In acting terms, landing a properly iconic movie role can be a gift that keeps on giving. For Linda Hamilton, that role was – and is – Sarah Connor.
Making her first appearance in James Cameron’s seminal 1984 sci-fi thriller The Terminator, Connor was the unwitting target of a time-travelling killer cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s equally iconic T-800). Over the course of the movie, she comes to accept her destiny as the mother of the unborn John Connor – the man who’ll lead the human resistance in a future war against sentient AI Skynet and its terrifying machine army.
By the time the sequel, Judgment Day, hit the big screen in 1991, Sarah had developed a much harder edge, fighting tooth-and-nail to protect her young son from a new Terminator and the world from a tech-led apocalypse that hadn’t yet happened. Cameron’s epic follow-up established her as an action hero for the ages – at a time when female action heroes were in short supply in Hollywood.
Now, 28 years later, Hamilton is making a long-awaited return to the role that made her a household name. Terminator: Dark Fate is the sixth movie in the franchise, but only the third to feature Sarah Connor herself, deftly ignoring the most recent sequels to position itself as a true successor to T2 – helped in no small part by Hamilton’s presence.
“A million years ago, when I shot the first one, I never would have surmised that Sarah would become so utterly important,” Hamilton says. “For 35 years, she’s been percolating inside of me, in a way that no other character has.”
When Den Of Geek catches up with Hamilton in London at the start of a worldwide press tour for Dark Fate, it’s immediately obvious just how much Connor means to her. Warm, friendly and relaxed, comfortably ensconced on a plush hotel sofa as if kicking back in her own living room, she’s clearly having a ball despite a hectic schedule, discussing the character animatedly as if chatting about an old friend.
“I thought that it would be very interesting to investigate Sarah Connor as a woman of a certain age, and with a different set of circumstances,” she says of her decision to step into Sarah’s boots again after all these years. “Time changes us all. So I thought that there would be a very big canvas to paint on, which would interest me, as an actress, to return to that. Nothing has worked out for her. She is bitter and broken and brutally alone. That was a very, very dark place to go.”
Making friends and influencing people
Circumstances have indeed changed for Sarah, but she’s not alone for long. In Dark Fate, she’s confronted with the fact that, despite averting Judgment Day and sparing humanity from a disastrous destiny, a new, even worse one has sprung up in its place. Alongside ‘enhanced’ future warrior Grace (Mackenzie Davis), Connor finds herself caught up in a mission to protect a new target – Mexican youngster Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) – from an even more powerful, Rev-9 model Terminator (Gabriel Luna).
Thanks to the ante-upping requirements of modern blockbusters, the action in Dark Fate is pumped up to impressive levels – giving Hamilton much more to do in the physical stakes than she’s ever had to before. “The action was so much bigger, like, by a factor of 10,” she laughs. “That was hard because I’m also that much older. But I’m really trying not to bring up the age thing. I mean, I love being 62, but I can’t say, ‘Oh, it’s so hard because I’m so old.’ If I had been 30, it would have still been hard. Just ask Natalia and Mackenzie!
“It was just because the scope of the action was so large – we’re fighting in the air and in the water and on land, and we keep on going. There are explosions, then we get up and fight some more. It’s filthy. It was just like mind-numbing, non-stop hard. For each of us, though. So I don’t mind saying that.”
Not that having to be more involved in the action put her off, mind – if anything, she embraced it. Sarah would be proud. “You wake up when it’s all said and done and you go, ‘That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And that was the greatest thing I’ve ever done.’ I don’t mean in terms of the result, but just in terms of input and collaborating with my beautiful actresses who were stunning, fierce, talented, generous women.
“That was just the gift of a lifetime to have those two on either side of me. If one of them had been a weak link, the film would have gone down. We just had to form a triumvirate to get through every day. We had our own little personal group message which was called ‘Is it 6?’ because you work from 6 at night till 6 in the morning, or vice versa. And we were always like, ‘Is it 6 yet?’”
The camaraderie between the three onscreen heroes was another big reason why Hamilton signed on for another runout as Connor. “You have three women that are so entirely different from each other,” she explains. “They come from such different places and have maybe a shared agenda, but absolutely no agreement about how to carry out that agenda. So we’re not like cardboard cutouts, or one woman cut into thirds. We are fully inhabited women that have to find a way to work it out together. And I thought that’s what really made it interesting.”
Hamilton is thought of by many as one of the OG female action heroes, with her performances in the first two Terminator movies inspiring a whole generation of new actors. Back in February, for example, Rosa Salazar, star of Alita: Battle Angel (another Cameron production) told Den Of Geek: “When Wonder Woman came out, I was so confused. I was scratching my head because everyone was going, ‘Finally.’ I was like, what about Ellen Ripley? Sarah Connor? These guys have been doing it for years…”
So, how does Hamilton feel about her ‘icon’ status? “I’ve never set myself up to be the torchbearer, the banner carrier – that’s stuff that other people assign to you after the fact,” she muses. “It was an accident of timing as far as I’m concerned. My real defining film was Judgment Day. And I’m happy, I suppose, that people say I was one of the first. But that was excellent timing – that the world was ready to see it or accept it, or the fact that I didn’t chop my hair off so there was a feminine ideal of strength that might have just captured the imagination of people.
“Certainly, there are definitely many more women in action films now, but these things go through phases. That’s the way of the film landscape. But there has always been strong women. In the ’40s, there were fantastic roles for women. It’s just today, we’re using our bodies to show our strength. I welcome the day where it’s just, nobody has to talk about it, that it’s just equally represented. I don’t only want to see strong women on film… I love the idea of playing incomplete women and women who aren’t prepared and women who are funny and women who are weak, because that’s the full range of the human experience. Look at Lucille Ball – didn’t she have a fantastic career? And that’s about as far away as it can be from what we’re acting in this film. But still, she was a force to be reckoned with and made the world better for women.”
Once more with feeling
If there’s one thing that, for Hamilton, makes Dark Fate stand out from the various Terminator sequels that have come out in the years following T2, it’s the ‘back-to-basics’ approach. “It’s all about having characters that you care about,” she says. “You have to keep reducing it back to its original element, because that’s what made the first two films great. You can try to expand upon that and have every damn machine and all the budget in the world and huge action sequences, but if you don’t have characters that you care about, and a story that makes sense and is properly told, it means nothing. And I think that was proven.”
The one thing that director Tim Miller and the Dark Fate team are counting on is that audiences care about Sarah Connor as much as Hamilton does. Unsurprisingly, she’s fiercely protective over the character, because Connor represents, as she puts it, “the bookends of my career.” She quickly leans forward. “I mean, not that I’m done,” she confirms, laughing. “But, you know, 35 years is a pretty great career. You have Sarah in 1984, and now you have Sarah in 2019. So it means a lot to me.”
Hamilton is candid about the fact that getting Connor ‘right’ a third time out, after such a long absence from the screen, was her biggest motivator. “I can actually say that I’ve never felt so sure of myself,” she says. “I mean, I was doubtful that I could go there again and do Sarah justice, but I owe her something. And this whole experience was like, I don’t care about fans, particularly. That sounds mean, but you can’t act for fans. You can’t think about the audience. I did not want to let Sarah Connor down. Because, somehow, she’s become very real for me.”
That sense of duty, of custodianship, to Sarah actually empowered Hamilton on set, too. “It was the first time that I’ve ever worked and actually stood up a couple of times and said, ‘No’,” she says. “You know, my job is to make the director happy and to serve the film. But in this situation, my job is to serve Sarah Connor and live a truth that I know best, because I have lived with her for 35 years. And so that really did give me a different voice that I’m not used to using, because I don’t usually have to stand up and have a voice. I’ll just do my job to the best of my ability and call it a day. But here, it was something else.
“I would just say, ‘Why is this sounding so petty and trite?’ Sarah Connor is not petty or trite. She might be bitter, broken, awful even, but not petty. So I’d be like, ‘Let’s like change that line.’ Or, ‘I’m not saying that.’ And so that was like a whole new Linda Hamilton! But informed by Sarah Connor. It’s interesting to care so much. I mean, I always care about my work. But 35 years of work? Yeah. There’s a lot in there.”
Terminator: Dark Fate is in cinemas now.