Robert Patrick has played nearly 150 different roles in film and television since 1991 -- including high-profile turns in "The X-Files," "The Sopranos," "True Blood," "Walk the Line," "Spy Kids," and his current hit TV series "Scorpion" -- but none of them have been as enduring and instantly iconic as his breakthrough performance as the T-1000 in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."
With audiences getting a chance to revisit "T2" in a new 3D release hitting AMC Theaters on Aug. 25 (followed by 3D and 4K home video editions due in October), Patrick joined Moviefone to reminisce about the role that launched (and still, in many ways, defines his prolific Hollywood career), including fond memories of James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger and a candid reflection on having to step out of the shadow of the larger-than-life role -- as well as enjoying his good guy role on "Scorpion" while readying to release his new film "Last Rampage," which he suggests may be his scariest bad guy since his Terminator days.
Moviefone: Tell me what life was like when the movie first kind of tripped your radar and you were going in to audition for it. What was happening in your life?
Robert Patrick: Oh, I was just a broke actor doing an Equity-waiver play over on the Santa Monica Pier. I was on unemployment. My wife was working three jobs. I had done "Die Hard 2," it was coming out and I was just trying to maintain a positive attitude and hope that something great was going to fall in my lap.
And all of a sudden I got a call from my agent saying, "Listen, you're going over to James Cameron's production office and you're going to meet [casting director] Mali Finn and all we know is, is that they're looking for an intense presence. Good luck."
You had some good luck! How was the audition? What was that whole process like?
Well, it's funny, but I find all this out: Billy Idol was originally cast in the T-1000 role, but he had a motorcycle accident. He broke his leg, so he physically couldn't do it. It created a vacuum then, they needed to recast him. They had a physical idea of what they wanted the guy to look like, and my agent told them that I was a cross between David Bowie and James Dean -- that's how he described me.
I walked in wearing all black. I essentially looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger did in the movie, I was wearing black jeans, black t-shirt and a biker jacket from the 1950s, like the one Marlon Brando wore in "The Wild One." I went in there, and they wanted this intense presence. Mali sat down and I started trying to figure out, "Well, how do I create this intense presence?" So I just decided I was going to try to kill her with my blue eyes.
I started staring at her, and she looked away, and she looked back and she said, "Oh -- whatever you're doing right there, I want to get that on film." They took me and they, Steve Quail, who's now a director, was Jim Cameron's assistant at the time -- he got a video camera and they started filming me. They were saying, "Okay, now, we want you to create this intense presence, you're this killer. You're a sense-aware kind of a being, and let's see you move around."
So I fell back into some actor trick-y kind of things, and started thinking like, "How do I do that?" All right, so I start thinking about the animal kingdom and I start thinking about bugs, and I was thinking like cats and predators and eagles and sharks, and how do they move? I slowed everything down and I started moving and I just started moving around, trying to convey that.
He videoed it and I could tell he was pretty excited about it. I did this one trick with him, where he put the camera behind me and it was back of my head, and I snapped around and looked right down the barrel of the camera as intensely as possible. And I guess that's the thing that Jim most reacted to, and he went, "Wow, that's pretty intense!"I think that audition perked his interest and the way I looked, I was real lean and I had those big ole ears. You know, he's looking at me and I think he said this could work. I came back, I got a call that night, they said, "Jim saw your video and wants you to come in and work with him." I went in and worked with him and he was just great because he was like in this creative free for all of him throwing out all these ideas. Still hadn't read the script.
There were no sides [of dialogue] or anything, it was just, "Let me see you move," and I did all this stuff and it's essentially what you see in the film, funny enough, so my instincts were right. What I did on those audition days was essentially what they were looking for and the next day they called me and said, "We're going to let you read the script, you're going to do a screen test in the cop uniform." It took me, like, five hours to read the script. Just, you know, trying to wrap my head around it.
I was just having moments where I was sitting there going, "Oh my God, Terminator -- Jesus Christ. How did this happen? How did I get here?" The pressure was mounting and I thought, "Oh God, Jesus, don't choke. This is so close. You can do this." I literally walked into Jim's office after reading it and I set it down on his desk and he took his glasses down, he looked up at me and he said, "Yes?" "I can do this." He said, "Robert, that's why you're here." There we go. We were off and running, baby.
It's no small feat to play an adversary equal to Arnold Schwarzenegger at that moment in time, at the height of his movie stardom. What was the fun of creating that relationship with Arnold onscreen, and also the relationship you had with Arnold when the cameras weren't rolling?
I'm going to tell you a funny story: when the movie was done, Arnold invited me to an art thing, a wonderful event, and Joel Kramer, the stunt coordinator from "T2" brought me over to meet Mr. Clint Eastwood. Here I am, this big-eared kid -- well, I was a 30-year-old man, but I'm green as green. I've just completed this movie and there's all this excitement around it and then Joel introduces me to Clint. Says, "Robert is the guy that kicks the living crap out of Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'T2.'"
Clint stuck out his hand, he looked at me and he shook my hand, he went, "Well, that's certainly a ... formidable task." It just so struck me because here's one of my screen idols and I'm meeting him and the way he put it, it was just awesome.
You're an unknown guy, you're going against a No. 1 guy, and he's a guy you admired your whole life. I followed his body building career. His charisma was infectious, just like it is with everybody. He's a bigger-than-life guy. He came in from Austria. All these successes, all these wonderful things that he's done. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an amazing, amazing American success story. You're going to go toe-to-toe with him in his most famous role.
It was not lost on me, the importance. It was a big deal to me. All the way through the movie I didn't want to let Jim down, I didn't want to let Arnold down. It was a big deal. I wanted him to look good. I wanted to be an equal, if not more powerful adversary. I really wanted it to work for him as much as I did for me. That's kind of how I approached it.
Now, he was very forthcoming with you know, "Atta boys," and pats on the back, and in one particular sequence I remember running out of the Pescadero State Prison and I was running through the parking lot. It was right before I hook onto the back of the car and all this kind of stuff. He's watching me do this sprint, he's watching me do this stuff over and over and over, seeing me jump and dive and roll and all this crap, and I see the big thumbs up coming from the car. He was, very impressed with my commitment and very, very forthcoming with appreciation for that. It just motivated me to do better.
Your character in "T2" became almost instantly iconic, and I'm sure that it changed your life and changed your career. Tell me about the upside of having an early role like that be so huge, and tell me where you pushed against it and tried to like not just be pigeon-holed into doing that over and over again.
I'm going to give you a big answer, from a philosophical point of view as a 58-year-old man who looks back in time and says, "What was it like?" It's interesting because I was a total unknown, then all of a sudden I'm known -- but I'm not known, the character's known. The character's iconic, the actor's not. "Who is that guy that played that part? I don't know."
So, on the one hand, I couldn't walk around anywhere without people recognizing me, on the other hand they had no idea who I was. So when I'd walk into an office to get another job, it wasn't happening. People weren't going to hire me. It was like the only thing I was getting offered was, "Go play another robot, or go play another you know cyborg." And I was like, "I can't do that."
I remember I got a Budweiser commercial offered -- to sell Budweiser as T-1000. And I said, "I can't do that. That's not me. That's not who I am. There's more to me than that. It's just a performance. What have I got to do?"
I gained some weight and I grew my hair long and I kind of got depressed about it. It was like a year and a half before I could get some work. And I thought to myself, "God, is this a f*cking fluke? How can that be? How can it be that I get such a great opportunity but then no one wants to hire me, I mean, I did the job too well? What the f*ck?"Then I got a movie. [Producer] Cassian Elwes actually cast me in a movie, "The Cool Surface," and I had long hair. It was me and Teri Hatcher, it was a low budget movie, I did it and I was happy with the performance. I walked into [director] Rob Lieberman, and I auditioned for "Fire in the Sky," I got that role. Rob Lieberman was like, "I don't believe that's the guy from 'T2' -- that's not the same guy that played the Terminator. No, that's a different guy!" "No, that is me." "That's you?" So things started rolling. I did that movie for Paramount, for Rob Lieberman, "Fire in the Sky," and things started rolling.
You're an actor, you're trying to make a living, you only have access to material that people are going to provide you. You only get access to material after other people that are up on the food chain that are bigger and more powerful pass on it -- they get access to the quality stuff and you got to kind of sift through there and find what you can and make a living as an actor. So I would do some direct-to-video movies, and what I would call art movies. Art movies, and exploitation-type films. You try to get a good studio film here and there, and you do your battle as an actor. You go out there and fight for whatever you can and hopefully, you know, the chips fall where they can.
Now, as I look back, I've had a really, really good run. I've had some wonderful movies, and some wonderful opportunities, and I've worked with some great people. So it's weird. It's kind of like you're introduced to the world as a bad guy -- "Is that the only way people are going to see me? Will they ever see me, because I could be a love interest. I could do this ..." You kind of battle yourself and go, "How do I create an opportunity in another way?" So I don't want that to sound like I'm not grateful, because I am hugely grateful and I know the only reason you're talking to me is because of that movie. Everything that's come after is a result, but you know, it has its challenges.One of those results is "Scorpion." As you're coming into a new season, what's been kind of exciting and challenging to continue to be a part of that series?
Oh, I love being a part of this series! This series has so many challenges for me. It's a wonderful thing, it's certainly something that I'm really thrilled to be doing right now. I'm so grateful for the success. I love the comedic aspects of it. I love the chemistry of the cast. We have a really, really unique chemistry. It's hard to explain -- we're all so uniquely different and the writers have really found a way to write for us.
I just love my role of a curmudgeonly old guy that still gets in there and fights for his kids and has values, and he's got a heart of gold. He's rough around the edges. It's just, it's fun. Every day going to work is fun. The grind of TV is a challenge in itself, but I love it. I'm so, so thrilled to be on "Scorpion" and I love making it. You can't take it too serious -- it's just pure entertainment. God knows when you watch the news right now, if we need anything right now, we just need some fun and some entertainment.
You've played many good guys like since "T2," but it looks like you've got another epic bad guy coming up in a movie we're going to see next month, "Last Rampage." Tell me a little bit about finding a new big-screen bad guy persona.
Well, this is probably the darkest character I've ever played in my life. It resonated with me on so many different levels. It's a true story. It's a story of a father who raised three boys while he was locked up in prison on double murder charges -- two life sentences for a murder -- and of his domineering personality, of his charisma, of using his own boys to break out of prison, their love and loyalty that he develops from prison, with the help of his god-fearing wife played by Heather Graham.And then once they break him out, the betrayal by my own brother of not providing me with the things that he was supposed to provide me with to allow me to escape to Mexico according to my plan. I go on this rampage where seven people are murdered. It's all about me trying to get my freedom.
When you go on hiatus from the show that you do 10 months out of the year, where you're playing a good guy, you got the heart of gold, and you're a good guy that leads a team of geniuses and takes care of them. It's great fun and you enjoy it, then you get this free time where you try to fill it creatively with something completely at the opposite end of the spectrum. Total juxtaposition from what you do for the majority of the year. I look for something I can really sink my teeth into and take me into a whole other direction, and this just fell together.
God I'm really, really proud of the movie. I can't wait for people to see it, and it is very disturbing. It was disturbing to me when I watched it. I am a monster. You know, I just can't wait for people to see it. It's very compelling. It's very, it's so complex -- of family loyalty, betrayal, you know. A horrible, horrible story.
Ironically enough, because it's such a brother story, my real-life brother composed the music, and he was the former guitarist of Nine Inch Nails, went on to become a platinum, multi-platinum recording artist himself with a band called Filter. In the '90s, he had a big song, "Hey Man, Nice Shot, Take a Picture". He does one of his first film compositions. I think he did a beautiful job with the music. I'm excited for people to hear it.