For her first six weeks filming Terminator: Dark Fate, Linda Hamilton was worried. “You’re not sure that everyone’s on the same page, and the script isn’t quite finished, and you don’t really love the direction it’s going in,” she remembers, curled up on a sofa in a London hotel suite, her boots all over the cushions and her fists clenched. “I had nothing to gain from this film, but I had a lot to lose by remaining quiet. I just needed it to be good. That’s the only thing that I thought about.”
In returning to the franchise as Sarah Connor, Hamilton is taking on her first blockbuster role since Dante’s Peak in 1997 but, she insists: “I don’t care if it does well.” She locks her eyes on mine. “I’m not attached to result. But I did not want it to be a bad movie. I don’t think it was headed in that direction. But it’s just moments, little moments. Nobody challenges Jim Cameron’s dialogue. I did. I was the only one who had real power of veto, because everyone’s terrified of Jim Cameron. But I’m not. What’s the worst he could do? Fire me?”
One reason that Hamilton can wield such authority could be that she and James – or “Jim” to her – Cameron were in a relationship between 1991 until 1999, have a 26-year-old daughter, Josephine, and were briefly married in 1997, before divorcing in a $50m settlement. Another is that Hamilton is the beating heart of the Terminator franchise. Not Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose presence wasn’t enough to salvage 2003’s Rise of the Machines or 2015’s Genisys (in which Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke unconvincingly assumed the Sarah Connor role).
He returns again for Dark Fate, but no, sans Hamilton, the franchise hasn’t worked. And Cameron, who directed the first two films, Terminator and T2: Judgment Day, and was absent for the next three, including 2009’s Salvation, recognised as much when he told Schwarzenegger: “I’m gonna bring back Linda Hamilton.” (He also told him his idea for the screenplay, and explained why it was so good: “I’m Jim Cameron, I come up with great s***.”) She only rang him back on the third call, took time to think it over, but finally agreed. Now, with Hamilton back in the picture, Dark Fate resembles something of a last roll of the dice. Because if Linda Hamilton can’t rescue the Terminator franchise from potential oblivion, no one can.
Back in the hotel room, Hamilton doesn’t so much converse as monologue. Over the course of our time together, I ask maybe three or four questions, each one met with a long, brilliant answer that glides off in thrillingly disparate directions, occasionally returning to its point of origin. She is warm and tactile, squeezing my shoulder, slapping my knee when she says something funny, and saying goodbye with a peck on both cheeks and a hug. Underpinning everything she says is a blurred sense of excitement, nervousness and learned self-assurance
Hamilton has been semi-retired since 2012, and can usually be found living in comfortable normality in her New Orleans townhouse, but she admits that she’s enjoying the resurfaced attention and responsibility far more than she thought she would. “I think it’s a function of being older and more confident,” she explains. “I’ve got nothing to prove. I’m not trying to win anything, I’m not nervous, I’m honest and I’m sometimes profane. I own myself in a way that you can’t when you’re young. It’s not a confidence as much as it is full ownership of who I am.”
Now 63, Hamilton was forever burnt into action genre lore 35 years ago. Cast in 1984’s The Terminator as Sarah Connor when she was just an ordinary but plucky waitress, she found herself inexplicably hunted by a futuristic assassin of few words but killer shades (Schwarzenegger). Hamilton transformed herself into a shredded warrior woman with rock-hard abs and a 12-gauge shotgun beneath her arm for T2: Judgment Day. The most successful film of 1991, T2 altered Hamilton’s life, saw her kickstart her relationship with Cameron and, much to her chagrin, led the press to become fixated on her physique. “I didn’t want to be ‘Linda-Hamilton-arms’ for my entire career,” she explains. “And that’s what it was. ‘Linda-Hamilton-arms’... one word.”
A classically trained actor taught in Seventies New York by the revered Lee Strasberg, who also taught Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Paul Newman, Hamilton had to be coaxed by her agents into accepting the first Terminator film. Despite believing it to be the kind of low-budget B-movie she shouldn’t be doing, she eventually did it anyway, and then its sequel, hoping both times that it might provide her carte blanche when it came to the roles that came next. Specifically, she was desperate to do comedy. Instead she was repeatedly offered three kinds of follow-up roles.
“Police officers, military officers and lesbians,” she laughs. “That was pretty much what I got, and nothing else. Going in to audition for Dante’s Peak to meet with [director] Roger Donaldson, he literally said to me: ‘You’ve never played a part like this before.’ And I went, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Normal.’ He thought I couldn’t play normal! Jesus! It was just the way people thought.”
She says she has no regrets (“We can all wish for things to be different, but why waste the energy?” she says), but admits that Sarah Connor was something of an albatross from under which she struggled to escape. She says that no matter the film set, it’s rare for a crew member not to approach her and ask if her arms are still shredded. “I just keep them covered and go: ‘Yep, I’m buff!’”
So it’s not been the smoothest of rides. Yet here she is again: the star of Terminator: Dark Fate, her face dominating its posters, and having undergone a year of gruelling physical training before it had even begun shooting. She recognises the pressure she’s placed on herself. “You don’t skate on legend,” she tells me. “Because if you don’t live up to it, then it’s a real disaster.”
In Dark Fate, which is directed by Deadpool’s Tim Miller and written from a story co-crafted by Cameron, Sarah Connor is broken. Haunted by tragedy and even more paranoid than she was in T2, she reveals at one point in the film that she has to drink to black out just to make it through the day. Early on, she mysteriously crosses paths with Grace, a human/cyborg hybrid from the future (Mackenzie Davis), then with the young woman Grace has been sent back to 2019 to protect (played by newcomer Natalia Reyes), and eventually Schwarzenegger’s T-800. She searches for redemption, demonstrates she’s just as proficient with very big guns as she was in 1991, and curses like a trucker.
“We started out trying to be PG,” Hamilton remembers, rolling her eyes. “Tim was like, ‘We’re only allowed one f*** in this entire movie – where are we gonna use it?’ And by the end of the first day, I had said it in 10 different scenes. I was like, ‘I don’t think we’re gonna get our PG rating.’ Tim has no filter, so everything he says is f*** f*** f***. And he just kept adding [them]. All I did was say ‘f***’ and shoot ’em in the head.”
So she had fun. But it’s only at the end of our conversation that it becomes clear why Hamilton came back to the Terminator in the first place. Not because of the money (anyone with a divorce settlement from James Cameron doesn’t need to worry about their pennies, after all), and not just because she felt like the fans deserved a treat. Instead it’s more an expression of gratitude.
“I love being soft,” she says, her smoky voice suddenly dropping an octave. “I’m very normal, middle-class. So, like, soft. I didn’t know about that strength until it was asked of me. And I think that’s just the most wonderful gift that I’ve ever had. My work has truly informed me about what – who I am. It’s not like I thought I was weak or anything, but you never know what you’re capable of until it is demanded of you. Who knows who I would have been if I hadn’t got to play Sarah Connor? Would I be the same person?”
She recalls shooting a scene for the end of The Terminator, when Sarah’s protector Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) has been badly beaten and is fading in and out of consciousness. Sarah drags him up from the ground and demands his attention with a fiery growl of “On your feet, soldier”.
“I remember how wonderful it was, without being heady or cerebral, to just play it,” Hamilton explains. “To play it and go, ‘Oh, this is an interesting moment.’ It was only when I was playing it that I felt myself stand up and take something inside of me that I didn’t know that I owned.”
She looks appreciative, and slightly misty-eyed. The mood of the room has become very serious. When in fact, she tells me, all she really wants to do is star in something funny.
“At least once in this lifetime,” she smiles. “I’ve earned it.”
Terminator: Dark Fate is released on Wednesday
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