A few years ago, Sigourney Weaver made the rounds of the annual Comic Con gathering in San Diego disguised as Batman. Hidden behind a borrowed Batmask, she relished the opportunity to observe, rather than be observed.
“I just kind of wandered through,” she says. “It was fascinating. I’d never been ‘backstage’, as it were, before. But they were so caught in what they were doing that I think I could have walked through without a mask and they wouldn’t have noticed.”
Speaking in New York, she’s resplendent at 67 in an aquamarine cocktail dress. It’s difficult to imagine Weaver ever blending into the scenery.
In A Monster Calls, released in Australia in July, Weaver plays a grandma for the first time ever on screen – naturally, hers is a commanding, tough-as-nails grandma.
“I loved the character, even though she was quite forbidding,” Weaver says. “In the book, especially, you feel the cold north wind blowing as you read about her.”
Part family drama, part magical-realist fable, A Monster Calls centres on a young boy who loses himself in vivid fantasies as a way of coming to terms with his mother’s terminal illness. The story was conceived by British author Siobhan Dowd, who planned on writing the book before succumbing to breast cancer herself, and completed by writer Patrick Ness.
“It’s about making sense of losing someone,” says Weaver. With her co-star Felicity Jones, she visited a hospice and spoke with medical professionals as part of her preparations for the role.
“It was very real to me, and I guess I felt like I wanted to be part of that. It really has a universal message and a universal audience. Just one of those rare projects, with a tiny ensemble, where it’s really just a privilege to be part of telling this story. Wherever it took you.”
Weaver’s other recent screen appearance is even more surprising. When the documentary makers behind The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years were scouring footage of the band’s 1964 concert at the Hollywood Bowl, they recognised, among an audience of more than 17,000, Weaver as a rather hesitant-looking 11-year-old. Even as a child, Weaver stood out in a crowd.
“I had just moved to California,” Weaver recalls. “I didn’t know anyone, and I went by myself – I think my parents dropped me off. I’d spent all day getting ready, and I was surrounded by these girls who were weeping and crying and wailing like the Trojan women. I think I probably was like, ‘All right. I should scream now …'”
Only an exceedingly self-conscious young girl would not get swept up in the mass delirium of a Beatles concert at the height of Beatlemania. “I was this tall [182cm],” Weaver says. “No one has a good adolescent story, but I think for people who are very short, or very tall, or very something that’s different, it is an awkward time. And a sensitive time.”
The daughter of a stage actress and the president of NBC, Weaver was christened Susan. People called her Sue, or Suzie, for short. The names didn’t gel. “I didn’t feel like a Susan,” she says. “I just thought, that’s not right. I’m too big for that name. Physically, I need a longer name.”
When she was 14, she adopted the name of an incidental character in The Great Gatsby. It was only meant to be temporary. “I was going to try and think of the name I really wanted,” she says. “And you know, I never could get rid of it. I look back and I can’t imagine what possessed me. Such a crazy thing to do.”
Beyond her trademark role – the uber-action heroine Ripley in four Alien films – Weaver has become best-known for playing ball-busting alpha female types. In 1988 alone, she mingled with real primates as naturalist Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist (wearing dentures in later scenes for a sterner countenance) and played Melanie Griffiths’ cunning shoulder-padded boss in Working Girl. She received Academy Award nominations for all three roles.
Sometimes, she may have even been too fierce. When she auditioned for the role of Dana Barrett in Ghostbusters, one of Weaver’s rare appearances in a comedy, she hadn’t realised the demon hellhound would be a special effect. She growled, howled, and proceeded to tear up the audition room with startling canine earnestness. (“Don’t ever do that again,” director Ivan Reitman told her.) Weaver did, however, make the case for her character being a concert cellist, rather than the “professional model” of the script.
That’s not to say that Weaver has only played indestructible women, or that her fiercest characters are without their moments of vulnerability. “You know, I hear from journalists that I play these strong women, but I don’t see it that way,” she says. “They’re not always strong. They could be like, ‘f—‘ but they just don’t give up. I don’t go there with the goal of trying to present the strongest aspect of this woman. I try to reflect what I really see in the world, and what I think is truthful, and I truly do believe that women are pretty kickass.
“Not that men aren’t also high achievers,” she says, after a pause. “But women interest me more.”
After graduating in English from Stanford University, Weaver went on to study at the Yale School of Drama, where she befriended playwright-actor Christopher Durang. Another fellow student was Meryl Streep, the star pupil who effortlessly snatched up all the lead roles. Weaver had a much harder time at drama school, where her ambitions – along with her self-esteem – were all but crushed.
“The teachers were putting us down all the time. There were a lot of us who were made to feel pretty bad. It was very discouraging for me. I think I had a mini-nervous breakdown. I did waste some time listening to them. Teaching art is a tough thing to do. It’s a great thing to do and an important thing to do. But not everyone can do it with grace and generosity.”
Afterwards, she remembers thinking, “Now what do I do? I was going to do something else. I just couldn’t figure out what it was.”
In the meantime, often as a favour to her theatre friends, she would take roles in little shows in small, squatty venues in New York. “And finally after a couple of years I realised I was sort of making a living and all the terrible things that they told me [at Yale] weren’t going to come true. ‘Well, I guess they were wrong, I’m going to be fine!”‘
In one of the shows, Weaver interacted with a live hedgehog that, according to the story, resided in her vagina. “That little hedgehog is one of my fonder memories,” she says. Truly, though, she recalls her time “slumming it” off-off-Broadway with immense pleasure. She even turned down a major role in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, since she was occupied performing Kurt Weill parodies in a cabaret show at the time. (She makes a brief appearance as Alvy’s date.) “To me that’s still where I live as an artist,” she says. “I’m not that far away from those people or those parts. It was probably the most fun I ever had.”
Weaver was making a name for herself as a theatre artist in the late ’70s when she was approached with the screenplay for Alien. “It was a very, very bleak script,” she says. In the beginning, she was incredulous, thinking, “I survived drama school to do this?” She pictured the aliens as gelatinous blobs and was snobbish about the idea of doing science-fiction in general.
“It wasn’t till I met Ridley Scott and saw these amazing drawings by [Alien concept artists] H.R. Giger and Carlo Rambaldi of the alien itself that I thought, ‘Oh. Well. I’ve never seen anything like this’.”
Eventually she also realised that Alien might be something like “Henry V in space” – and that, in Ripley, she was being handed a rare opportunity to play a woman warrior.
When she first encountered the creature itself–a “black cockroach from hell” made up of a bunch of “phallic symbols and motorcycle parts”, as concept artist Ron Cobb described it – she was struck by its erotic power.
“I think each of us as actors loaded the alien with other meaning for ourselves. That’s one of the reasons the film has traction – because it’s not just this thing. It has this malevolence that’s beyond reality. And it seems to know more than we want to give it credit for.”
Ripley could have looked quite different. Weaver describes the original costume, designed by John Mollo, as being a “very pretty light blue with pink trim”. The look didn’t last long. “Ridley said, ‘Well you look like f—ing Jackie Onassis in space’.” Weaver and Scott absconded from the set, rummaged through piles of potential costume possibilities, and finally came across the asexual, utilitarian flight suit. “I tried it on. And it fit me perfectly.”
A couple of years ago in New York, when Weaver was performing in a Christopher Durang play on Broadway, a man approached her and boasted that he had picked up, at auction, the original Ripley costume from 1979. Actually, that’s not possible, she had to gently correct him – since she still has the costume at home. “I spent so much time in it. So I kept it, I guess,” she says. “I don’t know why. I just couldn’t let go of it somehow.”
Weaver still feels profoundly connected to the character, who technically—spoiler alert—sacrificed her life at the end of Alien 3, but was cloned for Alien: Resurrection. After some years downplaying the likelihood of ever returning to the role, Weaver is now confident that Ripley will be back, one way or another, to “finish what she started”.
And though she dismisses the suggestion that she’s drawn to playing strong women, Weaver says she’s glad to be a continuing inspiration to the women in the audience.
“To me, that’s my audience. I always think of women. I always think of the woman who’s run away after a long day and goes to a movie theatre. I don’t know what she’s there for but I do feel through art, and film, we provide a kind of sustenance for her.”
This story was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald in July 2017.