It's a double-edged sword for an actor to break through with a iconic role. Robert Patrick knows how that success cuts both ways: after playing T-1000 in James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he spent years of his career trying to play something more than a villain. He's intense, he admits, but under his skin is an actor who loves playing something more complicated than a single-minded, molten-metal killer. Twenty years after Terminator 2 made his a star, Boxoffice spoke to Patrick about the challenges of being typecast and how he's come to terms with the way audiences perceive him—and has learned how to use that to his advantage.
Most people would call your characters villains. Is that how you see them?
Nah, I don't. I never look at it like that—I just look at them like a human being. Everybody's flawed, everybody's a sinner, and there's not one perfect person out there, so we're all capable of different things. I think that's what's interesting being an actor—there's really nothing you can throw at an actor that you can be shocked by, because there's so many crazy things going on out there. The dangerous thing is losing yourself in these roles. I've always found that to be my biggest challenge: you've got to have a strong sense of who you are as an individual, and you've got to know who you are, but you've got to be willing to let that go to portray a character. But the dangerous thing is letting yourself go too far and not being able to come back to yourself. I find that is the most challenging part, staying connected to who I am as an individual, even though I can do some pretty out-there character things. I really want to come home, to come back to who I am. And I also don't want who I am to edit or prevent me from portraying a character honestly—that's the bigger juggling act for me. But like in Cop Land, I saw this guy as a cop, and I'll tell you, you can look in any city in America and you can find a dirty cop. And just because they're cops doesn't mean they're evil, bad people. These guys thought they were doing the right thing. They abused their power, they became bullies in the city they lived in, and they became a gang in Edgewater.
Do you think it's because you have trouble switching off your characters that you are so strongly identified with being evil?
I think it's a combination of really being introduced to the world in a villainous way, so your preconceived notion of me now is Terminator 2, and that baggage goes with me everywhere. So now you've got to prove your credibility as an actor, but I think your first notion of me would be, "Oh, he's that bad guy." So immediately that's the way everybody in town looks at you, and that's the way you are. Now, you've got to make a living, and you've got to take opportunities that are given to you, and I'm an edgy guy—I realize that. I give off an intense vibe. Casting directors, it's easy to see why that would be really the course of my career. I don't think somebody looks at me and says, "Oh, let's put him in a musical." I wish I could sing and dance because I'd do it, but you've got to work within that framework.
I love doing Gangster Squad right now because heroes are capable of being equally intense on the right side of the law as much as bad guys are on the wrong side. And you've got to hope that the baddest bad guy meets the baddest good guy, and I don't think that second part of my career has really been explored that much.
How hard is it to do what's best for your career while telling people, "I'm not just T-1000 and I don't want to play that in every movie?"
Yeah, and I'm not saying you're alluding to the fact that I have played that in every movie, because I don't think I've ever done that character again. However, I know what you mean by that, and what I think, and what hopefully is going on is I'm learning about myself as a human being. And the audiences, if they connect with you and see you in more and more things, they learn about you as an artist, and you're learning about yourself as an artist and where you fit. I'm an intense guy, and I'm becoming more and more aware of that. My wife has been with me for almost 30 years, I've got two kids, and my kids have made me aware of that. I just have to acknowledge that and say, "Okay, I guess I really am, even if I don't know if I necessarily see myself that way." But maybe that's the way I am. Having said that, it only makes sense that I get the kind of roles that I get. My thing is that I'm trying to be more well-rounded as a human being and be the best dad I can be, and my version of it, whatever that is. So things are always going to have an edge on them, but I guess I have to acknowledge that's just who I am and when I apply it to my work, I guess it's just a part of it that I have to go with. And Hollywood is sort of that way—they sort of kick you where you go. Jim Mangold cast me as Johnny Cash's daddy [in Walk the Line] and that was based on our relationship on Cop Land and the fact that I worked with Joaquin on Ladder 49, and he needed somebody that was intense enough to go toe-to-toe with Joaquin. And I'm just tickled with the things that I'm getting and the opportunities that I'm getting to do, and I can't get preoccupied in all of the other stuff. You have to just kind of keep going forward and hope that you get the opportunities you do to show people different sides of you. And hopefully you do.
You also shot Cop Land with Ray Liotta—how did that go?
One of the guys I was going to work with the most was Liotta, and Ray and I were staying in the same building, and Ray and I would see each other—and Ray wouldn't acknowledge me. I was already intimidated by him, and he gave me the silent treatment—he wasn't very warm and he wasn't very friendly. I figured, "Jeez, that's the way it's going to be," and our relationship in the movie was such that I pretty much filled the gap that was there when he left being Harvey Keitel's guy, and I sort of walked in there being that guy, and he basically challenges me and I challenge him. So I had basically been looking up to him from a character point of view, someone I had admired, but then also as an actor as well. And that's the way it went—we ended up not interacting much at all. But after the dart up the nose scene—that was a brutal scene—and we beat the shit out of each other, once that was done, all of that other stuff was gone. And Ray was—and still is to this day—one of my best buddies.
Did he explain why he was giving you a hard time before that?
No, he was just f--king with me. I mean, he was just an actor f--king with me—and it worked because I was intimidated. I was scared of him, I admired him, and the more put off I was, the better. And he was right.