Taking a look at Terminator's new model

Think of sci-fi’s most memorable onscreen couples and chances are Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor are somewhere near the top of your list. The Terminator made stars of Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton, and their battle-scarred future-war veteran and big-haired damsel in distress lent James Cameron’s robot-assassin thriller some much-needed heart. Which is probably why Reese and Connor are making a return to the series in franchise “reset” Terminator Genysis, albeit with new faces – Divergent’s Jai Courtney and Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke – and a drastically changed dynamic. In this new timeline, when Reese travels back to 1984 to save Sarah (mother of resistance leader John) from the T-800 sent to kill her, he finds a very different woman to the one he’s expecting…

“In the original you saw Sarah go from a kind of ‘no idea what’s going on’ young girl into the fighter we know from Terminator 2, but with our Sarah, you get to see her start as this complete badass,” says Clarke, excitedly. “She’s got herself together, and that’s the joy of seeing Kyle Reese who has no idea, up until the point when he meets her, that she knows what’s what – that she’s got it all covered.” The reason? This new Sarah has already been groomed for battle with sinister artificial intelligence Skynet by a reprogrammed T-800 (once again played by franchise custodian Arnold Schwarzenegger), sent back even earlier to protect her from a childhood assassination attempt. “Kyle gets sent back to accomplish this mission that the future of mankind rests on…. but she doesn’t need him there,” laughs Courtney. “That was really fun to work on with Emilia. We’re this kind of odd couple and have completely different perspectives on how the mission should play out. To her, he’s a total inconvenience.”

Directed by Thor: The Dark World’s Alan Taylor, Genisys opens with an almost shot-for-shot recreation of Reese’s arrival in 1984 Los Angeles, before the action veers off in a bold new direction. For the filmmakers, it was a chance to nod towards James Cameron’s originals while pushing forward with their own story – bypassing the poorly received Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation in the process… “We’re not remaking The Terminator,” Courtney assures us. “But it’s cool to give a little nudge and pay homage to something that people love. That was fun from an actor’s perspective, not being bound to it or to feel like that was our bible or anything like that, but to just [show] how it subtly leans into it.” Clarke agrees: “Fundamentally, we’re taking the original beauty that James Cameron created and putting a different spin on it. The people that you see are exactly the same, but their histories have changed them.”

Not that the whole movie is set in the ’80s, though. With the original “termination” of Connor thwarted early on via an audacious sequence in which Arnie fights a “younger” (ie fresh off the production line) version of himself, our trio flash-forward to near-future San Francisco to deal with an even greater threat brought about by Skynet’s powerful new operating system (the “Genisys” of the title) – one that means a whole new Judgment Day is on the cards. “The villain in our movie is one that you can’t see,” says Clarke, cryptically, before going on to explain the plot’s relevance. “I think the [dominance of technology] is much more of a reality now than it was in 1984. If I’m not with my phone, I feel like I don’t have an arm. It’s terrible!”

Taking on the mantle of such iconic sci-fi characters isn’t without its pitfalls – especially on a franchise with such a large fanbase. So, was there any trepidation about stepping into Biehn and Hamilton’s shoes? “The mantle of Linda loomed pretty heavy, obviously,” admits Clarke. “She was a powerful female icon, so it’s a lot of pressure in that sense. But the script that we have is so different, it enabled me a lot more freedom in the role without just playing copycat. The arc that you see with her is that she softens. Because she’s been raised by a Terminator, she’s pretty steadfast in her practicality, and knowing that she has a mission she has to live up to. And there’s no room for emotion in that. Terminators don’t have a sense of humour, so it was a pretty dry upbringing for her. But the lovely thing is then being able to find the emotional responses that she wasn’t expecting when she meets the characters that she meets in the film.”

"It was definitely a testing shoot because I came into it unaware of just how big the action can be."

For Courtney, a self-confessed fan of Cameron’s movies, there was no doubt in his mind about joining the Terminator universe. “It was Terminator 2 that had my attention as a kid,” he recalls. “I guess I idolised the young John Connor. He’s this badass little kid who lives in complete rebellion from his parents. That was probably a fantasy I wanted to play out myself somewhat! So it’s totally surreal to now be involved with that. I kind of went on this journey with [A Good Day To] Die Hard – being familiar with something many years ago, and then all of a sudden as an adult finding myself part of that. It’s a strange coincidence that that’s happened twice. But I don’t really think of anything beyond that. It was a great opportunity and kind of a no-brainer.”

Filmed over three months in New Orleans, the shoot itself was suitably epic – with both Clarke and Courtney admitting it was the biggest project either had been involved with to date. “It was tough, man,” says Courtney. “It was really tough. It was a long one. We were dealing with something that’s incredibly physical and grand in scale, and therefore nothing was a cruise. I don’t think our craft should be, anyway. Going down there, I thought: ‘Awesome, New Orleans… It’s a party town, we’re going to have fun down here!’ But all that time, and I still haven’t had a beer on Bourbon Street! It was more about the long haul – but thankfully we had a great group of people and we were all in it together.”

“We filmed in summer, which was insane,” Clarke continues. “It was really hot, which added to the tension and the grit of the piece. It was definitely a testing shoot because I came into it unaware of just how big the action can be. There’s some huge setpieces, and the intensity I felt on set was unlike anything I’ve ever done. You’re in New Orleans, in crazy humidity, firing a grenade launcher... You have earplugs in, because the bangs are so huge and there are a lot of real explosions. I remember so many times, I’d take one out to have a discussion with Alan [Taylor, director] and forget to put the fucker back in – and then I’m half deaf and my ears are ringing for the rest of the day! As an actor, it’s not like I do any real manual labour. It’s rare you go to bed and feel, ‘I really worked today.’ So that stuff was trying, but in a very satisfying way.”

Courtney, meanwhile – no stranger to action himself after the likes of Die Hard, Jack Reacher and the Divergent series – faced a different type of physical challenge. “I had to strip weight for the movie, and that was a bitch!” says the actor, who, when SFX meets him, has bulked back up to huge proportions to play Aussie antihero Captain Boomerang in David Ayer’s upcoming Suicide Squad. “It was the first time I’d done proper all-out scientific nutritional programme. There was no guess work any more. It was all down to blood readings and how my system dealt with certain stuff. In order to get in that shape, it was just a tonne of low-impact cardio, which is the most mind-numbing shit you can possibly do. I spent literally months walking uphill on a treadmill and eating more salmon than I thought possible. But it’s cool when you can put your body through something like that and get results and know really what you’re capable of. You feel it. The stuff I’m doing at the moment for Suicide Squad again, it’s a different type of training. But it’s good knowing where your limits are and trying to extend them.”

Of course, when you’re working on such a physically demanding, action-heavy film, there’s surely no better co-star than former Mr Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger, right? “Totally, man. He’s a legend!” Courtney enthuses. “Did I go back and watch Pumping Iron about five times? Absolutely. It’s super dope, man. What’s fascinating is he’s fucking still in shape. I’m sure he’s had downtime over the years, but man, he got back there and he trains every day. But I think the bond that we found – the dynamic between Emilia, myself and Arnold’s characters – was kind of the most enjoyable part. We exist in this movie for quite a significant period just the three of us together. We have this thing where they’re the father/daughter and I’m the boyfriend. It’s a very kind of old school idea that we were able to have a lot of playtime developing.”

“He’s a joker,” Clarke reveals of Arnie’s on‑set presence. “He’s very, very funny, and just had this gorgeous ease on set that diffused loads of potentially tense situations that we might have had. He just brought a light-heartedness where it was like, ‘Hey guys! It’s going to be okay.’ It is, because Arnie says so.” With her Sarah Connor having grown up with the T-800 and slowly tried to make him more “human”, their relationship naturally mirrors that of John and the Terminator in Cameron’s T2 – another nod the filmmakers are hoping will get any sceptical fans back on side. “A young girl being raised by a Terminator, there’s going to be a lot of one-sided jokes,” she explains. “So her kind of humour has really dried out because of the fact that he doesn’t know how to joke. That kind of banter was great to create with Arnie, and so easy as well. Coming from Game Of Thrones where everything’s much more sparse... For my character, anyway; I mean, Tyrion’s bloody hilarious, but Daenerys doesn’t crack too many jokes! So it was lovely to have those kind of one-liners and banterous relationships.”

Having Arnie back on board should help Genisys get the franchise back on track – something the filmmakers and studio are hoping, anyway, with two sequels already in the works (scheduled for 2017 and 2018 respectively). “We’re setting up the universe,” says Courtney. “I don’t think anyone has plans for this to be the last in the Terminator world at all. To have Arnold, it really legitimised things for us and got us all very excited about being a part of it. He cares a lot about this story and this property. He isn’t just doing this film for the sake of it or because he got paid. He wouldn’t have embarked upon this journey if he didn’t have faith in the script, in the direction that the producers want to take it. No one’s phoning this in. This was definitely one of the toughest films I’ve worked on, stunt-wise. We’re aware of the stakes for everyone involved in having the courage to make another one of these movies. It’s pushing the envelope in every different direction…”

Click here for more excellent SFX articles. Or maybe you want to take advantage of some great offers on magazine subscriptions? You can find them here.