Terminator's Anton Yelchin on becoming Kyle Reese

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Anton Yelchin, who takes over the iconic role of Kyle Reese in McG's upcoming Terminator Salvation, told SCI FI Wire that he looked back to Michael Biehn's performance in the original Terminator movie while bringing his own ideas to the part.

Yelchin spoke exclusively to us following a screening this week of early footage from the movie in Hollywood, Calif.

Sci-fi fans will also see Yelchin as Pavel Chekov in J.J. Abrams' forthcoming relaunch of Star Trek. Following is an edited version of our talk with Yelchin. Terminator Salvation opens May 22.

Anton, your character is based on Michael Biehn's character from the original Terminator, and your character's experiences provide a foundation for what he is supposed to become. Does that give you a freedom, or is it more challenging to invent your character?

Yelchin: Usually you have a script to work with, but in my case, I had a script and a whole other character. I can fix the discrepancies in the script by using that character, and then I can enrich the script by using that character. But at the same time, I can work with what that character started. What do you do? How do you take a guy that was a hero and not do just the cliche of the becoming of the hero? What is the hero like when he's young? He doesn't necessarily need to be weak, and I don't think anyone ever wanted to see Kyle Reese as a weak character just because he's younger.

That's, I think, the sort of tendency: to create characters who are weak when they're younger, they learn, and they get great and strong. I thought about Michael Biehn's performance; it's so powerful, and it's so on edge a lot of the time. I mean, it's so exciting to watch. I thought that as a kid, this guy could be a version of that and have learned instead to contain himself as he got older. That the resistance had given him a definitive understanding of what he really believes in, and that gives him the real strength to make these decisions. So the learning process for him isn't to be too hasty; it isn't to be emotional or get angry. It's to rationalize and to learn to be a leader, because it's intensity and concentration that you see in Michael Biehn.

It was interesting to take all of those things and apply them and then, at the same time, fulfill the plotline of "Here you have this kid. He has the potential for [being a hero], but he needs to learn dedication." And then you have him grow into the character that you know.

Has it been easy to free yourself of the expectations people may have for you playing this character? At what point have you been able to make yourself only beholden to playing the character as well as you can, as opposed to what people may want?

Yelchin: I think the interesting thing is that what people expect and what I realized has to be there about the character is pretty much the same. You can't make Kyle Reese a pansy; that's, like, pretty obvious. It's obvious to the fans—and I'm a fan of Terminator.

When I was little I didn't just run around pretending to be the Michael Biehn character or the Schwarzenegger character, because I thought they were lame; they were tough and they were cool, so naturally as a fan you realize what you have to bring to it. And then there are certain expectations that people have that I can't do anything about, you know? I think we all agree on what he has to be, and there's certain obvious things you have to understand, but everything else [comes from] Michael Biehn's performance.

Hopefully what I do will meet people's expectations of what they want from their characters, because I think we're all thinking along the same lines. Everyone wants to make a good Terminator movie, and everyone wants to honor Terminator, especially the first two, and I think we all realize that. All of the talks that we had, we knew what was going on. That's why we put in things from T1 that you see Reese do that he learns—so the fans go, "Look at that!" My character, I want him to live up to what Michael Biehn had done.

Was internalizing those expectations or condensing what you appreciated about the original character the biggest challenge for you on this film?

Yelchin: Well, a lot of it was just creating that character to make him believable, but also adapting to the environment that McG showed [in the footage]. I realized that Michael Biehn, one of the things he does when he buys the clothes, he runs like they're going to blast his f--king ass off. He runs for his life, even though he's running in a shoe store, so it tells you that he grew up running for his life. So whenever he moves, it's with the understanding that he could be prey. Like you see the big cats, the lions moving around, and they're moving possessively.

I don't know if it was difficult, but it was a challenge that I enjoyed. I don't want to sound overly confident, but it was a task that I wholeheartedly enjoyed and wanted to dedicate myself to.