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The Tin Man Gets His Heart: An Oral History of ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’

Three decades ago, James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Linda Hamilton joined forces again to make the biggest, baddest, most eye-popping sequel ever. Here’s the story of how the machines took over Hollywood. 

Dan Evans

Ahead of the release of James Cameron’s latest boundary-pushing project, Avatar: The Way of Water, there’s no better time to revisit this oral history of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

James Cameron wanted a villain made out of liquid metal. In the brainstorming phase for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he knew the sequel to his first big hit had to have something no one had seen before. Something that, in the early ’90s, had never even been attempted. He’d landed on the idea of the T-1000, an android assassin seemingly made of flowing mercury that could shape-shift into any other organism. And by the time he was done, he’d created one of 20th century cinema’s greatest “Holy shit!” moments.

Yet the science-fiction epic, released 30 years ago this week, hinged on more than technical wizardry. To its director, T2 is the story of a boy and the father he never had. The sequel wouldn’t work without a strong bond between the reprogrammed title character and the teenager he’s sent back in time to protect. “Sure, there’s going to be big, thunderous action sequences, but the heart of the movie is that relationship,” Cameron says from his home in New Zealand. “I have always loved The Wizard of Oz. This movie is about the Tin Man getting his heart.”

T2 is a departure from the far bleaker original, 1984’s The Terminator, which its creator calls a “science-fiction slasher film.” Linda Hamilton’s franchise protagonist, Sarah Connor, has transformed from a put-upon heroine to a self-trained commando whose attempts to thwart the coming apocalypse land her in a psychiatric hospital. Her son, John, the future leader of the resistance in the war against the genocidally self-aware defense system Skynet, is in foster care. And the T-800, once a remorseless killer with a curious but hypnotic Austrian accent, somehow helps bring them together as a family—then helps them save the world.

“Look at Titanic, it’s all about relationships,” says Arnold Schwarzenegger, who relished the chance to turn the cybernetic bad guy he played in The Terminator into a good guy. “That’s what makes it touching.”

The juxtaposition of warmth and spectacle is what elevates Terminator 2 above nearly all other ’90s popcorn flicks. But that somehow undersells its appeal and influence. Industrial Light & Magic’s cutting-edge visual effects, a Kevlar-tough woman as the lead, dozens of memorable one-liners, and terrifyingly prescient themes combined to form a blockbuster that pushed the limits of the medium. The top-grossing movie of 1991 escalated a big-screen arms race that’s played out in American cineplexes every summer since.

Precious few massively budgeted, VFX-laden, star-filled tentpole pictures, however, have been able to replicate the alchemy of T2. Most imitators, ILM’s nine-time Academy Award recipient Dennis Muren says, are like “Xeroxes of Xeroxes of Xeroxes. And every time you copied something, you lost something.” Many of the facsimiles are entertaining, but they’re still facsimiles. In hindsight, there’s no mystery why.

“There’s only one Jim Cameron,” Schwarzenegger says. “It’s as simple as that.”

Part 1: “If We Pull It Off, It Will Be Huge.”

The saga of Terminator 2 begins with its predecessor. Cowritten and produced with Cameron’s second wife, Gale Anne Hurd, the first installment cost $6.4 million to make and grossed $78.4 million. The surprise smash, initially dismissed as a glorified B-movie, made Schwarzenegger an A-list star and gave its director instant Hollywood cachet. He went on to helm the mega-hit Aliens (1986), in which Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley cements her status as an action icon, and then the underwater sci-fi adventure The Abyss (1989). The latter had a nightmarish production and underwhelmed at the box office, but its trippy visual effects were proof of concept for his next project.

But before T2 could be made, the rights needed to be secured. Enter Carolco Pictures, the flashy independent that at the time was financing Schwarzenegger’s soon-to-be-released Total Recall. To make the sequel, studio head Mario Kassar reportedly had to buy out both the Hemdale Film Corporation and Hurd. It didn’t come cheap.

Mario Kassar (executive producer, Carolco Pictures cofounder): It’s $15 million, I have the rights, and we haven’t done anything yet.

James Cameron (director-cowriter): The first film made money and it was definitely a hit, but it wasn’t like Star Wars. You didn’t have to start on the sequel the next day. And frankly, in order to get that film made, I made this deal, to sell the rights. Whatever it took to get the film made, to get my foot in the door. And so I think it was justified. But then I didn’t control the rights.

I’d already made another couple films and forgotten about it, and I got a call from Carolco and they said, “We want you to make another Terminator film. We’ll pay you $6 million.” I said, “You have my full attention.”

Kassar: I have lunch with him at a place called Madeo. And I said, “Well, it’s a go. I mean, I already spent the money. You know I’m doing it, so go with God. Go write the script.”

Cameron: I talked to Dennis Muren at ILM. I said, “I’ve got an idea. If we took the water character from The Abyss, but it was metallic so you didn’t have the translucency issues, but you had all the surface reflectivity issues and you made it a complete human figure that could run and do stuff, and it could morph back into a human, and then turn into the liquid metal version of itself, and we sprinkled it through the movie, can we do it?” He said, “I’ll call you back tomorrow.”

Dennis Muren (visual effects supervisor, Industrial Light & Magic): I had an idea of what’s possible not only from The Abyss, but I’d seen there was work being done and research at universities, and commercials on TV at that time that had computer graphics, and their figures were moving and animated.

Cameron: Tom Sherak ran all distribution for Fox for years, and he said, “Who would have known that we made a $60 million movie that was just a test run for Terminator 2?” They were still stinging a little bit from the fact that The Abyss broke even, just barely.

Muren: James is a big lover of technology and of effects work, and really wanted to impress the audience with stuff they’ve never seen before.

Cameron: He called me back and he said, “We can do it. We can’t do a huge volume, we don’t have a pipeline, so pick your battles.”

Muren: It took a few months to get it in place. And Jim was very detailed on the storyboards; not every frame, but every single shot.

Cameron: We used the CG very sparingly. We had 14 CG shots in The Abyss and we had only 42 two years later in T2. There were probably another 50 or 60 shots that were practical prosthetic effects done by Stan Winston Studio, which today would have been done as CG.

William Wisher (cowriter): I think we were 18, 19 when we met. I did some writing on The Terminator. We had been talking about doing something else and he called me up one day and said, “I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Terminator 2 is going to happen and the bad news is that we’re already behind schedule, so why don’t you come on over here right now.”

Cameron: I basically had two competing ideas. One was Skynet sends a terminator, another Arnold terminator, to take out John, and the resistance sends one that’s been reprogrammed, that would’ve been Arnold too. So Arnold would become a dark hero character, obviously.

Wisher: Having Arnold fight another Arnold is just boring. Boring, boring, boring.

Cameron: When I first conceived the story idea, it was in two parts. In the first part, Skynet sent a cyborg with a metal endoskeleton and the good guys sent the protector. The protector crushes him under a truck or throws him through some big gear structure or machine. And then, up in the future, they realize the ripples of time are progressing toward them. They still haven’t won the battle.

[Skynet would] think long and hard about pulling the trigger on sending the experimental, one-off super weapon that they’ve created, that even they’re terrified to use. I didn’t call it the T-1000—it was just a liquid metal robot. And so now the thing that’s coming at you is much, much scarier than that other metal endoskeleton guy with his skin hanging off. I took that guy out of the story, but then I thought, “Let’s bring that guy back. Let’s make him the adversary.” I merged the two ideas. Instead of Arnold versus Arnold, it was Arnold versus the scary liquid metal weapon.

Wisher: We made him a cop. We thought, “Well, if he’s a police officer, he can go places and do things and won’t be questioned.”

Cameron: That was just me having fun with an authority figure. But there is a thematic point to that, which is that we, as human beings, become terminators. We learn how to have zero compassion. Terminator, ultimately, isn’t about machines. It’s about our tendency to become machines.

Wisher: We watched the first Terminator again and we were spitballing and thinking, “Where would these characters be?” So we thought, “Sarah, she knows what the future is—no one will believe her. She’s probably spent some years hanging out with survivalists or paramilitary types.”

Cameron: I remember sitting there once, high on E, writing notes for Terminator, and I was struck by Sting’s song, that “I hope the Russians love their children too.” And I thought, “You know what? The idea of a nuclear war is just so antithetical to life itself.” That’s where the kid came from.

Brad Fiedel (composer): The first film was really dark and propulsive. It just never stopped moving forward. But this had a little bit of a warmer heart.

Wisher: It’s a mother-son story where the stakes just happen to be the survival of the human race.

Cameron: Linda, I called her up and I said, “Look, they want to pay us a lot of money to make a sequel. Are you in or are you out? But just between you and me, I don’t really want to do it if Sarah doesn’t come back and I don’t want to recast Sarah, so you got to say you’re in.” And she and I weren’t involved. [Editor’s note: Cameron and Hamilton were married from 1997 to 1999.] We hadn’t even really hung out at all much since the first film. She was making a movie somewhere down South.

And so she said, “Yeah, in principle, I’m in, but I want to be crazy.” I said, “Well, what do you mean, crazy? How crazy?” She said, “Crazy, like I’ve been driven crazy.” I said, “Like you’re in an insane asylum, like you’re institutionalized?” She said, “Yeah, sure. Let me play crazy. Let me go nuts.” I said, “All right. Well, you’re going to get my version of nuts,” and she said, “All right. I’m down.”

Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor, to Entertainment Weekly): Anything that scares me I want to do.

Editor’s note: Through her agent, Hamilton declined to be interviewed for this article.

Wisher: We had to call Arnold up and go, “We’ve got this great idea.” He listened to us and he said, “Just make me cool.”

Cameron: I wound up writing right up until the very last second where I had to get in a limo and squirt to the airport and jump on a big charter jet that Carolco was using to fly in all of its stars and filmmakers to Cannes in early May of 1990. And I’m scrambling down to the wire to get this script done and printed out and my printer fucked up. I’m printing this thing out and I’m supposed to have left already 20 minutes ago. I literally pull it out of the laser printer hot, put a clip on it, and shove it in a gym bag and haul ass to the airport. And I walk on the plane and all of the big agents and movie stars and filmmakers in Hollywood are all sitting there, all in their seats, and you could hear a pin drop. And I have to walk all the way down the aisle past all these accusing eyes. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, you think you’re special, don’t you? There’s always one.” I’m like, “I know, guys, I know. Sorry.”

Anyway, as I’m going by, I hand the script to Arnold.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (T-800): I read it on the plane on the way over there. I remember that very well.

Cameron: Horrible flight, incredible turbulence. I’m thinking, literally, “Movies are going to grind to a halt because this plane is going down in the Atlantic.” It’s like the Titanic times five, right?

Schwarzenegger: Several times I read something that I had no fucking idea what he was talking about. I said, “What is polyalloy?”

Cameron: He and I had a breakfast meeting. Arnold always had the same thing—oatmeal with nuts and dates and fruit in it—so that’s what I had. I could tell there was something bugging him, right? We were pals at this point. Post-Terminator, we rode motorcycles together. And he said, “Jim, I have a big problem with the script.” I said, “Well, what is it?” And he said, “I don’t kill anybody.” I said, “I know, right? They’ll never see that coming. Nobody will guess it.” He said, “I know, but one thing is surprise. Another thing is I don’t kill anybody and I’m the terminator.”

This is happening on some terrace at Cannes and everybody’s looking. I’m like, “Let’s talk this out.” I give him all the reasons how it’s going to work. He said, “I know, but everybody knows I kick in the door and shoot everybody. That’s what I do.”

Schwarzenegger: How do you make people believe that this is the same guy we’ve seen in the first Terminator? Now all of a sudden, he’s protecting the human race and protecting this kid? How do I switch over to that?

Cameron: I finally got him to get his head around that part of it.

Schwarzenegger: It was strange, but I thought, “If we pull it off, it will be huge.”

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Part 2: “This Would Be Like a Super Bowl Win for Me”

With Schwarzenegger and Hamilton on board, Cameron and the late casting director Mali Finn built a unique ensemble around the two leads. That meant eschewing Hollywood stars for talented character actors, some of whom were in search of their big break. And one who hadn’t even acted at all.

Edward Furlong (John Connor): I was at a Boys Club in Pasadena. I was just hanging out there. And Mali was there, and she was kind of like looking at me from across the way.

Cameron: We looked at all the boys of that age that were coming up and they either were overexposed in the wrong context or they were these little smiling machines that were being churned out by the advertising industry. Because you get these kids that are kid actors and they teach them how to be perky in family settings and sell cereal.

Furlong: I mean, who knows, in this frickin’ town what’s going on when this older lady is staring at you and comes up to you?

Cameron: She walked up to him and he said, “What do you want, frog lips?” She said, “I like you. Have you ever been in a film?” And he said, “No, and don’t like me,” or something like that. And she said, “No, seriously, have you ever been in a film?” He said, “My dad films my birthdays.” And so it was like you’re just starting from scratch.

Furlong: It was crazy. I went in there and she just asked me to improv a scene. That was the first audition. Once the scripts started coming in, it started actually becoming a real thing. And I’m getting nervous. And Mali, she just believed in me.

Cameron: There was a pain. There was a surliness. There was an intelligence. It was all there. What you see in the movie was all there, it was just a question of pulling it out. The credit totally goes to Mali.

Furlong: I landed [it] on my last audition. It went from hundreds of kids to, I think, me and one other kid. And I’m sweating balls.

Cameron: I remember when we made the final decision, I said to Mali, “I’m going to pick up this phone, I’m going to call this kid. It’s going to change his life.” And that’s a responsibility.

Furlong: It’s basically one of those life-changing events.

Joe Morton (Cyberdyne Systems computer scientist Miles Dyson): One of the questions that James asked me was, “Why do you want this role?” And I said, “Because of a joke that Richard Pryor told.” And he said, “What’s that?” And I said, “Well, Richard Pryor said that the reason Hollywood either kills off the Black actors in sci-fi or they’re not in it at all is because Hollywood doesn’t think we’re gonna be here in the future.” He laughed, and I think I got a call that night.

Robert Patrick (T-1000): My agent said, “You’re going to go meet Mali Finn. We don’t know anything about the role other than that. There’s no script, but just go and meet with her and know that they’re looking for an intense presence.”

Cameron: Robert, he was one of a number of actors that I saw in that age range. I wanted him to be late 20s, like he was a young recruit cop. I wanted a little bit of a contrast to Arnold and I wanted somebody physical, but not big. Not Conan. I wanted to create a contrast. I thought of it as an East meets West kind of energy, brute force versus the fluid. Like, the terminator punches him and he flows around him and all of a sudden he’s behind him.

Schwarzenegger: He was just so opposite, right? I was big, he was lean. I was powerful, he was fast. I had basic technology that we had in the first movie. What this guy had was sophisticated abilities.

Cameron: I dallied briefly with Billy Idol in that role because I thought he had a really interesting look and presence. I can’t say, sitting here years out, that I would’ve actually followed through with that, but it was something we were discussing. It got taken off the table when Billy had a bad motorcycle crash.

Patrick: I met with Mali and I tried to do something physically that when she looked at me, she kind of got an intense vibe. And she said to me, “Well, whatever you’re doing right now, I like what you’re doing. Let’s go put that on film.”

Cameron: I said, “He’s chameleonic. He has to physically touch things to be able to read them.” And so he just did this acting exercise in front of me where he was touching the floor and he was touching the wall and he was in a mental state of being a hunter. I said, “And it’s emotionless. You only project emotion when you need to.”

Patrick: I kept trying more and more things. And I could kind of get the sense that it was going my way. And then I think there was a third day where they had me actually come in and he let me read the script. I remember it took me about five hours. It just blew my mind. If I could pull this off, this would be like a Super Bowl win for me. I went in there and I put the script down on James’s desk and I said, “I can do this.” And he said, “Well, that’s why you’re here, Robert, because we’re going to go throw a cop uniform on you and do a little screen test.”

Cameron: I wanted to see how his face took the light, how his eyes and the planes of his face took the light, because that’s important. And he just emerged. There was a moment where there was Robert and then there was everybody else.

Schwarzenegger: He was so perfect.

Muren: We did a lot of scans of him walking. He had a certain little style to his walk that Steve Williams, the animator, picked up on right away. And it was a surprise to me and most of us, I think, that [when] walking, this person could look completely different than that person.

CBS via Getty Images

Part 3: “One of the Most Amazing Transformations That I’ve Ever Seen”

For reprising their roles from The Terminator, Schwarzenegger and Hamilton landed eight- and seven-figure paychecks, respectively. That disparity irked the latter. “It was quite a bit more than the first one, but still when I look at my contribution next to Arnold’s, there’s a great inequity there,” Hamilton said in 1991. “I’d have been thrilled to play the part for free, too, but I have to look after all parts of my life and one part of that is about earning money and feeling OK about earning that kind of money. I’m worth it.”

This time around, Arnold wasn’t the only jacked action star on set. Before and during shooting, Hamilton worked tirelessly with both a personal trainer and weapons specialist Uzi Gal. The costars set the tone for the rest of the cast.

Cameron: This idea that we invented the strong woman in the ’80s is bullshit. They’ve been there in Hollywood the whole time. But building a movie around one was really the breakthrough.

Jenette Goldstein (John Connor’s foster mother, Janelle): He just wrote what’s in the world without any of the fluff over, “Ooh, look at that big, strong woman.”

Wisher: When you first see her, she’s doing pull-ups on her bed and she’s got muscles.

Goldstein: She got herself into this incredible shape.

Schwarzenegger: It was kind of like with First Blood II, where Sly for the first time was absolutely ripped. The first thing you said was, “Holy shit.”

Morton: We were in San Jose, just before they blow up the [Cyberdyne] building. I was on my way out somewhere and she was just coming from the gym. And I just remember being embarrassed that she was in far better shape than I was.

Schwarzenegger: She told me that she has been running on the beach with this guy Uzi, who was a trainer with the boots on and the combat gear.

Linda Hamilton (to EW): I learned to load clips, change mags, check out a room upon entry, verify kills. Because Sarah would have. And it was sheer hell.

Schwarzenegger: It inspired me to train hard. It was really one of the most amazing transformations all-around that I’ve ever seen in my 40-some years of acting.

Patrick: He’s Arnold fucking Schwarzenegger. I grew up watching him on the Wide World of Sports. He created the whole body-building world. I mean, he’s that charismatic.

Morton: He’s a guy who is completely aware of his strengths and his weaknesses as an actor.

Wisher: Arnold’s presence lends itself to gravitas.

Patrick: He watched me take after take. And he had such an appreciation for the physicality of the performance. I would look over and he would have a cigar, and he’d give me a big thumbs-up.

Wisher: We kept his dialogue brief, not because he’s not a good actor. He is a good actor. But having someone with that presence speaking mostly in very small bites, you as an audience can infer a lot of meaning into that. Terminator’s not really a chatty guy.

Cameron: He’s the straight guy and the kid and Linda, they do so much around him. He knew how to play it down the center and not overemote.

Furlong: I was a 13-year-old kid. And Predator and Total Recall ... he was Arnold. It was my first movie. I was so starstruck. I just couldn’t believe it.

Danny Cooksey (John Connor’s friend Tim): It was his first thing. [His performance] had this honesty about it because it hadn’t been tampered with. He was just out there as a kid, having fun and just being natural.

Schwarzenegger: It’s really hard to go in to act for the first time in front of cameras in front of like 50 people standing around. The first time I was in a movie, I know how scary it was. And I can imagine what it was like as a 13-year-old kid.

Furlong: I think the best way to get over all that was actually working alongside him.

Schwarzenegger: I felt like it was up to me to kind of make him my friend, rather than being his mentor. I just started playing games with him and hanging out with him, so that when we eventually started doing the scenes together, he was not any different.

Cameron: He totally glommed on to Arnold as a father figure, and Arnold loved Eddie and loved torturing him. Jumping him through his hoops, making him do push-ups, and all that. “Come on, Eddie. Don’t be so lazy. You’ve got to get fit. You’ve got to get fit.” You could picture it.

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Part 4: “He Becomes Literally Like a Machine.”

Terminator 2 was no ordinary sequel. Its size and scope eclipsed the original in every way imaginable. Shot in late 1990 and early 1991 in Los Angeles and in other locations around California and the Southwestern United States, T2 was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made. It reportedly had a budget upward of $90 million, a figure that Carolco denied back then. Yet the pressure of steering such a huge ship didn’t intimidate the exacting Cameron, who still relied on the same DIY ethic that he developed as a young man working for B-movie king Roger Corman. Even while filming complex set pieces—like when the T-1000 morphs into John’s foster mother and stabs her husband through a milk carton—he took the smallest details into account.

Kassar: The budget was supposed to be $60 million or $80 million or $90 million, but I knew that was a ghost number. I knew it was going to be higher, because with James, it usually goes a little higher no matter what.

Fiedel: Jim would come in, and I was in a little refurbished garage studio in Studio City, and he said, “Brad, I just want you to know you’re scoring the most expensive film ever made in your garage.”

Wisher: I remarked one day that just the opening title credits on T2 was about the same budget for The Terminator.

Morton: We were about to finish my death scene. Before we finished shooting it, James decides to blow out all the windows that Linda has to crawl past. There’s no cameras rolling. He just wants to blow them out so he can see what it looks like. I was shocked. I thought, “What?”

Kassar: With James, you write the check, you close your eyes, you go two minutes to the set to say “Hi” every once in a while, and you let him be. Because if you think you’re going to control him, you’d be wasting your time.

Xander Berkeley (John Connor’s foster father, Todd): It was just something about the meticulousness in combination with the expertise and intelligence that he brought to every situation; whatever risks were being taken had a level of calculation that was just so impressive.

Goldstein: He was working just like he was working on a Corman with you. Something didn’t work, he was like, “We’re not waiting. We’re going to just gaffer tape that thing up and we’re going.”

Berkeley: I knew it was going to be spectacular, like nobody had ever seen before, because of the attention being given to details.

Goldstein: I read the script and it’s like, “Your arm turns into a sword …”

Berkeley: I had to practice sword swallowing for two weeks before we shot it. With a dulled aluminum blade. They did a casting of my head so that they could put a retractable blade coming out the back that flashed sideways. But the blade has to be far enough down my mouth that it could sell the gag as if it was coming through the back of my head.

Goldstein: They made a model of my arm and they painted the flesh with little freckles up to the sword and then they had to place it inside Xander’s mouth.

Schwarzenegger: Stan Winston was a genius.

Berkeley: There were three different blades that went down my throat at any point. There’s one that’s straight that had a handle on the far end so that the puppeteers could hold it out of frame and they’d just pan the length of the blade to me pinned. And then when they unpinned me and I fall to the ground, I had to remain in that position for four or five hours until four o’clock in the morning without moving. My body is on the ground and there’s a pool of milk and a pool of blood, which Jim personally swirled each time. He impressed upon me very clearly that if I moved a hair in any of the following sequences, that it would fuck up the shot. I don’t think I could walk for several days after that, but he sent me a nice bottle of Cristal for my efforts.

Morton: When you have that kind of budget hanging over your head, every moment counts, every decision counts. The pressure must be enormous.

Schwarzenegger: He transforms a day before shooting. We will go out for dinner, and the next day he’s a totally different person. He becomes literally like a machine. He has a very clear vision of what he wants. He’s very demanding and he will not go for anything that is almost there. It has to be there. That’s it. Everyone is kind of scared on set. Because Jim doesn’t use much psychology. He just screams at everybody.

Patrick: My main thing was just, “I’ve got to figure out a way to satisfy James and make him happy with the shots.” Because he’s not moving on until you get it right.

Schwarzenegger: I’m not good with names. He remembers everyone’s name. He remembers everything. Page numbers. He says, “Yeah, Page 78. Trust me. I wrote the fucking script.”

Berkeley: The Steadicam operator in one of the sequences where we were just in the house interacting, his machine wasn’t functioning and Jim was furious. The guy said, “Look, it’s jammed. I don’t know what’s happened. It’s not working.” Jim just grabbed it out of his hand and said, “Give it to me.” And put it down on the table, busted it open, bang, bang, bang, did a couple of very precise, surgical moves on this thing, slammed it shut, handed it back to him and said, “Now try it.” And it worked perfectly, and we got the shot, and he kept his head.

Schwarzenegger: He just goes off the deep end about any little thing. But at the same time, he’s very supportive when you act. He would inspire you and he’d say, “Oh, it will be so cool when you turn the gun like that. I want you to practice this. It’s so cool.” He would just push you and he would encourage you.

Patrick: We were sitting there in the [Bull Creek spillway] and we were trying to do the walk out of the fire. And it was tough. And I was frustrated, losing my patience, not feeling like I was able to do what they wanted me to do. But I didn’t know what it was they wanted me to do. And I’m trying to figure this shit out, too. And Jim could pick up on that kind of stuff. He was aware of what I was going through. And he would say something like, “Hey, look man, we’re creating something. This is film history we’re doing right now. It’s never been done.”

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Part 5: “At Some Point, the Emulation Becomes Real.”

Terminator 2 is a violent action movie, but the film wouldn’t be a classic without an underlying sense of humanity. As the narrative progresses, the T-800 gradually learns what humanity is while Sarah Connor regains it. For Hamilton’s character, the turn comes when a nightmare of the coming nuclear holocaust—which Cameron depicts in gruesome fashion—leads her to hunt down and attempt to kill the unwitting Skynet architect, Miles Dyson, before he creates the defense system that ultimately will wipe out billions. But in the end, she can’t go through with it.

Cameron: Her survival was all about her son’s survival. Her son’s survival was all about the survival of the human race. She was doing it for the burning children that she saw in her dreams.

Berkeley: It was an insane financial risk for them to spend as much as they spent on the seconds-long sequence of the nuclear annihilation. And I remember Jim talking about it at the time: “Maybe I’m crazy. But we had to do it.” And that is the moment to me that elevates the movie to art.

Cameron: There’s a whole unseen arc that’s happened between the first film and the second film, where she’s gone cold. She’s gone dark, she’s become a machine. And when she goes after Miles Dyson, she is a Terminator.

Morton: At the moment that he meets them, Miles is sort of the most human character going until Linda makes her transition. What I did very purposely is I never hung out with either Linda or Arnold, because I wanted to keep them feeling alien. I wanted to keep them feeling like, “I don’t know who you people are, or what you’re about, but it’s nuts.”

Cameron: She empties that magazine, drops that gun, pulls the .45, walks in, chambers a round, shoots him in the back. It’s like she is just all business and we went for that. She trained so rigorously to be able to pull that off better than any guy in the fucking history of movies. She was terrifying.

Furlong: She’s the emotional crux of that movie.

Cameron: His kid is there, and his wife is there, and all he cares about is protecting his family, and her finger is tightening on that trigger. She’s one neuron away. The dime is bouncing on its edge right at that moment. She could’ve pulled it. She had 6 billion lives on one side of her conscience.

And then there’s her not being able to. The way she chose to play it, where [Dyson is] yelling and crying and begging and she just puts her hand out and says, “Shhhh …” It’s almost the way you’d quiet a child and it’s like she can’t turn away, she just backs away and collapses against the wall. To this day, I don’t think that type of moment—that precipice moment of “it could go either way”—has ever been done better.

Connor refrains from killing Dyson, but he doesn’t survive their subsequent raid on Cyberdyne Systems. This sets up Sarah, John, and the T-800’s climactic showdown with the T-1000 in a steel mill. The show-stopping sequence features Patrick’s doomed alter ego getting frozen by dry ice, smashing into a million pieces, reforming from a mercury-like ooze, and morphing into several other characters—including the film’s heroine. In its final moments, Schwarzenegger’s character shows how far it’s come by accepting its own termination.

Wisher: Linda Hamilton has a twin sister and she was used in one of the shots as Sarah; so they’re both in the same frame.

Hamilton (to EW): They were going to use a process shot for the double, but they flew Leslie in and were delighted. We were shooting in freezing temperatures in a steel mill, and they had to wet us down. Leslie got a glimpse of how tough it can be to do this stuff.

Wisher: It’s a lot simpler than having ILM go create you a CG Sarah.

Patrick: My memories of that are just walking and moving through the shots the way Jim wanted me to. It was beautifully lit. Our DP [Academy Award nominee Adam Greenberg] was phenomenal. All the sparks that were flying everywhere. And they were hitting my head, burning my scalp.

Furlong: It was a big emotional thing and I really wanted to do it. Because my hair was so long—it was really gross—I had a habit of chewing on it. And I just remember Jim came up to me with a pair of scissors and just cut my hair. He’s like, “Stop chewing your hair.”

Wisher: The whole thing is that Arnold, the longer he stays, the more he learns, the more he starts to become kind of human. There was a scene that was cut for the initial release where they took the CPU out of his head and turned the chip from read to write which meant he could learn. Jim covered it with an ADR line, off-screen: “The longer I stay, the more I can learn.”

Cameron: It’s real emotion. He’s been built to emulate humans. At some point, the emulation becomes real.

Schwarzenegger: I’ve learned from this kid about human behavior to make me understand it more.

Morton: The monster sort of makes the ultimate sacrifice of giving his life in order to save humanity.

Wisher: Having him [lowered] into the molten steel was always there. The thumbs-up—I think Jim came up with that on set.

Schwarzenegger: Jim doesn’t show emotions at all, so you would think that he wouldn’t be able to write emotions. But he can. You see it over and over and he’s just such an expert in little details. Me holding [Sarah’s] hand or wiping [John’s] tears, talking about, “I know now why you cry, but it’s something I can never do.”

Cameron: People have always asked me, “Don’t you ever want to just do those little films that are just actors in a room talking?” I say, “I make that little film every time I make a movie.”

Schwarzenegger: It played so well in the test screening. People were just saying, “My favorite scene of the movie, the ending. It was so touching.” So we knew that it was solid gold.

Cameron: He never really gets emotional, but the ending is very emotional. It’s like when Iron Giant says “Superman.” Come on, who doesn’t cry when the Iron Giant says “Superman”?

Part 6: “The Whole Idea Is That There Is No Fate but What We Make for Ourselves.”

By the summer of 1991, Terminator 2 was everywhere, an age-spanning pop culture explosion that served as a blueprint for every single mega-release that followed. There were fast food and soft drink tie-ins, trading cards, action figures, video games, and even a partnership with Guns N’ Roses.

Cameron: The machinery at TriStar Sony is working and they’re saying, “Well, we’ve got to do a music video.” And so they go to Arnold—they didn’t talk to me—and they say, “We want you in a music video with some act.” Arnold says, “OK, look, if you’re going to do a music video, you get the biggest band in the world. I don’t even care who they are.” They flip open Billboard: “Guns N’ Roses makes sense. We’ve got a rose in the movie and bloody guns. Good, do it.”

Schwarzenegger: We had a specific screening, it was just for us, the cast, James and myself, and Guns N’ Roses. I think that Axl Rose was extremely impressed. I remember him going to Jim and saying, “I’m in.”

Cooksey: We were just on set and someone had delivered another cassette tape to me. And it was “You Could Be Mine.” And at that point I was pretty much the shit because I had an advance copy of at least one song off the new album, before it was out.

Cameron: I could see John listening to this, even though he’s running around in a Public Enemy shirt.

Furlong: When I was 13, I had no idea what I was fucking listening to. I liked rock, but then I’d listen to Slick Rick. I’ve come to appreciate Guns N’ Roses.

Schwarzenegger: [Stan Winston] subsequently directed the music video with Guns N’ Roses.

Cameron: Arnold and Stan Winston got to be really, really good friends on that film. And then the three of us became this midlife crisis motorcycle club after that. We’d go out and ride our Harleys every Sunday.

The marketing machine behind Cameron’s film built an almost impossible amount of hype. But unlike many big-budget extravaganzas, this one actually lived up to it. Released nationwide to rave reviews on July 3, 1991, T2 made $520.9 million worldwide to become the year’s box office champ; for more than a decade, it was the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time.

Muren’s and Winston’s teams won Oscars for visual effects and makeup. People incessantly quoted Schwarzenegger’s most memorable lines, like, “I’ll be back,” and, “Hasta la vista, baby.” Hamilton also became an iconic action hero; by that November she was hosting Saturday Night Live.

Naturally, the film’s success supercharged the careers of the supporting cast, especially the instantly in-demand Furlong. It also launched the future governor of California and future Oscar-winning director into new stratospheres of fame and fortune; three years later they teamed up again on the action-comedy True Lies.

Kassar: We used VHS tapes in those days. And [Cameron] puts it on the screen in my office, and I see all the effects, the floor becoming the [T-1000]; the mercury man. And then, I said, “Oh, my God, this is going to be un-fucking-believable.”

Muren: After that [movie], I really encouraged all the writers around to throw away everything and write with no restrictions in mind. Let’s see what we can do.

Cameron: [ILM] were looking for the next thing to act as what I like to think of as the grand provocation, that thing which will bring in money within a defined period on a project basis to push the R&D to the next level. And I would submit that there wouldn’t have been a Jurassic Park if Terminator 2 hadn’t been the right impetus at that moment.

Muren: If we hadn’t had Terminator 2, we wouldn’t have been able to do Jurassic Park.

Morton: After I got the job, [Cameron] was talking about all the things the movie would do. I thought the only thing people would remember about this movie is, “Oh, my God. You see how [Schwarzenegger] shot him in the knee?” I went to the cast and crew screening and thought, “Oh, my God. This film has done everything he said he was going to do.” I actually made a point of finding him before I left to tell him that.

Schwarzenegger: That screening went really well. Jim came over to me afterwards. “What did you think of it?” I said, “Oh, it is fantastic. This movie’s going to be huge.”

Cameron: Arnold, he becomes the biggest cheerleader for the film.

Cooksey: I went to the premiere. It was massive. Everything about that movie was just on this enormous scale.

Fiedel: It was a big deal. As opposed to the original Terminator, where everybody was sitting in there skeptical and actually laughed at the wrong times, and Jim looked pale as a ghost outside the theater when people were leaving.

Furlong: I remember asking my buddy, “Dude, I need to show up at the premiere with a chick. What should I do?” And then they were like, “You should get a hold of Punky Brewster, man.” And I was like, “Yeah, man!” And I reached out to Soleil Moon Frye, and I was like, “Hey, will you go on this date with me to this movie?” And we became friends.

Patrick: It was a lot to take in. It was a lot to deal with. I wasn’t ready for the celebrity part of it. I wasn’t ready for all the recognition. No one can really prep you for that.

Morton: The joke in my household, for the longest time, was that it was the only movie I ever made.

Patrick: I remember being in Chicago and I was walking down the street, business guys were coming up to me: “T-1000! Do the walk, do the walk! Do the run, do the run! Do that thing with your arms!” Yeah. I’ve heard it all.

While Judgment Day was averted, the sequel spawned a television series and four more movies, the last of which, 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate, saw the return of Schwarzenegger, Hamilton, and Cameron as a producer. While the franchise is dormant for now, T2 remains as relevant as ever.

Cameron: I have been surprised at how well it holds up. The makes and models of some of the cars that get mowed down by various trucks look a little early ’90s, which they are, of course. There is that one “Bad to the Bone” big guitar extravaganza at the beginning, but it doesn’t really hinge much on pop culture.

Berkeley: It’s one of those movies that people watch 50 times, and there’s only a handful. People bought it on video cassette and watched it until the tape melted.

Patrick: You say to yourself, “Man, am I lucky that I have something that’s recognizable. I’m so lucky that I have that until the day I die.” I can honestly tell you as I get older what a nice compliment that is. “That guy over there still looks like the T-1000.” It’s not bad.

Furlong: My second name should be John Connor.

Schwarzenegger: Besides the line, “I’ll be back,” and those kinds of things, just the philosophy itself is good.

Cameron: It’s almost, in a funny way, more germane now than it was when it came out because AI is now a real thing that we have to deal with, and then it was a fantasy like HAL 9000. There have been films that predicted the rise of AI, and the Terminator films just jumped on that bandwagon and made them into action movies.

Schwarzenegger: The whole idea is that there is no fate but what we make for ourselves. We don’t have to say, “Well that’s the way it’s going to go.” We have control over ourselves.

Cameron: Even if we win the fight for our existence against the rise of machines, how do we define ourselves? Now it’s a real thing and a real concern and a real philosophical, existential question for the human race.

Schwarzenegger: We are in charge. We don’t have to take this shit that’s coming our way. We can go and create a future, the one that we want, which is a good future without those machines. We just have to fight for it.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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