Linda Hamilton didn’t just achieve success with her role as Sarah Connor in the Terminator films. She became an international icon, an actor whose presence in Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day heralded her entry into the pantheon of action heroines, expanding and adding new shades to the representation of women in genre cinema. Over her long career, Hamilton has been in numerous other projects, including hit films and TV shows like Dante’s Peak and Beauty And The Beast—but this past year she returned to her most recognizable role, again portraying the tough robot-killer trying to save the future. We spoke with Hamilton during the recent campaign for the home video release of Terminator: Dark Fate, and the actor was her typically unguarded self, opening up about the endurance test of filming, how her feelings about Sarah Connor have changed over the years, and being one of the only people unafraid to say “no” to (ex-husband) James Cameron.
The A.V. Club: When you first agreed to come back to the Terminator franchise, what was the part of Sarah Connor’s arc you were most interested in exploring? What got you excited for the role again?
Linda Hamilton: The fact that it launches from a completely new place, story-wise. That she’s no longer John’s protector. The future has treated her badly, and she is just sort of an empty shell at this point with nothing but vengeance on her mind. And really empty because she doesn’t even love humanity. She was a woman standing alone, trying to kill the machines and not at all a fan of people. So to start there and to certainly do my work as an actress and explore and build on my greatest disappointments and sorrows in life, and how that makes me walk and how that makes me talk—to be able to do that level of work was really appealing. Launching a different story and the character in a new place.
AVC: There are a few interviews with you when Dark Fate came out in November where you talked about being the only one not scared to challenge James Cameron’s dialogue. Did you have to speak up and advocate for some of the elements of Sarah that you were most invested in?
LH: Very much at times. The script wasn’t really finished when we started, and it was kind of coming along as we went along. And we all found that very hard to work that way. I heard too many people say, “Well, that’s how they make movies these days.” [Laughs.] It’s like, you know what? I need a beginning and a middle and an end. Link those moments together one by one; I’ve got to know where I’m coming from. And I would get a scene that had just been sent the night before and go, “Well, I can’t be saying that if they’re going to move that piece to onto the train top, because my character hasn’t learned it yet!” You know what I mean? Like, “Let’s make this something that is solid so that the actors can then work that way… We can’t wait until September for the script to be finished.” So, yeah.
I think a little bit of the character spilled over into Linda Hamilton, too, because… I’m a breeze. I really just am simple about my work. I just do my best and try to make the director happy. I’m not results-oriented, but I’m very invested in Sarah Connor. And I just felt like, “That does not feel organic,” or, “No, she’s not going to let anybody help her down from the tailgate of the truck. Hands off, it’s Sarah Connor. Nuh-uh! Nope.”
AVC: So that was an actual instance?
LH: Oh yeah, it was. Just all kinds of little moments that add up to the character when you see it all together. That’s a very small example. There were versions of the scene where we first meet the Terminator—when we meet [Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character] Carl —where they tried to flip it so that the Terminator is the one holding me as opposed to the girls holding me back. And we tried forever to make that work, but there was no way to get free of it, because I was never going to slump in defeat in his arms. I just was like, “Sarah Connor would die trying to fight her way out of this machine’s arms. I am not going to slump in defeat, so let’s find some other way to do it.” And so forth and so on.
AVC: Is it satisfying to have input like that? It feels like this almost required you to put on a producing hat to a degree, helping shape and steer this character that you’ve been with for so long.
LH: Yes, to a degree. I have never really wanted to produce and be the one in charge. I don’t think it brings out the best in anybody. [Laughs]. Really, I just simplify. I’m like, do your work, and make the director happy. I made that decision 25 years ago. That’s my only job. I don’t get to say, “Well, it feels awkward to be walking uphill in the scene.” You know? I’m not that actor. But that said, I did feel my own weight, and my weight as a creative, strong, and talented woman or actor in terms of just going, “Wow. I’m saying no.” I never say no. I try to make it work. But here—I’m just like, “Wow, I can say this. I’m not saying that.” [Laughs]. It’s the first time and probably the last time I’ll ever have that on the film stage with me. Like, “Mmm, I’m not saying that.” So yeah, it felt good.
AVC: To what degree did that input extend to the stunt work? Because this was obviously a very physically demanding shoot.
LH: Yes. I hate to give up—even this day at age 62, 61 when I did it—I just can’t bear giving up a second [of screen time]. I am all over it. And now this film, there were just so many versions of me. We would do the scene on the freeway in Spain, and I felt like I had seamlessly achieved what we had rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed for 80 hours. And then they would have two more weeks of the stunt-doubles on the freeway. And I’m like [exasperated], “I already did everything! Why wouldn’t…” Like, “And her hair needs to be cut in the back! No, I don’t want that. Her hair isn’t the same.” Or, “Get that one to stop thrashing. Sarah Connor doesn’t thrash. Make it more controlled.” It was just really painful for me. The body-double in the first scene where John is killed, she was a bona fide actress and a very good body-double. But it’s like, “Fiercer! Don’t just let him hold you, bite his arm! No, bite his arm with the gun!” It was just like nobody can do Sarah Connor like I can. That’s all. So, I don’t want to give up one second of it.
AVC: It involves so much physical preparation as well. Did you enjoy the experience of having to re-enter that period of intense training, muscle-building, and everything that goes into crafting the physicality of such a tough character?
LH: Nope. I don’t enjoy it at all. How could I? It was a year of eating pretty tasteless food. No carbohydrates for a year. I had a village here: an amazing trainer, but also the nutritionist, the pilates instructor, the physical therapist, the chiropractor who kind of ameliorates the hard parts and kinked parts while we continued. I was literally working with somebody every day, and sometimes twice a day. So it’s not enjoyable, but it’s pretty great to go, “Wow, I’m starting to think of this as a flank, not a hip.” To remember that, and the feeling of strength in the body, and the ability to move, is really what we worked on. Not moving like an old woman, you know. So there’s great value in all of that, but probably not a way of life.
AVC: What were the things that surprised you most about doing the role again? What during filming was most unexpected?
LH: I was not prepared for the largesse of the stunt sequences and the action sequences. I mean, yes, I am a filmgoer and I understand that. But this film was ten times more demanding, in terms of action and the physicality. If you look back at Judgment Day, it’s basically just, yeah, I’m running, I beat up the security to get out of the mental institution, but there’s no real hand-to-hand. It’s just weapons. Here, for weeks, once we all got to location, and before we started shooting—it’s military training, stunt training, Spanish lessons, scuba lessons. When I read the script, I couldn’t even process some of the action. I’m like, “What? Huh?” I mean, it’s just so large.
It’s a very different world from the last few action pictures that I did. And pre-viz [previsualization]—it was the only thing that could save our lives—the sort of animated-visual version of what we’re trying to create. We would have to refer to it, because you’re in zero-gravity fighting, or you’re drowning and this other thing is happening. Thank God there was some visual help to figure out where we were, because you do little bits and pieces or this and that. It’s just really hard to envision because it was so complex and huge.
AVC: Speaking of the changes in the intervening years: Because you weren’t involved with the subsequent sequels after T2 until this one, did you avoid seeing them, or did curiosity lead you to check them out at some point?
LH: I saw the third one, and then I saw Salvation, but I did not see the one with Emilia Clarke [Genisys]. Because, of course, Sarah doesn’t need to know those stories. We’re treating it as a direct sequel to the last one that I was in, but I am very curious, and actually have always wished the franchise well, because I was a bit of the beginning of it, and you want your babies to go out and be successful in life. So I always had high—well, not high hopes, but good wishes—but didn’t really care for number three and four, so I skipped number five.
AVC: Is part of it also that number five is the only one where there’s actually a different Sarah Connor in there, with Emilia Clarke? Do you feel a twinge of possessiveness?
LH: A slight bit, which might contribute to my reluctance to see it. But, you know, I didn’t feel like I needed to keep watch over the character. I saw the first episode of Sarah Connor Chronicles. I love Lena Headey, and I think the worst thing in the world is to try to go and repeat someone’s performance or participate in the later version of some iconic performance. And I say iconic in—I’m putting quote marks there, because that’s the word that other people use about Sarah Connor. I don’t think of myself as iconic. But I do know that I did a stage version of Laura, which is a very famous movie with Gene Tierney, and that was iconic. And all that anybody ever wrote in the reviews were, “She’s no Gene Tierney.” So I understand how difficult it is to step into somebody else’s shoes, and they have a lot of leeway to do what they need to do.
AVC: Now that there’s been some time since Dark Fate came out, has your perspective on the film changed since its release?
LH: I’ve only seen the film once, because I just find it awful to watch myself. And the only reason I watched it was because I love [director] Tim Miller, and I love my actors, and I just thought I owed it to Tim to see what we had done. Because we would yell that back all the time while we were shooting. He goes, “Linda,”—over the bullhorn—“You’re going to see this movie?” I’m like, “I’m not! You’re not the boss of me! You’re the boss of me right now!” [Laughs.] It was always a will-she-or-won’t-she thing. I want to support the people I love. They are my dream team, truly. Mackenzie [Davis], Natalia [Reyes], and Tim. It was like Tim and his three muses, you know? And forged by fire, man. We put it all in everyday.
AVC: You’ve said one of the reasons you were hesitant to come back is because you’ve built a life that’s well outside all of the Hollywood trappings, and you didn’t want it infecting your life again the way it did after Terminator 2. Do you feel like you’ve succeeded more this time in keeping your high-profile day job apart from your everyday life?
LH: Uh-huh! Really great. I’m not sure how much of that is due to the fact that the public did not go out and see it. I mean, the box office really—I can’t say disappointing, because I don’t use subjective words—but the fact that it didn’t perform at a level as T2 did might impact the public’s interest, quite frankly in New Orleans, where I live. I was just worried about, like, paparazzi up on the levee, the increased visibility and scrutiny and all of that. But in New Orleans, it ain’t about what you do or what you have, it’s about who you are, and that has remained true.
AVC: The Terminator is a pretty iconic franchise to be a part of. Are you looking forward to stepping out of the spotlight again, or would you be interested if some other massive cinematic universe like Marvel or Star Wars or whoever reached out to you?
LH: I’m not really big on the huge franchises. I’d much rather do work that is risky and different and that nobody sees. I mean, I’ll do theatre for seven bucks a night for the rest of my career and be very happy. You know, I just want to do the acting part. I’m just a really lazy movie star, and I can’t hold myself up to or live up to or stand up for those that can’t live up to—It’s like, nah, I’m out. I love acting, so that’s what has to remain very clear. I hope I always get to do it.