Sigourney Weaver: The Heat is On
Sigourney Weaver is a genre icon. It’s probably a safe bet that she is best known for having played Ellen Ripley in four Alien movies with the threat of a fifth installment to be made some day if the stars align. Despite a strong connection with science fiction, Weaver’s career has been fairly eclectic. She’s done comedies ranging from Ghostbusters to Working Girl and prestige pictures like Gorillas in the Mist. And she’s been nominated for Oscars in all of these different kinds of roles.
In 1992, Weaver was returning to the part of Ripley for what was supposed to be the last time in Alien3. She was coming off a hiatus during which she gave birth to her only child. In this cover story from the June 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Weaver discussed her changing priorities as an actress and a mother.
I rap on the door of Sigourney Weaver’s suite of rooms high atop a hotel just a whistle away from Central Park, wondering which particular Sigourney will greet me. Weaver, one of our most paradoxical stars, boasts a truly varied career–and a personal profile to match. There’s pop Sigourney, whom moviegoers know as the vampy woman possessed in two Ghostbusters movies and as the flame-throwing, heroic Rambolina of the Alien movies, the second installment of which won her an Oscar nomination and the third of which has just fireballed into theaters.
Then there’s classy Sigourney, rival of Meryl and Glenn, who has copped a Tony nomination for her stage work and stars in the most intelligent of commercial films, like Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously and Michael Apted’s Gorillas in the Mist (which won her another Oscar nomination). In-between, there’s Sigourney the restless sophisticate, scoring yet another Oscar nod for a whiz-bang comic turn in Mike Nichols’s Working Girl.
The offscreen Weaver scans just as contradictorily. Her father is the estimable Pat Weaver, who ran NBC for five years. Her mother, Elizabeth Inglis, acted for Hitchcock and Wyler before retiring to raise Sigourney (nee Susan, but self-renamed after a character mentioned in The Great Gatsby). Raised in New York society, Sigourney went to all the right schools, including Stanford and Yale, and came out as a debutante twice.
None of this seems the likeliest background for the young hellion Weaver became in off-Broadway efforts that teamed her up with playwright pal Christopher Durang and demonstrated her real gifts for comedy. In one play, the two hurled vegetables at the audience while singing “Welfare Mothers on Parade”; in another, she played a lesbian who secretes a warthog in her vagina. All of which got her notices but, better yet, got her noticed. And soon she was toning it down for TV roles in PBS’s “The Best of Families,” and “Somerset.” Then came movies, awards, great expectations and a career that–one can’t help feeling–ought to have taken this major actress further than the Ghostbusters and Alien successes.
So, I’m standing outside her door wondering which Sigourney will greet me: The one who throws famous parties renowned for their jugglers, scavenger hunts and rub-off tattoos? Or the one who often strikes journalists as serious and dutiful? Or the sly parodist who once stalked a Vanity Fair reporter in Norma Desmond-ish old-time movie queen drag, six cigarettes in her fingers, sighing, “I’m ready for my interview”?
Weaver is, as it turns out, a little of all these. At once shy, friendly and utterly self-assured, she greets me and then asks, “Shall we order in everything on the room service menu?” Married for eight years to theater director Jim Simpson, with whom she has a two-year-old daughter, Charlotte, Weaver is every inch a happy Upper West Side Manhattan mother and movie star.
STEPHEN REBELLO: So, what do you make of this magazine whose cover you’re going to be splashed across?
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: [laughing] I get the entertainment magazines a little confused, I’m sorry. But I’d say: “Movieline: not as nasty as Spy, much more dishy and fun than Premiere.” How’d I do?
Q: Close enough. I have a notion that lots of us secretly walk around with some sort of theme music rattling around in our brains. What’s yours?
A: That’s a very nice theory, really quite romantic. It’s probably true that we all have a kind of rhythm and spirit that we try and bring into a room. With that in mind, I would say that secretly I’m a mambo kind of girl. I have this New York side, but actually the fun side is more Latin. I’m more about the beat than what the words are saying, you know?
Q: Why have we seen so much less of the mambo girl in your movies than the confident, patrician, somewhat off-putting New York girl?
A: I’ve always chosen to do films for selfish, interior reasons rather than, “Oh, this would be good for me to do.” I either thought, “I’ll have a very good time working on this,” or, “I want to get to know the people involved.” I’ve found if your agent says, “This would be a good thing for you to do,” it’s inevitably a disaster.
Q: You had great career momentum going after Gorillas in the Mist and Working Girl, both of which earned you Oscar nominations. Then, after Ghostbusters II, you had a baby and seemed to vanish.
A: That was a personal choice. I was getting into my late thirties and wanted to have a family, so I had to make choices about my priorities. Also, one of the funny things that happened after Gorillas was that I was sent a lot of wonderful parts that were all, like, women climbing Annapurna or women who do that dog sleigh race. I was a little afraid of playing too many heroic people–I didn’t want to turn into Charlton Heston.
Q: So if you were to, right now, come across the “Sigourney Weaver” entry in an encyclopedia of movie stars, how do you think it would read?
A: I’m hopeful I’d have much better things to do, but it would probably say, “Best known for her blood and guts portrayal in the Alien series,” and, hopefully, “did some interesting work in other films.” With this new Alien movie coming out, I’m conscious of the fact that the character Ripley is very much in people’s minds. But when those [Alien] movies aren’t happening for me anymore, my greatest hope would be that someone might write: “Good all-around actress who did a lot of different kinds of films and had a great time doing it.” Undoubtedly, though, there would be a big picture of me in a torn undershirt or something.
Q: How does someone who was once described as “the latter-day Katharine Hepburn” wind up our Terminatrix?
A: It is odd being thought of as the female Harrison Ford. We have that same kind of rocking back and forth between action pictures. It used to frustrate me more because I was a terrible snob when I first started in the business. I certainly didn’t want to be caught dead in a science fiction picture. But, I mean, no one meant to do sequels to Alien or anything. If you’re lucky enough to find material that can nurture several stories, that’s great, but it’s an accident.
Q: Not to knock a steady gig, but might you have a different career profile minus Ripley?
A: I’m lucky enough to be sent a lot of really good pictures, and part of those come from being very well known as Ripley. In a way, I consider it an amazing privilege to have played this character–happily, with so many years between each sequel–because there are so few women characters around who are just the bare bones person: no hair, no makeup, no frills. The opportunity to get rid of everything and just be there, to play someone who’s just at survival, was really great for my work and has always been a test of what I’ve learned, of my confidence and technique. Alien3 is so completely different from the second one and even the first one that, hopefully, the audience will leave with a very different viewpoint about me. And, I think, carrying the strongest feeling.
Q: Yet one hears that you weren’t exactly in a rush to do another Alien.
A: Well, it was their idea. When Aliens came out, the producers said to me–and this was before the Back to the Future sequels were shot back to back–“Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a third one without Ripley, about their returning to the original planet and screwing up? Then, back to back, to shoot the fourth movie, in which Ripley comes back and saves the day or something?” They put together quite a wonderful script without my character, but [Fox chairman] Joe Roth said, “We can’t do an Alien picture without Ripley.” Then we started work on putting my character into another screenplay that didn’t work out.
Q: Didn’t you refuse to sign on until very late in the game? Surely, not all of it had to do with script problems.
A: A lot of it did. At the start of each of them, all I’ve ever said is, “Please give me something interesting to do because I know more now,” and, “I don’t want to do what I did before.” There was a wonderful Vincent Ward script in which Ripley was unconscious for half the picture; it had a great, unusual male lead. Then Larry Ferguson did a draft and made the mistake lots of writers do of making Ripley sound like this uptight camp counselor who swears every other sentence. Then we asked Walter Hill and David Giler to come and be writers on it. As soon as they did, their interests as producers were compromised so we essentially lost them as producers, which is painful for all of us. But they gave me a wonderful part.
Q: Didn’t your requirements for what the movie should and shouldn’t be also slow things down?
A: I didn’t want to be in a movie with guns. By this time, of course, everyone is expecting me to come out swinging cannons over my shoulder or something. Also, I didn’t want to rehash the material and I wanted it to be the last one. So there were, I guess, a lot of things that I was asking for.
Q: Like close to a $6 million salary?
A: [nodding] I keep thinking if I were negotiating now, they would never have given me what I asked for. And I wouldn’t have done the picture.
Q: Aren’t you involved with Fox in a legal wrangle over profits from Aliens?
A: I think it’s still pending. The salaries we get are so absurd, but all of us who did Aliens were ripped off. I ended up paying about 70 percent in taxes, which was a shock, because that movie was a killer to do. You get these absurd financial printouts, and I just got mine saying Aliens is still in the red. But now it’s like $12,000 in the red and they’ll run out of things to charge us for. So, maybe it will resolve itself. All I could think when I was naked doing Alien3 was: “Thank God I’m not going to get screwed again,” not, “Wow, look what I’ve achieved.”
Q: You won a producer’s credit on this movie, too?
A: Yes, I’m a co-producer.
Q: Weren’t you also unhappy because Fox pressured James Cameron to cut from Aliens footage you liked about Ripley, her family, and Newt, the little girl she “adopted”?
A: That three minutes of material changed everything. That is another reason why I wouldn’t want to do another one of these pictures. If you bust your gut trying to play a character and then they take away your raison d’etre, it’s such a slap in the face.
Q: Lots of the new movie is set on a kind of prison planetoid, and you shaved your head for it.
A: I’ll follow a director pretty much anywhere. I said, very seriously, to David Fincher in the middle of this big meeting at Fox–before he even had the job of directing the movie–“So, how do you see the character of Ripley, anyway?” He said: “Well, how do you feel about bald?” At that second I fell in love with him. Everything is pared down in this picture. Now [the studio] has some worry because it’s so dark and atmospheric, that it’s, like, 30 bald actors and me talking.
Q: Didn’t Fox exert an iron fist throughout the shooting?
A: Politically, it’s very difficult to make sure that everyone is supporting the same film, let alone the right film. It felt like we had to fight for everything. Maybe that’s normal, especially when it’s such a big budget picture. And this is a sequel, a known quantity. But when you’re giving this amazing young talent like David or Jim Cameron or Ridley Scott a chance to go for it, you’ve got to let them go for it. The [audience] is going to expect guns, action nonstop and David has done something very stylish, cynical, yet innocent at the same time. Maybe some people will say it’s too slow or existential. And that’s got people at Fox a little nervous. David says, “We all sat around deciding to make this amazing tea cup and it’s not for us now to say, ‘Why isn’t it a beer mug?'”
Q: Didn’t this movie get shot, like, a couple of times?
A: We weren’t allowed to finish the film, originally, because [the studio] felt we’d done enough. It’s an expensive picture, about $40 million. Because the movie is getting such a good response, the boss is putting a little more money in it. We did a week of reshoots in November– little things–and they’re doing a couple of days of more alien stuff that we’ve been fighting for. It’s stuff that was always in the script, but cost too much money. Bit by bit, we’re getting everything we wanted.
Q: To quote a Stephen Sondheim lyric, you sound “sorry/grateful” to have it behind you.
A: I feel very, very good that it’s the last one. I mean, the last one for me. I had lunch with a Fox executive last week who said, “What if Fox someday wants to do Alien 4?” I said: “So do it.” Ripley could become a burden to whatever writer or director was working on the movie. But because I’ve had to say goodbye to her, I’ve really embraced Ripley. From the beginning of the film and throughout most of it, there’s a big awareness that you’re with a very different person than the one you knew before. Something major has happened to her: she’s gotten older.
Q: You actually sound sad.
A: This will probably look weird in print, but I love Ripley and think of her as sort of separate from me. At this point, she’s one of my closest friends. I know it sounds crazy, but I came to realize that the only way she could finally get any peace was if I, the actor, was willing to go deep into the material and allow her a release. I had to be braver than I wanted to be in order to let her go. And it sounds completely cuckoo, but that was very, very hard.
Q: You have a production deal at Fox. Are you nervous about the film’s doing well, for career reasons?
A: Somewhat, because if it doesn’t do well, they’ll blame it on my being a woman and I’ll play right into their hands. I want it to do reasonably well. But if these films make lots of money, I never get the credit; it’s the director and the technology.
Q: Does wetting your feet on this movie make you look any differently at producing your own movies?
A: I want to produce–I mean, I am doing it. But having recently done 1492, in which I was just an actor, it was a luxury not to have them say to me, “We don’t have a penny more if we don’t finish in Seville. What are we going to do?” It was their problem.
Q: That movie reunited you with Ridley Scott, who directed you in Alien, and Gerard Depardieu, with whom you made One Woman or Two. Let’s start with Depardieu.
A: The best actor in the world. You look in his eyes and everything disappears except for what is going on in there.
Q: Have you ever fantasized about aiming Ripley’s flamethrower at the movie you two made together in France, One Woman or Two?
A: You’ve actually seen it? Luckily, you’re the only one in the world who has. Daniel Vigne [the director] has had a lot of bad luck since, but I always felt slightly alarmed because he wanted these very broad takes, almost like kabuki, with which I was never comfortable. You have to trust your director, so I thought, “If I’m pulling back when everyone else is doing that, it won’t work.” Even for the French, apparently, it was too much. It was still a dream job. I made very good friends on that production and, in fact, the costume designer is my daughter’s godmother. Gerard was so sympathetic to my efforts to work in French and now, here he is, working so wonderfully in English. He is Columbus, and Ridley is getting such a kick out of working with him.