Interview : Sigourney Weaver

Anna Walker 4 June 2021

Throughout her illustrious career, seven-time Golden Globe nominee Sigourney Weaver has redefined what it means to play a hero

It’s hard to imagine an actor more equipped to handle a global pandemic than Sigourney Weaver. Over a career spanning five decades, she’s battled parasitic aliens (Alien), survived demonic possession (Ghostbusters), come face-to-face with serial killers (Copycat) and even fought off poachers (Gorillas in the Mist).

I’m hardly surprised then, when she shares that her past few months have been spent not cautiously relaxing at home like the rest of us, but thrashing around in water tanks, filming scenes for the hotly anticipated Avatar sequel.

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien

Weaver as Ripley in Alien (1979)

I like workman jobs, you know,” Weaver, who turned 71 in October, explains. “I like knowing how to do things. The only time [I’m a] ‘movie star’ is on the red carpet, or at the Oscars. The rest of the time I’m running around in sweaty clothes like everybody else, working very hard in all kinds of conditions and doing my best—I love it.”

When she’s not been in the tank, much of Weaver’s quarantine has been spent surrounded by nature. “I’m going to go to the New York Botanical Garden, which I’m a trustee of, on Friday to see the cherry blossoms. I feel like one of the things that happened during quarantine was that we all went outside and could watch each season unfold. The only safe place we could be was outdoors in nature, and that has created a wonderful connection. It’s going to change things, I think—I hope—in the way we see our natural world.”

"The only safe place we could be during quarantine was outdoors in nature, and that has created a wonderful connection"

Weaver’s latest film, My New York Year, has offered the actor a break from the high-intensity films that made her name. “It was such a different, gentle, peculiar movie,” she explains, “but with wonderful characters, and it’s really a homage to writers and to the part of ourselves that dreams to be an artist.” Weaver plays Margaret, the head of a high-profile New York literary agency, counting the enigmatic author of Catcher In the Rye, JD Salinger, among its clientele. Though her performance has much in common with Meryl Streep’s turn as the ultimate tough boss, Miranda Priestly, in The Devil Wears Prada—not least in the fashion stakes—it’s a unique performance, with a vulnerable softness underlying the tough exterior.

As literary boss Margaret in My New York Year

Much of My New York Year is centred around the importance of mentors in shaping our destiny, and Maraget’s influence on the films’ young heroine, Joanna (Margaret Qualley) provides its most interesting moments. Asked who her own mentors have been, Weaver jumps at the chance to shares stories of her friendship with the legendary American actress, Jessica Tandy and her husband Hume Cronyn. “I spent a lot of time with them and took vacations with them. To this day, I’ll say to myself, what would Jessie do. I was immeasurably empowered by their humour and their way of looking at jobs. They were so down to earth and practical, and I loved their way of looking at life—which was to have a full outdoor life as well as working in theatres and in front of the camera. They were both amazing swimmers and snorkelers and went on all kinds of little expeditions. So, of course, as great as they were, I saw them as ordinary humans. Fans may want to put us on a pedestal, but really our job and our delight is to feel connected. I feel very connected to women. I think my audience is a woman who has escaped for a couple of hours and goes to a matinee in a theatre and just wants to be taken out of herself—I always feel like the work I’m doing is for her.”

"Fans may want to put us on a pedestal, but really our job and our delight is to feel connected"

Born in New York in 1949, Sigourney Weaver was immersed in the world of showbiz from her earliest days. Her father, NBC president Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, pioneered the chat show format, while her English mother, Elizabeth Inglis, was an actor, featuring in Hitchcock’s early films and alongside Bette Davis in The Letter (1940).

Central Park in New York City

As a New York native, filming offered Weaver a sense of nostalgia. Her character called to mind, “these great dames I remember in New York growing up. They lived to the nines—always flamboyant, beautifully dressed and out drinking with the boys. It was a different New York then. It was a New York dedicated to the arts and literature—we never talked about money, we never talked about success. It was about whether you could have a conversation or not. To me, [the film is] an ode to that time.”

“What I loved most about growing up in New York was that the grown-ups were very occupied with themselves. It wasn’t an era where they were helicoptering—the city was ours. Growing up in citites breeds a certain amount of caginess and resourcefulness. I remember a friend of mine was riding a horse in Central Park, and this little boy started throwing rocks at him. He cantered up to the boy, who stood up and said, “Get your w*****g horse off my grass,” she laughs. “That’s a New York kid.”

"It was a New York dedicated to the arts and literature—we never talked about money, we never talked about success"

Though Weaver had already begun to build a reputation in theatre, it was being cast in Ridley Scott’s Alien (the audition for which left Scott feeling as though he was “out for dinner with Mummy” as Weaver’s already impressive 5,11 height was accentuated by what she describes as her “hooker boots”) that tipped her into global star status. But despite falling in love with the script, Weaver could never have imagined the impact her turn as Ripley (the pioneering sci fi heroine who finds herself the lone survivor of a space-bound parasitic alien attack) would have on the world.

With Ridley Scott on the set of Alien

“I’m so glad that Ripley’s had that staying power,” she muses, on the film’s remarkable longevity. “In those days, films would always have a scene where the girl in the skirt is doing something heroic and then she’ll beak down. Well, Walter Hill and David Giler never wrote Ripley like that. These were guys, like Ridley, who loved women and were with strong women, so it was natural to them to create a character like her Ripley has to go from being a by-the-book young lieutenant to throwing the book out the window and just improvising her way through things, which is life, and it sends the message that you can do it, no matter what it is.”

“In those days, if you could imagine, there weren’t sequels. So, we did this little movie in England that we thought was going to be terrific and scary and, ground-breaking in terms of the cinematography, and what Ripley was doing—but we never expected to do another one until James Cameron wrote it. When I went into [casting] meetings after Alien, it was a wonderful thing. It was almost like I was expected to have a flamethrower in my purse or something,” she laughs.

Despite the huge popularity of the movie, Weaver has always evaded being type-cast, a feat she attributes to her love of the stage. “I wanted to do theatre, but I wasn’t very encouraged at Yale Drama School. My dream was to find a repertory company—an ensemble where you could play the maid one week and the queen the other. I loved the variety of that work. I try to construct that in my career. I love doing small parts, I love doing big parts. I love jumping from one genre to the next. I’ve just been able to somehow do that—I never was worried about being typecast.”

Weaver as Dana In Ghostbusters (1984)

When I ask whether there are roles she’s still dying to get her teeth into, Weaver becomes coy—the answer to that, she suggests, will lie in her next few projects. “The two that I’m going to play next, which I can’t talk about yet, are both wonderful characters. One shoots in England and I’m so excited. Sometimes I do think I’d like to do a play, some big old chestnut like Racine or Corneille, but then I’m just too busy doing things that feel relevant—especially for what’s happening for women right now. It’s such an exciting time. All of these neurons in culture are firing to become more inclusive—I feel like it’s one of the greatest times to be in the world and I’m grateful that I get to be part of it.”

In true Ripley style, the difficulty of surviving a global pandemic has done nothing to dampen Weaver’s sense of purpose. If anything, she’s emerging more determined to create than ever. “I think we’ve had layers of our skin removed in all of this, you know,” she explains, “with all this tragic unnecessary loss of life around us and so much hardship. I feel like now we have no skin left, and so [culture is] just pouring into us, and enriching our lives and broadening our perspective, and it makes me very hopeful and joyful.”

My New York Year is in cinemas now.

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