Gabriel Luna interview: building a new Terminator

The actor tells Den Of Geek how he brought Terminator: Dark Fate's advanced killing machine, the Rev-9, to life...

“Hey man, check this out!” Gabriel Luna beckons Den Of Geek over to look at a photo on his phone. The actor is in London to promote Terminator: Dark Fate, and we’re his first interview after his lunch break. The picture in question, which he’s just had taken (and would later post on Twitter) is of him and co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoying a post-lunch cigar on a balcony of the swanky hotel we’re in. “It’s so cool,” he says, with an almost giddy smile.

Luna might be charmingly laid-back (he even introduces himself with a fist-bump), but his excitement at starring in the follow-up to a movie he loves, acting alongside some of his cinematic idols, is palpable. Even if on-screen, he’s trying to, well, terminate them…

In Terminator: Dark Fate – a sequel that ignores much of what’s come before it, franchise-wise, and instead positions itself as a direct follow-up to 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day – Luna plays the Rev-9, a new Terminator that’s sent back from the future to modern-day Mexico City. His target? A young woman named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), who’s fated to play a big role in a future war between humans and machines.

Luna himself is no stranger to genre work or heightened on-screen action – he did, after all, play Robbie Reyes, aka the flaming-skulled Ghost Rider, in Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD. But for him, a self-confessed Terminator fan, being a part of this particular universe – and getting to work alongside the original creative trio of Arnie, Linda Hamilton (who’s returning to play badass cyborg-hater Sarah Connor) and James Cameron (the original series creator/director who’s back on board as a producer) – is a big deal. “We all knew how great a chance this was for us to set things right,” he says, “and just try to do our best to make a film that could sit at the table with those first two movies…”

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You’ve said you’re a huge fan of the original Terminator movies. Can you remember seeing them for the first time?

Vividly. I mean, in the last two years, I’ve seen the films dozens and dozens of times. But the first time I ever saw Terminator 2 was in the movie theatre with my mother and my little brother. My mom was very young when she had us; she was a teenage mother. She was growing into her own adulthood, you know – there was stuff she wanted to do, fun things she wanted to see, so she would just take us with her. This was an instance where we got to see something way before we probably should have.

We just sat there, jaws on the floor, watching this incredible film with this new technology. Jim [Cameron] took the technology he had from The Abyss and created the liquid metal T-1000. You’re seeing him as this amorphous blob falling out of the ceiling of the elevator and then taking form… And then the scene where they freeze him with the liquid nitrogen and he just shattered into a million pieces… And then the finale in the smelting room. It was like watching this amazing thing where cartoons and real-life were happening at the same time. And then years later, I went back and saw The Terminator and realised what it was that really hit people in 1984. It changed the paradigm of how action films were made. And in both instances, they still hold up completely.

Dark Fate seems to be striving for this ‘back to basics’ chase movie feel, perhaps more so than the more recent sequels…

Well, Terminator 2 was the last film I’d seen – I hadn’t seen any of the other sequels before we started making ours. I knew what the first two films meant to me; I knew what was in the genetic code of those, and how we needed to approach this one in order to achieve that. But before my involvement even began, it was already on the right course because Jim [Cameron] had taken the reins. He had the story in his head; it’s probably been gestating for decades now. He did a great job of setting us up and then sending us out on our own. Jim says that the set is the realm of the director, so he let Tim [Miller] do his thing. But we certainly intended it to be a return to form. The return of Sarah Connor makes it a Terminator film, because this really is her story.

You’re playing the new model Terminator, and you’re obviously acting alongside the original model in this film. What makes a good Terminator, and did Arnold give you any tips?

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I did a lot of meticulous analysis of those films to see what it was that worked, what it was that scared the shit out of me as a kid. What was so effective about that? And in my mind, I was like, it’s just the effortless nature of everything they’re doing. Then I met Arnold and I asked him, “What would you suggest I could incorporate into my approach?” And he just said, “I know you’re going to do great. You’re going to be fantastic.” Like he likes to say [laughs]. But when I really pressed him further about it, he’s like, “It must be effortless.” And there it was. I had already kind of gleaned from watching the films what it was, the essence of that.

Later on, we did an interview together, and I heard the full story of how he developed his character, and there were a lot of similarities. He said that when Jim first approached him, it was to play the Kyle Reese character. But Arnold had all these ideas about the Terminator character, even though he still wanted to play Reese. He had such a great take on it that Jim made a pivot and made him the Terminator. And then Arnold was like, “But I didn’t want to play the Terminator – he only has 16 lines!” But sure enough, he became one of the all-time iconic villains.

In our film, I’m playing a Terminator that has similar qualities to the T-800 and similar qualities to the T-1000 [played by Robert Patrick in T2]. It’s the title character, so you want to do it justice. You want to bring everything you can to it. So I took everything I could from them both. And then I decided that all of the human interactions were going to be more human than human…just seamless. I wasn’t gonna attempt to do a Russian doll – a man playing a machine playing a man. I just wanted to play those scenes as two human actors acting out a scene. So that was my approach to it.

The fights between you and Arnold and you and Mackenzie Davis (who plays ‘enhanced’ human soldier Grace) are pretty full-on. How much did you get involved in the action and how much training did you have to do?

I started training as if I had the part the moment I went in for my first audition, just because I knew I’d have to be in shape. And even then it wasn’t until I got the trainer and the nutrition and all of that, that I really started making gains and started to see my body transform. I did a lot of combat training, boxing and all this other stuff. I studied a lot of Bruce Lee because he’s a very efficient combatant – his whole style is like no unnecessary flourishes, what he called “organised despair”.

And then when we really got into it, I did an hour and a half in the gym, which was weights and strength training, plus an hour and a half of weapons training and three hours of fight choreography. So it was about six hours a day, five days a week. And then, of course, at night you have to take into account the time it takes for you to recover – ice baths, stretching… I needed to prepare my body because I’m an actor for whom the physical aspects of the job are a tool that I have in my toolkit – it’s something that is one of my strengths. The director always loves to have the actor doing the thing, so I wanted to be ready and available to do anything that was required.

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Overall, I pretty much took a pass at everything we did. Of course, I had amazing stunt doubles – Jason Chu and Morgan Benoit – and there were moments where their skill set was required. I was happy to hand it over because all of us together played the Terminator. Including the [special effects] magicians at ILM. I’m not overly possessive about characters. I know what goes into it. I know how many craftsmen and how many great, great artists are involved in this. We all played the Terminator together.

That training comes across – especially in the first battle in the factory in Mexico City. You and Mackenzie look like you’re both really going for it.

Yeah. I mean, I did so much training, especially with the blades. There are instances where the Rev-9 utilises firearms to try to achieve the objective, but for the most part, you know, it’s more reliable to be up close. And the blade work was so much fun. I got pretty good with those things. I just kept practicing those fights, because when we started, we learned them all, but then we weren’t actually going to film them until the end of the shoot. So for the four or five months in between, I practiced every moment I got. They’d call “Cut”, and I’d go off to my little corner, grab my foam blades and just start working it out. So when the time came to actually do the fights, it was just seamless – it was already in my bones.

There’s a fun thing in that final fight where Mackenzie is fighting you with a chain, which of course was your weapon of choice as Ghost Rider…

[Laughs] Yeah, the master’s tools are being used to dismantle the master! That’s cool. It didn’t occur to me at the time. It’s just I had this chain my mouth and I was too busy trying to breathe through my nose and maintain eye contact with Natalia, because that was my big thing – what ultimately becomes the Terminator’s Achilles heel is his tunnel vision.

I wanted to play it where he’s gaining more and more personal stakes. He’s a machine, the objective is just, “Do the thing,” right? But I think he’s so advanced, it’s more interesting that because it has proven to be so difficult, he’s already growing in his simulation of what frustration is. I think that his tunnel vision, the singular focus when he sees his target, is his weakness. So yeah, I had this chain in my mouth, and I was just staring Natalia down. She’d always joke: “It’s scary Gabe, we’re taking a break in between shots and I turn around and you’re just staring at me.” [Laughs] It was my thing. Seven months of my life were dedicated to trying to take her out.

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Terminator: Dark Fate is in cinemas now.