Inside Schwarzenegger's First Indie, 'Maggie': A Restrained, Stoic, Gentle Arnold

Arnold Schwarzenegger Robert De Niro Maggie H 2015
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Arnold Schwarzenegger Robert De Niro Maggie H 2015

"It was probably the lowest budget movie I've ever done in my life," he said of the post-apocalyptic drama. "'Terminator' was $6.5 million, but that was 1984!"

Arnold Schwarzenegger has officially made his indie debut.

Maggie was shared with an audience for the first time at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday. The film was originally scooped up by Lionsgate before its initially-scheduled world premiere at Toronto last year.

Schwarzenegger previously teased his lead in the post-apocalyptic drama as "the most human zombie film you’ve ever seen, and it’s the most human role you’ve ever seen me take on," when sharing the trailer with fans last month.

"It's a story that's very personal — it focuses an illness that destroys an entire family," he told The Hollywood Reporter of playing Wade, Maggie's farmer father who must decide between sending Maggie (Abigail Breslin) away to a quarantine unit, giving her a medicine that painfully prolongs her progress, or killing her himself. "Those are choices for a father that are impossible. … He knows she's dangerous, she knows he can kill and maybe infect others, but because of her love for me, she's trying to everything possible not to do that." However, the task of taking on a dramatic role "was challenging, but fun."

Added Rachel Whitman Groves of Wade's dilemma, "No one would ever want to see their child go through something like this, whether it's cancer or AIDS or any kind of debilitating disease. Here, it just happens to be zombies."

Director Henry Hobson, making his feature debut, aimed to use Schwarzenegger's onscreen persona to play up Wade's strengths. "Arnold's traditional roles of these macho, powerhouse positions — he plays that character, but he's lost it all and he doesn't know how to solve these problems," he explained. "And farmers keep to themselves, they have an insulated personality. They get up at three in the morning; they go to sleep before everyone else gets back from work. That creates an almost Clint Eastwood-like role — he internalizes everyone else's thoughts and his slowly come out. By using that restraint and stoicism, it brings out a completely understated and powerful side of Arnold."

Joely Richardson, who plays Maggie's stepmother, admitted she was initially surprised by the casting news, since Wade's main weapons are an ax and a hunting rifle. "Off the page, it's not a typical Arnold Schwarzenegger role. … But he was beautiful, he was very humble, he wanted to do the best he could. He liked to do things again and again because he said he comes from a background of sports, so he likes repetition. He led us very well."

Instead of using a stand-in, Schwarzenegger also stuck around set to help play off actors during their close-ups opposite his character, yet kept the mood light between takes. Laughed Hobson, "He's fun to be around and was doing the catch-phrases left and right."

At under $6 million, the film was shot in five weeks in New Orleans. "It was probably the lowest budget movie I've ever done in my life! … Terminator was $6.5 million, but that was 1984!" the oft-action star joked to the audience after the screening, which was attended by fest co-founder Robert De Niro and executive producer Ara Keshishian and followed by an after-party at Tutto il Giorno.

"[But] I would not have been able to do this role thirty years ago — for the last 25 years, I've been a father," he reflected, adding that he cried when he first read the script. "Abigail was really fantastic to work with, every step of the way."

"Any actor is looking to play a part that has some depth, and there isn't any greatest emotional connection an actor can have than portraying a parent, because in real life, that's what life is about —protecting your kids, trying to set them on the right path," producer Matthew Baer told THR. "You always know the audience will be rooting for you because you're rooting for your child."

When asked by a fan about pursuing similar roles in the future, Schwarzenegger said, "I hope to get more dramatic pieces like this because I really enjoyed doing this film, and to do something smaller where I can concentrate on the performance and scene development, rather than just rushing through those types of scenes and shooting days and days of big action and blowing things up — which is great, I did that right after this movie. I did Terminator [Genisys] where we blew up enough stuff, chase scenes and action scenes and flipping buses through the air, and all those kinds of things. But you don't spend as much time in those kinds of movies on scenes like in a dramatic piece like this."

He added, humbly, "I never dreamt in my life that I'd be at Tribeca, having a movie here and getting this kind of reception."

Maggie hits theaters May 8.