Why Arnold Schwarzenegger Initially Had No Interest In Playing The Terminator

As far as iconic roles go, you can do no better than the Terminator. Starting off the franchise as a terrifying bad guy, the T-800 is quite possibly the most famous robot in all of science fiction, and somehow one of the most beloved. Even in that first movie where he's a deadly force of nature, he's still so cool and intimidating that one can't help but respect him a little. Everyone likes a guy who's good at his job, even when the job is dooming humanity.

Although the role helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name, the actor himself wasn't thrilled about the idea when it was first offered. "I said, "No, no, no — look, the guy has 17 lines,'" he explained in a 2014 oral history of the first film. Most actors want to get meaty, dialogue-heavy roles to show what they're capable of. Meanwhile, "The Terminator" not only gave Schwarzenegger precious few lines to work with, but it also asked him to speak in an emotionless, monotone voice. If your goal is to prove how good an actor you are, this is not a promising gig. 

Another big concern of Schwarzenegger's was his character's lack of morality. "I was building my career, being a leading man and not being a villain," he explained. He would've preferred to play a character like Kyle Reese, who was tough and cool while still being a good person. Director James Cameron, however, took one look at Schwarzenegger and knew exactly which role would best suit him. "I was studying him at the restaurant," Cameron recalled, "just watching the light from the window on his face and thinking, 'Holy crap, what a face! Forget the Reese thing. Arnold would make a hell of a Terminator.'"

Making him lovable anyway

Cameron changed Schwarzenegger's mind by assuring him that, even as a villain, audiences would love his character. "Cameron said that he'd shoot it in such a way that all the evil stuff that I do will be totally excused by audiences because I'm a cool machine," Schwarzenegger explained, "And so cool that some of the people will cheer."

The T-800's likeability went up even more in the second film. Not only did he play an ally this time around, but he got to spend more time peacefully interacting with humans. There's a lot of comedy to mine out of this robot not quite understanding the many nuances of human behavior, especially when the behavior's coming from a young kid like John Connor. Watching him pick up '90s slang is charming, even if (or maybe because) he has no understanding of what makes the slang fun in the first place. His interactions with humans invite us to look at ourselves in a fresh light, appreciating all the little quirks of being human that we typically take for granted. 

Most notable is that despite the movie's constant reminders that the T-800 has no emotions, that doesn't stop us from humanizing him anyway. Even as he straight-up tells us that he would kill John and Sarah without any hesitation if his programming ever told him to do so, by the end of "T2" we can't help but see him as a friend. Playing an emotionless machine might seem like a thankless role, but Schwarzenegger imbued the character with constant hints of something deeper going on beneath the surface. He somehow brought depth to a lifeless machine and gave us one of the best performances of his career in the process.