‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ Linda Hamilton talks what it took to bring Sarah Connor back

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It’s always been a mystery how “The Terminator” franchise seems to have forgotten about Linda Hamilton after the third installment, but thankfully, Sarah Connor is back in “Terminator: Dark Fate.” Rumors abounded that since she and creator James Cameron had divorced, she would never be back, but sometimes it’s just as simple as the actress not ready to come back…until now.

For the new “Terminator” film, it was seemingly easy to bring back Arnold Schwarzenegger as the human-looking cyborg assassin because of his devotion to the franchise. But having Linda Hamilton return as Sarah Connor was a tougher decision considering she’d already turned down a chance to reprise her iconic role.

It took Hamilton six weeks to decide whether she wanted to portray Connor, the waitress-turned-warrior who along with Schwarzenegger made the first two “Terminator” movies among the best action films ever made.

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Her hesitation stemmed from the fear that a return as Connor in “Terminator: Dark Fate” might not live up to the hype of the earlier films.

“I was terrified,” she recalled. “I really didn’t want to disappoint Sarah Connor. That’s where I go when I’m terrified. You usually regret what you didn’t do. So I thought, ‘If I’m this terrified, then maybe that’s the reason to do it.’”

Another convincing factor for Hamilton’s return was James Cameron, who directed the first two films and would serve as a producer on “Dark Fate,” which arrives in theaters Friday. She passed on the opportunity to appear in 2003′s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” believing she had “completed the character’s story” and because of Cameron’s absence, calling him the “magic ingredient.”

Hamilton was concerned with “Dark Fate” messing with the legacy of the uber-popular “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” But she said Cameron’s emails from three years ago detailing the pros and cons of her playing Connor and his enthusiasm about the project helped put her at ease.

The new film ignores three of the franchise’s previous movies including 2015′s “Terminator: Genisys,” which fizzled with domestic audiences but had a strong turnout overseas. “Dark Fate” picks up soon after the events of “T2.”

This time, Connor and an augmented soldier named Grace, played by Mackenzie Davis, must protect a young Mexican girl Dani (Natalia Reyes) who is being hunted by a newly modified liquid Terminator from the future.

Hamilton says Connor still has a vengeful heart against Terminators, yet grudgingly reunites with Schwarzenegger, a time-traveling killing-machine who’s developed a conscience. Connor’s character is also not a fan of humans because “humankind builds machines that create their own death,” the actress said.

“Sarah has nothing else left, but vengeance,” Hamilton said. “She’s a woman without a country. She has no mission, no son; broken, dark, black heart.”

Schwarzenegger said the 63-year-old Hamilton brought some “freshness” back into the franchise.

“I thought that she set the bar really high again, just like she did in 1991,” Schwarzenegger said of Hamilton, who trained for a year to get in fighting shape. “Especially as a woman in her 60s now. There’s no action lady out there that I know of who’s in her 60s doing what she does. Only Cameron really has the (courage) to do something like that. But he always feels quite comfortable with those kinds of ideas, especially women action heroes.”

Hamilton praised Schwarzenegger for his work as well as her female co-stars, Davis and Reyes. But sometimes, she said it was a struggle to find the voice of their female characters with an all-male screenwriter team.

Hamilton said initially the writers had a hard time writing “organic” dialogue between her and Davis’ character. She called the process a failure at first and sometimes declined to recite certain lines until everyone got on the same page.

The results have been met with mixed reviews, with some criticizing the dialogue between female characters.

“They really had trouble getting the script together,” she said. “There were so many writers. They were four months late delivering it to me because they didn’t want me to read the first pass. In the end, I think they really did a bang-up job. But it was really changing throughout, even as we were shooting. That was wacky to me because I never really had to work that way and try to fill in the blanks when you don’t quite know where you’ve been or where you’re going or when you’re going to learn that. Acting is a linear job. You want to know precisely where I just come from, where I’m going and I fill in those moments with as much authenticity as I can. There were some issues with the script, but ultimately I think we got it worked out.”

Hamilton believes her input helped serve the film, her character and others well.

“In the end, I know her best,” she said. “That is the advantage of having played someone over a 35-year period. Otherwise, in all my other work, I would let the greater minds have their way. But not this time.”

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Sarah Connor Now and Then

Hamilton has been semi-retired since 2012 and can usually be found living in comfortable normality in her New Orleans townhouse, but she admits that she’s enjoying the resurfaced attention and responsibility far more than she thought she would. “I think it’s a function of being older and more confident,” she explains. “I’ve got nothing to prove. I’m not trying to win anything, I’m not nervous, I’m honest and I’m sometimes profane. I own myself in a way that you can’t when you’re young. It’s not confidence as much as it is full ownership of who I am.”

Now 63, Hamilton has forever been burnt into action genre lore 35 years ago. Cast in 1984’s “The Terminator as Sarah Connor when she was just an ordinary but plucky waitress, she found herself inexplicably hunted by a futuristic assassin of few words but killer shades (Schwarzenegger). Hamilton transformed herself into a shredded warrior woman with rock-hard abs and a 12-gauge shotgun beneath her arm for “T2: Judgment Day.” The most successful film of 1991, “T2 altered Hamilton’s life, saw her kickstart her relationship with Cameron and, much to her chagrin, led the press to become fixated on her physique. “I didn’t want to be ‘Linda-Hamilton-arms’ for my entire career,” she explains. “And that’s what it was. ‘Linda-Hamilton-arms’… one word.”

A classically trained actor taught in Seventies New York by the revered Lee Strasberg, who also taught Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and Paul Newman, Hamilton had to be coaxed by her agents into accepting the first Terminator film. Despite believing it to be the kind of low-budget B-movie she shouldn’t be doing, she eventually did it anyway, and then its sequel, hoping both times that it might provide her carte blanche when it came to the roles that came next. Specifically, she was desperate to do comedy. Instead, she was repeatedly offered three kinds of follow-up roles.

“Police officers, military officers, and lesbians,” she laughs. “That was pretty much what I got, and nothing else. Going in to audition for “Dante’s Peak” to meet with [director] Roger Donaldson, he literally said to me: ‘You’ve never played a part like this before.’ And I went, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Normal.’ He thought I couldn’t play normal! Jesus! It was just the way people thought.”

She says she has no regrets (“We can all wish for things to be different, but why waste the energy?” she says) but admits that Sarah Connor was something of an albatross from under which she struggled to escape. She says that no matter the film set, it’s rare for a crew member not to approach her and ask if her arms are still shredded. “I just keep them covered and go: ‘Yep, I’m buff!’”

So, it’s not been the smoothest of rides. Yet here she is again: the star of “Terminator: Dark Fate,” her face dominating its posters, and having undergone a year of grueling physical training before it had even begun shooting. She recognizes the pressure she’s placed on herself. “You don’t skate on legend,” she tells me. “Because if you don’t live up to it, then it’s a real disaster.”

In “Dark Fate,” which is directed by “Deadpool’s” Tim Miller and written from a story co-crafted by Cameron, Sarah Connor is broken. Haunted by tragedy and even more paranoid than she was in “T2,” she reveals at one point in the film that she has to drink to blackout just to make it through the day. Early on, she mysteriously crosses paths with Grace, a human/cyborg hybrid from the future (Mackenzie Davis), then with the young woman Grace has been sent back to 2019 to protect (played by newcomer Natalia Reyes), and eventually Schwarzenegger’s T-800. She searches for redemption, demonstrates she’s just as proficient with very big guns as she was in 1991, and curses like a trucker.

“We started out trying to be PG,” Hamilton remembers, rolling her eyes. “Tim was like, ‘We’re only allowed one f*** in this entire movie – where are we gonna use it?’ And by the end of the first day, I had said it in 10 different scenes. I was like, ‘I don’t think we’re gonna get our PG rating.’ Tim has no filter, so everything he says is f*** f*** f***. And he just kept adding [them]. All I did was say ‘f***’ and shoot ’em in the head.”

So she had fun. But it’s only at the end of our conversation that it becomes clear why Hamilton came back to the Terminator in the first place. Not because of the money (anyone with a divorce settlement from James Cameron doesn’t need to worry about their pennies, after all), and not just because she felt like the fans deserved a treat. Instead, it’s more an expression of gratitude.

“I love being soft,” she says, her smoky voice suddenly dropping an octave. “I’m very normal, middle-class. So, like, soft. I didn’t know about that strength until it was asked of me. And I think that’s just the most wonderful gift that I’ve ever had. My work has truly informed me about what – who I am. It’s not like I thought I was weak or anything, but you never know what you’re capable of until it is demanded of you. Who knows who I would have been if I hadn’t got to play Sarah Connor? Would I be the same person?”

She recalls shooting a scene for the end of “The Terminator,” when Sarah’s protector Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) has been badly beaten and is fading in and out of consciousness. Sarah drags him up from the ground and demands his attention with a fiery growl of “On your feet, soldier”.

“I remember how wonderful it was, without being heady or cerebral, to just play it,” Hamilton explains. “To play it and go, ‘Oh, this is an interesting moment.’ It was only when I was playing it that I felt myself stand up and take something inside of me that I didn’t know that I owned.”

She looks appreciative and slightly misty-eyed. The mood of the room has become very serious. When in fact, she tells me, all she really wants to do is star in something funny.

“At least once in this lifetime,” she smiles. “I’ve earned it.”