Date: August, 1991
By: Mark Morrison
It's the first full day of summer -- the longest day of what may feel like the longest year of Linda Harmilton's life. In the past 12 months, she has traveled the dark road between day and night, past and future, reality and imagination. Again.
Now, she sits in a civilized dining room at Los Angeles' posh Four Seasons Hotel to talk about it. Half a dozen years after playing waitress-turned-warrior Sarah Connor in 'The Terminator', Hamilton returned to the role in 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' and found very little of the original Sarah left: Her ingenue look. Her Minnie Mouse voice. Her schoolgirl stride. Instead, Sarah had become a wildcat, a tequila-swigging desperado, an Olympian avenger.
For the uninitiated few who haven't seen or read about 'The Terminator', the story line is simple: A cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from the future is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor before she can give birth to a son who will one day lead the human resistance against machines in a postapocalyptic society. But the cyborg fails. And, when last seen, Sarah Connor is pregnant and alone, saddled with the awful knowledge of pending nucicar disaster.
'T2' picks up a decade later and the story's not as simple. A far more fearsome Terminator is sent back to eliminate Sarah's son, but this time, Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg sent to protect the boy. Sarah Connor, meanwhile has become a lost soul. She has run guns, worked with guerrillas, slept with anybody who could provide information or teach her new military skills to defend her son. She's now nearly as ruthless as a cyborg, and the film's ad line, "it's nothing personal," could just as easily describe her.
But in 'T2', Hamilton also reclaims Sarah and restores her sense of hope. And, along the way, she saves the planet. Literally. This is, after all, an existential action-thriller about world peace. And if Sarah was just along for the narrative ride in 'The Terminator', she is the driving force of 'T2'. Though Hamilton, 34, has never been one to hype her work, she likes the film's message. So she shows up to chat, a vision of summer in a polka-dotted mini and a straw hat with a boatlike brim. She looks more like Madeline than the madwoman of sci-fi. And it is her uncanny ability to strike a balance between such extremes that should land her a special place among Hollywood leading ladies.
Before the actress can fire up the first of many Camel Lights, a doting waitress wheels a dessert table over. "We have a fruit tart with mascarpone cheese..." Hamilton shakes her head. "Dacquoise with amaretto mousse..." "Too sweet." "Then how about a lemon tart? It's not sweet, it's not tart -- it's perfect, actually." At last Hamilton has heard something that appeals to her and she announces her choice definitely: "Let's go for the perfect."
"I never pushed her as hard as she pushed herself," says James Cameron, who directed her in both 'Terminator' films. "That's why we got along so well -- I respond to people who are as compulsive about perfection as I am." But it was more than her perfectionism that first drew Cameron to her when he was casting 1984's 'The Terminator'. "It was a combination of her ability to project strength, but also a kind of innocence," he explains.
Of course, when she made 'The Terminator', Hamilton thought it was just another action-adventure movie. Seen one cyborg, you've seen 'em 'all. Thanks to Cameron's grand sense of style and wit, the film surprised everyone and grossed over $40 million. But there was never any doubt about who walked off with the picture. "Arnold eclipsed everybody," says Cameron. "And she got overlooked as a result."
But not completely. In 1987, Ron Koslow, a TV writer-producer and a big 'Terminator' fan, had her in mind when he wrote the pilot for his CBS drama series, 'Beauty and the Beast'. Like Cameron, he recognized her strange dichotomy: open, yet reserved; free-spirited, yet no-nonsense. (Curiously, the actress has a twin sister, Leslie, who was once voted friendliest in the class when they were kids in Maryland; Linda was voted class snob.) "I saw a tremendous resourcefulness in her," says Koslow. "She had the ability to play a character in transition, somebody who was exploring the reaches of her strength."
As a smart New York City lawyer who falls in love with a freakish outcast living in an underground world, she became a Gothic heroine for the times. Her smoky eyes yearned, her lush lips trembled, her voice dropped to a husky whisper, and she had a high-glamour career. It was a farfetched premise, but it clicked because Hamilton made it seem real.
Though the series won good reviews and a loyal cult following, its ratings were never more than respectable. And different as it was, it never went far enough for Hamilton. "The nature of 'Beauty and the Beast' was the repulsion and the attraction at the same time. But there was no repulsive behavior," she says. "I wanted to explore the darker aspects, or the comedy. There were a lot of missed opportunities."
But Hamilton gave it her usual 200 percent. Arguably, she could have been a major TV star if she was more ambitious about it. But she constantly backed off from the publicity grind that goes with being a TV celebrity. One theory suggested that she was trying hard at the time not to eclipse her husband, actor Bruce Abbott (the couple are now divorced). But she has other reasons. "All my energy goes into my work, and it's not important for me to go out and sell myself," she says. "I'm aware that I've probably compromised my career. But I don't want to be a big star. I want to do it and I don't want to talk about it when I'm not doing it."
Which is one reason why she left the show. Long eager to have a baby, (she'd already miscarried), Hamilton was pregnant throughout most of the series' second season. That's when she decided she didn't want to do the series anymore: "I didn't want to work 15-hour days and try to be a mother." On October 4, 1989, two months after she filmed her final scenes, Hamilton gave birth to a son, Dalton Abbott. (A die-hard sports fan, she took his first name from football player Dalton Hilliard of the New Orleans Saints. "He's not a favorite player, I just liked it. Nobody can make it silly, like Dalty. He's going to be Dalt.")
Leaving a lucrative starring role on a popular TV series to devote full time to a baby may seem like a rash move. "It was a leap of faith," Hamilton explains. "One never knows what one is doing in my opinion. I just have to trust in the perfection of my instincts: that wherever I am or wherever I'm going to go is exactly where I'm supposed to be. I do believe that in my life -- it's very comforting."
This isn't mere psychobabble; it's a kind of self-reliance that Hamilton has come by lately. She's the first to admit she bores easily and likes to move on. "I like change and movement and growth," she says. "I always want to go right to the edge of things and do the gritty, gutsy stuff."
'T2' gave her plenty of opportunity for that. To capture Sarah Connor's militarized look and mindset, she says, "I trained like a lunatic." Just 13 weeks before production began last October, Hamilton started spending three days a week working with former Israeli special forces member Uzi Gal, learning about guns, judo and combat skills. And six mornings a week, she worked out with personal trainer Anthony Cortes, who tailored a rigorous program for her. "When we first started, running down the block was hard on her," says Cortes. "By the time we finished, she could run eight miles and run up hills with no problems."
"They owned me," says Hamilton. "I could have gone a lot deeper, but I had an obligation to my son, too." When production started, Hamilton, who had gained 40 pounds during her pregnancy, was a lean machine. Though she weighed as much as she had in 1984 for 'The Terminator', she was now all muscle, measuring about 14 percent body fat. But Hamilton had her standards: "My goal was to have a better back than Madonna's."
As anyone can tell from seeing the film, she's got no competition there. But now that 'T2' is done, she's working with Cortes to maintain, yet modify her form. "I needed to feminize my body a bit," she explains, "or I'll be playing these parts for the rest of my life."
Hopefully not. These days, Hamilton feels ready for anything. Through Sarah, she's released a lot of aggression and healed the pain of her divorce from Abbott, whom Dalton now sees twice a week. ("He's a very good father. You have to work it out if you love your son. I'm not about to damage him with all those kinds of anger.") And through her training, she knows you can only try for perfect. "Nobody sees me in a bathing suit," she cracks, pushing away the unfinished lemon tart. "I've had a baby. I've got places that are going to need extra work." But, then again, she is feeling charged. "I wake up in the morning and want the day to begin already," she says. "There's no dread. And if there is, it's just part of the day -- you just deal with it. Nothing's getting in my way at all. Nothing."