Talking to Linda Hamilton about her emotionally shattered, robot-killing icon Sarah Connor is a little like running into your congenial next-door neighbor during a brisk fall walk. “Hi sweetheart,” she says before tearing through 35 years of science-fiction-laced character study. There’s a warm-sweater-and-a-cup-of-tea aura to it all, even when conversation turns to blowing up Terminators with bazookas.
But like your neighbor, Hamilton’s protective of her family. (Your neighbor might be the guy from Taken — look into that.) She signed up to appear in this month’s Terminator: Dark Fate, her first time playing Sarah since 1991’s Terminator: Judgment Day, with a commitment to do the character, her family, right. She wanted to do the stunts. She wanted to chew on the stark drama of the character. She wanted to get back in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face. She wanted to own the damn thing — and she does.
Jumping at the chance, Polygon spoke to the actress in the lead up to Dark Fate about her initial conversations with James Cameron, why this is the first time she’s reappeared as the character despite a handful of other Terminator sequels, and the moments during the film that made her fight even harder for Sarah.
Polygon: Dark Fate marks the first time you’ve played Sarah Connor since Terminator 2. Were you ever asked back in subsequent sequels?
Linda Hamilton: They did ask me to come back for the third one and ... it wasn’t Jim Cameron’s movie. I guess, truly, I read the script and I was like, “There’s nothing new here, therefore I’m not interested.” Every time you do it, it’s diminished returns. The element of surprise is gone. I’m going to be fit. I’m going to be a fighter. It was almost like a throw away role, and I was just like, “I’ve said my peace, I said everything I have to say as Sarah Connor and I’m retiring a champ.”
And now you’re back in Dark Fate. I can see why. There’s a lot going on in Sarah’s arc. I was particularly struck by a moment of self-reflection where she refers to herself as “the womb” that Terminators hunt. Was that meaningful for you?
”The woman that gives birth to the man that saves the future.” That’s Sarah’s only experience. I’m so pleased, by the way, that they didn’t use Natalia that way, that the Dani character is not giving birth to the savior of mankind, but is actually the savior and that strategist that’s going to save mankind. So we’ve come quite far in our thinking and assigning women roles that don’t just have to do with giving birth and bringing life into this world. We have grown beyond that.
Did Sarah feel that dimensional or considered when you made The Terminator with Jim back in the early ’80s?
I’m not sure she was particularly deep in that first film. We certainly didn’t know that we were going to be launching a franchise and I’d be returning to play her seven years later — and then 27 years later. [The role] seemed very sort of straight forward and playable to me. So we didn’t have a lot of philosophical debate about what he was starting to say. It was very much there on the page.
[The Terminator] was a job, and I wasn’t even that thrilled with it. My people loved it and they were very excited. I’ve already said this publicly, so it’s no big deal, but I was sort of a snotty New York-trained actress. I was very worried about Arnold playing the machine. I thought, I’m not sure that I see this. But then I went to work. He started before I did and I saw him play some of the scenes and the way that he moved and I was like, okay, this is actually a pretty good idea.
But you know, again, it was just a job. I finished it, moved on, never thought twice about coming back until seven years later when Jim showed up and said he wanted to do another one. I was like, “Holy shit, make her crazy. Because this is it. She’s lived with this knowledge of what’s coming for all these years. She’s gotta be crazy.” So that was just our jumping off point.
Did your snotty New York actorhood help you reach the molecular level of Sarah?
[In Terminator 2], I knew that I had turned myself into a fierce warrior fighter woman protecting her son. That was just the physical work, and I definitely handled that. But I also had to reach deeply within myself to figure out who she is at this stage in her life, and with such high stakes, you reach deeper.
I’ve never really seen her as heroic because she’s not a fantastic mother. She’s a fierce protector, but you know, the things that really create motherhood or the nurturing, Sarah was not good at. She was just so on mission with John. It was interesting play a woman who was very, very loud. She’s just so on mission that a lot of other things have dropped away that would be terribly important in terms of raising a child. So I never saw her as heroic. I just saw her as one hugely flawed woman who’s pretty much going through hell.
You trained at Strasberg, which was known for method acting. Was that a place you pushed yourself in T2? Did that manifest in Dark Fate?
I took a lot away from Strasberg and then threw away a lot. I was there for almost four years, and in the last thing that I did, one of my instructors said that he got the sense I wasn’t using a lot of method. I knew that my time there was dying because ... I’m not denigrating it in any way, we all have to find what works for us. But for me it was a little too cerebral. Ultimately the goal is it to not be, but you’re bringing in this exercise, then you start working, bringing an animal in, bringing your smells in and it’s so planned that you’re manipulating yourself. I just said, wait, I’m already in. I had enough. My dream work is to just plug in and believe to the best of your ability. I’ve gotten pretty good at that.
[Ed. note: the rest of this interview contains spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate.]
The film opens with a new T-800 murdering John. How did you react to that when you read it?
That is what pretty much is driving through this entire movie, the loss of John and the grief. I don’t so much get attached to certain ideas about “what happens.” I don’t get attached. I’m much more interested in a character’s evolution and changes happen. Therefore when the character changes, you know, a story changes. I embraced it as Linda Hamilton, the actress because it just gives me that much more to work with.
And man, this one was painful. Just working on grief and sorrow and disappointment and guilt every day and being inflamed with rage and inflamed with revenge and then wanting revenge. It’s definitely the hardest one I’ve done yet. She’s lost everything. She’s a woman without a country.
However, on the day that they shot [the opening scene] I cried my eyes out, not because John was dead, but because another actor was playing me. They had to bring in a double and then put a digital face on her. And then ultimately match my voice months and months later to her performance. I cannot bear to give up one moment. Nothing against the actors, that lady, and she was a full-on actress, and of course they weren’t even going to use her face, it’s just the way that the body moves and the fierceness with which I move ... It was so hard to watch somebody else play that scene. I was just like, “No, grab them harder! Do this!” Or she would run her hands down his body as he’s dying. That’s what you need to do. It’s basic things like that. Those are the moments! Like it was just so hard.
“Perfectionism” has become a condescending word, but do you bring that level of hustle and commitment to each scene? Was there a moment in Dark Fate where you pushed to get the littlest thing right?
Oh, pretty much every day. But you know, I know better. You know that there is a limited amount of time. It’s odd that we shot this movie for six months and there just was never enough time in the day to get it all right. But teams would be off doing the freeway work, and I’d already done all the freeway work and the weapons, so it was like, “Why are the stunt girls down there doing more when I’ve already done it and I did it well and shot it from every angle?” I hate giving up a moment. I’m not like this usually. I’m still attached and have been playing the character for 35 years. So I had opinions this time. I’d be like, “Girl, hold that weapon tighter!”
There’s a scene where I had to walk down a hill, it was really a mountain, but it’s a whole different world now. They put you on, like, a harness, so that you don’t fall off the mountain or slip on a rock. It was not that dangerous or anything, but it was kind of uncomfortable. And they said, now [the camera is] going to be on your back, so let Jessi [Fischer, Hamilton’s stunt double] do this first one. I was like, “No, they need to cut her hair like mine!” I am so wanting it to be convincing that I don’t want to give the stunt girl a chance to walk down the mountain for me because they hadn’t cut her hair properly. I was starting to do everyone’s jobs. I think it might’ve been a little bit of a problem for the first time in my career.