Robert Patrick interview: Terminator 2, James Cameron

We talk to the actor behind one of cinema's great villains - Terminator 2's Robert Patrick...

It’s more than 25 years since Terminator 2: Judgment Day first emerged, but actor Robert Patrick still carries the same cool, shark-like look of his shape-shifting villain, the T-1000. When Patrick fixes me with his sharp blue eyes, I can almost imagine his right arm quietly morphing into a sharp, chrome spear… and then he smiles, lets out a raucous laugh and the illusion is, thankfully, broken.

In London to promote the 3D re-release of T2, and it’s testament to how well-made James Cameron’s sci-fi sequel is that it holds up so well all these years later. For his part, Robert Patrick doesn’t appear to have tired being asked about the role that made his name; if anything, his stories about auditioning and playing the part still seem vivid, fresh and full of humour. Here’s what he had to say about working with James Cameron, playing a killer machine from the future, and how his role almost went to rock star Billy Idol…

You must have fond memories of this film, surely, because it’s the one that established your career, isn’t it?

Absolutely. It’s fun to talk about now. I owe my entire life as an actor to this film. It’s an unbelievable thing and I’m incredibly grateful that it happened to me. I can’t think of a cooler way to be introduced to the world than as the nemesis in Terminator 2. It’s such a great role. I’m very gratified with all the work I did, and the acknowledgement it’s getting – and to be a small part of such a big event movie.

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Do you remember what the casting process was like?

Yeah, oh yeah. I was a complete unknown. My agents told me that they were looking for someone who could create an intense presence. They’re not going to let me read the script. But the whole auditioning thing was new to me as well, at the time. I had only been in Hollywood for a short time; I’d done a bunch of Roger Corman movies. I’d done a couple of plays. I was doing a play when I got this audition. So I was good on my feet and ready to ad-lib, improv, come up with some stuff. The limited amount of training I had worked for me and I knew they wanted an intense presence, so I figured out how I create that in the time that they’ve given me. It was one of those situations where I was the right guy at the right time.

And Mali Finn, the casting director, was perceptive, and picked up on what I was trying to get her to acknowledge – that I could do it, and I got through her into the next stage, which was the videoing of me improving on these themes that they were giving me. Essentially what you see in the film is what I created in the audition. So I was really, right in sync with it, not having read the script and knowing what the character was – just based on what they were telling me. “You’re sense-aware. You’re tracking.”

The cool things that I didn’t know about were that they were looking for someone that physically looked like me. They had previously cast Billy Idol. He got injured, and I had been described as a cross between David Bowie and James Dean. And that was a physical thing that Jim was looking for. It was really the way I looked that got their interest. And then all of the stuff that I brought with it – the things that they didn’t know about going in were that I was a physical actor. I was a stunt guy. I’d done a bunch of movies for Roger Corman where I’d done my own stunts, so I was really adept at movement. I had a certain athleticism that lent itself for the role.

The reality is, I seem to recall, as nervous and insecure as i was as an individual, I do recall when I got the audition, that I was going to get it. It was just one of those feelings that you have. I knew it was going to happen, even though I was scared that it wasn’t going to happen, I knew it was going to happen. It was weird. 

Had they told you that you were going to play a police officer at that point?

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No. No. And I never really took it on as a police officer. That’s interesting that you ask me that. I didn’t know anything until I read the script, which was the third part of the audition. The first part was Mali Finn, the second part, which was the same day, was Steve Quail, the third part was doing what I’d done with Steve Quail, but with Jim. The fourth part was the screen test and reading the script, so it was actually reading the script and then the screen test. And I got the thumbs up that I was the guy they were going to go with. The things that I didn’t know were that Billy Idol had been cast, and he’d got hurt.

I think Mario Kassar [producer] was pushing for him. I think Mario wanted him. I think Jim wanted an unknown, because he wanted someone who people didn’t have a preconceived notion of who they were. And your personality wasn’t preceding your character.

Am I repeating myself? I’m kind of in this haze of jet lag.

I can’t imagine Billy Idol in a police outfit.

He might’ve been better than me, I don’t know. We’ll never know, so it doesn’t do us any good to sit and think about it. I’m just incredibly grateful that I got to do it.

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I knew the film was going to be huge. I don’t think I realised that it was going to be as big and stand the test of time as it does now. However, having seen it in 3D, it is a film that deserves to be released in 3D. If any film deserved to be released in 3D< this was the one. It's an amazing film.

What was it like meeting James Cameron for the first time? Because interestingly, he came from the Roger Corman background as well.

Yes, and that served me. Because he’d come out of the same environment. He had done it in his own way from the point of view of a production designer and art director, whereas I was an actor. And I’d worked my way up and done a bunch of films with with Roger Corman, and got rehired by them because all those things I mentioned – I could do my own stunts, I had some sort of presence in front of character, and I was able to deliver on a performance, I guess. That served me when I got the role with Jim, because he knew the experience I’d gone through, and if I’d been hired by them more than once, then I must’ve been doing something right. But if Jim was sitting here right now, I’m sure he’d say I was basically hired on his physicality. 

It’s an interesting performance, because unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, you have to insinuate your way into people’s lives. For example, when you knock on the door and ask [the foster parents] “Have you seen John Connor?” You have to be affable, but then at the same time scary. It’s an interesting mix.

Yeah, and that was a difficult thing. I remember I was talking to everybody about how I was going to approach that role, and I was like, “There’s got to be something off about this guy. And I don’t know how to articulate what I want to do, but I just want to make something off about this guy. So that was kind of my subtext. You’d asked me before whether I knew I was gonna play a cop: no. And I never approached it as though I was playing a cop. I always approached it first and foremost that I was the T-1000. And then I would react in the scenes based on how the T-1000 would react. So that was my core. That was my foundation. Making the T-1000 a singular thing in itself, and then from that everything else could be.

I remember knocking on the door. Okay, I’m a cop , but I’m a machine first: I’m the T-1000. And I’m trying to be human. That was my subtext as an actor. Hopefully it worked! It’s coming out in 3D, so it’d better work! Wouldn’t it be shitty if all of a sudden there was someone finding fault with my performance after 27 fucking years in the movie? “No! It should’ve been this way! You’ve really fucked it up, goddamn you!”

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Do these chairs spin? They look like they should, but they’re locked. I wish they did.

Look, it blows my mind that people still recognise me from the movie. It blows my mind, the impact it’s had on people. Because, you know, I am who I am, and I played that part, and so I have all my shit, but to see how that’s affected people, and to meet people, it’s really rewarding. But I’ve had police officers that look like me that are proud of that fact! I don’t deserve it, you know what I mean? It’s too much for me to even comprehend. 

The impact was immediate, too, wasn’t it, because you were asked to do the Wayne’s World cameo. 

Wayne’s World and the Last Action Hero, yeah. I told a story, and I’ll tell it to you real quick in a different way: Mike Myers didn’t want me to be in Wayne’s World. I just found this out. Laura Michaels, the producer of Wayne’s World, knew it would be funny. Penelope Spheeris [the director] cast me, asked me to do it – I did it for Penelope. Penelope and I watched the film in Mann’s Chinese Theatre the night it opened, and my cameo, my bit, got the biggest laugh of the movie. Believe you me, I didn’t miss that – I realised that. Look, it’s an iconic fucking moment. I’m not the iconic guy – the role is. I’m thrilled to be a part of it. There’s so many things that go into making the T-1000. 

You were talking about the physical thing. There’s the running with the straight hands, which is now such an iconic part of the character. 

I did that! That was my idea. That was my idea. I remember that. I’m gonna say that’s my idea, and I’m also going to say it was a discussion that Jim and I had. My idea was, my hands can be anything, so they’re gonna be blades, so while I’m running, there’s an efficiency to the way I run – and then I want to be able to, if I get there, to just [mimics stabbing me in the face with a blade] schmmmlump!

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Ah!

You know, I can put a blade in him. You know what I’m saying? That’s how it came about. That was the performance; it wasn’t me studying dialogue, trying to figure out what’s my emotion here, and where am I going there, and what do I want. It wasn’t that – there’s only one thing I want. I want that fucking kid. And how was I gonna get him? Target acquisition. How do we physically manifest that, and make people understand that that’s all he wants. Everything’s focused on that – every layer of the character. The reason for the head tilt: one, it looks menacing, but two: it creates a forward movement. There’s no distraction, no white noise with this guy. He’s all – whoosh! – right after you. That’s the theme you go with. So every time he takes a hit, he’s right back to the core. That was the fun part about it.

It’s funny. We filmed the T2-3D event ride – not the re-release, the ride. They wanted me to teach all the actors that were gonna play me live how to be the T-1000. And I at the time, I remember saying, because I wanted to be paid for it, “How much are you gonna pay me to do that?” And they said, “We’re not gonna pay you anything.” So I said, “Well, I’m not gonna do it.” If it’s that easy, you figure it out! [Laughs]

It’s funny, the actors they brought in to play me, they had to study the film to get it. Man, I’m proud of it. 

What were your memories of the production itself, because it was a compressed schedule – it had to be done quickly, yet you had Cameron, who’s very exacting.

It was high stakes. It was a daunting thing. I had to battle my own insecurities.  I had to stay committed to what I was going to do – the performance, the physicality. I worked my ass off, I trained four months before, getting into shape with Uzi Gal. We developed on all these themes we’ve discussed. Every time I got in there, stepped up and got on the mark, I had to make sure I knew how the T-1000 would react in all these situations: all the movements. It was like acting under a microscope. There were a lot of frustrating things: marks I had to hit. I had to keep my eyes here [points straight ahead]. 

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“I can’t find the fuckin’ mark because I can’t look at the fuckin’ mark!” 

“I know but you gotta hit the mark!”

It was that kind of thing. Being patient. Keeping myself under control. These are the things I remember! It was hard. It was hard but very rewarding. Jim is an intense man, who knows what he wants and he’s gonna get it from you. I wish every actor had the experience of working with a James Cameron, because I’ve never worked with anybody as exact and specific, and really understanding the vision he’s trying to pull off. When we were making that movie, he was my general, he was my commander in chief, and I just said, “Yes sir, no sir.” I just approached it from a military point of view. There was no debate – it was, “Figure out how to fuckin’ do this”. And you do it. And it’s gotta be interesting. Pressure!

I was scared at a certain point. In my head I was saying, “God, am I doing enough? Is this working?” There was also a part of me that was worried I was gonna get fired! You know, I revealed that recently. That was something I didn’t really share with a lot of people, but I just thought, any day now, this is all gonna go away, and I’m gonna get fired. Why I had that feeling, I’ve no idea.

I guess it’s because I’m a whackjob, dude!

Robert Patrick, thank you very much.

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day is out in UK cinemas on the 29th August.