Four decades since Alien and still a queen of the silver screen, the legendary actor talks Ripley’s return, the importance of fairytales and why she won’t stop looking to the future
Speaking into the chilly Los Angeles night air, Sigourney Weaver is considering the merit of worlds built from the imagination alone. “The actual essence of CGI is extremely artistic because it’s so pure,” she muses. “It’s actually like a very early theatre rehearsal with no costumes and no sets. You’re not worried about all these other elements. You’re only going for what’s happening between the people. It’s just you and the other actors; you’re just speaking to each other and trying to find actual moments.”
Weaver has made a career out of finding moments like these and creating her own space within them. Bursting on to the public consciousness with Alien in 1979, she set a new standard for unapologetic, ass-kicking heroines in sci-fi and beyond. “I still don’t think it gets the respect it deserves,” she says of the genre that made her career, and which continues to inform her cinematic philosophy. “I mean, it’s the one space where you can actually think, and dream, and question about the future, which is very relevant.” Weaver, in a career extending over five decades, has made questioning her default mode, whether wielding a flamethrower as Ripley on board the Nostromo, becoming possessed by a demon to great comic effect in Ghostbusters, showing that women can be just as cruel as men in Working Girl, or decrying the destruction of our natural world in Gorillas in the Mist and its interplanetary cousin, Avatar. “Where are we going? Who are we? What does it mean? This is the space to do it.”
At just under six feet tall, Weaver is more statuesque than most actors (both male and female), something that wasn’t lost upon her as a child. “I was this tall when I was 11. I was the shyest, most awkward creature, and I never, ever said ‘I’ll be an actor someday’ to anyone, until I was about 25.” Her father was a pioneering executive at NBC and her mother had acted, and, while she wouldn’t describe her upbringing in New York as an especially creative one, it was definitely alive to the business side of the industry. “I think my parents gave me the impression that I would be eaten alive, because I was really nice, and they knew from their various points of view that it wasn’t necessarily a nice business.”
Nice business it definitely wasn’t, or isn’t, but Weaver seems to have held on to this essential goodness. She’s quick to discuss the big issues, but just as swift to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. And she’s more than happy to ham it up and repeat demon-possessed Dana’s infamous line from Ghostbusters, “I am ZUUL” – a moment lent extra hilarity by the fact she’s doing the breathy voice wrapped in a sensible duffle coat and sipping San Pellegrino.
Weaver’s big break came when she was 30, which perhaps explains her normalcy – she became an adult out of the public’s glare, and has managed to keep the most part of her life private ever since. After a brief appearance in Annie Hall and a lot of theatre work, Alien was her first major role, and the first in a series of films produced over a two-decade span. In Ridley Scott’s original, she plays Warrant Officer Ripley on the spaceship Nostromo, whose voyage goes horribly wrong after its crew encounters the titular alien. “When I met Ridley (and) read the script, I wasn’t crazy about it,” laughs Weaver of what was also the British director’s first big picture. But, she continues, “Ridley being Ridley, he’s a real straight shooter and he whipped out these designs of all these planets, and the eggs, and the alien itself.” It was this world that intrigued her, and the possibilities it offered her as an actor.
“Who would have thought that, however many decades later, people would still be watching (Alien) and loving it so much? I was lucky to get the part, but I was really lucky that it was Ridley” – Sigourney Weaver
The Alien world had to be created in its full 3D glory from scratch, a fact that in green- screen times seems like an impossible feat. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, can you make a film that looks like that?’” Scott brought the full force of his perfectionism to the film, the same attention to detail seen in all his works, from Blade Runner to Gladiator. “I think I learned, watching Ridley work, what a master he was, and how much he loved it,” she explains. “No one else was allowed to put KY jelly on the monsters (to give them that horrifyingly slimy effect). You see all great directors do this. The way they place the prop, the way they choose the prop; their vision is the thing that fires the whole story, and he just never stopped.”
Part of Alien’s genius is how the set warps and wields the pervasive mood of the film. The claustrophobic space station, Nostromo, exists almost like another character, just as important as Ripley and her alien nemesis. More literally, Mother, the ship’s ominously named computer, plays a central role in the plot. “(Ridley) was always in the camera coming up with new ways to actually use the film, to give you a feeling of being trapped in space with this creature. To make a film that was sort of the pinnacle – a distinctive and original film that caught everyone’s attention. Who would have thought that, however many decades later, people would still be watching it and loving it so much? I was lucky to get the part, but I was really lucky that it was Ridley.”
Much is currently being made of the on-screen portrayal of women in film but, almost 40 years later, it’s hard to think of many female characters as self-reliant and, yes, feminist as Ellen Ripley. Even at her most vulnerable in her briefs and vest, or in a loose-fitting spacesuit, Ripley isn’t to be messed with, and is adept at finishing off aliens, androids and errant crew-members. It’s notable that she also does all of this sans superpowers or ninja training, which seem to be de rigueur on current intergalactic missions. “I never really had a discussion about (feminism),” she says of her protagonist’s strength. “But clearly for him (Scott), women were extremely, supremely capable, smart and resourceful. For a woman to be able to play an ‘everyman’ character is, I realise now, really revolutionary – that she could represent everybody in this situation.”
Everywoman she may be, but it’s doubtful that many of us are smart and capable enough to outwit an alien hellbent on killing us. When I tell Weaver I once got so scared during the film (more particularly, during the scene with the cat) that I accidentally scratched my own face and started profusely bleeding, it turns out she can relate. “It’s so ironic that I played this courageous woman, because I am the most easily affected of anyone in the theatre, with anything scary,” she says, laughing. “I scream, I yelp, I hide. It’s ridiculous. My daughter says, ‘Mom, you know how all this works, you can see the latex coming off the guy’s face,’ and I’m like, ‘I can’t see it!’ I just get so caught up in the story.”
“It’s on TV where you find really intimate things (that reflect) your life, where you can troll through and it’s delicious” – Sigourney Weaver
Interestingly, Weaver is not particularly aware of the current vogue for retro-looking shows, possibly because of her unrelentingly forward-looking work. “I don’t blame (people) for wanting to escape the present,” she says. “There’s so much going on that’s disturbing, and I’m sure all of us, if you gave us the choice, would escape to the 70s until November 8 or whatever. So it doesn’t surprise me that kids are always taking refuge in the past.” Surprisingly, in her opinion the best films were made in the 60s and 70s, before she was acting. “But even in the 80s, people were talking about the 60s!” she laughs.
While nostalgic period details may not interest Weaver, she loves that TV has created new space for complex portrayals of women. “It’s on TV where you find really intimate things (that reflect) your life, where you can troll through and it’s delicious,” she says, smiling at her choice of words (Weaver evidently considers everything she says quite closely, but has a theatrical way with language when the mood takes her, and ‘delicious’ seems to be her word du jour). Perhaps with this in mind, she’s about to embark upon her first television role of note, as the villain in The Defenders, Netflix’s Marvel superhero spin-off. “This is a great role,” she says of the part, which has comic-book types frothing at the mouth in anticipation. “The writing is good. And also, talk about delicious – it’s a very delicious role. I’ve never played anything like her yet. Then again, it’s fun to scamper around before the Avatars start and do as many projects as possible.”
Weaver is about to begin work on the planned four sequels to James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, which are being produced simultaneously. Pandora, the planet Avatar is set on, is inhabited by tall creatures who love the environment – if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re blue, and distinctly feline, you’d have thought they were based on Weaver. And, since a good chunk of her acting work involves scampering around other planets, it’s no surprise the actress has been thinking about the one we have already a great deal. “We’re not taking care of our planet, and honestly we could go all over the universe, and there will not be any place as welcoming for us as Earth.” Weaver just got back from doing a documentary on climate policy in China, highlighting the work of the Chinese government to combat global warming. “I don’t know why people want to go to Mars and be tough there,” she exclaims. “We’re missing the point, which is to restore the balance of this planet, especially for all the other magical creatures that are on it.” As she says this, her glance is so steely you begin to wonder why she hasn’t been appointed leader of the mission to recapture Planet Earth.
Weaver’s last project before launching herself back into the aforementioned Avatar films, and something of an about-turn for the actress, is A Monster Calls, where she plays a woman struggling to come to terms with the death of her daughter (Felicity Jones), and attempting to care for a grandson she hardly knows (and who is conveniently talking to animated trees to cope with his grief ). “I thought it would be hard, and I wanted to do something hard, because every now and then you’ve got to frighten yourself.” Weaver didn’t consciously draw upon her own, English mother for the performance, but of course she came through anyway. “When I watched the film it upset me, because it looked like I was watching my mother, as I remember her. And to see her going through this was actually quite hard.”
“Marvel and all that certainly has its place, but it shouldn’t be replacing our great stories, our great fables, like the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. They’re there for a purpose, they’ve served many generations” – Sigourney Weaver
Once again, what’s interesting about the film is that it uses fantasy as a tool to explore things that are most definitely real. The boy’s imaginings are there to help him deal with the inescapable fact of death. “I think so many adults don’t realise children think about these things quite a bit,” says Weaver. “They know that death is part of life as much as any of us do.” You’d think a movie about a kid talking to a tree would be corny, but somehow it’s frighteningly honest – there’s no last-minute reprieve. “Marvel and all that certainly has its place, but it shouldn’t be replacing our great stories, our great fables, like the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. They’re there for a purpose, they’ve served many generations.” Whereas in franchises (including, admittedly, her own), “Death means nothing... It’s just a blip and then you’re back.”
While Avatar will take up a good part of the next two years and has brought Weaver to LA, her real home is still New York, where she lives with her husband, stage director Jim Simpson. Until recently he was managing The Flea, a Tribeca theatre devoted to new and experimental pieces. Simpson stepped down as artistic director in 2014, but the pair are still devoted to fundraising for the venue. “I especially love to watch (theatre) at the The Flea because it’s so intimate. You never know what’s going to happen,” says Weaver of the space. “And the audience is young because theatre tickets are so cheap. They usually get a free beer too. I just like that kind of rowdy theatre.”
This is the fire that stokes Weaver, an almost teenage enthusiasm for what she does that simmers beneath her sometimes grave exterior. You can see a glimpse of it in her pictures with the late Helmut Newton, where she stands nude and resplendent, chiffon and wild hair billowing around her. “I really miss Helmut, he was a very funny, very sweet man, and once I got used to him telling me what to do we had a lot of fun.” It was a longstanding collaboration that spanned decades, and the imagery they created together speaks of a great mutual respect. “He was the only famous photographer I ever kept working with, because it gave me something that no other job did.”
In the midst of all this new work, there is one character she would like to revisit. “I didn’t really know that a big part of me wanted to finish her story. We left her in this absurd situation,” says Weaver of Ellen Ripley, brought back as a genetically enhanced clone for the fourth movie after casting herself into the flames at the end of Alien 3. “And, as that doesn’t seem right, (we want to) somehow give her an ending.” Originally floated by South African director Neill Blomkamp when they worked together on AI thriller Chappie, the project is on ice until she’s finished with Avatar – but Blomkamp has written the script, so it’s a distinct possibility. She evidently has enormous affection for her creation, and recognises Ripley’s importance.“I think I was liberated as an actor just to play the person. I didn’t have to wear a little outfit. I wasn’t treated as a sexual creature. I was just a person trying to survive.” She says Scott didn’t think that audiences would believe “this young woman” would survive to the end. But she did. And now she might come back. Weaver smiles. “It still means something.”
A Monster Calls is out in UK cinemas from January 1, 2017
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