Which actors have played John Connor in the Terminator franchise, and how did each one make the character their own? Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cybernetic killing machine might be the face and soul of the Terminator film series, but at the heart of the narrative sits the lone figure of John Connor. Although the character himself doesn’t appear in the original film, the future birth of Sarah’s son with Kyle Reese is Terminator‘s raison d’être. Without the looming presence of John as the future leader of the Resistance, the machines win and there’s no robot assassins coming back from the future and wreaking havoc.
Or that was the case, until Terminator: Dark Fate revealed that another leader would rise up in John’s stead, just as other machines would replace Skynet. Nevertheless, John Connor remains integral to the Terminator story and has been increasingly prominent on-screen in later films, though he would always be played by a fresh actor on each occasion. This constant wheel of change has brought many different characteristics to John Connor, representing how much Terminator‘s secondary hero changes throughout his eventful life.
Taking into account both the big and small screen, here are all the actors to have portrayed the legendary Resistance leader throughout the Terminator franchise, and the qualities they brought to this ever-changing, yet still iconic, role.
Perhaps the actor most commonly associated with the role of John Connor is Edward Furlong in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Cast for the pivotal role in his early teens after being spotted by the film’s casting director, Furlong played an adolescent John Connor and his appearance marked the first of many on-screen appearances after only featuring as Sarah Connor’s stomach bump in the original movie. Despite not acting previously, Furlong impressed as a young John Connor and looked to have a promising film career ahead of him. Unfortunately, substance abuse ensured Terminator 2 would remain Furlong’s most well-known movie credit.
In terms of the characteristics Furlong brought to John Connor, the youngster gave a bratty, attitude-filled version of John, as the youngster entered a rebellious phase – no surprise, given his mother was incarcerated and accused of being insane due to her prophetic tales of an impending machine apocalypse. Furlong’s John was a million miles from what fans would’ve expected from a future Resistance leader, but that was the point – to highlight how John was just an ordinary kid before Skynet took over and forced him to become a soldier. As Terminator 2 progresses, John’s outward brash confidence begins to soften, and viewers see his increasingly mature qualities – bravery in facing down the T-1000, his resourcefulness and instinct to survive, and the loyal bond he develops with Arnie’s T-800.
Although Edward Furlong was the primary John Connor in Terminator 2, a pair of other actors are utilized, one older and one younger. In 2029’s timeline, John Connor is briefly played by Michael Edwards, an actor and model. Although featured very sparingly, this future John Connor is a distinguished, respected and battle-weary leader – a deliberate far cry from Furlong’s free-spirited 90s teen. Moving in the other direction, flashback scenes show John Connor as a toddler, and this version of the character was portrayed by Linda Hamilton’s own son, Dalton. He plays a very different take on John; quiet and unsteady on his feet.
Edward Furlong was originally supposed to reprise his role for 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, but his aforementioned drug addiction meant the part was recast, with Nick Stahl becoming the next actor to play John Connor. Unlike his predecessor, Stahl was comparatively well-known when his stint in the Terminator franchise arrived, turning in acclaimed performances throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Since his battle against Skynet, Stahl has featured in Sin City, Carnivale, and taken on various other big and small screen gigs, but the actor’s Terminator 3 star billing remains his most renowned.
Playing Connor as a young man, Stahl naturally demonstrates more maturity than his predecessor, and is more action-ready. Beginning Terminator 3 very much off-the-grid, John has taken on some of the survival instincts possessed by his mother and shows some sign of becoming the hero his destiny dictates, although he’s still evidently some way off the grizzled warrior shown in the previous film’s flashforward. However, John also starts displaying some improved tactical nous, able to unpick the tricky timeline mechanics at play and figure out Katherine Brewster’s father is the key to stopping Skynet. Compared to the exuberant, youthful energy of Edward Furlong, Stahl’s John Connor is understandably more jaded than before, but some of Terminator 2‘s snarky attitude does shine through, for instance when John reacts to news of his impending demise with “well, that sucks.”
Moving into the realm of television with The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the John Connor mantle fell to young Thomas Dekker, who had previously appeared in Heroes and Star Trek: Voyager. As with the two acting talents before him, playing John would be Dekker’s most prominent role, and he has yet to top his leading man run in the Terminator TV series, despite working sporadically in television, film and music in more recent years.
The Sarah Connor Chronicles was set between Judgement Day and Rise of the Machines while John was in his mid-teens, and this tells in the character’s rapidly developing persona. A self-confessed Terminator movie fan, Dekker undoubtedly channels Edward Furlong in places, exhibiting the same kind of rebellious nature, but there are clear steps towards Nick Stahl’s interpretation, as John takes on a more troubled, grown-up edge on TV. Dekker’s John Connor shows more grit, and begins to take his role as the future savior of mankind more seriously, while the angst and self-belief he displays when faced with the dilemma of deactivating Cameron draws a direct line to the even more embattled Nick Stahl character. Like Terminator 2, The Sarah Connor Chronicles features a young, flashback John Connor, who is played here by John DeVito.
As demonstrated in no uncertain terms by the actor’s infamous on-set outburst, Christian Bale’s adult John Connor is a distinctly more intense proposition than any who came before, and undoubtedly comes closest to fulfilling his destiny as the man who would lead humanity to victory against the machines. Cast following his success as Bruce Wayne in the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, Bale was by far the most high-profile name to associate with the increasingly iconic John Connor character and, perhaps because of this, also had no trouble breaking the supposed “John Connor curse,” going on to land a variety of big roles with apparent ease after leaving Terminator.
As the first fully-matured iteration of John Connor (and the first to be heavily featured during the cyborg apocalypse) the John Connor of Terminator Salvation is a dedicated military man, still possessing the protagonistic recklessness of his youth, but also far more rational and level-headed. Nevertheless, John hasn’t lost the idealism almost all of his previous incarnations possessed, as he rails against his Resistance superiors after disagreeing with their callous orders. More so than ever before, Bale’s older Connor was cast as an action star, and that’s exactly what Terminator Salvation offers with its lead, devoid of the brevity and light-hearted spirit that Edward Furlong possessed. However, Christian Bale’s John Connor isn’t a complete departure for the character – the relationship between John and Marcus acts as an extension of the relationships John shared with previous “good” Terminators.
As with Terminator 2, Bale’s time as John Connor wasn’t originally intended as a one-time deal, and it was hoped Terminator Salvation would trigger a whole new era for the franchise. Alas, a redistribution of the Terminator rights meant the story would head in a different direction for the fifth movie, Terminator Genisys, and once again, the role of John Connor would change hands. Jason Clarke took over from Christian Bale, the second time in a row an actor of renown had been selected for a grown-up version of the Resistance leader, and Clarke has subsequently proved the acting curse attached to Connor remains broken.
Jason Clarke was a very different incarnation of John Connor, essentially playing a dual role. As Terminator Genisys begins, Clarke gives an older, wiser evolution of Christian Bale’s performance, sporting the facial scar that Michael Edwards had in the Terminator 2 flashforward. His leadership qualities now remarkable, his reputation legendary, this is undeniably the John Connor Skynet was so afraid of. Strangely, however, Clarke offers something more in-line with Edward Furlong’s John Connor, cracking a few more jokes than Bale did in the same role, and showcasing some of that early teenage playfulness during his conversations with Kyle Reese. Of course, this John Connor is ultimately transformed into the villain of the piece and another agent of Skynet, by which time he becomes John in name and image only.
Not a name (or, indeed, a face) many Terminator fans will recognize, Collie played John Connor in 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate… sort of. In the opening scene of the most recent Terminator effort, the audiences witness the eventual death of John Connor at the hands of a rogue, hitherto unseen T-800 unit. This version of John has Edward Furlong’s likeness, but his face has been digitally grafted onto a body double in the form of Collie, with a voice actor replicating teenage John’s high-pitched tones. As convoluted as the effect may be, the results are impressive, and represent an amalgamation of 3 separate actors playing a single character.
More: Terminator: Dark Fate Avoids Falling Into Genisys’ Sequel Trap