Though most of the Internet is understandably focused on the news of the casting of a new Wonder Woman today, there’s also been a little bit of chatter going on focusing on yet another modern icon of feminist strength and womanly power. According to Deadline, some casting progress has been made on that Terminator reboot that Annapurna Pictures is putting together alongside director Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World). To be more specific, it’s looking like they’re getting pretty close to finding their Sarah Connor.
It’s probably a good thing that Taylor and company have decided to tackle the problem of finding a new Sarah Connor first, because other than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance as the hulking killer cyborg in James Cameron’s first Terminator film, the most iconic character to come out of the entire Terminator franchise is likely the young mother-to-be who is targeted for death in that first film. Sure, there’s a lot of talk about the mythic last chance for human survival, John Connor, throughout anything with the Terminator name on it, but we’ve seen him portrayed by so many actors at this point—all who have failed to develop him much past the point of being a generic hero —that he’s really more of an idea than he is a character. It’s Sarah who has largely existed as the human heart of this property, and in order for fans to take a full-on reboot of the original story seriously, the perfect actress to embody everything that she’s come to represent is going to need to be found. No pretty young model is going to do the trick this time.
Of course, Sarah Connor didn’t originally start off as such a well known and three-dimensional character. As she was portrayed by Linda Hamilton in the original film, she was just an average gal about town who happened to get swept up into a crazy and life threatening situation that was far beyond her control. The character had a little sass, a kind heart, and certainly a survival instinct, but nothing that would separate her from any other heroine who we’ve met in any other action franchise.
It was in T2, where the series’ mythology deepened and we got a sense of what she had been doing in the decade or so since she was first attacked by a killer cyborg from the future that Sarah Connor really developed into something unique and became of iconic member of the pop culture canon. In order to insure that her son, John, survived past the robot apocalypse and grew into the man he would have to become in order to lead the human resistance, Sarah left her normal life behind. She hardened herself, trained herself as a soldier, lived on the fringes of society with outlaws and mercenaries. The returning Hamilton worked out like a madwoman in order to buff up for the role, and she appropriately changed the way she portrayed the character to project that she had been through the wringer and come out the other end bitter and protected by a tough shell.
In order to be the mother that her particular child needed, Sarah Connor rid herself of the feminine traits that we typically think of as being motherly, and instead took on the typically masculine traits necessary to keep her progeny safe in a world that had targeted him for death before he was even born. Not only did this make her a badass that action movie fans could get behind, it also made her something of an icon for gender politics, or at least it made her a unique character who was different from every other action movie heroine we had gotten to that point. That straddling of the line between masculine and feminine traits, the internal war between bitterness and motherly love that’s always being waged inside of her—this was the essence of the Sarah Connor character. An essence that anybody else who played her in the future would necessarily have to tap into.
The next actress we saw pick up the Sarah Connor mantle was perfect for the job. In 2008 a Terminator television series called Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles debuted on Fox, and Lena Headey was tapped to take Hamilton’s place. As she exhibited on the show, and as we’ve consistently seen from her since in things like Dredd and Game of Thrones, Headey was the perfect performer to straddle that line between hardened and feminine that Sarah Connor sits on, and she was the perfect actress to project an aura that was at the same time bitter and nurturing. Heck, The Sarah Connor Chronicles got the Sarah Connor character so right that they even realized she was the heart of the franchise, so they put her name in the title accordingly. It’s going to be a rough road for this new Terminator reboot to find anyone talented enough to fill Linda Hamilton’s shoes, because that person is going to have a hard enough time filling Lena Headey’s shoes already. Is it possible to perfectly re-cast a character this well-loved twice?
Maybe yes and maybe no, but from all accounts it seems like Taylor and company are on the path to getting the job done. While this reboot may very well take the Connor character back to her soft roots as a struggling waitress trying to make the rent, it’s likely that Hamilton’s portrayal of the Connor character in T2 has now been so engrained in the public’s consciousness that some of that edginess is going to have to be introduced to the character earlier in this reboot, or she just won’t feel right. The trick is going to be finding an actress who can project a bit of naiveté, but who can still make it clear to the audience that there’s a powerful aggression and determination lying just underneath her surface. It’s going to take a nuanced performance to hit all of the beats just right, and here are the two girls that Deadline says the folks in charge have narrowed it down to and are currently choosing between.
First up is Emilia Clarke, an actress who Taylor has already directed due to his work on the HBO series that everyone knows her from, Game of Thrones. At first glance, Clarke might appear to be too soft and feminine to play the Connor character—exactly the sort of pretty flower who gets cast just because she looks good and is a hot name at the moment—but the entire arc of the character she plays on her series takes her from being an inexperienced young girl to being not only a fiercely protective mother, but also a commander of a loyal army who adores her and obeys her every command. Clearly Clarke has been believable enough playing the role too, if the gobs and gobs of Daenerys Targaryen fan art that sports her face all over the Internet can be taken as evidence. After several seasons of Game of Thrones, audiences have been conditioned to buy Clarke as being a powerful and in-charge maternal figure, so she’s probably about the safest Sarah Connor casting a Terminator reboot could go with at this point.
The other girl who they’re looking at, Brie Larson, is a bit more of an unknown, though everyone has probably seen her playing a side character in something by now. She too is a questionable choice for the Sarah Connor role at first glance, because she reads as being a little bit too young for the role on screen. If you’d like an audition tape that proves she’d still be a great pick for Taylor to go with though, you need to look no further than her performance as the lead of Short Term 12. That film saw her playing a young girl who was in charge of a sort-of shelter for underprivileged and traumatized minors, and she’s so believable as the authority figure who everyone fears that any thoughts about how young she looks immediately disappear once she begins to act. Her character there is nuanced enough to show her potential to play the Connor part too, because not only is she tough, but it’s also clear that she cares deeply about the kids in her care, and they about her. Plus, we get to see her struggle a bit with being brave while dealing with a traumatic past that has come back to haunt her, which is pretty much Connor’s bread and butter.
So, given the choice between the two, who should get the part? Larson is so good and shows so much range in Short Term 12 that it’s difficult to argue against her and for anyone else. The reality of the situation is that audiences are already more familiar with Clarke though, and her experience already working with Taylor on Game of Thrones could likely be the thing that gives her the leg up. Landing the Connor role would be a coup for Larson’s career and could prove to be a gamble that pays off huge for the studio once she knocks the part out of the park, but at this point Clarke is probably the safe bet. Either way though, these are still both strong choices, and they serve as a bit of proof that the people in charge of this Terminator reboot are being thoughtful about it and taking it seriously. That may not be a huge cause for celebration, but for those of us who are still fans of robot feet stomping on human skulls, it’s the first bit of good news we’ve gotten concerning this franchise in quite a while.