a studio down the street from Planet Hollywood. I had skipped breakfast that morning so after my audition, I just headed next door for a burger. As soon as I sat down, the manager came up and asked me to pose for some pictures with tourists. Afterward, he offered me a regular gig and that’s when it all started. Total coincidence.

SF360: Did you have to talk to people or did you just sort of stand around?

Grant: I just hung around for pictures and stuff at first, but I got into it more as time wore on. Eventually I went to a leather store in the Castro and got a cheap outfit and some Ray Bans so that I’d look more like The Terminator. Then I worked on the accent and mannerisms and slowly became an expert. I started doing Planet Hollywood openings all over the world.

SF360: How much were you making?

Grant: I started out at five hundred bucks a session. I couldn’t believe it, man. I remember when I got my first check I drove straight to the bank because I thought it was a mistake. I stayed at the same rate for a while, but as I got more and more into it, I began to think bigger. I eventually sent some headshots down to LA and just got bombarded with phone calls. My first big-money gig was a car show at Paramount Studios. I remember I was really excited, thinking I had finally made it, but it was just a marketing thing for Acura. I didn’t get any movie deals out of it, but it did launch me into bigger things. I mean, I just made $20,000 for a single day’s work a couple months ago. It was a photo shoot for The City of Sacramento.

SF360: Wow. I had no idea you could make that much.

Grant: Yeah, man. I do a lot of gigs like that these days. This job has taken me all over the world—India, Europe, everywhere. And the gigs have gotten more interesting over time too. I mean, I just took a role that the real Arnold Schwarzenegger turned down because it was being shot in Canada. It was for a movie called 2012, a real big-budget deal about the end of the world that’ll be out in November, 2009. I play The Governor of California. It was a great experience. They set me up with my own trailer and everything. Of course, my trailer was part of B-Production while John Cusack and Amanda Peet were over in the ‘A’ lot. But it was still pretty cool. On the last day of shooting, Roland Emmerich walked up to me and said ‘Congratulations, you’re in the club.’

SF360: That reminds of something you said a moment ago—that you actually wanted to be an actor, but that casting agents were turned off by your likeness to Arnold. It must feel like a curse sometimes.

Grant: Yeah, it does bother me sometimes and it can feel like a curse. People just treat me like public property. You know, they’ll come up to me out of nowhere and say something like ‘Has anyone ever told you that look just like Arnold Schwarzenegger?’ It used to bother me quite a bit, but these days I just throw it back at them. I’ll just say ‘No, no. I’ve never heard that before. Are you sure?’ It really fucks with people. But, whatever. It’s not like I’m mad all the time; it just gets old. Sometimes I feel like Herve Villechaize from Fantasy Island, you know? He regretted taking the Tattoo role because all he heard out of anyone’s mouth for the next thirty years was ‘De Plane, De Plane!’

SF360: Is that something all celebrity impersonators have to deal with?

Grant: No, not really. You see, there’s a distinction between what I do and what your average celebrity impersonator does. I’m kind of on a higher level. I mean, anyone can stand around in a suit and act like a movie star for five minutes, but people in my line of work—“tribute artists" is what we’re called—put in a lot more effort than that. This isn’t the same game that the Super Man impersonator on Hollywood Boulevard is playing, you know what I mean? He’s filthy! I mean come on. Super Man washes his clothes. And he doesn’t ride a bicycle to work!

SF360: So are you part of a community of elite tribute artists?

Grant: Oh yeah, definitely. There’s Steve Bridges, the tribute artist who’s been doing George W. Bush for the past eight years. He goes all out with prosthetics and stuff. Then there are people like Hollie Vest who just does the best Tina Turner you’ve ever seen. There aren’t too many big timers out there, but there’s a handful of us who really put a lot of time into it and make a great living. I mean, Steve Bridges is kind of out of a job right now, but he was getting booked for $20,000 gigs regularly. He even did a performance with the real George Bush and you couldn’t tell them apart at all. That guy really sinks himself into his roles.

SF360: How do you prepare for your role?

Grant: Oh man, I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years so I slip into Arnold pretty naturally these days. The only thing I really have to remember is that Arnold is a little more antagonistic than I am, so when I’m performing I always try to really make my presence known. That’s part of what separates tribute artists from regular impersonators, I think. A good tribute artist knows when to bring it! Nobody’s gonna find you interesting for more than five minutes if you don’t really jump into the role, which, like I said, isn’t hard for me these days. I did have to change a lot in the beginning though. I stopped running so much and started lifting weights, stuff like that.

SF360: I read an interview with the actor who played Freddy Krueger and he said that he wished he hadn’t done the role for as long as he did because it had a negative effect on his home life. Does that ever happen to you? I mean, do you ever find yourself unconsciously slipping into Arnold?

Grant: Sometimes I wonder about that. I think when human beings immerse themselves in things—like writing or acting or singing—they can’t help but be affected by it. But I fight for my own identity because I’ve seen the way other impersonators have become deluded by playing someone else. They just don’t draw a fine line between who they are and who the celebrity is. I’ve always been really conscious of the danger in that so I make a huge effort to maintain my own life. I’m a writer and a stonemason, you know what I mean? I do Pilates and I dance four nights a week. I just think it’s dangerous for any human being to embellish only one aspect of him or herself, so I keep my hands in a lot of different things and I stay pretty grounded.

SF360: You never accidentally start talking like you’re from Austria?

Grant: No. I mean, I’ve been talking to you for half an hour and I haven’t done that once. I always keep my work separate. I’m very good at it.

SF360: Do you ever feel tempted to toy with Arnold’s image at all?

Grant: No, but there are plenty of opportunities for things like that. There’s a Paris Hilton tribute artist who did a full spread in Playboy recently and, although Playboy’s never contacted me, other people have asked me to put myself in compromising positions. There’s a photographer named Alison Jackson who is famous for using look-alikes to create crazy images of celebrities engaged in things they’d rather not be seen doing…pictures of, like, Princess Di giving the finger to the camera or Pete Doherty holding Kate Moss’ hair back as she pukes into a bucket. I love Alison’s work, don’t get me wrong. I mean, her picture of the Queen of England sitting on the toilet was great! But I can’t do stuff like that because, well, I don’t want to compromise Arnold’s image, I guess.

SF360: Is there anything physically different between you and Arnold?

Grant: If you were to stand us right next to each other you would notice a bit of a difference. Just in our heads really. That guys head is just huge, man! I would never want a head that big. That’s pretty much it though.

SF360: Are there any other Arnolds out there?

Grant: There are, yeah. But I have no idea why they’re in the business. They’re not getting the big deals, that’s for sure!

SF360: And what kind of gigs are you getting these days? Is it always Arnold stuff or has your tribute act lead to bigger and better things?

Grant: Up until recently, I’ve been pretty focused on Arnold, but that’s all changing now and I’m really happy about it. I love doing Arnold—“don’t get me wrong—but I want to be appreciated for me and that’s finally happening now. I have two movies coming out this year in which I play a principle role and I’ve already been offered a starring role in Bamboo Shark II. Just this past summer, I costarred with Miley Cyrus in a Hannah Montana production. The thing about acting is that once you’re in, you’re in, and that’s all I ever really wanted out of this—“the opportunity to pursue my dreams. My looks held me back in the beginning, but they have a lot to do with why I’m making it now. Of course, having real talent is why this has all worked. That’s what I truly count on.

SF360: Anything else we should know about?

Grant: I have a really interesting project coming up soon, a multimedia performance that’s probably going to be called ‘Lyndall Grant Starring Lyndall Grant.’ It’s an ‘architectural art piece’ focused on The Schindler House down in Los Angeles, which is owned by The Mak Center… was the first house ever built in ‘the modern style.’ The piece is going to focus on three people: Arnold Schwarzenegger (an Austrian film pioneer), Rudolph Schindler (an Austrian architectural pioneer), and me (a tribute artist and an actor who used to run an architectural landscape design and construction company). The Schindler house has a lot of myths surrounding it and one of them is that Schwarzenegger visited there in 1980 when he was trying to decide if he should pursue a career as an actor or if he should go into architecture. There’s no documentation of the event so we’re going to make a bunch of vintage-looking photo composites. Then I’m going to do a short performance piece that’ll leave the audience wondering who Lyndall Grant is and how he fits into the picture.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.

  • Oct 19, 2011

    Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

    Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.