The Terminator director James Cameron discusses how meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger completely changed his depiction of the T-800. Released in 1984, The Terminator has since become one of the era’s most beloved films, kick-starting a franchise that released its latest installment in 2019. The original film follows Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), with the help of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), as she tries to escape a T-800 Terminator sent from the future to kill her in order to prevent the birth of the child who will eventually become the leader of a global resistance movement against their machine overlords. Schwarzenegger’s performance as the titular villain was such a hit with audiences that the actor was brought back for multiple sequels, including the acclaimed Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
In a recent career retrospective interview with GQ, James Cameron reveals that he initially had a very different idea for what the T-800 should be like in The Terminator. The director explains that his original idea quickly went out the window, however, after his first meeting with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who originally approached him about playing the role of hero Kyle Reese. Check out Cameron’s full recollection of events below:
“I couldn’t get over how unique [Arnold Schwarzenegger’s] face was, how it almost just projected this kind of raw power. And my conception of the character had been that he was more of an infiltrator. But then my perspective shifted and I would say that it kind of pivoted on a dime. All right, if I cast this guy, how are they not all going to see him coming? How does he not stand out in a crowd? How do they not all look at him? And I thought, ‘you know what, don’t worry about it because he would make an amazing terminator.’ Because I just saw him as like this kind of bulldozer, this kind of armored tank. And he could just move through a crowd. If anybody was in his way, he’d just push them out of the way and you’d just accept it. It didn’t even have anything to do with the guns, it was just that kind of raw strength, a kind of a machine strength.”
Why Arnold Schwarzenegger Is The Perfect Terminator
Schwarzenegger has had a number of iconic roles over the course of his long career, but his depiction of the T-800 remains perhaps his most noteworthy achievement. Serving as the central antagonist in The Terminator, Schwarzenegger is able to use his physicality to great effect to make a machine that is genuinely frightening. Throughout the first movie, the T-800 absorbs an immense amount of punishment, including gunshots, explosions, and blunt force trauma, and Schwarzenegger’s sheer size and body construction make it believable that the titular Terminator is resilient enough to withstand all of this and continue to pursue Sarah Conner. What’s more, the T-800 also speaks very sparingly in the film (save for a few iconic lines), which only serves to make his physical presence more intimidating.
Cameron then brilliantly flips this for the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which Schwarzenegger’s character serves as one of Conner’s allies. After making the T-800 truly formidable and almost scary in the first movie, Cameron taps into the comedy potential of Schwarzenegger’s robotic performance, with his more dated machine facing off against the advanced T-1000 (Robert Patrick). Where before audiences were rooting against Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, the sequel gives him enough of a personality that he now becomes a hero.
Although the sequels following the first two Terminator movies were generally received as well, the initial two installments stand as one of Cameron’s crowning cinematic achievements. It’s hard to say how The Terminator would have turned out if Cameron had gone for his initial idea for a more subtle and stealthy T-800, but it’s likely that the film wouldn’t be as fondly remembered as it is today. While Schwarzenegger would return as different versions of the T-800 across the franchise, including most recently in Terminator: Dark Fate, 1984’s The Terminator feels like the case of an actor and a role being perfect for each other.