The Badass: Sigourney Weaver Still Larger Than Life

Ripley’s Repertoire includes indie 'Alien' and 'A Monster Calls'

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If you’ve ever been to the McKittrick Hotel, the site of Punchdrunk’s immersive theater (and mandatory stop for visiting relatives) Sleep No More, you know it can get creepy at night. But even on an afternoon this summer—empty of all Eyes Wide Shut masks, bellhops lip-syncing to Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” or impromptu nude dance sequence in blood baths—the McKittrick still has a looming, menacing presence. Or maybe I was just nervous. After all, I was there to meet Sigourney Weaver, and a dark, semi-abandoned haunted house might have been the wrong call. Why couldn’t I have picked a well-lit coffee shop to interview the star of all the Aliens and Ghostbusters?

If I was skittish, Weaver, already posing for photos when I tentatively tiptoed into an empty bar area, seemed entirely at ease. “Don’t let me forget, they have my meat in the freezer,” Weaver reminded no one in particular between poses. “I really can’t forget to take the meat with me when I go.” Directly following our interview, Weaver would be driving back to the Adirondacks, and the possibility of leaving the meat (never clarified as to how much there was of it, or what kind) was causing her more anxiety than a Hitchcockian faux-tel. Weaver—68 years old and 6 feet tall without heels—can make herself at home in even the most inhospitable of environments.

The notion that Sigourney Weaver is the embodiment of the “DIY and take no shit” authority figure for a generation of young women might sound, in retrospect, like a backhanded compliment. But for those of us who grew up as tomboys in the 80s, Weaver stood as shining beacon of some other way to be. While other girls wanted to be Princess Leia or Jasmine, there were always a few of us who wanted to be Ripley. Or later on, Katharine Parker in Working Girl, a woman so ahead of her time in office politicking that she managed to mash-up Claire Underwood from House of Cards and Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, a solid two decades before either existed.

“I think it’s a perfect time to be different,” Weaver tells me on the topic of beauty standards, as we slide into a dark and quiet booth in the red-curtained bar room. “I think it’s our time.” She notes her obsession with watching the Olympics. “You see the glorious range of what women look like, how strong they are. I think this is all changing on screen, as people want to see themselves reflected a little bit more. They don’t want to see some little stick figure up there all the time.

Sweater by Ralph Lauren, earrings by Robert Lee Morris and bracelet by Glory and Honor.
Sigourney Weaver is wearing a sweater by Ralph Lauren, earrings by Robert Lee Morris and bracelet by Glory and Honor. Chris Crisman for Observer; Shot on location at Gallow Green; Makeup by Matin; Hair by Maury Hopson.

“What inspired me in the beginning was that Vanessa Redgrave was my height,” says Weaver. “I thought, ‘Gee, I guess if they want you, they must want your height.’ Realistically, it protected me from being in more prosaic films, because I was never the little girlfriend. I didn’t get to do a lot of love stories, which I think I would have enjoyed. Mostly I did other kinds of movies and other kinds of stories, partly because I was too tall for traditional roles. So it was really these crazy kind of directors who would look at me and say, ‘You can do this!’ Sometimes it would even be a man’s role. That I didn’t fit into the traditional mold, I think that’s made my career much more interesting, don’t you?”

Of course, that untraditional mold encompasses more than just Weaver’s height and muscle tone. Born in Manhattan as Susan Alexandra Weaver (she renamed herself “Sigourney” in 1965, basing it on a small character from The Great Gatsby) to an actress mother and a TV-producing father, Weaver spent her early years attending a series of private and prep schools before turning 18, when she promptly left for Israel and joined a Kibbutz for several months. When she came back to the states, she attended both Sarah Lawrence and Stanford University. She chalks up a lot of her success to the fact that she was an English major in her undergrad years. “At Stanford, they had a drama department, which I kind of assiduously avoided, because it did very square things. I joined this group called The Company, and we did outrageous new plays. We did commedia dell’arte in a covered wagon and wandered around the Bay Area. A lot of Shakespeare.”

Though increasingly comfortable outside mainstream theater culture—for a period of time at Stanford, Weaver dressed like an elf and lived in a tree house—the actress did eventually audition for Yale’s prestigious drama graduate program. She showed up to her appointment in a long sheet, tied off with a belt made out of rope, and proceeded to knit together three speeches from Bertolt Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards. (One day, I would like to produce a line of dolls and accessories for children based on Sigourney Weaver. Not her in character, just Sigourney: She’ll come with her own toga and tree house and well-worn copy of Threepenny Opera, but the car with a trunk carrying a month’s worth of ice-packed sirloin is sold separately.)

“I actually had a difficult time [at Yale], because they took everything so seriously,” Weaver recalls. “They gave you your own dressing room. It seemed so lonely to me. Everyone was so competitive. I thought, I really miss my friends, and having everyone do their makeup up in the same little piece of cracked mirror in the back of someone’s truck.” Weaver had to wait until she’d graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts in 1974 before she could recover her sense of community by performing in Off-Broadway shows.

In the same way, many of the films Weaver works on tend to have directors that cultivate a similar comrade-in-arms mentality. “It’s not like they’re illegitimate films,” she says and laughs. “But for instance, I just worked with Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Chappie), and we just did this crazy film in South Africa.

“It was nothing you’ve heard of. But it was really cool, like his version of a student film. It was really guerrilla filmmaking. It was two takes and move on. I just love working that way.”

Later, I will crosscheck her name with Blomkamp’s to see what “his version of a student film” looks like. The movie turns out to be Alien 5.

Weaver is wearing: jacket by St. John, jumpsuit by Iris & Ink and accessories by Robert Lee Morris.
Weaver is wearing a jacket by St. John, jumpsuit by Iris & Ink and accessories by Robert Lee Morris. Chris Crisman for Observer; Shot on location at Gallow Green; Makeup by Matin; Hair by Maury Hopson.

It’s surprising to hear Sigourney Weaver talk about her legacy as a feminist movie icon. For beginners, she doesn’t like to think of herself as a genre actress, even though she’s associated with so many tough-as-nails sci-fi heroines.

“I think genres are very misleading,” she says, almost reproachfully. “Remember, I was an English major, so it was always about the story for me. I never cared what the role was, whether it was big or small.” Same goes for movie franchises: Though she’s a part of the culture, she holds herself at a distance from the Hollywood machine that churns out reboots, sequels and spinoffs with alarming frequency.

‘All good stories have good women’s parts.’— Sigourney Weaver

“See, I’m from the very old world, where setting out to make a franchise is a very bad idea,” she tells me. “I think when you start off from the idea of a movie being part of a franchise, you’re going about it the wrong way. You have to start with one really good script and really good characters. Women have probably suffered, because people have tried to do the franchise thing. You have to find a role, that, whether played by a man or a woman, would be a really compelling character.

“And all good stories have good women’s parts.”

That said, Weaver is now attached to another Aliens film along with the upcoming Avatar sequels. “Look, franchises have to be earned,” she stresses. “I know a lot of agents are telling young people nowadays to attach themselves to one. In the old days, that’s the opposite of what you’d want, to be locked into a contract like that, for just one role. I’m sure young people are just trying to be in movies. But sometimes even a little tiny movie can go around the world. And then, you see, you can have more of a say in it, should your little movie become a franchise. But first, you need to have a really great writer. Otherwise, it’s going to be put together by Hollywood people, adding a little this and that. I just don’t think that works.”
Weaver is equally dismissive of the American film industry writ large. “I never really feel like I went to Hollywood,” she says. “Even when I did actually go there, for a film like Ghostbusters, which was a big film by Universal, it was really our story that we were telling, and it felt like it belonged to us.” On the opposite end of the spectrum from the work she’s most well known for are some of her favorite roles, in underrated films like Scott Elliott’s A Map of the World. Or 2006’s Snow Cake, where she got to play opposite Alan Rickman. “Often, when you sell a film to Harvey Weinstein and it’s good,”—Weaver lets down her polished persona for a moment in a flash of teeth that could as easily be a puckish smile as a conspiratorial grimace—“he just doesn’t distribute it.”

Either way, Weaver figures, the old model of movies is on its way to extinction. “The Hollywood thing is going to be a dinosaur very soon.” People are making and distributing movies on leaner budgets, and releasing them online, without the help of a major studio for distribution. “It’s already happening, and it’s only going to get bigger,” she said. “It’s going to be great.”

Weaver is wearing: sweater by Ralph Lauren, pants by Theory, earrings by Robert Lee Morris and shoes by Paul Andrews.
Weaver is wearing a sweater by Ralph Lauren, pants by Theory, earrings by Robert Lee Morris and shoes by Paul Andrews. Chris Crisman for Observer, on location at The McKittrick Hotel

Weaver’s latest role is in A Monster Calls, which is itself a pretty uncategorizable genre-blend. Ostensibly a kid’s movie (though it’s hard to imagine what child could walk out of the film without being traumatized) based on the “low fantasy” novel by Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls takes the messaging of a John Green story and dresses it up in the psychedelic, phantasmagorical guise of a Heavenly Creatures or Pan’s Labyrinth. Liam Neeson is the voice of a talking tree monster that is not Groot, though you could be forgiven for confusing the two. The titular tree monster is summoned to help a young boy Conor (Lewis MacDougall) deal with the impending death of his young mother. (A truly emaciated Felicity Jones, who we can at least agree is having a much better time in this holiday’s other blockbuster escapist hit, Rogue One.) Weaver plays Conor’s British grandmother, a woman who takes the concept of “stiff upper lip” a little too far. When Conor is forced to come live with her, we see that his grandmother has taken the same approach toward interior design: her living room filled with breakable knickknacks and irreplaceable family heirlooms. When Conor, in a fit of fantasy rage (portrayed in beautiful watercolor animation, to differentiate it from the “real” world) reduces the room to shards and splinters, he only has a moment to savor his destruction before hearing the key in the lock. Grandmother’s home.

It’s a testament to both the nuance of the character and Weaver’s portrayal of her that the scene feels like it lasts a lifetime. Without saying a word, Weaver’s eyes widen and waver as she daintily crunches through the wreckage until she comes to the one piece of furniture left untouched. Only then does she bare her teeth and let’s us see the big bad wolf inside, howling in wordless rage and frustration as she deals out the fatal blow to the literal and metaphorical semblance of structure in her life. Then, still mute, she leaves the room, never once looking at Conor, who is screaming apologies and excuses all the while.

Later, the boy will hear her sobbing in the bathroom, the door locked.

Despite holding her own no less formidable opponents as ghosts, extraterrestrial slime monsters and even Jennifer Love Hewitt (Heartbreakers, anyone?), there’s something so primal that Weaver tapped into when confronted by the young boy’s outburst. In that moment, I didn’t know if I was terrified of Weaver’s grandmother or for her. The scariest possibility? Probably both.

Frankly? I end up doing a lot of big movies, and I so wanted to do something very small and intimate and very dramatic,” says Weaver on her decision to take the part, adding that she had been interested in working with director J.A. Bayona after seeing two of his films, The Orphanage and The Impossible. “The story really catches at your heart,” says Weaver. “It’s not a film about cancer but about coming to terms with loss. I just knew Bayona would create something very original and so personal.”

Weaver is wearing: jacket by St. John, jumpsuit by Iris & Ink, shoes by Paul Andrews and accessories by Robert Lee Morris.
Weaver is wearing a jacket by St. John, jumpsuit by Iris & Ink, shoes by Paul Andrews and accessories by Robert Lee Morris. Chris Crisman for Observer; Shot on location at Gallow Green; Makeup by Matin; Hair by Maury Hopson.

Sigourney Weaver is in a rush to get back upstate, so I remind her to take her frozen meat before asking her my one super-fan question: Did she ever find movies that she starred in too scary?

“Oh, often!” She laughs. “Watching the Alien movies…when you’re on set, acting, you don’t realize the sounds they are going to be adding later. It really does a number on you, when you’re watching it as an audience member.

“But my scariest role?” Weaver pauses. “My character in Copycat was completely nuts.” This was her turn as an agoraphobic psychologist in Jon Amiel’s 1995 psychological thriller. (Surprisingly, as I found out, not based on a Thomas Harris novel!) Sigourney Weaver, a.k.a. Ripley, a.k.a. one of the toughest women in the biz, stands up and shudders. “That woman? She just scared the hell out of me.”

The Badass: Sigourney Weaver Still Larger Than Life