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It’s tough being ‘Sarah Connor’

Maybe you don’t have to be buff to play one of the iconic female characters in contemporary science fiction. But having a tough hide certainly helps, as Lena Headey has discovered.

Headey is the 34-year-old British actress who plays the heroine in Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” The series has a two-night premiere starting Sunday and is perhaps the most highly anticipated new scripted series of this strike-plagued TV midseason. Headey plays the same role made famous by Linda Hamilton, who in the 1991 feature “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” became a butt-kicking inspiration to millions of women by working out, pumping up and helping take down that nasty T-1000 cyborg.

Such an inspiration, in fact, that some who worship at the Altar of Sarah Connor detect heresy in the casting of Headey, who’s healthy-looking and attractive but not exactly Ms. Olympia. She could even be described as petite (although, at a hair or two taller than 5 feet 5, she’s basically the same height as Hamilton).

One website devoted to female empowerment chose stronger words, such as “emaciated,” a dis that Headey recounted last month with a resigned laugh.

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“The film had the luxury of more money and more time,” Headey told me at a Valley coffee shop last month.

“If they were gonna give me a month, and a trainer every day, and a chef, then it would be fantastic. . . . It’s a TV show, for God’s sake!”

The bicep debate may seem like sweating the small stuff, but it’s just one more hurdle encountered by the “Terminator” franchise on its way to the small screen.

“Sarah Connor” faces the same dilemma stared down earlier this season by NBC’s critically drubbed “Bionic Woman”: How do you revive a beloved sci-fi franchise without alienating its core base of rabid fans? (Interestingly, Michelle Ryan, the British actress who plays the title character in “Bionic Woman,” also caught flak for not meeting fans’ expectations.)

Neither director James Cameron nor star and current California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who guided the cyborgs-versus-humans movies to cultural phenomenon status, has anything to do with the series. Cameron’s name hangs so heavily over the franchise that during planning sessions the TV producers symbolically left one chair empty to remind them of his contribution, according to David Nutter, who directed the pilot episode.

The writers strike, moreover, has upended some of the ambitious “Sarah Connor” PR plans. The network had initially promised that the series would be its biggest midseason launch ever. But then executive producer Josh Friedman, who oversaw transferring the franchise to TV, bowed out of promoting the premiere -- and talking for this column -- because of the Writers Guild strike. And once it was apparent the labor strife would last for a while, Fox, like most rivals, had to trim its promotional budgets across the board, although the network has still managed to plaster billboards and bus ads all over New York and Los Angeles.

Obviously, the TV series won’t be able to match the movies in terms of costly special effects, to say nothing of the actors’ gym time. So the creative team is taking pains to develop the relationship between Sarah and her now 15-year-old son, John (Thomas Dekker, previously of NBC’s “Heroes,” who is just 14 years younger than the actress who plays his on-screen mother), whom she must protect from robots sent from the future to kill him (if you’re not familiar with the “Terminator” mythology, the back story is a bit complicated and involves a lot of time travel and other willing suspensions of disbelief). There’s also a new character, Cameron (Summer Glau, who became a virtual goddess to sci-fi fans for her work on the cult series “Firefly”), John’s school friend who turns out to be a cyborg dispatched to help the Connors.

“This is not about trying to assimilate or copy the ‘Terminator’ films, which we could never do, but it’s a good starting-off point for what the next step of the Sarah Connor story will be,” Nutter said of the pilot.

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That approach got a big vote of confidence last July, when the cast and producers screened the pilot for hundreds of expectant fans at the Comic-Con convention in San Diego.

“It was so scary, because we felt people were really ready to hate it,” Headey said. But “when it finished, they were cheering and screaming and really loved it.”

The games site IGN.com reported that the crowd “seemed to love the entire pilot” but added that Glau “was the biggest draw for many.”

The producers finished shooting the season-ending ninth episode in November, so Fox, at least for the moment, doesn’t have to worry about a strike-related interruption.

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But one gets the feeling that “Sarah Connor” hasn’t heard the last from doubters. Among those is Kym Lambert, a spokeswoman for the Sarah Connor Charm School, which describes itself as “an art project focused on physical feminist empowerment.” Among other exhibits, the website offers side-by-side comparisons of Hamilton’s back muscles with Headey’s.

Many women “found Hamilton’s ‘T2' physique very inspiring and a lesson or reminder that women CAN be strong,” Lambert wrote in an e-mail. “That the makers and Headey both seem to be constantly trying to claim that she is not actually thin, that she is very tough and such just makes us feel like they think we’re completely stupid. We can see. This is not OUR Sarah Connor and we do feel that the fans do matter. . . . I do think that someone who continues a franchise DOES owe the original fans consideration.”

That type of proprietary attitude mystifies Headey. “ ‘How dare you even touch her!’ ” Headey said, summing up some fans’ reaction. “I mean, unbelievable. Dude, it was 1982. Move on!” (More hate mail may be on the way: For the record, the first film in the trilogy, “The Terminator,” was released in 1984.)

Headey never claimed to be a sci-fi buff. But then, does that really matter any more than the size of her quadriceps? The point is that in “Sarah Connor,” Fox has sunk its teeth into a massively popular franchise. And skeptics aside, it may be one that has staying power, on the small screen as well as the big.

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“There’s a real hunger for this show,” Nutter said, with characteristic optimism. “Not since ‘The X-Files’ has Fox had a show like this.”

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The Channel Island column usually runs on Mondays in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at scott.collins@latimes.com.


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