Date: September, 2004
By: Mike Thomas
The Terminator saw Michael Biehn fighting an unstoppable cyborg assassin to save the future. The veteran action actor talks to Mike Thomas about his life as Kyle Reese.
From the moment he read the script for writer/director James Cameron's low-budget sci-fi actioner The Terminator, Michael Biehn was eager to tackle its titular cyborg assassin as Kyle Reese. "Actors always look for good roles and I knew that was a great role," says Michael Biehn, as he recalls his portrayal of Sarah Connor's time-travelling protector. "Reese was a tough fighter, but he had a heart and he was in love with this woman. So Reese was a character that appealed to both men and women. They gave me a really cool look - I had a great outfit and I was wearing that stubble before Don Johnson had it!
"I just knew Reese would be a terrific role and I knew we were going to do something that was really special."
The Terminator sees Kyle Reese travelling back in time to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) - the future mother of humanity's saviour, John - from a cyborg assassin. The role of Kyle Reese was originally earmarked for Conan the Barbarian's rising star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, but when Schwarzenegger decided he wanted to play the title role instead, Cameron and producer Gale Ann Hurd decided to cast a different actor as the movie's hero. Biehn was fresh from starring in the movies The Fan and Lord of the Flatbush when he auditioned for the role.
"I read for Gale and then for Jim," he explains. "I was trying out for a play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at the same time, so I kept coming in to read for Reese with a Southern accent, because I was working so much on the other role! They kept saying to my agent, 'Well, we like Michael a lot, but we don't want to cast somebody who's Southern.' And my agent said, 'Michael's not Southern, he comes from Nebraska and has lived in California for 10 years! I don't undersand it.'
"When I heard about that, I told them why I had been doing the accent. And shortly after they found out that I could speak without a Southern accent, I got the role."
Shot in Los Angeles during the spring of 1984, The Terminator was a famously challenging production for its cast and crew. Yet despite the hardships that accompanied the making of The Terminator, Biehn has nothing but happy memories of his time on the movie.
"I look back on Terminator very, very fondly," he says. "It was so much fun working with Jim and Gale and (special effects wizard) Stan Winston and everyone. Linda Hamilton and I had a great working relationship. We both worked extremely hard. I think it was more difficult for her, because a lot of the running and jumping and fighting stuff was very, very gruelling. But she was game."
"We shot the movie in the worst parts of LA, at night. It was summer, so it was hot, humid, dirty and smelly! But it worked for the movie."
"I just had a great time doing it. You know, looking back I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I should have," he laughs. "As much as I enjoyed it then, when you're young you just think 'Oh, it'll always be like this!' And it's not!"
The Terminator marked Biehn's first collaboration with James Cameron, and the actor subsequently working with Cameron on his 1986 sci-fi sequel Aliens and the 1989 underwater odyssey The Abyss. Although Cameron is famously demanding of casts and crews, Biehn is full of praise for the Academy Award-winning filmmaker.
"I've never found Jim difficult to work with," insists Biehn. "He and I have had a special relationship since the time we did The Terminator. Jim knows that I care as much about my character as he does about his movie, and he knows that I probably care as much for his movie as anybody else does. I'll go to all lengths and do anything that is asked of me by Jim Cameron to help him make a better movie."
"Jim was demanding, but I was always up for the challenge. 'Demanding' is a good thing, and I think that people like to be demanded of. When he doesn't get what he wants he's unhappy, and sometimes he doesn't understand why he can't get what he wants out of people he expects it from. But I've always found him incredibly fun to be around."
"With The Terminator, Jim was a little bit like a kid in a candy store," he recalls. "He was so excited to have all these toys that he could play with. I think by the time we were working on The Abyss, he had played with all the toys before so he wasn't quite as giddy."
Back to the Future
Biehn collaborated with Cameron for a fourth time for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The 1991 movie focused on Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton's characters, and only featured Reese in a dream sequence that was actually scrapped from the film's theatrical cut, but was later restored for its video and DVD release.
"When we made the first film, we didn't know it would become a franchise," he explains. "When my character was killed in the first film, I didn't ever really expect to play him again. So I was just happy about the fact that I was even in Terminator 2."
Although Terminator 2 was made with a much bigger budget than the original film, Biehn believes that it didn't quite match the original. "My feeling is that although Terminator was a great movie from an action standpoint, T2 did not have the heart that Terminator had," he notes. "A lot people think of The Terminator as Arnold blowing things up, but to me it's like a sweet love story. There's a very strong human element to the story."
More recently, Biehn wasn't at all disappointed that no one approached him to play Reese in last year's third Terminator movie, Rise of the Machines. Jim Cameron's non-participation with the project and Gale Anne Hurd's reduced involvement in its production made it easy for him not to be a part of the film.
"For me, a lot of the appeal of doing another Terminator movie would be the opportunity to work with the same people again," he explains. "And I don't think you can take a genre like that and go, 'OK, let's make a better film than Jim made.' You just can't do it."
"I'd love to work with Jim again," adds Biehn. "I hope he gets back to making movies soon. Jim is up there with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and John Ford."
Since his original battle with Arnold Schwarzenegger two decades ago, Michael Biehn has kept himself extremely busy with roles in such movies as The Rock, Navy SEALS, Tombstone, K@ and the Gale Anne Hurd-produced sci-fi movie Clockstoppers. He also toplined the TV shows The Magnificent Seven and the Hurd-produced Adventure, Inc. Yet The Terminator clearly holds a special place in Biehn's heart.
"I think The Terminator and Aliens are two of the best movies of the 1980s," he states. "They're both really good movies and I feel lucky to have been a part of them."
Appendix: Everything you need to know about The Terminator
Additional writings next to the article, typed out for your convenience.
In the future, a murderous breed of cyborgs has taken over the Earth and wiped out all of the human race except for a few survivors and determined resistance fighters. In an effort to halt the resistance's advance, the machines commission a Terminator unit (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to go back in time and eliminate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) so that she will be unable to give birth to her son John, who is destined to become the founder of the resistance. Sarag Connor's only defence is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a resistance fighter assigned to follow the Terminator back in time and prevent him from changing history.
Original Release Date:
26 October 1984 (US); 11 January 1985 (UK).
The Terminator was the brainchild of writer-director James Cameron, who came up with the idea for the film when he was sich with a fever in Italy. Initially, the inspiration for what would eventually become The Terminator was a single image of a cyborg burning in flames. As he thought more about the implications of this image, Cameron realised that since such beings did not exist in the present day, they would have to come from the future.
After the project found backing at Orion Pictures, the studio initially hoped to cast sports star O.J. Simpson as the Terminator (a role Cameron had originally earmarked for Lance Henrikson) and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Reese. But Schwarzenegger felt that he would be better as the Terminator and Cameron agreed.
Filming was dogged with problems - at first it was delayed until spring 1984, because Schwarzenegger was contractually obligated to film a Conan sequel that producer Dino De Laurentis insisted he completed, before the actor started working on The Terminator. After waiting for months to shoot, actress Linda Hamilton had an accident a few days before filming finally began and had to perform her energetic scenes with a broken ankle.
On its release, The Terminator was a critical and commercial hit, and the film is now acknowliedged as one of the best sci-fi actioners ever made. The Terminator became a franchise, spawning 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day and 2003's controversial Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (which was made without director James Cameron or the franchise's original leading lady, Linda Hamilton). Terminator 4 is currently in the works.
The Terminator marked the first time Schwarzenegger delivered his legendary catchphrase, "I'll be back..."