Sigourney Weaver: Ripley’s Game
Sigourney Weaver had two upcoming releases when she appeared on the cover of the September 1997 issue of Movieline Magazine. She reprised her role as Ellen Ripley for the last time in the reboot Alien: Resurrection and she starred in Ang Lee’s seventies-set drama, The Ice Storm. In this interview, Weaver speaks honestly about the roles she turned down, the costars who were put off by her height and what it’s like to be recognized by strangers.
Pausing just the right number of beats for the glittery crowd to absorb how subtly sensational she looked wrapped in a crimson, backless Cerruti gown, Sigourney Weaver set off her personal fireworks last March as a presenter at the Academy Awards. With a manner balanced aptly between wry and properly patrician, she radiated uptown smarts, breeding, sexiness and supreme comfort in her own skin.
In other words, she came on much the way she always has in her best on-screen moments.
Ever since Weaver turned heads with her passionate, ineffably elegant performance opposite Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously, she’s been one of Hollywood’s few actresses of substance and style. Over the years, she’s proved gorgeously hilarious in Ghostbusters, statuesquely witchy in Working Girl (for which she nailed an Oscar nomination) and bracingly uncompromising in Gorillas in the Mist (another Oscar nomination), to name a few of her triumphs. But for sheer cinematic impact, nothing can rival the character Weaver created back in 1979 in the gritty, terrifying sci-fi film Alien.
Hardworking, no-nonsense, smarter-than-the-guys Ripley had all the makings of a classic film character, and with the release of the extraordinary sequel Aliens in 1986, she achieved icon status (and Weaver got her first Oscar nomination). Now, with the third Alien sequel, Alien Resurrection, poised for holiday release, Ripley stands as gallant and heroic as any celluloid hero who ever kicked butt–and considerably brainier than most.
Weaver comes honestly by her looks, her bearing and her style. To the manor born, she’s the daughter of Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, a TV pioneer who became president of NBC, and elegant British actress Elizabeth Inglis, whom Alfred Hitchcock cast in The 39 Steps. She maxed the gifts of her gene pool by studying drama at Yale, then taking on adventuresome stage work at every opportunity to balance out the success she achieved in Hollywood films. Her role as the surreally faithless Connecticut wife in director Ang Lee’s Cannes-applauded film The Ice Storm is, in its style, intelligence and dark humor, a perfect culmination of Weaver’s years of mixing stage, screen and celebrity. With The Ice Storm and Alien Resurrection hitting screens this season in separate but equally compelling statements of purposeful style, how could we not have Weaver on the cover of Movieline’s special Hollywood Style issue?
STEPHEN REBELLO: You looked swell at the Oscars.
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: Thank you. The miracle of hair and makeup, you know. A friend of mine was sitting next to two women who said about me, “She’s had work done, but it’s very good work.” I’ve done my work at the gym, thanks.
Q: People in their 20s think you’re a godhead because you play Ripley. Just ask any of them around the Movieline offices.
A: Really? I was thinking Winona would bring in that crowd. That’s nice to know. Oh no, more pressure!
Q: The last time we talked, I had the feeling that you were still a bit baffled, maybe even a touch embarrassed about having become famous playing an action hero.
A: You mean it seemed I might be thinking, “It’s science fiction. I’m above that.” Well, I’m very lucky to still be doing it. Having these successful movies enables me to do things like The Ice Storm.
Q: There are so many ways we could talk about Ripley, one of the strongest characters in the last 20 years. How would you characterize her from the first movie to the new one?
A: In the first, she was the new recruit, very idealistic, very much by-the-book. Second one? Disillusioned, angry, filled with foreboding about reigniting her battle with the aliens, a battle that actually brings her back to life in a way. The third one, she knows she’s going to die, feels that inevitability coming closer and closer. In this new one, she’s unleashed, totally unpredictable. Even she doesn’t know what she’s going to do. She’s more animal, sniffing the air. This new Alien picture is pretty kinky and I was lucky to have a particularly kinky director [French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet] who was as interested as I was in pushing the sensual side of the story.
Q: Let’s talk about how you pushed for that evolution.
A: I don’t think it’s a dark secret that Alien Resurrection has me cloned against my will. I felt Ripley should come back almost like a vampire. Her skin should be radiantly fresh, an element added to her that makes her sexual and incredibly lustrous. She’s almost too good to be true, and you don’t know where she’s getting it from. I wanted her to look “new and improved” strong, a little bit like a “creature.” I didn’t want to carry a gun. I mean, once you’ve died, it’s not a big deal to die again. I thought it was important for her not to need all that paraphernalia.
Q: What, in your mind, is Ripley’s overall back-story?
A: I’ve always known she came from a meat-and-potatoes kind of family where the sexual roles were very dear: strong father, wonderful mother, blah-blah-blah. She’s had a daughter, she’s married, but she’s like these other real-life women who go into combat–she has a sense of duty, she still wants to do this thing. I’ve always felt her father and brothers had all been space cadets.
Q: You were very lucky on Aliens, a sequel after all, to get a director like James Cameron, weren’t you?
A: You need that lucky break. I had just done Half Moon Street. To get a distributor, the director had taken Paul Theroux’s very unconventional character and tried to make her sympathetic. That was such a cop-out. I remember saying, “The next director I work with is going to be a real fighter, a real megalomaniac who’s gonna force the studio to do what he or she wants.” I remember working with Jim Cameron in this little English dubbing studio. We were supposed to go daily from nine a.m. to four p.m. Every night, we’d still be going at midnight. Here we were, two fighters, megalomaniacs working in the same room. We got along great.You need to be crazy to work in film, theater, to be an artist of any kind.
Q: Moviegoers barely know Alien3–and yet Ripley committed suicide in that one.
A: I’m still disappointed that the American public didn’t embrace that film. It’s often not even mentioned when people talk about the series. David Fincher is an amazing director who never got to do his script. The reasons that movie didn’t work weren’t David’s doing at all. I had total confidence in him right away, so his success with Se7en doesn’t surprise me at all. Months before Copycat [the 1995 film in which Weaver starred] was supposed to come out, I went to [executives at] Warner Bros. and said, “You cannot bring out this movie opposite Se7en. I know David and he’s going to make an amazing movie.” They went, “Brad Pitt in a moustache? Ugh.” I ran into them again at Cannes and said: “I told you!”
Q: When Alien3 was released, you sounded almost relieved that your character was going to die.
A: I felt a little guilty doing this new one because I had really wanted Ripley to die. One of the reasons I wanted her to die, though, was that I had heard they were going to do Alien vs. Predator. That was so hideous, I thought, “They’re crazy to develop this great thing over the years and now they’re just going to shit all over it.” It’s different now at Fox. I had other ideas about Ripley’s death, though.
Q: Which were?
A: Ultimately, I think we take death for granted as our way out. Things get too hard, we can split and be gone. But in this future, you can split and someone can bring you back, whether or not that’s what you want. I thought, “Wow, that’s an amazing thing to grapple with. That’s what she’s got inside of her.”
Q: Why, aside from the fabulous payday, did you want to make Alien Resurrection?
A: I was seduced by the script, which is really good, the best Ripley I’ve ever gotten to play. Then I met Winona and just liked her so much right away. I think she’s an amazing actress and person, terribly funny.
Q: You mean it wasn’t the fabulous costumes?
A: I do have a very nice costume, my best by far. It’s very tight brown leather, lots of straps–just beautifully cut, very practical. This movie marks a real departure in many ways, but the director didn’t want a departure costume-wise. He wanted the grungy look of the other movies. We couldn’t go as far as we wanted with the costumes, but my costume is exactly what I wanted.
Q: You’re considered to be one of the least diva-like of actors, but I heard you had a bad argument with your director. Care to elaborate?
A: One day that I can remember, I was coming down with something. I was very frustrated because sometimes the language thing got to be difficult. I had thought of a scene one way and–obviously, with each Alien picture, I have stronger and stronger ideas about what’s important, about what the audience wants, because I’m the one they tell when they meet me. Anyway, there was something Jean-Pierre didn’t want to focus on and I just had a sense of the rhythm the picture needed in order for the ending to work. Jean-Pierre didn’t agree. That was a tough day. I was just feeling under the weather. I didn’t do anything big. I left the set for a minute, twice. That was my form of a nervous breakdown. When I came home I got really sick.
Q: You had director approval, didn’t you?
A: Yeah, I did. And I should have.
Q: How did it go when you met Trainspotting director Danny Boyle, who was originally offered the movie?
A: We didn’t really talk about the script as much as what it was like to do a giant Alien picture. He had some concerns, which I guess I didn’t put to rest. He said, “I like to work with my actors and not have 200 people standing around.” I said, “Look, between you and the actors, it’s exactly the same as making a small film. It’s as intimate as you want to make it. The only difference is, if you say, ‘I don’t like that door handle color, paint it blue, you will have 200 people standing around waiting while they paint it blue.'” I’m surprised he made the decision he did, because the script is so marvelous.
Q: I recently ran across a photo of you and Mel Gibson, looking ravishing at Cannes 14 years ago when The Year of Living Dangerously competed. In that shot and that movie, you two have a chemistry that makes me have to ask: did you have a crash on him?
A: Yes. I loved Mel. I didn’t have a crush on him so much as he sort of restored my faith. Here was a guy who was so good-looking but didn’t care about that, loved his wife, carried her around because she was pregnant, made sure she took vitamins. He was just, like, a regular guy. [But] if he hadn’t been married, who knows? I think one of the reasons I married my husband [theater director Jim Simpson] was he reminded me of Mel Gibson.
Q: You competed at Cannes again this year with The Ice Storm. How did the experience compare?
A: You know, you said “ravishing” a second ago. What I remember about that time was not that I was particularly ravishing at all, but that Mel was so beautiful that when we walked down the Croisette, I felt like an observer watching the world discover Mel. He’s such a sweet person, I couldn’t have been happier for him. We loved working together and I just felt very happy that I knew him. He was so “Mel.” Back then, I didn’t feel very secure. When I returned this year for The Ice Storm, I felt like part of the community.
Q: Didn’t Peter Weir tell you right after you started The Year of Living Dangerously he was shocked at how little you knew about acting?
A: Yes. He was actually kind of cranky. When I was at Cannes the first time I also remember feeling relief that every frame I shot for the movie was in the movie. At the casting session, Peter had told me that my role was one of the things he might even get rid of entirely. I remember doing this now kind-of famous scene where I walk through the pouring rain to Mel’s office. We were shooting this scene in Manila and we could do only one take. They turned firehoses on me and I was, like, bodysurfing. Meanwhile, the extras–villagers, really–weren’t cooperating because they were very unhappy with our being there. After he yelled “Cut,” Peter came up to me and said, “Whatever you were doing was completely wrong. We’ll reshoot this in sunshine.” But shortly after, we got death threats and got thrown out of the Philippines. Luckily, the continuity girl had quietly printed the take we had all thought was a disaster.
When it came up on the screen in dailies, there was something so amazing about it that Peter stood up and said, “That’s the movie.” That meant so much to me because it had really thrown me, when someone I respected as much as Peter said, “That sucked.” I wasn’t very secure then, anyway. I’d had such an awful time shooting Eyewitness, and I’d been fired by Nicol Williamson from “the Scottish play” Macbeth.