The Terminator: The Many Performances of Arnold Schwarzenegger

Though he's not known for his versatility, Arnie has shown surprising range in the Terminator movies. Here’s a spotter’s guide…

The Terminator: Arnold Schwarzenegger

This Terminator article contains spoilers.

Right up to the series’ widely praised return to form with Terminator: Dark Fate, we’ve seen that the Terminator franchise absolutely will not stop, ever, until we are dead. Through all of the series’ recent experiments with timelines and casting, Arnold Schwarzenegger has remained the constant, in some form or another.

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Though often underappreciated as an actor, Schwarzenegger wouldn’t have been the biggest movie star in the world at one point if he couldn’t back up his physical presence with at least a bit of charisma, to say nothing of his deadpan comic timing. The Terminator was a star-making role for him back in 1984, and he’s had the chance to revisit and refine it over time.

Thanks to the nuances introduced in Terminator 2, he’s technically playing a different character in every film. You don’t get a lot of range in which to work when your most iconic role is an emotionless robot, but it’s a mark of his commitment to the series that each version is so different. As such, he has made himself invaluable to a franchise that has worn a groove in the blockbuster landscape with its constant reinventions in recent years.

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To put it another way, there’s a reason why the only thing that most people remember about 2009’s Terminator: Salvation is Christian Bale’s viral tirade. Produced during Schwarzenegger’s time as governor of California, the film included a CG body double as the T-800 in a climactic battle scene. Indeed, some might speculate that Bale’s rant was captured at a moment like that bit in Get Out where Lakeith Stanfield sees a camera flash, and he simply went berserk at the reality of being in a McG-directed Terminator sequel sans Schwarzenegger.

While the films are never the Terminator’s story, it seems ill-advised to make one without him. Next to Schwarzenegger, director James Cameron and original Sarah Connor Linda Hamilton have the biggest stake in the series, but neither has cast as large a shadow over the series. Now that all three are involved in Dark Fate, the fact that the headliner takes more of a backseat has got us thinking about the range of roles he’s played in the series to date.

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So, consider this our spotter’s guide to his different performances throughout the series, from 1984 to now, including the differences between his various robotic characters and how he contributed behind the scenes…

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Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984)

The Terminator

As seen in: The Terminator (1984)Most likely to say: “I’ll be back.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Terminator. The definitive article, the original, you might say. Before there were sequels and all those different models, his performance marked a huge change of pace from Conan the Barbarian and its sequel, his biggest hits at the time. For Cameron, the star’s involvement made the film better, bringing a “larger-than-life” quality that allowed him to amp up the horror quotient.

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When the director first met Schwarzenegger, the producers at Orion wanted the then-rising star to take on the role of Kyle Reese. Cameron was understandably reluctant and, ever the diplomat, he decided to start an argument with the four-time Mr. Olympia winner and then tell the studio that he was too bad-tempered. To his surprise, Schwarzenegger mostly asked questions about how the villain would be played, having latched onto that aspect of the script more than the heroic role.

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Impressed, Cameron decided to cast him as the Terminator instead. He’s since spoken about how Arnold’s singular accent was an asset, with his imperfect English lending the machine’s voice a more synthetic quality. Schwarzenegger only has 18 lines throughout the whole film, but he imbues the relentless killer with more character than your average movie monster.

Of course, the most famous of his lines is “I’ll be back,” the perfect setup to a violent punchline. It’s a shame that it’s become a signature phrase both for the franchise and Arnold himself, because it’s sublime in its original context and it really should have been a one-off. 

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Taken altogether, it remains one of the greatest performances in horror movie history. You could argue that the Terminator might be better at infiltrating human communities if it wasn’t a 6’2” musclebound Austrian bloke, but given how well his unreal performance marries to the robot effects, it seems churlish to complain about the logic.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as The T-800/”Uncle Bob”

The T-800/”Uncle Bob”

As seen in: Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)Most likely to say: “Hasta la vista, baby.”

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By the time Terminator 2 arrived in cinemas, Schwarzenegger was already well on his way to being the biggest movie star in the world. The pop-culture phenomenon that was Judgement Day arguably cemented that, and in so doing, the film made the most of the range the actor had shown in other films.

The T-800 in T2 may be chattier than the one from the first film, but he’s not reeling off one-liners. Post-Twins, the tone of his performance is more deadpan than inhuman – smirking where it wouldn’t be logical for a cyborg to smirk, but crucially, never winking. He’s largely the straight man in a film where a lot of comic relief comes from how unsuited he seems for interacting with humans.

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Edward Furlong’s John Connor latches onto him as a big brother/step-dad, trying to teach the already-reprogrammed Terminator to loosen up and be cooler. The perfect inversion of his relentlessness in the first film is summed up by Sarah’s observation that this machine, with its “learning computer” CPU, will never stop protecting John no matter what, making him more suitable than any of the potential human fathers he’s known.

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All of this adds to the more unexpected contrast of Schwarzenegger’s physical power and the character’s underdog status. This model is outmatched on just about every level by Robert Patrick’s T-1000, meaning that you come to root for him as he’s on the run too this time. Responses are still mixed on whether the final glimpse of him giving a thumbs-up to John is too stickily sentimental, but even if you don’t like that bit, it’s impressive that the sequel travels so far as to attempt it.

Behind the scenes, Schwarzenegger was also wielding his star power to guard Cameron against studio interference as the film went over-budget and over-schedule on the way to completion. He even came into work on Christmas Day 1990, after principal photography finished, to shoot an additional scene for the climax – specifically, his reboot after the T-1000 impales him in the steel mill.

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T2 is such a singular, stunning complement of story, action, and visual effects that the star’s performance is rarely singled out for praise, but again, you can argue it wouldn’t be nearly as good without Schwarzenegger. Few sequels have ever carried off the feat of making the villain into a good guy as well as this does, which explains at least part of its endless rewatchability.

If you know the film backwards by now, you can always add a little spice to that performance next time by imagining his internal monologue sounds like Jon and Al Kaplan’s Terminator 2: The Opera. “Yes, this idiot believes that I’m his frieeeend…” 

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Arnold Schwarzenegger as The T-850

The T-850

As seen in: Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (2003)Most likely to say: “Talk to the hand.”

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Cameron has explained that all Model 101 Terminators look like Schwarzenegger, whereas 102, 103, etc. look like someone else, which is how we wind up with different Terminators that look the same. Like Schwarzenegger’s character, Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines keeps the appearance of the previous Terminator movies, even though the inner workings are different.

When it became clear that Cameron wasn’t going to return to continue the story, he advised Schwarzenegger to carry on the franchise but make sure they gave him “a good script and a shitload of money.” The star duly negotiated himself a 33-page contract that took 18 months to write, granting him an astronomical $30 million salary, plus 20 percent of the sequel’s profits after it broke even.

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Earning his crust, Schwarzenegger dedicated himself to getting back into the same shape as he was when he made Terminator 2. After some intense preparation and workouts, he proudly stated that his T2 costume fit him perfectly once again. What’s more, he reportedly put $1.4 million of his salary back into the production to cover additional costs in completing the film’s construction crane chase sequence.

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As for the script, the first of numerous attempts at Terminator 3 reheated the power dynamic from Judgement Day, both upgrading Arnie’s character from a T-800 to a T-850 and doubling down on his underdog status by declaring him obsolete in comparison to Kristanna Loken’s “machine-killer” model, the T-X. The film also amps up the “learning computer” comic relief with an early scene in a strip club, much to the chagrin of some fans.

Deliberately played less “cuddly” than the “Uncle Bob” Terminator that John knew as a child, the T-850 is more a forerunner to Drax the Destroyer in his reactions to the human characters (“No, I am not shitting you”), showing less patience for John being a little shit this time, as seen in the great scene where the Terminator shows him what would happen if he listened to his “I’m not a leader” nonsense. He’s also less self-aware than the T-800, resulting in a sort of medium between his performances in the first and second films.

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Rise of the Machines is more acclaimed for its downer ending than for its overall continuation of the saga, but if you didn’t like Dark Fate, it’s arguably still the best of the post-Cameron sequels. Schwarzenegger could easily have collected a check and phoned it in here, but there’s no doubting his commitment to the series and his performance by this point.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger as “Pops”/Guardian

“Pops”/Guardian

As seen in: Terminator: Genisys (2015)Most likely to say: “Nice to see you.”

Regrettably, his presence does little to elevate the hard reboot that followed Terminator: Salvation. It was Cameron who floated the idea of the organic tissue surrounding Terminators being subject to ageing, but director Alan Taylor wound up making the movie. Cameron did endorse Genisys upon its release in 2015, but he’s since claimed that he was supporting his friend, Schwarzenegger, more than the movie.

Intended as the start of a new trilogy, the film posits an alternate timeline in which the T-800 was sent to protect Sarah Connor as a child and this machine effectively became her guardian, meaning they’re both ready to intercept Kyle Reese and the original Terminator when they arrive in 1984.

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Affectionately dubbed as Pops by Emilia Clarke’s Sarah, this Terminator leans all the way into the comic relief side of his capacity to learn. There’s a lot of shoe-leather spent on that one bit from the extended edition of T2 (not Cameron’s preferred cut) in which the T-800 forces a smile. In Genisys, a mug-shot montage set to Inner Circle’s Bad Boys that ends on that gag might just be the nadir of the entire franchise to date.

Taking a leaf from the mystery box school of storytelling, the film sets up a bunch of unfinished plots that take precedence over character. In his closing monologue, Jai Courtney’s Reese alludes to the questions that remain, but even with a sequel set for 2017, you could feel them never ever being answered even upon leaving the cinema.

There’s still no questioning Schwarzenegger’s commitment (again, he worked out intensively enough to regain the same basic dimensions he had in T2 and T3), but the material is considerably weaker this time.

Honorable Mention: Chief Master Sergeant William Candy

As seen in: Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (2003), but only in the extra features on home media releases.Most likely to say: “Ooh, it’s me!”

When Schwarzenegger’s return in Dark Fate was first announced, there was speculation that he would be playing the human who inspired the appearance of the Terminator rather than a new model. The closest we’ve yet seen to that is the above cutscene from the video-game spinoff Terminator 3: The Redemption.

In the scene, Schwarzenegger plays US Air Force CMSgt William Candy, the man whose appearance is chosen by Cyber Research Systems as the basis of future humanoid robots. Quite why CRS is planning to build robots that can pass for humans right before their AI starts trying to infiltrate and destroy humanity is anybody’s guess.

It was never intended to appear in Rise of the Machines and quite right too, but the scene does give Schwarzenegger a chance to play a more jovial character than you’ll see anywhere else in the series, with another (as far as we can tell, unidentified) actor dubbing in his broad Southern accent. Schwarzenegger instead dubs the techie who assures viewers: “We can fix it.”