NEW YORK – It's been 12 years since the Terminator (search) saved human civilization from the wrath of the machines, and now Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) is back -- getting his butt kicked by a lady.
Arnie's screen nemesis is Kristanna Loken (search), a foxy blonde 23-year-old unknown from upstate New York, who is poised to scorch up the summer as the beautiful killer cyborg T-X in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which opens July 2.
The long-awaited second sequel in the sci-fi franchise is hogging the spotlight at the Cannes Film Festival -- and Loken is the face du jour.
Seeing her mug plastered on T3"posters all over Cannes' famous beachfront boulevard is a surreal experience for the former model, who was raised by her bohemian Norwegian parents on an organic orchard outside Woodstock called Love Apple Farm.
"I walked out last night and it was just wild," Loken told The New York Post. "Just to have my face larger than life everywhere -- bizarre."
Wearing cream lace pants and a bronze halter top as she holds court in her suite at Cannes' swanky Martinez Hotel, the 5-foot-11 beauty looks like she was born to this, even though her previous credits include just a couple of independent films and minor roles on the TV series Law and Order and Just Shoot Me.
"We tested over a hundred girls for that role and she just jumped out of the screen," says Andy Vajna who, along with Mario Kassar, has produced all three Terminator movies.
"She kicked Arnold's [expletive] - and he loved it. She's the only woman I know who could do it."
Loken, who has six tattoos, including a horse on her ankle which she "rewarded" herself with after she wrapped T3, sports a sassy forthrightness that brings to mind a young Sharon Stone, who shot to stardom in another Schwarzenegger sci-fi vehicle, 1990's Total Recall.
"When this job came along I just thought it was the right marriage for my character with the character in the film," she said. "I've always been tall, had a deeper voice, people liked me but they didn't quite know how to cast me."
Schwarzenegger told The Post that his only interactions with Loken were when they were both in character.
"Usually you don't hang out with the people that you fight with -- it's much better if you look at them as the enemy and just, you know, try and kill 'em," he quipped.
"In the movie, I'm a machine and she's a machine. She's just pretending to be this sexy female, but there's a 2,000-pound machine underneath that is ready to kill everything in its way."
Loken, who underwent a punishing six-week course in weapons training as well as learning martial arts techniques used by the Israeli military, trod carefully during the fight sequences with her famous co-star.
"I kept thinking, 'Kristanna, there's $30 million sitting in front of you, don't mess this up, don't miss your mark,'" she said. "Can you imagine if I hit his face?"
Loken's Terminatrix, a cold-blooded killer in wine-red leather, joins The Matrix: Reloaded's Carrie-Anne Moss, Lara Croft 2's Angelina Jolie and the Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle cast of Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Lui at the forefront of the summer movie schedule's strong woman warriors.
"I've always loved Sigourney Weaver in Alien and thought she really pioneered the whole strong female movement, so I was happy to be a part of that tradition," Loken says.
But fighting doesn't come naturally to the former farm girl, who is bubbling over with joy about a new romance with her secret childhood crush, Web designer Derek Grout.
"I've never been in a fight, but with all the training for T3 I got very used to throwing a punch and kicking -- you tap into a whole other part of yourself," she says.
"During the whole shoot I was much more aggressive, physically and mentally. I also found myself doing things I normally wouldn't do, like punching through windows when I got locked out of my house.
"I don't know what I was thinking, but you get in that mindset -- 'It's just a thin pane, I can whack through it.' "