The Total Film Interview - Sigourney Weaver

She’s battled gender stereotypes, male suits and, of course, alien bitches for 30 years. Hollywood’s warrior queen comes out fighting…

Never work with children, never work with animals and, if you’re an actress, never work past 40. These are the rules. The last was made by rotund, cigar-chomping, rumple-faced studio moguls – male, of course – and is perpetuated by slim, gum-chewing, exfoliated studio execs. Male, of course.

Sigourney Weaver doesn’t play by the rules. She doesn’t exactly shatter them, either – they are durable, for youth and beauty are synonymous now more than ever – but she operates within their parameters. Thrives, even.

“I’m just a working actor, nearly 57 years old. I don’t miss being flavour of the month at all,” she smiles. “Celebrity is such a waste of time, especially with the way the press is now. Who cares what an actress is wearing? I just like doing the films I want to do.”

Like Snowcake, a low-budget, low-key drama set in the ghost town of Wawa, North Ontario. Weaver plays Linda, a high-functioning autistic woman who loses her teenage daughter to a car crash and then has her (pathological) routine further upended by the arrival of Alan Rickman’s remorseful Alex, driver of the fated vehicle. It’s a warm, tender film, only occasionally sentimental, and Weaver dispenses a knockout performance: her courage smacks hard as Linda skips and dances, wails and lurches, hair jerked back to reveal a weathered face sans make-up.

The actress sat in the Dorchester Hotel today is elegantly turned out… but who cares what she’s wearing? More arresting are her gleaming eyes and lusty laugh, an earthy cheeriness belying her reputation as the woman who’s spent 30 years shrinking Hollywood’s balls. “I’d walk in a room and the execs would go, ‘She’s so tall!’ They were totally intimidated by that.” But it wasn’t just the 5’ 11” frame that shrivelled scrotums. It was also the English BA from Stanford, the MA in Drama from Yale. Weaver grins. “People mistook me as a snob in the early years. They thought I was looking down at them – and I don’t mean literally – but it was just my own discomfort. I was shy.”

Even so, Weaver’s knack of threatening the patriarchal order led to a string of tough, no-nonsense characters: Dian Fossey in Gorillas In The Mist; Working Girl’s Katharine Parker (always described by male critics as a “bitch”); a Queen and a First Lady in, respectively, 1492: Conquest Of Paradise and Dave; a wicked stepmother in Snow White: A Tale Of Terror and, of course, Alien’s Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley.

Yet it’s in comedy that Weaver insists her true talent and identity lie, the actress pointing, in deadly seriousness, to Ghostbusters I and II, Galaxy Quest, Heartbreakers and Tadpole by way of proof. “I’m really just a goon,” she laughs. “And now I’m in my fifties, free of being a star, I hope to do nothing but comedies for the rest of my life. Well, comedies and movies like Snowcake, where the challenge was to find humour within the drama.” And maybe, perhaps, conceivably, Alien 5? More on that later…

One of the characters in Snowcake says, “I know all about autism – I’ve seen that movie.” Did your own experience begin and end with Rain Man’s Raymond Babbit before you took the role?

I naively thought I knew a little bit about autism. Then I started to research, which took me a long, long time, and the more I looked into it the less I realised I knew. It’s so hard to generalise about this condition.

Didn’t you move in with Ros Blackburn, the autistic lady who partly inspired the screenplay?

I didn’t live with her; it wouldn’t have been good for me or for her! I lived down the street in a little hotel and we spent about a week together. She taught me to be autistic. She taught me the walk. We practiced and we would howl with laughter at my early attempts. She also introduced me to playing, which she does very professionally.

‘Playing’ as in building snowmen and dancing and waving sparkly objects around?

Yes. I met a number of people with autism and their joy in what they do is fantastic. Obviously many things in their lives are extremely frustrating, but they’re just so in touch with the stuff that we as adults are out of touch with. People who are truly autistic think that all of our drama about friendships is such a waste of time.

It’s a fearless performance. At one point you’re doing the vacuuming in your sweatpants, bum thrust to the camera...

I really enjoyed being in comfy clothes and playing someone who didn’t have to worry about appearance. I learned from Linda. On the set, when things got too ‘grrr’, I would just go off by myself. Linda has this carefree quality; it was like going on vacation.

You mention in the press notes that people with autism are on a spectrum... as are all of us. Where do you fall? Do you ever rock back and forth or bite your nails?

I’m more accepting of my craziness than I used to be. I used to go, “Oh, when will I be secure?” But I’ve given up thinking like that. At a certain point you go, “Ah well, I’m secure enough. I can do what I can do, I have people who I love and who love me, and that’s it.” [Pause] We’re all stimming [repetitive actions associated with autistics], all of the time. I was looking around the plane on the way over here and there was a guy who was reading a book going [gnaws nails] and some woman who was going [repeatedly twirls hair around index finger]. As we get older we also prefer that things are consistent. We crave sameness, things we can anticipate.

Snowcake is another example of how you like to balance small, intimate movies with star vehicles...

I feel lucky that I have a certain amount of stardom. I can support a little film like this and sure, it helps. But I also think, in the last few years, I really haven’t been offered the big films. That’s just the way it is. I’m actually enjoying my work more now than ever because small films and medium-sized films have always been more interesting to me.

They’re sprinkled throughout your CV. What is it that draws you to a character? Is there a common denominator?

I’m drawn to playing unconventional women – women who don’t fit in. I love to be a part of telling these stories about women who have to go their own way, whether they want to or not. And I don’t think it’s always a choice. It’s more like, “Oh fuck it, I have to go and take care of some gorillas…”

I just remember growing up and seeing all these images of women everywhere, perfect women, not a hair out of place, and I remember thinking, “I want to be like that.” So when I grew up, I wanted to play women who were not like that, so I could show what’s behind it.

Many viewers will equate Sigourney Weaver with strong, inspirational characters...

I have different pockets of people who know my work. Certainly people who only know the Alien movies think of me as tough, but to me I’ve played only vulnerable women. Even Ripley. She’s a bare-bones kind of woman and she doesn’t fall apart, which people think is tough, but she only keeps it together because she has to. She’s alone.

Did you ever dream she’d become such an icon? Back when you first pulled on the flight suit?

When they first dressed me up as Ripley it was in one of those pink and blue uniforms. Ridley Scott came in and said, “You look like fucking Jackie O’NASA.” We went into this room where there were all these costumes from NASA and he tore it apart until we finally found this flight suit that was an actual flight suit. And that’s what I wore. But no one on that film was a feminist. Everyone thought, “Who will ever think the woman is gonna be the survivor?”, so it was just one big gag. I’m amazed that I’ve been allowed to come back to the character four times.

Why do you keep coming back? Initially, after every Alien movie, even the first, you’ve said, “No more...”

It’s rare to read a good script where an ordinary woman has such a canvas on which to paint: big themes, life and death. Also, as I worked and became more confident and more skilled, I was anxious to come back to Ripley to see what I could find. And the biggest thrill was to work with these young directors each time.

So why the reservations about reprising the role?

My misgivings are always that we’ve played out the monster. I never want to simply ride on the coattails of the one that went before. But whenever someone comes along and reinterprets it, then I think, “I’m game to go.”

Will you be “game to go” on Alien 5 at any time in the forseeable future?

I talked to Ridley [Scott] about it. We tossed around some ideas but it’s not like either of us are sat around going, “Gee, we don’t have enough to do, let’s do Alien 5.” If it doesn’t happen, I really don’t care. But… in these times now… God, to go to another planet would be like a vacation. To have a monster, right in front of me, that I can kill – it seems so simple, so innocent. We need movies like that.

So, on the record, you’re ready to revisit Ripley should the right script thump on your doorstep?

Yes. What I love is the situation of a character who’s lived way beyond her era. That’s what appeals to me – the alienation. If Fox came to me with a brilliant script and a brilliant director, then… I don’t know. But I’m not sure it’ll happen. I’m sure they actually think I’m too old now. The irony is that women in their fifties come into their own in a way they don’t before, so it would be such a powerful, iconic image to have a woman in her fifties play Ripley. But it would have to be a very unusual head of a studio to okay that.

The salary must play a part, too. Bruce Willis would get $25 million if it were his franchise, so surely you must want to make a stand in the name of equality?

Yes, I do, but I guess I’m going disappoint you because I’d much prefer to do another Alien in a low-budget, rough-and-ready way… and I’d rather have a piece of the [percentage] pie through an honest accountant! Movies sink under the weight of their budgets and big budget movies take forever. I love low budget films because you shoot three scenes a day and you work instinctively, the cinematographer throwing the lights up as you go. With a science-fiction movie, you could do it in your back yard.

Alien³ is the most stripped-down of the series. It was your debut as a producer and something of a baptism of fire. Did you learn from it when you set up your own production company, Goat Cay?

It’s probably not a good idea to unearth these old wars but… What was ironic was that Fox chose David Fincher, who was so talented, and from the second he got the job they undermined him by not giving him what he was asking for. For me it was a real education in how not to make a movie. They distrusted what we were up to and it was very difficult for David, trying to make a first film, having to get on the phone every night at midnight after such a long day of shooting.

What was your goal with Goat Cay, and why did it eventually shut down?

The aim was always to get new voices – voices from the theatre – into film. We had lots of new voices but they were all too fresh at the time. I was trying to shake the business up because I was just so bored with everything I was being sent, but it was just before the industry got into independent film and I think we were just a little ahead of our time. It was a great idea and I’m glad we did it, but in the end Fox Searchlight changed heads. They now wanted a comedy of manners, we were doing Buffalo Soldiers. We tried.

Over the years you’ve cohabited with gorillas and fought acid-blooded xenomorphs, but your toughest role was playing Paulina in Death And The Maiden. Is it true you went Method?

I did. I worked with a guy named Jack Waltzer, who studied with Stella Adler. What we did was weave my experience, such as it was, with Paulina’s. I was certainly never imprisoned and raped and tortured, but, like everyone, I’ve experienced traumas. It was cathartic to locate my demons and to unblock that energy. It was like Pandora’s Box: I couldn’t control what was coming out, but at least I did it. And at least I found out what was there.

The scene where you gag Ben Kingsley’s rapist with your underwear is troubling. Didn’t Roman Polanski have to convince you to do it?

Roman was keen to go there and I was keen to follow him. It was in the script. You have to remember that Roman had been in the position of each of the three characters: he’d been a kid in Nazi Germany who was a victim, he’d been the helpless husband of the woman who’d been raped, and he’d been the rapist. So what he did was create a film where you really don’t know who’s telling the truth. That was quite a surprise to me because certainly, in the script, it was Paulina who was telling the truth. No question.

Was Polanski forthcoming about his own past in order to help you get in character?

No, no, no! Roman didn’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of personal emotions: he wanted to keep it disciplined and steely and he left it to me to get things going underneath. What I will say, though, is that Roman is the greatest director I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with a lot. His attention to detail... One day he spent all day shooting a salt and pepper shaker. I was like, “Er, isn’t the action over here with us?” Then I saw the dailies and the salt and pepper shaker absolutely sent chills down my spine. I don’t know how he did it.

You’re obviously very proud of the film and of your work in it. Would you rather be remembered for Paulina than Ripley?

I’m very grateful to Ellen Ripley because who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t played her? I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it back in 1979. I was like, “Oh, I want to do Shakespeare.” So I feel very lucky I ended up doing it. But when people think I’ve only done Ripley, or never done anything since… that’s a bit galling.

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