Joseph Baena may be able to bench a few hundred pounds, but he's had to tap into another kind of strength to go after his dreams.
Because from the time he decided to pursue acting as a career, that meant tuning out the noise he knew was coming.
"I think with anyone that's had a high-succeeding parent, it's just going to be difficult," the 25-year-old told E! News in an exclusive interview. "People always discredit them, say, 'You only got that because of your parents, you only got that because of X, Y and Z.' It's hard, but it's just something that you have to live with. Know within yourself that if you're putting in the work and you're actually doing it, then none of that should matter."
Of course, "high-succeeding" is a bit of an understatement, Baena's dad being movie star and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a brand unto himself. But the youngest child of single mom Mildred Baena was determined to venture into acting under his own steam, even if—as he soon found out—there was no way to actually do so without toting some of that that name-brand baggage with him.
Especially with social media being a convenient place for haters to chime in, the weight of association could feel quite heavy at times.
"It was really bothering me that anytime I would get any kind of role or press, or I would post a physique picture on Instagram, I would always get comments of, 'You're only there because of your dad' or whatever," Baena admitted. "It bothered me at the time."
Proof the so-called nepo baby assignation passes over no one, even the up-and-comer who didn't find out who his dad was until right around the time the rest of the world found out that the Terminator star had fathered a child with Joseph's mother, the Schwarzenegger family's longtime housekeeper, while he was still married to Maria Shriver, with whom he shares four kids.
Once all was revealed in 2011, Baena became a more visible presence whether he wanted to be (attending the Expendables 3 premiere) or not (paparazzi trailing him and his mom). But more importantly, he and his father started to bond—the former Mr. Olympia proved the ideal trainer for a teenager looking to build muscle mass—and they remain close.
Yet while Baena can FaceTime or email (his dad is "so old school" and doesn't really text) anytime he wants advice, when it comes to navigating the wilds of fame, the next-gen Men's Health cover star says he has preferred to tackle this whole being-a-celebrity thing as he himself sees fit.
"For me, he's the smartest man alive," Baena said of Schwarzenegger, "and I look up to him so much, he's one of my greatest inspirations. But I love figuring things out on my own. And, thankfully, I am mentally strong enough to not let the scrutiny get to me. It's always been a thing that I've heard, 'Don't pay attention to the comments, don't pay attention to what people are saying.' Most things are out of context."
He credited a recent reading of the book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz for some of his perspective, including the always-useful tip: "Don't take things personally."
But, he added, some people on social media are really funny and sometimes he'll respond to the more "light-hearted" commentary. And he's found that many of his 429,000 Instagram followers are actually "super-supportive, for the most part." (And sometimes too much so: On April 1, Baena posted what was supposed to be an April Fool's joke about training for the Arnold Classic, which features the sort of physiques you associate with heavy-duty competitive bodybuilding, but too many people didn't realize what day it was. "I had to delete the post," he shared, laughing, "because they were getting so emotional about it. Everyone was like, 'This is the best thing ever!'")
He said that 2022—when he rumba'd to "My Way" on Dancing With the Stars—really did stick out for him as the year he felt his determination to make a name for himself on his own started to bear fruit.
"I know how hard I'm working," said Baena, who also got his real estate license after graduating from California's Pepperdine University in 2019. "And no one can take that away from me. I know that I'm making my own path for myself, and I feel great about it."
Even growing up in Bakersfield, Calif., his interest in entertainment pre-dated the knowledge of his pedigree. "I always loved being on the stage and performing," he said. "I never really got nervous except for meeting the expectations that I had of myself." His older siblings also "made it a big point to show me the classic films of the '90s, the '80s, even the '70s," Baena said. "So I grew up watching these heroes that always inspired me, and that was the big reason why I wanted to work as an actor. It was my childhood dream."
He majored in business at Pepperdine, thinking, "Oh, I need to go for something more realistic," he recalled, "but during college was when I said, 'Why can't acting be realistic?'"
Consider Baena living, flexing proof that it doesn't hurt to think big.
Since his humble 2016 debut in a two-minute Terminator 2: Judgment Day reenactment in which he played a certain cyborg sent from the future, he's been building his resume along with his biceps. So far he's booked small roles in action films including Called to Duty, Lava and the Morgan Freeman-starring Gunner, featuring Baena as a newbie deputy backing up the county sheriff played by Luke Hemsworth. So, art reflected life, as Baena likes to approach each movie as a chance to learn from the more seasoned performers around him.
He and Freeman were unfortunately ships in the night on the shooting schedule, but Hemsworth was "fantastic," Baena said. "It's like an acting class because I get to see how these other individuals work, and then I get to adjust how I work. It's constant learning."
And, he noted, "that's why I like it so much, because there's never a perfect way to do it. However you did it is how you did it. I think that's why a lot of actors don't like seeing themselves afterward, because they're like, 'Oh, I should have done it that way.'"
Not that Baena doesn't do that. "I still feel weird watching myself," he said, and of course he second-guesses his performances. But, at the same time, he's storing nuggets of knowledge for next time.
"It's fun," he offered. "It's better to learn than to just be hard on yourself and put yourself down for messing up."
He's also already thrown the adage about not acting with kids or dogs to the wind with the upcoming holiday movie Athena Saves Christmas, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and a very good girl who played the titular canine. "I'm excited," Baena said, flashing his megawatt smile. "My scenes in there are really funny."
While he feels that doing comedy comes "pretty naturally" for him, he said, his role in the indie drama Bully High—screening April 23 at the USA Film Festival in Dallas—provided the biggest workout for his acting muscles to date, calling it more "stretching" for him, emotionally speaking. And not least because it brought back some memories of his own experiences getting picked on as a kid for being overweight. (Before his fitness transformation, which started with joining the swim team his sophomore year of high school.)
"That's where I had to pull from," he explained, so "I tried pulling as much out of that as possible—but that's why it was a little more difficult. But it was fun doing a drama, I loved it."
Still a challenge, Baena shared, is figuring out how to take his fitness regimen on the road.
"I can't make all these requests, like, 'I need weights on set,'" he said with a smile, acknowledging he's a bit of a ways off from having that sort of presence. So, he works around his call times, making it "a point that I have to get at least one hour in, either weights or cardio, before I go shoot." The same goes for eating during long hours on set, he added. "You got to work with what you got."
Which, incidentally, is what he's been doing his entire life, taking what he started with and studiously building on it.
Physically speaking, his goal these days is improving his athleticism and agility so he can take on more action—horseback riding, fight scenes, perhaps some superhero maneuvers (he's not opposed to such opportunities, MCU and DC)—and be pumped for whatever productions come his way.
Auditioning remains fun for Baena, though he admits it's also the hardest part of his chosen profession because there's such a quick turnaround between finding out the part exists in the first place and reading for it, in person or sending in a tape. "When you land a film," he said, "we have a lot more time to prepare for these roles." But he is not complaining. Rather, he's ready to show up and put in his 12-hour days.
"I'm just really happy to be working and to be getting these calls," he said. "Even if I don't land them, I'm just happy that people are thinking of me."