Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

How The Terminator Changed Arnold Schwarzenegger Forever

Arnold Schwarzenegger has definitely had a rather unconventional career. He came to the United States from Austria as a young bodybuilder to seek opportunities that he couldn't pursue in Europe, and he ended up becoming more successful than he could have ever anticipated. Over the course of a few decades, he went from a competitive bodybuilder to an action movie star to the governor of California. Schwarzenegger has definitely lived the American dream.

Schwarzenegger's started acting in the early '80s, and after a meeting with James Cameron, he landed the part that would turn him into a household name. When Schwarzenegger starred in The Terminator, he earned his place as one of the most intimidating villains in film history and embraced a role that he would return to again and again for years to come. Here's how playing the Terminator changed Schwarzenegger's life forever, and why he still hasn't said goodbye to this iconic character. 

Taking risks

It's impossible to imagine The Terminator without Schwarzenegger playing the titular character. It seems like the part was written for him, and there's no doubt that he was the perfect choice for the role. However, Schwarzenegger was initially hesitant to take on the part. He originally wanted to play Kyle Reese, the resistance fighter who goes back in time to protect Sarah Connor. He met with James Cameron to talk to him about how the Terminator should be played — "no joy, no gratification, no kind of victory lap of any sort" — but he had no intention of playing the part himself. 

However, Cameron really liked Schwarzenegger's ideas and saw that he genuinely understood the character. He ended up offering Schwarzenegger the part. At first, Schwarzenegger wasn't on board, because he didn't want to play a villain, and the role didn't have many lines. But after spending some time thinking about it, he was persuaded. And he made the decision that would change his whole life.  

Becoming an action star

It's true that The Terminator wasn't Schwarzenegger's first major film: that would be Conan the Barbarian, in which he starred as Conan himself. He had already begun making a name for himself in Hollywood before meeting with James Cameron and working on The Terminator. Despite that, Schwarzenegger credits The Terminator as the film that turned him into a genuine action star. Conan did well at the box office, but it just didn't earn the same universal acclaim that The Terminator did. Plus, Schwarzenegger went on to appear in several more Terminator films after the success of the original, while he only returned to his role as Conan for one sequel.

"Terminator was the movie that really launched my action movie career... From that moment on, everything has changed in my life," Schwarzenegger said during a panel discussion at San Diego Comic-Con. Although Conan was undoubtedly his initial breakthrough role, The Terminator brought him to a whole new level of fame, and it cemented his status as an action star in the public eye. 

Pop culture impact

The Terminator became more than a film: it was a cultural phenomenon, and Schwarzenegger was at the center of it all. It was Cameron's first big film, and he would go on to become one of the most accomplished directors in the history of Hollywood. Schwarzenegger's few lines in the film were quoted frequently, and even today, decades later, you'll still hear people repeating the phrase "I'll be back" while attempting to mimic Schwarzenegger's accent. It was eventually selected for preservation in the National Film Registry for its cultural significance. And the American Film Institute named the Terminator as one of the best movie villains of all time. 

Why did The Terminator make such a huge impact? Schwarzenegger has a theory: the Terminator represented the inner rage that people often try to suppress. His character was clearly a monster, but he could do whatever he wanted without facing the consequences that a normal person would. "People really admired the character, because he was able to do things they all wanted to do," he told Men's Health. "Everyone wants to wipe out a police station when they get mad at the police."

Picking up new skills

Schwarzenegger was already in incredible shape when he began filming The Terminator, but in order to really commit to the character, he had to pick up a whole new set of skills. After all, he was basically playing a character whose whole body could function as a weapon, and his sole mission was to find and kill his target, Sarah Connor. Therefore, he needed to learn how to use a variety of weapons; he would be spending a lot of time in front of the camera with a gun in his hand. 

"I worked with guns every day before we filmed, and for the first two weeks of filming I practiced stripping and reassembling them blindfolded until the motions were automatic," Schwarzenegger wrote in his memoir, Total Recall. He also spent a lot of time at a shooting range, practicing with different weapons. It was a challenge, but he had to get those techniques down if he wanted to play a convincing Terminator. 

Attention to detail

After working on the original Terminator, Schwarzenegger wanted to give an even stronger performance in the sequel. In the first film, he worked hard to come across as more machine than man, adjusting his habits and movements so that it all looked mechanical and methodical. For example, Cameron and Schwarzenegger decided that the Terminator should never blink: it would make him appear even more terrifying to the audience. 

Schwarzenegger pretty much nailed this in the first film, but going into the sequel, he had the mindset of a perfectionist. He knew that he could tweak a few things to make his performance even more effective, and this time, there was no room for even the slightest screw-up. 

"In the first movie, we made mistakes where I did blink," Schwarzenegger said in an interview with Men's Health. "And then when we got to the second movie, I said to Jim [Cameron], 'There's no room for mistakes. There will be no blinking, ever.'"

Shifting his perspective on success

Schwarzenegger came to the United States with basically nothing and clawed his way up to the top, and it's easy to see why someone like him might look back and feel like he was solely responsible for his own success. But when he reflects on his early years in Hollywood, he knows that Cameron is partially to thank for his achievements. 

On Cameron's birthday, Schwarzenegger posted a kind tribute to the director who changed his entire life. He shared Cameron's original storyboards for The Terminator, depicting Schwarzenegger's character as an imposing villain, somewhere between man and machine. 

"You are a big reason that I can never call myself self-made," Schwarzenegger posted on Twitter. "This early storyboard you drew for Terminator reminds me of your big vision, and I cherish it." Cameron's support has clearly humbled Schwarzenegger and taught him that in Hollywood, no one really makes it all on their own. If Cameron hadn't recognized Schwarzenegger's talent, would he have enjoyed the same level of success?

Learning from the masters

"I'll be back" is undeniably the most commonly quoted line from The Terminator. Sure, we don't have official stats on that, but it's a pretty safe bet. Surprisingly, Schwarzenegger was not a huge fan of the way Cameron had written the line. 

He objected to the contraction in the phrase, telling Cameron that he thought the Terminator should say "I will be back" instead. He felt that his version of the line would sound more like a machine speaking the words. Predictably, Cameron was stubborn about sticking to his script, reminding Schwarzenegger that he was the writer, and Schwarzenegger should trust his judgment. Once the film came out, Schwarzenegger realized that Cameron's instincts were right all along.

"After I saw it in the movie, I was so thankful to Cameron," Schwarzenegger told Esquire. "That was a good lesson to learn. If someone is a good writer, stick to the script."

Embracing his accent

Although Schwarzenegger's physical strength and good work ethic helped him break into Hollywood, there was something holding him back: his strong Austrian accent. 

"I wanted to be a leading man. But it was not just that I had an accent, it was a German accent and in America that accent was scary," Schwarzenneger told Empire, adding, "They wanted to cast me as a bouncer or a Nazi officer." Schwarzenegger admitted that test audiences for his early films found his accent frightening and intimidating. He worried that he wouldn't be able to land the roles he really wanted. 

But the success of The Terminator proved that the very thing the casting directors looked down on Schwarzenegger for would actually turn out to be an asset. His accent made him unique; he had a way of delivering his lines that made his characters more memorable. Schwarzenegger without his accent just wouldn't be Schwarzenegger, and The Terminator wouldn't be the same film. 

Lifelong friendships

Starring in the first two Terminator films meant that Schwarzenegger spent plenty of time working alongside Cameron and Linda Hamilton, who played Sarah Connor. All three finally reunited once again to film Terminator: Dark Fate, and Schwarzenegger considers them both lifelong friends. 

Schwarzenegger will be the first to call Cameron a "control freak," but he also accepts that Cameron almost always makes the right call, so he doesn't mind listening to his direction, even when he disagrees. Schwarzenegger has called Cameron the best director in the world, and it's clear that he has a massive amount of respect for him. 

Although Schwarzenegger and Hamilton had not worked together in about 30 years, they were ecstatic about being together on set once again and returning to their old roles. "I don't know if I can qualify it, but I know we're both still standing and there was just a comradeship and a deep affection I felt this time," Hamilton told Total Film

Accepting the setbacks

With the success of the Terminator franchise, Schwarzenegger was on top of the world: he had achieved all he had ever wanted to and more, and both the critics and the general public loved his work. But eventually, he had to have a misstep — and his film Last Action Hero was a dud. 

Last Action Hero, the 1993 film that was supposed to poke fun at big action action blockbusters, was probably one of Schwarzenegger's biggest disappointments. The film turned out to be a total flop, and he still thinks of it as a missed opportunity: the idea had potential, but the execution was off. However, Schwarzenegger has opened up about what he learned from the experience. 

"One year I got all the great write-ups, that year I got the beating — it's part of show business and it's part of politics," he told Empire. "But I always say, 'If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen.'" 

Political influence

Becoming a movie star isn't Schwarzenegger's only major accomplishment. Who could forget his tenure at the governor of California? He won a special election in 2003, and then went on to win reelection in 2006. He held the office until 2011, and when his second term was over, he returned to acting. 

Schwarzenegger has admitted that playing the Terminator even influenced his political career. Why wouldn't he capitalize on the popularity of the Terminator films while campaigning and governing? After all, that's what his constituents knew him as first. 

"When I'd go out to do a political speech, everyone is talking about the carbon footprint and the global warming and all that," Schwarzenegger said during a panel discussion at CinemaCon. He went on to explain how he would incorporate lines from The Terminator into his speeches to get people listening and simplify concepts. "'Terminate climate change!' Very simple! It's easier to say that, right? It's all from Terminator. I could use this stuff over and over." 

Returning to The Terminator

At this point in his career, Schwarzenegger has played the Terminator in all but one of the six films in the Terminator franchise. Some actors aren't fans of sequels; they would rather pass the torch to someone else. But that's not how Schwarzenegger feels about playing the Terminator. Even after appearing in the sixth installment of the franchise, he still hasn't gotten tired of coming back to this character. 

"Of course I need to come back, I'm addicted to Terminator," Schwarzenegger said at San Diego ComicCon. For him, the decision to return to the role for Terminator: Dark Fate wasn't even a question, especially if it meant getting the chance to work with both Cameron and Hamilton again. Schwarzenegger may be in his seventies, but he's not slowing down — and if there is another Terminator film in the future, there's a good chance he'll be back.