By Derek Lawrence
October 31, 2019 at 12:06 PM EDT
Credit: ILM

Gabriel Luna vividly remembers his first Terminator memory. He was 9 years old and his mother took him and his brother to see Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (Luna’s father died before he was born.) “She knew what little boys enjoyed,” Luna, 36, says with a laugh. “I was the age of John Connor at the time, and you like project yourself into that kid, having that experience, going on that adventure with Arnold Schwarzenegger as your protector and best friend.” Well, now 28 years later, Luna is on the other side of the big screen — but as the one who the heroes need protection from.

The headline of Terminator: Dark Fate is the long-awaited return of the legendary Sarah Connor, who Linda Hamilton so memorably played in James Cameron’s first two films. But joining Hamilton and Schwarzenegger for the sixth installment of the mega-franchise (Luna jumps in to say it’s actually the third, since Fate serves as a direct sequel to T1 and T2) are a group of newcomers in Luna, Mackenzie Davis, Diego Boneta, and Natalia Reyes. For Luna, his excitement about the project started long before there was even any hint of his possible involvement. “I remember reading the announcement that Linda was coming back and getting really excited and knowing that I was going to be there day one, butt in the seat to see the triumphant return of the great Sarah Connor,” shares Luna.

Cut to a year-plus later and he was in a room reading for director Tim Miller — but he wasn’t reading the script for the secretive Dark Fate. Instead, he was working with scenes from Michael Mann’s criminally-underrated 2004 thriller Collateral. Luna was tasked with playing Tom Cruise’s silver-haired assassin Vincent, which he says was a dead giveaway for what he was really reading for. “I figured that it might be the Terminator role, because there’s really only one assassin in these films,” shares Luna. “Tim was adamant that he be real, very charming and could disarm people with a smile and then let that smile drop off and just go stone cold.” Clearly, Luna disarmed Miller and Cameron (who was back as a producer), and four-and-a-half long months later, he got the most important message of his life…at a very unexpected time. Recalls Luna, “While I was going over my grocery list, I got the email that I was the new Terminator.”

Credit: ILM

Knowing he was following “iconic performances” in Schwarzenegger’s T-800 and Robert Patrick’s T-1000, Luna says he analyzed and repeatedly watched those first two films, looking at “what it is that draws and invokes fear.” Not wanting to “reinvent the wheel,” he particularly studied Schwarzenegger’s walk and Patrick’s run. “I felt that I should just incorporate them and expand on them,” explains Luna, comparing his Rev-9, which can separate itself in two, to “a hot knife through the world.” But all the preparation couldn’t prepare Luna for what he what he stepping into. “As we got into production and you see the massive scale of what we were doing, you can’t help but feel the pressure,” admits Luna. “But I decided to just harness it, channel it, use it, let it be a great motivator and let it fuel you, because you don’t want to make a shitty Terminator movie — you just love it too much.”

And he didn’t want to let down those stars that his 9-year-old self was so enthralled with. Schwarzenegger is smartly put in the back seat for Dark Fate, not appearing until later in the film and ceding the spotlight to Hamilton and company. But once the Terminator showed up on set, Luna was ready. Their first scene together would find the Rev-9 chasing Dani (Reyes), Grace (Davis), Sarah (Hamilton), and a new T-800 named Carl (Schwarzenegger), and since his face would not be seen in the shot, Luna was given the option to sit out and let his double stand-in. He immediately asked if Schwarzenegger would be doing it, and when told yes, he wasn’t going anywhere. “I wanted Arnold to know that I’m there for him,” declares Luna. “If you’re there and available, you end up picking up things that serve the picture and connect the characters. And I think he appreciated that; he gave me a little bit of a nod, I remember that. He said, ‘Man, you’re fast.'”

Credit: Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures

The relationship between the original Terminator and the new Terminator grew from there. Luna would soon find himself training with Schwarzenegger, the equivalent of shooting hoops with Michael Jordan. Like with watching Terminator or Terminator 2, Luna studied and marveled. “At the time, his chest was healing, he’d just come off of heart surgery,” recalls Luna. “Two months ago, this guy had a quadruple bypass and now he’s here training in this gym, getting ready to play the T-800 again. I’m looking at him like a f—ing superhero; I admired him so much for that.” And the admiration continued outside of the gym, where the professional and personal relationship would continue. “He’s not overly possessive of the property, he wants to give me room to create something new,” says Luna. “I’m thankful for everything I learned from him. It’s a really wonderful thing to be able to hang out with him now and call him my friend.”

Sounds like someone is finally living their John Connor dream.

Terminator: Dark Fate opens in theaters on Friday.

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Terminator: Dark Fate

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