Linda Hamilton Fled Hollywood, but ‘Terminator’ Still Found Her
NEW ORLEANS — Linda Hamilton laughs the way Courtney Love sings, with great raspy bravado. It would be an intimidating laugh if it didn’t come easily, and if it weren’t so often offered at her own expense.
Take the story Hamilton tells about the time she went to a North Carolina pool hall, shortly after “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” had given her a permanent place in the pop culture pantheon. During the game, Hamilton could feel people noticing her: Was that really the actress who had played waitress-turned-warrior Sarah Connor in the biggest movie of 1991?
“I heard someone say in a stage whisper: ‘That can’t be her. She’d shoot pool a lot better than that!’” Recalling the story, Hamilton let loose with that throaty laugh. “I’m not Sarah Connor, who can do everything brilliantly,” she said, ashing her Camel Blue in a nearby wine glass. “It has kept me very real, because I tend to swing the other way when people assign that to me.”
After nearly three decades spent trying to shake Sarah Connor’s long shadow, the 62-year-old Hamilton has finally reprised the character for “Terminator: Dark Fate,” due in November. The movie hands Hamilton that most quotable catchphrase, “I’ll be back,” though after all that time away from the “Terminator” franchise, you can’t blame audiences for wondering where she’s been.
The answer can be found in the colorful New Orleans townhouse where she fixed me a cup of Earl Grey tea in early August. “Here you go, baby!” she said, illustrating one of the key differences between her and her character: Linda Hamilton will happily call a stranger “baby” or “honey bunch,” while the closest Sarah Connor comes to granting a nickname is when she uses an expletive as a noun.
On the day I met her, Hamilton was blond, trim and wore no makeup; her every move was tracked by two dogs, a massive Anatolian Shepherd named Turk as well as Noodle, a small lap dog. (“Marriage of opposites,” Hamilton said, grinning.) On her wrist was a tattoo with the coordinates of the Malibu villa she sold in 2012, shortly after a recurring TV gig on “Chuck” came to a close: “I woke up one day and I was like, ‘Well, here I am in my beautiful mansion and my kids aren’t here, my agents aren’t calling, and this is not real.’”
Disillusioned, she left the furniture behind and fled Los Angeles, roughing it for a few years on a Virginia farm before moving to New Orleans, a city whose lively spirit she treasures. “I know people here after four years better than I ever knew anyone in Malibu,” she said. The walls of her two-story townhouse are crammed with paintings and portraits; the only way Hamilton would consider taking a new husband, she joked, is if the proposal came from her favorite artist, Kehinde Wiley.
Otherwise, her life in New Orleans is gratifyingly spartan. “I love my alone time like no one you’ve ever met,” said Hamilton, who divorced her “Terminator 2” director, James Cameron, in 1999. “I’ve been celibate for at least 15 years. One loses track, because it just doesn’t matter — or at least it doesn’t matter to me. I have a very romantic relationship with my world every day and the people who are in it.”
The director Tim Miller, who was tasked with enticing Hamilton back to her signature role for “Terminator: Dark Fate,” said, “She doesn’t care about any of the trappings of stardom — in fact, she doesn’t seem to want it at all,” and added, “One of the hardest things for her with coming back to this character was knowing she’d have to step into the spotlight again.”
Hamilton agreed: “That was my hesitation: Do I want to trade this lovely, authentic life for that? I didn’t want my neighbors looking at me differently. We’re neighbors because of who we are, not what we do, and I don’t want that to creep into my life again.”
WHEN SHE WAS making the first “Terminator” film, released in 1984, Hamilton never could have predicted the impact it would have on her budding career. “Did I think I was going to become an action-adventure star? Not once!" said Hamilton, who grew up in Salisbury, Md., and studied under Lee Strasberg in New York. “I was going to be a Shakespearean actress, and with ‘Terminator,’ it all took a left turn.”
In that seminal science-fiction film, Sarah Connor was an ordinary woman targeted by a time-traveling cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) because she would later bear the savior of all mankind. The cast and crew worked long nights, and Hamilton spent much of her role cowering or on the run. “It was hard on the psyche,” she said. “When I finished, I fought some depression and kept dreaming about the Terminator.”
What she hadn’t dreamed of was a sequel. Years later, when Cameron contacted her out of the blue to see if she’d commit to “Terminator 2,” Hamilton had only one request: Instead of playing the damsel in distress again, she wanted Sarah to go crazy. “I wrote it to the hilt based on her directive,” Cameron told me.
This version of Sarah Connor, locked away in a psychiatric institution, had war in her eyes and a body trained like a weapon. In order to play her, Hamilton would have to get into staggeringly good shape, since Sarah’s robo-apocalypse training included pull-ups and, eventually, bicep-straining shotgun pumps. There was just one thing: “I was six months pregnant when Jim came to me,” Hamilton said, “and I carry my babies big.”
Hamilton was still married to the actor Bruce Abbott when Cameron first floated the idea of a “Terminator” sequel; by the time he had returned with a finished script, Hamilton was mothering her newborn son, Dalton, and Abbott had asked for a divorce. It was hardly the ideal time to take on such a demanding action film, yet Hamilton saw it as an opportunity to pour everything she was feeling into Sarah.
“Having been left, I just needed to get up on my feet and be strong and do nothing but mother my child and get ready for this film,” Hamilton said. “You wake up all alone with your body and go, ‘Hmm, these aren’t hips anymore — they’re flanks.’ To give myself permission to be that powerful, strong woman was necessary for my survival.”
The result was one of the most indelible action heroines of all time, a muscular mother who fought like hell. “That character still isn’t normalized,” said Mackenzie Davis, who co-stars with Hamilton in “Terminator: Dark Fate.” “She wasn’t evincing this hyper-fashionable or hyper-feminine aesthetic of a time, so it’s allowed the Sarah Connor character to be this transcendent visual icon.”
But the downside of such a potent transformation was that Hollywood simply sent Hamilton more warrior women, none of which she found as interesting as the character she had just played. “Nobody looked at it like, ‘She can do anything,’” said Hamilton, who had hoped to pivot from action films to comedies. “Instead it was, ‘She’s going to eat us alive!’ People really did not know what to do with me.”
Then again, “I don’t think Linda knew what to do with Linda after ‘Judgment Day,’” Cameron said by phone. “I said, ‘Hey, you could be the female Bruce Willis.’ But she wasn’t interested in doing a string of action movies after ‘T2.’”
Hamilton explained, “That’s not my idea of acting.” Still, she took some culpability for her reduced opportunities after “Terminator 2”: “My answer to being that ‘overnight success’ was to go and get pregnant with Jim Cameron and completely disappear. What timing!”
No romantic sparks had been struck between Cameron and his leading lady during the first “Terminator,” but not long after making “Terminator 2,” they moved in together and had a daughter, Josephine. “That relationship was a mystery to all of us — even Jim and myself — because we are terribly mismatched,” she said. “I used to say we fit together like a puzzle: Everywhere he’s convex, I’m concave.”
So what eventually drew the two of them closer? Hamilton pondered the question. “I think what happened there is that he really fell in love with Sarah Connor,” she said, “and I did, too.”
Cameron doesn’t exactly disagree. “I fell in love with her initially because I thought she was a little closer to Sarah than she actually is, but that doesn’t mean that much once you get to know somebody,” he said. “I think we were just in this high-velocity spiral around each other for a long time. We were fascinated by each other.”
Their relationship lasted seven tumultuous years, culminating in a brief marriage from 1997 to 1999.
“When I broke up with Jim, I was completely devastated for years,” Hamilton said. “But I’m so glad to be free of that. I would never, ever put that much energy again into something that is not working.”
When it came to the “Terminator” franchise, though, it took Hollywood far longer to learn that lesson.
AFTER “TERMINATOR 2,” different studios tried extending the series without the participation of Hamilton or Cameron: In 2003, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” killed Sarah Connor offscreen and failed to reach the box-office heights of its predecessor, while recent efforts to revive the franchise, including the 2009 “Terminator Salvation” and 2015 “Terminator Genisys,” were ultimately nonstarters.
That’s why Hamilton was surprised two years ago when she received a letter from Cameron, asking her if she’d be willing to play Sarah Connor one more time. After making “Deadpool,” Miller was going to direct a new “Terminator” movie that Cameron would produce, and both men felt that for “Terminator: Dark Fate” to work, the other sequels had to be wiped clean and Hamilton would have to return to her signature role.
She had been working occasionally in TV and had not starred in a major studio film in more than two decades, but Hamilton still had to be convinced to sign on. “It’s not that I was afraid to let the fans down,” she said. “I was afraid to let Sarah Connor down.”
Brainstorming alongside Miller and Cameron, Hamilton helped craft a new iteration of Sarah, now a grizzled lone wolf who must team up with a mechanically enhanced female soldier (Davis) to protect another young woman (Natalia Reyes) targeted by Terminators. The alliance of the three women does not come naturally.
“Sarah is a broken being at the beginning of this film,” Hamilton said. “She’s a woman without a country, adrift and full of rage.” To play her, Hamilton had to dig deeper than she ever had before, learn how to fire a rocket launcher, and get back into fighting shape at age 60. “This was 10 times the effort I put into the second one,” she said.
Hamilton trained in the desert with Green Berets, while doctors put her on a regimen of supplements and bioidentical hormones to build muscle. “I had a true village of experts trying to get the most out of this body,” she said, though vanity wasn’t the mission. “I don’t think there’s going to be one person who comes up to me who says, ‘You look so great for your age.’ I threw that into the Mississippi River, because that’s not what this is about. I want people to see me and go, ‘Oh my God, she got so old!’”
Cameron said that “what’s really cool about it is that a major action picture has been hung on an actress who’s 62.” He was also heartened by the success of a 59-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis as a gray-haired Laurie Strode in last year’s “Halloween” revival. “I think you could cite the examples of that kind of chance being taken previously on one finger.”
“It’s incredibly liberating to play someone of this age,” Hamilton said, though Miller didn’t go any easier on her because of it. Sarah Connor fights on land, air and water in “Terminator: Dark Fate,” and the shoot was arduous. “We had ear infections from being in the water for three weeks,” Hamilton said, “and then they’d hang us upside down.”
Still, Hamilton wanted to do the bulk of the stunts herself: If she was going to recommit to Sarah Connor after all that time away, trading her peaceful life for one filled with explosions and flashbulbs, she wasn’t going to do it by half-measures. “Linda’s at her best when she has a challenge,” Cameron said.
And as hard as things got, Miller suspected that Hamilton was enjoying all the action sequences more than she let on. “She smiles when she fires a gun,” Miller said. “I would tell her after a take — ‘O.K., Linda, we need to go again because you were smiling’ and she’d say, ‘I was not!’”
After “Dark Fate” wrapped, Hamilton admitted, “I spent three months on the couch eating pie, and then I woke up one morning and went, ‘Damn, that was fun!’” She laughed that big, throaty laugh one more time. “It was the hardest thing, and the greatest thing,” Hamilton said. “And isn’t that what we want?”
Kyle Buchanan, a Los Angeles-based pop culture reporter, writes the Carpetbagger column. He was previously a senior editor at Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment website, where he covered the movie industry. @kylebuchanan
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