“I was not taking care of myself. I think I dabbed tobacco to get through the movie.”
Proof that there’s just no stopping a shapeshifting hitman, Robert Patrick reflects on morphing into Terminator 2’s T-1000
SAY, THAT’S A nice bike. Robert Patrick has just arrived at the Hollywood studio on the back of a Harley Davidson. He parks it and marches towards Empire, whipping off his aviator shades as he comes. And while he may not be wearing a police uniform today, we half-expect his arm to transform into a silver spike. For even 17 years on, the actor is still synonymous with the T-1000, the liquid-metal assassin that hunts John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The role made Patrick a screen icon and launched a million nightmares. Yet it turns out that his feelings about the experience are complex.
“I was 30,” Patrick recalls, “and for a year-and-a-half [after the film’s release]
I couldn’t get hired. It took me gaining weight, growing my hair long and having a beard [to get another role].” But over the years that frustration has morphed into appreciation for the opportunity of a lifetime. “It’s pretty fucking bitchin’,” he reflects. Then, gloriously, he lifts a finger and starts wagging it, recreating an iconic beat from the film’s climax.
Back in 1990, before being cast, he had seen the original Terminator, though he wasn’t exactly a fanboy. “I thought it was a cool action movie,” he says, “but I didn’t understand the mythology.”
Still, he was as broke as actors come — until winning a small part in Die Hard 2, he had even been sleeping nights in his car. So when Billy Idol, the musician whom director James Cameron had been considering for the role of the T-1000, got injured in a motorcycle accident, Patrick turned up to audition for the metal mauler. “I had been told to create an intense presence,” he says. “So I went to the animal kingdom for inspiration: cats, insects... I was very still, like I could snap at any second. And I slowed everything down like I was acting underwater.”
Cameron was impressed enough to take a chance on him. Even so, as the shoot began Patrick was anxious he’d be fired. It didn’t help that he was a heavy drinker at the time and had decided to go cold turkey on set. “Part of the reason I was so thin was because I was not taking care of myself,” he admits. “I think I dabbed tobacco to get through the movie.” But, slowly, his confidence grew, as Cameron became more and more excited about his performance and the visual-effects work being done by ILM. “He said, ‘We’re making movie history. It’s gonna fucking work!’” It was a series of VFX firsts: Patrick’s limbs turning into stabbing weapons, his body sliding between bars, his face morphing into that of other people. Though there was plenty of practical action, too: for the final showdown he had to literally run through fire. “I was so gung-ho, I singed the back of my ears. They could smell my shirt cooking!”
The character was a sensation, hailed by Roger Ebert as “a splendid villain” and getting resurrected for jokey cameos in Wayne’s World and Last Action Hero. But Patrick found his sudden fame hard to cope with. “I didn’t know how to handle it. To be a total unknown and all of a sudden be recognisable, but still nobody knew who the fuck I was.
I was literally standing in the unemployment line going, ‘Is this some joke?!’”
He’s ended up having a solid career; his filmography includes The Faculty, Cop Land and Flags Of Our Fathers, while he’s currently starring in CBS drama Scorpion. And all these years on, Patrick relishes the enduring legacy of the T-1000 — though the idea of what he represents gives him the chills. “He’s our future!” he says. “You know those little drones that are in the movie? Those exist. It scares the hell out of me ’cause the T-1000 has no soul. It’s just doing its job, and it’s coming…”
Recently Patrick took a tour of Elon Musk’s Spacex headquarters. “I noticed a sign behind the glass: ‘Cyberdyne Systems’. That fucking sign! My host said to me, ‘Oh yeah, Elon’s a big fan.’ Maybe when the T-1000 gets here it’ll cut me some slack for giving a half-decent portrayal.”