The Den of Geek interview: Robert Patrick

Interview Martin Anderson 28 Feb 2008 - 10:20
Robert Patrick, star of Terminator and The X-Files.

Terminator 2's T1000 talks The X-Files, Sarah Connor Chronicles, T4, The Sopranos and a whole lot more. May we proudly introduce Mr Robert Patrick...

Actor Robert Patrick heralded the CGI revolution that is continuing to transform movies and movie-making when he took on the role of the liquid-metal T1000 assassin in James Cameron’s Terminator 2 in 1990. He has reprised the role a few other times for fun (in Wayne’s World, amongst others), and also cemented his association with science-fiction in the role of Agent Doggett in the final two seasons of The X-Files.

It was our pleasure to catch up with him and look back on T2 – and other roles – in a year that has gone Terminator-mad…

You’re an all-time science-fiction icon by now – do you think that’s held you back, or has it pushed you forward?

I have no idea. I’m glad I did the experience and I’m glad I was the Terminator – I wouldn’t have a career without it, so I guess it’s pushed me forward!

Were you aware how defining the special-effects work you were doing in T2 was likely to be?

Yes. While we were making it I remember several conversations with Jim Cameron, basically saying that this was stuff that’d never been done before, that we were making history here. That all of a sudden made me very aware of how significant this movie – or at least the effects – were going to be.

Did you get a fair idea of how the character was going to be visualised before you began shooting?

Yes. We had storyboards, and everything that I had done during the audition period was totally in sync with what Jim was looking for. I knew what I was doing, obviously, as the character, and I knew what Dennis Muren was doing at Industrial Light and Magic, and what Stan Winston was doing with the animatronic puppets – we all put our heads together and created the T1000.

Beyond your obvious physical presence, did James Cameron ever indicate what qualities in you resolved him to you for the part of the T1000?

I think it was many things. I was an interesting-looking young man at the time – physically, the way I carried myself, how skinny I was, the way my face looked, my ears, me eyes…you know, the whole nine yards. A totally inspired casting decision; similar to an Arnold and yet totally dissimilar in size and stature. I think he [Cameron] always described me as a cross between David Bowie and James Dean, some sort of a hybrid of the two which fit what he was looking for: a Porsche version of the panzer tank.

I just think I walked in and I embodied everything he was looking for. It was very fortunate for me because I was totally broke and living in an apartment and collecting unemployment with my wife, and struggling and looking for a break in this industry. Going back to your first question – it’s given me my career, and I don’t know how something that’s given you a career could hold you back.

I’m pretty happy with everything I’ve done. There are so many opportunities I’ve had and things that I’ve done, that I feel like I’m having a great career and I’m pretty content.

Funny you should mention that, because I was reading another interview where you said “I've been acting for 16 years. I've done 55 movies and, in all seriousness, there's maybe five that are good and the rest are crap." Was that a quote from a more discontented period?

Well, no, I think I still feel like that. I’ve made about ninety films now and maybe fifteen of them are good. There’s only a handful of movies that I’ve done where I think that the material was good. You’re talking about two different things – about artistic ability to control projects and material and then you’re talking about being able to make a living and having a career. It’s two different deals.

As far as material, I don’t think I’ve had access to the best material. No. I think there’s been a few projects that I’ve done that are great material. Terminator 2, obviously; Copland; Walk The Line; The Only Thrill ; both years I did of The X-Files; the three episodes I did of The Sopranos, and the show that I’m currently doing [The Unit]. And I’m sure I’ve left something out there.

You’ve been in some quality films in recent times, such as Walk The Line, which you mentioned, Flags Of Our Fathers, Bridge To Terabitha -

You think Bridge To Terabitha is a good movie?

Yeah…what do you think has made that change in quality regarding the scripts you’re getting offered now?

Well, I think it’s a couple of things. Firstly, I’m established and I’ve been able to make a living, I’ve got to provide for my wife and children. And then I think I’m just financially able to hold out for better material. Having said that, some of the movies that I have in the can, I can tell you right now, they’re dogshit. But I had to do ‘em because I needed to make a living. I’m an actor.

And I’ll tell you something as regards to that – not everybody has the opportunity to hold out for quality material, and each actor individually has whatever they have in their background financially that will enable them to hold out and do one movie every four years or whatever, and wait for that perfect role. I don’t have that luxury. I’m a working-class actor and I basically…when I got to Hollywood I was sleeping in my car, man.

Is there a remnant insecurity from that time, even when you’re doing well in films and TV?

Well I always know there’s gonna be something next. I don’t have insecurity about that. I just have bills to pay, just like you. I’ve got stuff I’ve got to provide [laughs].

Does it ever go the other way, in the sense that good projects turn bad and unpromising projects turn out better than you thought they would?

Oh yeah. And I don’t want to make it sound like I’m only looking for money gigs, because I’m not. Most of the good work that I’ve done, I’ve been paid horribly for. Walk The Line, I think I barely did that for double-scale, or whatever. It was not very well compensated.

So you’re constantly juggling, trying to find good material, and trying to make a living, and there are different ways to do it. I’ve chosen not to do commercials, and I’ve chosen not to do television for a long time…and then I realised that television had great writing, like on The Sopranos, so I said maybe I should do that…and then once you start doing television you’re kind of locked in for ten months out of the year, and you can’t really do anything else. It’s hard to get a good movie because there’s only two or three months that you have off.

Do you think TV is where the breadth of opportunity really is, in terms of exploring a character and their personality?

Doing a role day in and day out has its advantages, but if you look back on the films that I’ve done, the ones that I’ve done the most research for, and even the television roles where I’ve been able to have the luxury of time to really prepare and do a lot of work…are T2, Copland, Walk The Line, The Sopranos, and maybe the show I’m doing right now, The Unit.

I’ve actually had the time to really do the research and get into the role. Maybe also the thing I did on Iwo Jima: Flags Of Our Fathers, but you’re talking about a scene and a half or whatever ended up in the movie.

It just depends. I work with an acting coach by the name of Stephen Bridgewater, and I would really relish the opportunity to spend six months preparing for a role or preparing for a movie. I wish I could do that, and then go shoot a movie in nine months, or whatever. But that doesn’t come up that often.

How do you prepare for a role like T1000, which I would think involves more cutting yourself off than digging deep for something?

You’re exactly right. There’s nothing emotional to look for, so you don’t have to do that…I just went for the way I carried myself, my body, the way I moved, and what I thought would be interesting in terms of movement and the way I carried myself and held myself and how I reacted. That’s what it was. I really tried to bring life to something that’s not living. There’s no charisma, no personality…you’re a mimetic poly-alloy, y’know, figure out what that is! [laughs]

Like I said, I had a lot of help – we studied animals and things from the bug world and tried to figure out what would be the best way. There’s a lot of really cool scenes in there…I just recently reviewed it for AMC…a lot of high-speed photography work, when you slow it down, it adds drama. The main thing for me was to stay focused, realise all the different elements that were being brought together, and helping them make it work. That’s really what it was all about.

You and T-Rex really opened up a new age in movie-making, of course, and T-Rex actually ate your digital double in Jurassic Park – did you get any residuals for that?

He did what?

The CGI lawyer who gets eaten from the toilet by the T-Rex in Jurassic Park is apparently the T1000 model in a suit, re-used by ILM.

Really? No, I don’t get any residuals for that. I wish I knew that…I don’t know if I even saw Jurassic Park. How about that? That’s pretty funny. That’s an inside joke. No, I don’t think I’ll see anything for that.

As someone who is almost a symbol of CGI, how do you feel about the way CGI has changed movies and movie-making since those pioneering days that you were in the vanguard of?

I think it’s over-used and I don’t think it’s totally used correctly. I think when gifted film-makers use it to help propel a story, I think that’s what it’s meant to be and what it’s there for. But when just everything there is CGI, you start to feel there is no soul there, that there’s no heart in the movie.

That was always the really great thing about T2. The thing that really made that movie a classic was the fact that it has great heart. It’s really what the movie’s essentially about: don’t let technology take over, and that’s something the movies should learn themselves.

Gladiator, the Russell Crowe movie, I think that was done right. It was used right to help tell a very poignant story. And the same with Titanic, another Jim Cameron movie, it was used correctly to tell a great disaster story, a love story, and it helped propel the story.

I sat through a totally CGI movie once. Can’t remember what the name of it was, but everybody in it was CGI…and I don’t know, man, it just didn’t feel right. I can only go from my gut. It’s like music. You know how some music…somebody else is maybe more proficient at playing the guitar but they don’t have the same soul and heart, and the other guy might only be able to play three chords but it’s still spectacular and hits you in the gut.

Is there any truth in the rumour of a connection between you and The Sarah Connor Chronicles?

There’s absolutely no connection. I have absolutely no involvement with that particular project, other than…I met the writers – or maybe even the creators – during the writers’ strike out in front of Universal. We were walking the picket line together and they were very gracious and very nice, and said that they’d obviously been watching hours of the first movies and were inspired.

Would you be interested in a part in Terminator: Salvation?

I don’t know anything about that project other than this: that it’s being directed by a guy I really love, and I’ve been in all his movies and he’s just a terrific film-maker. I’ve got a great deal of respect for him and I love his energy, and he’s just a terrific guy. His name is McG, and I think the world of him, and I had no idea the last time I saw him that he was going to be directing Terminator 4. I just heard about all this and Christian Bale…and I don’t know anything about it other than they’re following the John Connor part of the story post the first three movies.

McG’s certainly got the energy for it and he’s certainly got the film-making skills to pull it off, and he’s got a very talented actor there in Christian Bale, so it should be a great movie. As far as me and it? No, there will be nothing, I’m sure, that I could possibly do in that movie.

What did you think of Terminator 3?

I like Jonathan Mostow a lot. I think he’s a great director too. I’ve never worked for him, but I’ve enjoyed his movies, and I thought that the young lady [Kristana Loken] who played the new version of the terminator did a terrific job and that the story was inspired. I personally am still a huge fan of T2 and the original Terminator, and it’s not to say that T3 wasn’t…it’s just that Jim Cameron wasn’t involved – how should I say that?

I think it’s a wonderful film for what it is, and it’s the third instalment in the trilogy and I think they accomplished what they wanted to do. I thought it was a great idea to come up with a woman terminator. And I’ll tell you another thing, she looked great naked. A whole lot better than I did! [laughs]

I can’t disagree there! You’re obviously a fan of T2 and The X-Files because they are personal projects of quality, but are you a general sci-fi follower?

I can’t say that I’m a huge sci-fi follower. I certainly am aware of the fact that I’ll be linked with sci-fi for the rest of my life, and I’m very proud of that. Hopefully there’s some great sci-fi stuff in my future.

I do like the genre as an actor, because it gives you a lot of freedom to use your imagination to come up with ideas and how to react and what it must be like. It gives you a lot more latitude for things that you can try and do.

I did a couple of episodes of The Outer Limits, and had some great experiences, and a pilot for Stargate Atlantis. That show was a huge success, mostly with the same guys as The Outer Limits.

Was it a disappointment that your character in Atlantis didn’t go on beyond the two episodes?

To be honest, it was presented to me as ‘we’d like you to come do the pilot’, and I had done two shows with them with The Outer Limits, and they had written two great – I thought – episodes of television with those Outer Limits episodes. I enjoyed the experience very much but at that point…I live and work in L.A. primarily and my kids are young enough that I go and take them to school every morning and spend a lot of time with them, so I’m only interested in working in television if it’s a show I’m gonna film in L.A.

That’s another set of parameters that circle my life as far as decisions I make on what I’m going to do and where I’m going to go.

Were you excited to be offered the role of Doggett in The X-Files? Were you actually a fan of the series?

Interestingly enough, yes. However, I don’t watch as much TV as maybe people think. I had seen The X-Files, certainly, but I can’t say I was a huge gotta-watch-it-every-week kind of a guy, but there was no way to escape it, I think, at the zenith of its popularity, so I was very well aware of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. I was made much more aware or Chris Carter and David and Gillian when my brother, who’s a rock and roll singer, was contracted to do a cover of the Harry Nilsson song ‘One’, for the X-Files movie. Subsequently, a couple of years later, I meet Chris Carter and he’s looking for somebody to play John Doggett.

It’s one of the roles you seem to be proudest of…?

It was a wonderful experience for me, because I’m going into an iconic science-fiction show and I’m given an opportunity to be a leading man…I’d never really done that much television. It was a wonderful gift, and a wonderful opportunity. I think we succeeded; we created a whole new character and personality that was able to carry the show with Gillian for the final two seasons. And Annabeth Gish.

You seem to play a lot of law-enforcement roles. Is there something particular about you that suggests yourself for that type of role?

I guess so. There’s something in my make-up, something in the way I am. I don’t know…I’m a Southern boy. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, a Scots Irishman. My family came over on the Mayflower, the Lamark family in Scotland and the Wallace clan…I’m one of those Americans. We’ve been here since there was an America. I don’t know what it is, man, we’ve always…the Scots-Irish in America have always been fighters, and they’ve always been the guys that filled the ranks of the police, and the fire-fighters.

You know, you guys in the revolutionary war…basically it was all the guys from the highlands of Scotland and Ireland, which you pushed away to America…

Sorry about that.

…and we kicked your butt in the Appalachian Mountains [laughs]! Still to this day, in all seriousness, the Scots-Irish make up a great deal of the military in the United States. Multi-generations of fighters, and I fit in that mould. My grandfather was a career-soldier who fought in four wars here in the United States. I have a lot of uncles who are soldiers…

You seem very proud of your roots. Have you ever come to Europe just to have a look round and examine them?

I am working my way there. This year is a big birthday for me, and my wife and I are in the planning stages of going back to Scotland. I also want to go to Ireland. I’ve only flown over them, and I’m ashamed to say that I have not traced my roots back there, I have traced my roots back there but I’ve not physically been there.

But I have been to England. I’ve been to London for a while and I love that. I love all that pageantry. I’m an Anglican-Episcopalian, which is the Church Of England. I understand church attendance is down there…?

Yes it is, but oddly enough, marriage is up…

That’s cool. But just a quicker answer to you, I am very proud of my heritage, and I think all that I embody and I think it kind of works as far as getting me jobs and so forth. I’m sure I’m gonna play cops until I’m in the grave [laughs]. And I hope I do!

You’ve been killed by Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. Is that a badge of honour?

It is, but let me give you a little extra badge of honour. Ready for this? First I was killed by Bruce Willis, Schwarzenegger, then Stallone. And in Charlie’s Angels 2, I was killed by the former Mrs. Bruce Willis.

It’s a family affair!

Yeah, they all get their shots at me. Someday…someday!...maybe I won’t get killed…

Robert Patrick, thank you very much...

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