Linda Hamilton never set out to be an icon. In fact, that word makes her want to cringe when it's reverently bestowed upon her as the actress who brought the character of Sarah Connor to life.
To clarify, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love the character. But 35 years ago, when director James Cameron hired her to play the fated savior of humanity in his low-budget action film The Terminator, Hamilton was a 27-year-old working actress who had no idea what she was getting into. Made for a lean $6 million, The Terminator went on to make $40 million and became an instant sci-fi classic.
Seven years later, Hamilton returned to the role with Cameron for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but literally as a transformed woman. The soft, naive Sarah was gone, and Hamilton played this version as toned, feral, and deeply traumatized from the burden of her destiny. The actress stunned audiences with her physical and emotional 180, at times proving to be a scarier adversary than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800.
Together with Ripley in the Alien franchise, Hamilton’s Sarah Connor would join the vanguard of female action heroines who would set the template for a new generation. But for Hamilton as an actress, the reality was that Connor throttled her ability to be seen outside specific lanes for some time.
“The second one, Judgment Day, I think it did box me in a little bit,” Hamilton tells SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS as we look out over the Hollywood Hills in a hotel suite. “But it was more like 'Linda Hamilton arms,' not necessarily 'Sarah Connor kicks ass.'"
The immediate labeling of T2 Connor as a hero was also disconcerting for the actress. “It floored me because I never really ever thought of her as particularly heroic, or even a character that one would want to emulate, because I played her and she suffers terribly,” Hamilton reflects. “She's in pain, true pain. And so it's hard to separate the fan response, or the worlds' response, from my experience playing her. I was like, ‘No, no, no. Don't be like Sarah. She's in hell!’"
Regardless, Connor’s impact cast a strong shadow on Hamilton’s career afterward. Hollywood offered her a steady array of military officers, police officers, and lesbians, which she acquiesces was infinitely better than playing boring professional women. “I'm glad I've gotten to play crazy women,” she says with a smile. “I did get a lot of crazy women, which was fun. So we'll see what this one does.”
This one being Terminator: Dark Fate, Hamilton’s triumphant return to the role of Sarah Connor — this time as a lean, mean 63-year-old just as emotionally wounded as she was three decades ago, but for different reasons.
In her personal life, Hamilton left Hollywood a few years ago to relocate to New Orleans and has since been choosy about which roles she’s wanted to pursue. Two years ago, when James Cameron personally reached out to ask her to join him and director Tim Miller (Deadpool) for a new Terminator movie, she needed a moment.
“I thought about it for weeks,” she admits. “Weeks.”
“It was a very, very, very rough outline of story,” she continues about the pitch. “There was no script. There was nothing even close to a script. All I believe [James] told me was that John is dead and another story happens that Sarah comes in. But none of us really knew who Sarah was going to be.”
Hamilton says her input was immediately welcomed to be part of the creative mix as they drilled down into the script and Sarah’s part in it all. But she admits she was perplexed by the question of a Sarah without John defining her life’s path. “I mean, who is she without her mission?” Hamilton muses. “It's been 28 years since John has died, because he dies [in this story] very shortly after Judgment Day, so has she tried to work her way back into a normal place? Is she a teacher? Is she completely alcoholic? We played with every idea. None of us could really figure out what to do with Sarah. And slowly it kind of came, how to fill in those 28 years.”
What was discovered is that destiny was still kicking Sarah Connor in the gut. Losing John has turned her into even more of a lone wolf, with basically a "divine" hobby keeping her busy, but not any more fulfilled or less lonely than she was in the original timeline.
“I had already decided to play her sort of machine-like, because she has very little humanity left and no love for humanity. And nothing but loathing for the machines,” Hamilton says of her choices for this version of Sarah. “She's a woman without a country and without a mission and without a son. I think that's one of the defining things in our film, that the characters are evolving all the time. And now the T-800 is more human than Sarah Connor is in this film. It was really interesting to see the characters sort of flip like that. And it’s a different arc.”
Dark Fate also has a different director in Miller, a first for the actress portraying Sarah without Cameron at the helm. Gratefully, the two had commonalities. Both are from Maryland, and attended at different times, and left early, the same small Washington College in Chestertown.
“We were just like this through the whole thing,” she says, twining her fingers with glee. “He's such a great guy. He has absolutely no filters. You have to throw your hand over his mouth sometimes because he's just so himself, and he will always be himself. And that I respect a lot.”
“And he's a visionary,” she continues. “I knew that right from Deadpool, and how everyone loved it and how fresh it was. I think it's always good to have fresh eyes and a fresh voice in a franchise. Otherwise, it's going to get tired and old. So I trusted him. Jim Cameron brought me on board by saying he trusted Tim.”
But even with that trust, Hamilton had to look to her own devices and compass for Sarah to get through the realities of modern blockbuster filmmaking. “The script was four months late being delivered,” the actress says with incredulity. "And the script was changing throughout the shoot too."
While working with unlocked scripts is now common in big tentpole productions, Hamilton was nonplussed by the process on Dark Fate. “It was so stressful, just because of the way that I work and the way that I've always worked, which is that you know where you've been, and where you're going,” she explains of her process. “You can't build something and bring those moments together if you don't know what the next moment is. It's really hard.”
“They had written some rather very predictable conflict between Grace and Sarah, or just them sniping at each other,” Hamilton reveals. “Mackenzie's a fantastic actress, and she's not going to [do that] without questions. So we just worked our asses off in rehearsal, to work through our story and to figure out why we're such enemies, where we might have a shared mission and different approaches. We were just pretty much working against it or taking those lines out.”
Not exactly an easy thing to do when you’ve been out of the blockbuster loop for three decades, but Hamilton says she did it anyway — because with age does come wisdom. “I would like to think it's because I'm fully inhabiting myself as a person, as a woman, as an actress, with feet planted,” she explains. “But it's probably because it's Sarah Connor and I feel like I do know her best.”
So, when she was asked by producers, or even Cameron, to say lines from new pages that made her bristle, Hamilton respectfully declined. “I was like, ‘Not saying it. Can't say it.’ And that's empowerment, to be able to just calmly stand my ground and say, ‘That does not jive with everything I know about this character. And so I'm not saying it.’”
She clarifies that the impasses were not huge, or even frequent, but she was resolute even when they wanted her to say something and then promised not to use it. “They were even like, 'Just give us one [take].' And I’d go, ‘If I give you one, you'll use it, so I can't give you one,’” she smiles. “To just remain calm like that, and go, ‘What are they going to do? Not let me be in the next one?’” she laughs. “It's really nice to be able to just stand there calmly and say, ‘Nope.’”
In the end, Hamilton says it was to service a story about three women that would feel true to every generation of women watching them on screen. “We're not like three cardboard cutouts,” Hamilton says with pride about the trio of Sarah, Dani, and Grace. “We're very different women. The dissimilarity is what makes us interesting. And we don't get to do that in movies a lot. You're often all soldiers for the same cause. Even in Wonder Woman, [the Amazons] are all sort of the same women warriors. All of them are magnificent, by the way, f***ing magnificent. But that beautiful Gal Gadot, she's the one-off. So I did appreciate this [film] for the fact that the women are each coming from their own, very different place. The diversity makes it interesting.”
It’s a full-circle moment for Hamilton too; having forged a path with Sarah three decades ago, she now gets to redefine her in tandem with two actresses setting new standards for action heroines going forward. Whether the pair will be awarded the same iconic status Sarah has by the zeitgeist remains to be seen, but Hamilton doesn’t put much stock in that anyway.
“That's always interesting, the legacy build,” she says with mock disdain. “I never, ever use the language that other people have assigned to me. People go, 'How does it feel to be an icon?' And I'm like, I don't feel any different than I did before I started acting, because that's what the world assigned to us, those titles. But Sarah has, in the end, meant everything to me. The fact that I get to play her 35 years apart, when does that happen in a career? That is amazing. I mean, there is no James Bond [actor] that played him for 35 years, right? So that is a gift, to get to approach her as a young, rather unformed actress, and then as this mighty woman that I'd become, and maybe from here on.”