What’s the most intense performance on TV? Easy. It’s Lena Headey’s white-knuckle portrayal of the heroine in Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”
No surprise there. In the sci-fi series (Mondays at 9 p.m. EST on Fox) based on the “Terminator” films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sarah is a woman carrying a heavy burden.
Her teenage son, John (Thomas Dekker), will one day be mankind’s only hope of escaping extinction. All Sarah has to do for the next 20 years is shield him from the ruthless cyborg killing machines sent back from the future to snuff him out.
“I think it’s utterly exhausting being her,” says Headey, 34, from her rented home in Los Angeles. “I don’t think she sleeps. `If your son dies, the world will fall apart’ - that’s in her head every day.
“At the same time she’s trying to be a normal mom and make lunch and ask, `How was your day, sweetheart?’, and really she cares but she’s got more important things on her mind.”
“What impresses me most,” says Josh Friedman, the executive producer of “T:TSCC,” is Lena’s ability to hold toughness and vulnerability in the same image in the same face. One of the things she said to me about the character is `I want her to be hard, but easily penetrated emotionally.’ That’s what I find amazing about her. You truly get a sense of someone who has turmoil but is holding it together for her loved one.”
To play Sarah, Headey must undergo a double transformation. “We have to make her look and seem older,” says Headey, who in reality is 14 years older than Dekker, her TV son. “We do it with lighting. And I have quite a lot of makeup on. When makeup sits on your face all day it makes you look immediately older.”
Then the British actress has to trowel on an American accent.
“We set her up with a dialogue coach before the pilot,” says Friedman. “She still has one for heavy dialogue days.”
“It’s still a work in progress,” admits Headey. “I’m constantly working at it. It’s relevant for the character. Imagine if I played her English. I’d have more trouble than I already have.”
Headey took the role with two strikes against her. The fan boys nearly set the Internet on fire when Fox announced that it had cast her in its “Terminator” adaptation. The actress has worked steadily in British films and television, but is best known to audiences here as Gorgo, the Queen of Sparta in 2007’s “300.”
Not only was she British, she was supermodel slender and striking. How could this Limey splinter possibly replace Linda Hamilton, the She-Ra who played Sarah in the first two “Terminator” films?
“That’s the good and the bad of doing these big franchises,” says Friedman. “What you gain in awareness, you often lose in goodwill. But I was still surprised at the level of negativity.”
For her part, Headey found all the preemptive complaints annoying. “Yeah, occasionally I think, `Oh, my God, it’s a job on a sci-fi television show. Come on! Nobody died.’ To get stressed about an actress is ridiculous.”
She also tries not to think too hard about all the time travel implications in “T:TSCC.” For instance, how could Sarah have died of cancer in 2005 and yet still be alive and kicking three years later? How could these machines slaughter everything in their path in the present without creating a significant ripple effect in the future?
“If I try to fathom out the timelines,” she says, “it’s all too complicated. I show up and I’m present emotionally.”
That’s been her approach since she started acting as a teen. “I just knew it was what I wanted to do,” she says. “It blooms by itself.”
In Headey’s case, her blossoming talent had to survive several transplants. She was born in Bermuda. Her father, a British policeman, was stationed there. After four years in Somerset on England’s southern coast, she moved north to her parents’ native Yorkshire.
Settling in London, she set out on her career, gaining immediate attention as the younger version of Jeremy Irons’ wife in 1992’s “Waterland.”
If experience dictated roles, Headey would star in nothing but ghost stories. She’s had numerous run-ins with spirits since she was a girl.
The most harrowing came a few years ago when she bought and began renovating an old home in London. “I first experienced it when I was laying in my bed and it started shaking like there were four washing machines underneath it,” she recalls. “That was scary. I had just bought the house. Now what do you do?
“I had jewelry go missing. Things moved around all the time. I had a rabbit sculpture on a shelf. It fell off nine times. My boyfriend at the time was, like, `Oh, rubbish!’ Then he came home and a chest of drawers had been pushed against the door so you couldn’t open it. I said, `Now do you believe?’ “
Headey never saw this spirit, which she imagined to be a little boy, but eventually she struck a deal with him. “I said, `You can be here but don’t scare me,’ and it stopped,” she says.
Now she finds herself in her own kind of limbo. Headey finished the first batch of “T:TSCC” episodes months ago. The show’s season concludes with a two-hour finale on March 3.
But the network has given no indication yet of whether Sarah Connor’s “Chronicles” will return next year. “I’m so in the dark, I feel like a mushroom,” says Headey. You can drive yourself crazy with `What if, what if.’ I’m just waiting to hear. It’s day to day.”
Either way, Headey is glad to have this warrior mom on her resume. “I think part of being an actor is taking chances and seeing what works,” she says. “When I’m 105, my kids will be looking at a tape saying, `There’s Grandma!’ “
Thinking, no doubt, “Wasn’t she intense?”