Sigourney Weaver: The Heat is On
After three years off the screen, Sigourney Weaver is back in a big way: she commanded a $5.5 million salary to reprise Ripley in Alien 3, then reunited with her Alien director Ridley Scott to portray Queen Isabella in his epic 1492 Here she chats about everything from which co-stars kiss the best to why she wanted to play Catwoman.
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.