The Evolution of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor

Kim Taylor-Foster
Movies Sci-Fi
Movies Sci-Fi

SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate. Proceed at your own risk.

Since Sarah Connor first imprinted herself indelibly on pop culture fans’ collective consciousness in 1984’s The Terminator, she’s become a bona fide icon. But not without undergoing some major character developments along the way. Terminator: Dark Fate is billed as a direct sequel to Terminator 2, emerging 28 years after the 1991 follow-up to James Cameron’s apocalyptic science fiction classic. It picks up Sarah Connor’s story, all but ignoring the three instalments — and series — that have come in between.

With these interim offshoots dismissed as a ‘bad dream’ by Cameron, who had no involvement in the intervening movies or The Sarah Connor Chronicles – and which he also referred to more generously as taking place in an alternate timeline — the third part in his trilogy coaxes original Sarah Connor actress Linda Hamilton back. Killed off-screen inTerminator 3: Rise of the Machines — by cancer, no less — and played at different times by Emilia Clarke (Terminator Genisys) and Lena Headey (The Sarah Connor Chronicles), the Sarah Connor that Hamilton steps into is a very different woman to the one who helped halt Judgement Day all those years ago. She’s 28 years older for a start.

Hamilton — with input from co-stars Natalia Reyes and MacKenzie Davis, who play new Terminator target Dani Ramos and cyborg Grace respectively in Dark Fate, and Arnold Schwarzenegger — chatted to Fandom about how one of cinema’s most badass women has evolved, and why she’s become the embittered yet ballsy woman we meet in Dark Fate.

The First Superheroine of the 1980s

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in The Terminator
Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in The Terminator with Max, the franchise's first doggy sidekick.

“Sarah Connor back then was a single mother, being the first icon and superheroine of the ‘80s, so [great representation of women] is not new for the franchise,” says Reyes. “But I think [this latest incarnation] is indicative of how the world is changing, and how we [as women] should just be able to get to any role, or space, or whatever we really want.”

She’s not wrong. Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor paved the way for the likes of Natalia Reyes, whose character, Dani, is ostensibly the main protagonist in this latest Terminator film. And while Dark Fate closes a chapter, bringing the story of Connor herself to a satisfying conclusion, it also feasibly kicks off a whole new future of the franchise, with Reyes’s Dani Ramos at its centre. Who, to all intents and purposes, is taking over the John Connor role.

The film makes a point of saying that the next generation of resistance fighters will be women that are as tough – and important — as any man. Certainly, Sarah Connor was that, but as mother of the saviour of the human race, she was relegated to a supporting role in the fight for survival. Her job was as super-mum, tasked with protecting John Connor, rather than of masterminding humanity’s continued existence. A role that Sarah Connor herself is seen to battle with in Dark Fate.

Just as the world is beginning to wake up to the notion of gender equality and the idea that women are as capable as men, so the Terminator franchise also acknowledges it in this shift.

Dark Fate’s “Hopeless” Sarah Connor

Sarah Connor Linda Hamilton Terminator Dark Fate
Sarah Connor is badass but broken in Terminator: Dark Fate.

For Hamilton’s co-star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, bringing the OG Sarah Connor back was a great idea: “I think [James Cameron] found a way of incorporating her and making her a very important figure in the movie.”

“This time around is probably the hardest version of Sarah Connor I’ve played.”

Once again taking on the role of protector — for the human race’s latest hope – Connor’s role in the events of the film is critical, but her presence and the person she’s become also encourage us to hold up a mirror to our own world.

While “the passage of time” and “distancing” herself from the role made now the right time to come back, Hamilton nevertheless found stepping back into the role challenging.

“This time around is probably the hardest version of Sarah Connor I’ve played because she’s hopeless — her son is gone, she has no mission or purpose, and she wasn’t a good mother,” she explains.

The film’s shock opening shows the turn of events immediately following victory at the end of T2, in which we see Arnie’s T-800 rock up and terminate John Connor, leaving Sarah Connor a grieving, sorrowful mess in the intervening years between then and now. However, she’s hardened by her experiences, her sole raison d’être becoming hunting Terminators, eliminating them wherever and whenever they show up.

Hellbent on Vengeance

“She prepared her child but obviously not well enough,” says Hamilton. “But did she nurture? I really had to investigate just for my own process as an actress, the guilt, the loss, the huge disappointment, the bitterness. And she’s not even hopeful … you know, she hates the machines, but it’s vengeance. It’s not even [her] trying to protect humankind; it’s now just vengeance. And she doesn’t believe in humankind, either, so she’s friendless. And that is one lonely world to inhabit.”

But despite it being a wrench, Hamilton wouldn’t have it any other way: “I love the fact that there’s a different version of Sarah Connor each time because that’s what keeps it interesting … certainly, it was exciting to play the second version of Sarah Connor because she was so much more powerful [than in the first film]. Second time around, [it was also] much easier. I mean, harder work, bigger stakes but she’s a really strong Sarah Connor so in that way, it was fantastic to play such an empowered – and I’m trying to be careful with that word – [woman].”

Playing Sarah Connor Took Its Toll

So what did Hamilton find difficult about playing the 1984 version Sarah Connor?

“After the first Terminator, and it might have been because I was a younger actress, too, and I didn’t know how to protect myself from the work…” she begins. “And so after the first film… I think, you don’t play that kind of loss and [that element of] being in danger without feeling it somewhere in the psyche, and — I can’t say ‘depressed’ so much — but all that loss and grief was pretty hard. I had dreams about the Terminator coming to my parents’ house. So as much as I know it’s just a movie, the psyche might not always be up to speed.”

“Do you owe people an explanation for just moving on? I didn’t want to live only in that place because that would be terrible.”

Playing Sarah Connor clearly had a profound effect on Hamilton.

“I used to say after the second film: ‘Never create a legend because then you have to live up to it or live it down.’ You know, years and years and years of people looking at my arms in disappointment,” she continues. “I covered them up for years because I didn’t want to let people down. It was like. ‘I’m not fat, I’m pregnant.’ Do you owe people an explanation for just moving on? I didn’t want to live only in that place because that would be terrible. To try to live up to other people’s expectations of you.”

It makes sense, after hearing this, that Hamilton wanted to leave the role behind — and, consequently, the significance of her returning wasn’t lost on her co-stars.

“I think, when she finished after T2, she wasn’t ‘taking a break’ until she played it again, she was done with this character,” says Hamilton’s co-star MacKenzie Davis. “And her coming back is a weighty, important thing for herself, her lifestyle and her anonymity. [As well as] for the franchise. And I think we all felt a real responsibility — especially once we got to know her and [realised] how invested she was in her character, and how much this world has meant to her — to honour that risk that she’s taking to reclaim this character. It really did push us to take everything a little more personally and seriously because we just love her so much.”

Sarah Connor Could Have Looked Very Different

Sarah Connor Linda Hamilton Terminator Dark Fate
Linda Hamilton came up with the idea of white hair for Sarah Connor -- for the 'shock value'.

For Hamilton, the allure of returning was magnified because she was given the opportunity to help shape the Sarah Connor we see on screen in Dark Fate before anything had been decided.

“There is so much richness to work with, with the passing decades,” says Hamilton. “We don’t know where Sarah has been. We didn’t know, actually, when they invited me back [much at all] … we had a vague outline of a story and we knew what change of circumstance was going to motivate Sarah Connor, but we didn’t really know how she was going to be. We played with all kinds of ideas because we still wanted the shock value of not being what the audience expects, because I think that surprise keeps people curious and I didn’t want to just do same old, same old.”

“Who is she? Is she severely alcoholic? We played with all kinds of ideas. The first of which, mine, was what if she’s fat?”

Eventually, it was Hamilton who landed on the comparatively simple idea of dying her hair white — you know, for the shock value. “The first moment that people saw me they would go, ‘Gasp! She got so old!’”

I tell her that the hair – and Linda generally — looks amazing in the film, and actually the last thing the audience is thinking is that. She admits to regretting the idea slightly, however, calling the hair the “hardest part of the film” for her. It wasn’t just a case of bleaching it out.

“We had to airbrush all those shades of grey,” she recalls. “The brown-grey, the grey-grey, the black-grey, the pale grey. It was an hour and a half of airbrushing my hair every day. And, boy, I think my hair took the hardest hit in that film. I had to bleach it and then try to recover [it]. It still hasn’t recovered.”

Nevertheless, the hair is definitely eyecatching – and, indeed, a talking point — and works to underline the notion that this is not quite the Sarah Connor we last saw in 1991.

Sarah Connor could have had something in common with this guy.

“It’s like, ‘Well, friends, it has been twenty-eight years … and then we can jump off from that point,” says Hamilton explaining the reasoning behind it. “Who is this new Sarah Connor? I mean, old Sarah Connor … and that made for a very interesting dialogue in the writing room with Jim [Cameron] and myself. Who is she? Is she severely alcoholic? We played with all kinds of ideas. The first of which, mine, was what if she’s fat? That’s a good jumping-off point!”

She breathes a sigh of relief when I tell her that Fat Thor already had his moment in this year’s Avengers: Endgame (“That’s cute! Oh, so it’s been done.”). But with the Terminator franchise resolving to bring representation up to date, and Thicc Thor similarly garnering all sorts of praise, perhaps an overweight Sarah Connor is an idea they can put on the agenda for the next instalment.

 Terminator: Dark Fate is in UK cinemas now and hits screens in the US on November 1.

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.