The experience of the creation of the character is what feeds me, what excites me, challenges me . . . But, after the experience, I let it go. Sigourney Weaver
What happens when you set a slasher picture in space? Instead of a faceless aggressor hunting nubile numbskulls in the woods, you set a monstrous creature loose—minotaur-like—within the Betamax maze of a spacecraft. But then the badass babe who inevitably survives it all needs to be more than just a savvy teen; she has to be professional, steely enough to be the leading lady on an interstellar voyage, and weary enough to have weathered the trip to get there, not to mention the extensive training before that.
It may not have been a revolutionary idea, exactly, in the late ’70s, with horror a burgeoning and lucrative genre, and Hollywood well on its way toward the blockbuster economy, but Alien, when it was released in 1979, was revolutionary in its success-spawning a series of sequels, opening the door in Hollywood to other visual stylists who, like director Ridley Scott, came from the commercial and music video worlds, and introducing audiences to a new kind of action heroine—and it made a supernova of its star.
Born Susan Weaver to television executive Sylvester Weaver Jr. and actress Elizabeth Inglis (she changed her name to Sigourney at age 14 after the name of a character mentioned in The Great Gatsby), Weaver grew up in considerable comfort in New York, and attended Stanford and the Yale School of Drama. By the time she played the astronaut hero Ripley, the then-29-year-old actress had worked primarily in the theater and had done only a few television and film roles, including a cameo in Annie Hall (1977). In the decades that followed, she made some of the most memorable movies in film history.
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Returning from space with the same intensity she’d given Ripley, Weaver sweated through the Indonesian heat and intrigue alongside Mel Gibson in Peter Weir’s political drama The Year of Living Dangerously (1983). Then, overstuffing that same intensity with satirical seriousness, she crossed into the comic realm as a musician possessed by the centuries-old dimensional gatekeeper Zuul in Ghostbusters (1984). Capitalizing on her commanding presence, she and director Mike Nichols then flipped the basic rom-com inside out with Working Girl (1988), inverting the traditional gender roles, casting Harrison Ford as the hottie and Weaver as the alpha bro. With her gift for turbulent dramatics still much in demand, she played real-life scientist Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist that same year, and attended the Oscars in 1989 as a double nominee.
Instead of seeming trapped in the chilly airlock of action movies, Weaver delighted in changing the weather out there, cutting her heroines in independents and blockbusters alike with her personal brand of humor or allowing them to frost over completely. In Ang Lee’s glassy adaptation of Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (1997), Weaver played the entitled housewife Janey Carver with exquisite cruelty, boredom, and a suffocating sadness. Rather than the other way around, she was the evil of banality incarnate—a ’70s suburban Nero, all alone in her ice palace. Two years later, though, after the fourth installment of the Alien franchise, Weaver hilariously firebombed fandom, Hollywood, her own image, and everything in between as the desperate and venal star of a long-running TV sci-fi series, in Galaxy Quest (1999). Who else could so convincingly play both the first lady (Dave, 1993) and a sad-sack con artist who would happily impersonate one (Heartbreakers, 2001)?
After sort of spinning off her Ripley role with James Cameron—who directed her to her first Oscar nomination in Aliens (1986)—in his space epic, Avatar (and signing on for its three planned sequels), Weaver, now 65, is returning to where it all began: working again with Scott on the recent Exodus: Gods and Kings, and filming the futuristic Chappie, out this month, about a robot learning to become human, with the director of Elysium (2013) and District 9 (2009), Neill Blomkamp. As she tells her pal and her You Again (2010) co-star Jamie Lee Curtis, she always knew where she was headed.
JAMIE LEE CURTIS: Hey, frenemy! I’m calling from California, where it’s 72 degrees, sunny, and maybe the most beautiful day of the year.
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: Well, I’m going to Hawaii on Wednesday.
CURTIS: Way to trump me again. [laughs]
WEAVER: That’s all I care about. That’s what this whole conversation is going to be about, Jamie.
CURTIS: I did no research, no deep background on you.
WEAVER: I hope not. I went on my Wikipedia page recently, which I never do, and it said I’d been engaged to this guy I was never engaged to, and it had me in Serpico , which, of course, I was never in.
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CURTIS: I wouldn’t have Wiki’d you. I’d have done something with a little more breadth and depth.
WEAVER: The FBI.
CURTIS: We are so diametrically different, you and I.
WEAVER: And yet we have much in common.
CURTIS: It’s like me and my husband—I married a man from New York City, and Chris [Guest] and I formed a company called Syzygy Industries—syzygy is a pair of opposites. And you and I are in many ways opposites. You are a New Yorker, you are an intellectual, you went to drama school. And I am the vulgarian from California.
WEAVER: …who knows more about everything than I do. We’re both from show business, a little bit.
CURTIS: We’re women of a similar age, women with long marriages. We both have raised a daughter. We have both navigated, for many decades, the often treacherous shoals of show business—”show-off” business, as I like to refer to it—and yet have remained married, remained devoted to our families. We’ve both done varied work. But I never went to drama school …
WEAVER: I don’t recommend it. That’s one reason we started the Flea [the theater in TriBeCa that Weaver co-founded with her husband, director Jim Simpson, among others, in 1996], where we have 150 young people, the most diverse group in the city, putting on their own productions, with people like myself. When I was in college, I was an English major, but I was part of this great group at Stanford called the Company. We didn’t know any better, so we did it all; we did King Lear, we did Hamlet, new plays … And we did it all in a covered wagon that we took around the Bay Area. We all put our makeup on in one cracked mirror. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. Then when I went to Yale, I thought it would be like that 24 hours a day. Robert Brustein [former dean of the Yale School of Drama and founder of the Yale Repertory Theater] was there, and we did all this very serious—I would go so far as to say completely humorless—Eastern European drama, as well as Strindberg, and Ibsen, we weren’t allowed to do Shakespeare or Williams or O’Neill. I was not in the right place.
CURTIS: Did you leave?
WEAVER: I didn’t leave, because they convinced me I had no talent, even though I was always working. They cast me mostly as prostitutes and old women, and I stayed because I loved the writers. I loved Chris Durang and Wendy Wasserstein. I was always doing their work in the Yale Cabaret. My mother said, “Pack your bags and leave.” And my father said, “I’ve already paid for a year and a half—why don’t you stay and get the degree?” And I said, “That’s a good idea, because then I can at least run a theater even though I have no talent, and I’ll never be an actor.” It’s my fault that I believed them, but I stayed, and I actually have a long apology letter from Robert Brustein, saying, “I’m so sorry this happened to you. I didn’t realize the people who were running the acting department at the drama school hated actors.” They did. And they were fired when I graduated. So I wouldn’t recommend it, because art school is a funny business. Yes, if you can find a situation where they’ll give you money to live at the school and do whatever you want and pay for all your materials, if you’re a painter or maybe a filmmaker, do it. But acting should be the most fun thing in the world; you’re surrounded by other people who are as obsessed with Chekhov as you are. And I know it wasn’t fun for a lot of my colleagues who went on to become incredibly successful in all different departments—in set design, lighting, writing, acting. Art school is a very difficult thing to run in a generous, humane way, because academic power is somehow very corrupting.
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CURTIS: Talk to me about your theater, the Flea. When you said, “We started the Flea,” that’s like me saying I cleaned out a closet, something that happens every day—because in my house it happens every day. I now am a deep believer in this woman, Marie Kondo, who has revolutionized the art of getting rid of shit.
WEAVER: I need her desperately!
CURTIS: She has this book out right now, which I’ll google while we’re talking, because I can do two things at once.
WEAVER: I can do five things at once. I’m tapping my foot, I’m opening my mouth and talking to you, and looking at the bulletin board. How about that?
CURTIS: The name of her book is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.
WEAVER: I have this book! You take this thing and you say, “Does it spark joy?”
CURTIS: That’s the tattoo I’m going to get, “Does it spark joy?” Because that is the reason I do what I do. But anyway, we digress. At what point in your marriage was it that you started the Flea? You met your husband during a play?
WEAVER: I met my husband during the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1983, when I was doing a Pinter play with Dianne Wiest and the late, great Ed Herrmann. Jim was directing the nonequity groups, doing whatever plays they were doing. He was also the bartender at the bar we called the Zoo. I remember going there with Christopher Walken—we were not dating—and I took my shoes off to dance on the dirt floor, and it was so dark. Anyway, this man who’s my husband now rescued my shoes and put them up on a pipe somewhere so that I had to go to him, and say, “Please, sir, where are my shoes?”
CURTIS: A little Cinderella-like.
WEAVER: He was so cute. I remember thinking, “Well, he’s going to be a bachelor for many years. I can see that.” So I didn’t really think about him. And I had a boyfriend at the time. But within six months, I had invited him to a party, and he stayed late to help me put away the decorations, and then I asked him out to dinner, and three months later we decided to get married. That’s how it happens.
CURTIS: I married Chris five months after seeing his picture in Rolling Stone. I said out loud to my friend, the late, great Debra Hill, “Oh, I’m going to marry that guy.” It was a picture of Chris with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer from Spinal Tap , but just as regular guys. Debra said, “Oh, I know him, and he’s with your agency. I tried to get him in a movie.” So I called the agent, left my number, but Chris never called me. And then I ran in to him at a restaurant.
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WEAVER: Did you go up to him at the restaurant?
If one is married for a long time, and one does have a family . . . It is like an energy, a wonderful fire that never goes out underneath you, to help you go out into the world and do your damnedest. Sigourney Weaver
CURTIS: No. He was sitting about ten feet away and he looked at me and kind of nodded. I made a gesture, like, “Hi, I’m the one who called you.” I was sitting with Melanie Griffith and Steven Bauer, and I looked down at my plate and whispered, “Oh my God, I called this guy and he never called me back and there he is.” At that moment, Chris got up to leave. He shrugged his shoulders, and basically waved goodbye. Not a word was exchanged. And then he called me the next day. He had kept my number. That was June 28, 1984, and I married him four months later, on December 18. He didn’t save my shoes, or what did you say Jim stayed late to do?
WEAVER: Put away the decorations.
CURTIS: Is that a euphemism?
WEAVER: No. But it should be.
CURTIS: It is now. So you are now married to this theater director.
WEAVER: I must give Jim all the credit for the Flea.
CURTIS: Obviously you are working a lot, all over the world. You’re trying to hold a marriage and a family together while you work. How are you able to focus your attention on starting a theater?
WEAVER: I really can’t take credit, except that I was one of the co-founders. But after I left Yale, we were all doing these mad plays off-off Broadway. And I got back to that feeling I had from college, of everyone making up in front of one cracked mirror, which is what I loved—the scrappy theater idea. I think off-off Broadway healed me, made me an actor again, and I was in so many different crazy shows. I played a woman who kept a hedgehog in her vagina in one play; I was schizophrenic in another. It was just so much fun. Jim was working with playwrights like Mac Wellman and Len Jenkin. And every time he would do these incredible shows, someone would get sick or someone would have to leave the show because they got a voiceover gig or something like that. So Jim said, “Why don’t we find a theater”—he’d been looking for a few years—”and make a state-of-the-art theater. It’s essentially the greenhouse, where all talent germinates in theater in the city.” So Jim found a place and we went for it. That was 18 years ago. We bought a building, and now we’re creating a new, retrofitted building with three theaters, one named after Sam Cohn, and one named after A.R. Gurney, who’s written about eight plays for the Flea, and then there’s a tiny, squatty little goblin space in the basement, which will be for very experimental work, and will be called the Siggy. I’m very proud of that. I feel very proud of what Jim has done.
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CURTIS: Well, you’ve been a part of it, Siggy. That is the kind of stuff that, when you are closing your eyes at the end of your life, will bring you pride and joy, like your children bring you pride and joy.
WEAVER: It was a child, our second child.
CURTIS: I write books for children, and that has given me the most connection to something that I created: It did not exist before me, and from me it was born. But do you take the same kind of pride as an actor in films? Because I don’t. I just say, I had a great time; it was a great part. But it’s very hard for me to attach to the work.
WEAVER: When I’m making the movie, I absolutely do. I work so hard, and out of the raw material that is the script and talks I have with the director, the writer, I create, I hope, a very specific person who wouldn’t have otherwise existed. However, do I then attach and hang on to the finished product? No. The experience of the creation of the character is what feeds me, what excites me, challenges me. I just finished this movie with J.A. Bayona, called A Monster Calls [co-starring Liam Neeson and Felicity Jones, expected in 2016], which was a challenging movie for all of us. It’s from a novel written by Patrick Ness. But, after the experience, I let it go, because I know the director’s going to go in; the alchemist will take over and do something else with it. I was just in Exodus, with Joel Edgerton playing Ramses, who is an incredibly complex character trying to be a good ruler. We had all these dialogue scenes, very sophisticated scenes within the court. It’s all gone. None of it exists in the actual movie. And that was something of a shock. Although I guess it’s a pretty common experience. You have to let go of the result and just hang on to the experience and the process, where each role takes you to a different country, as it were: You’re shipwrecked on this new island, you have no clothes, you have to figure out how you’re going to live in this new character. All of that turns me on.
CURTIS: When I was a young actress, I did some horror films …
WEAVER: All of which I’ve seen and which have terrified me, thank you.
CURTIS: So my early education was low budget, very similar to the Flea Theater—one dressing room, one little tiny Winnebago for the entire makeup department, hair department, wardrobe, props. It was as fun and as pleasant a working experience as I’ve ever had. And I was 19 years old when we made Halloween . And all of a sudden, I got a call that I was going to go to New York to screen test for The Cotton Club . It was a huge deal for me, a screen test with Richard Gere directed by Francis Ford Coppola. I was terrified. They put me up at the Ritz-Carlton, and I didn’t leave my room. I just sat on the edge of my bed holding these pages of script that I had memorized, watching the clock, waiting. Finally a teamster picks me up, we drive to [Kaufman] Astoria Studios. I got a little hair and makeup, put on something period, and they said, “Make yourself familiar with the set, and Richard will be in, and you can run the lines. Then Francis will come in and talk about how the test will go.”
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WEAVER: It sounds incredibly exciting!
CURTIS: I look in this little room and I sit down and there was one of those old-fashioned vanities, a big oval half-moon mirror on a beautiful piece of deco wood and a little bench before it. I sat down before this mirror. I’m clutching these little papers, which have my name across the top, and then that’s it. And I looked down at the counter of the vanity, and there were the sides of the actress who had been screen-testing before me. [Weaver laughs] You couldn’t see any available space to write anything on her pages. In between every single line, in every inch of the margins, in every square tiny space on these papers, in ink, were written ideas, directions, objectives, question marks, underlines, exclamation points. Things like “Why are you doing this?” Or “Make him work for it!” I remember thinking, “I am so fucked! I am out of my league.” Anyway, I did the screen test. It was whatever. I didn’t get the part, but neither did the actress whose screen test was before me.
WEAVER: Because Diane Lane had already been cast.
CURTIS: Right. But the actress who tested before me was you. That was so profound for me, and when we worked together, I shared that with you. Because for a long time I really did a trip on myself. I was 19; I’m 56 now, for fuck’s sake. I’ve done anything anyone has ever asked of me. Anything. And I’ve done it fine. So all the trip that I put on myself about process …
WEAVER: You’ve done it brilliantly. By the way, can I just say that I remember that audition? I got into bed with Richard Gere, and we kept getting these strange directions from Francis Ford Coppola.
CURTIS: But wasn’t he off in some sort of TV truck?
WEAVER: Yes, it was like an early monitor situation. The first one I had ever experienced. Richard Gere was saying, “Why don’t you just do what you want to do?” And I said, “Look, I only have one afternoon to work with Francis Ford Coppola, and I’m going to try to do it his way.”
CURTIS: Hey, listen, Godfather Part II  is the greatest movie ever made. He can do no wrong in my book. You and I met on this movie called You Again, where we played frenemies—we played best friends who hate each other in high school and then are later reunited.
WEAVER: It was your fault, because your character stole my boyfriend.
CURTIS: Well, that’s like blaming the girl. I don’t think you blame the girl. I think you blame the boy.
WEAVER: I can blame both.
CURTIS: Well, you obviously did. And you held that grudge for a long time.
WEAVER: But we learned how to dance. That was really fun.
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CURTIS: There are not many women who worked with Jim Cameron, as we did, who didn’t marry him. And you’re about to work with him again.
WEAVER: [laughs] But there’s still time for us to marry him. He’s only been married five times. Surely he can make it an even seven.
CURTIS: [laughs] Well, he’s delicious, and I had the best time I ever had on a Jim Cameron movie [True Lies, 1994]. It was the single most freeing experience as an actor I’ve ever had. And, of course, in the midst of it there was this humungous circus that he conceived. By the way, I remember the car I was in on the Ventura Freeway, when I looked up at a huge billboard by Universal, and all it said was, “In space no one can hear you scream” [the tag line for Alien]. I thought that was the single greatest ad line I’d ever heard in my life, and it scared the shit out of me. I’ve still never seen it all the way through, just bits and pieces.
WEAVER: You haven’t seen Alien?
CURTIS: I am not good under that kind of circumstance.
WEAVER: Well, neither am I. But it’s so good to talk to someone who loves Jim the way I do, because he’s misunderstood in the industry, somewhat. He is so generous to actors.
CURTIS: He loves actors.
WEAVER: With acting, for some reason, he doesn’t think he can do it, and he leaves us alone.
CURTIS: But, Sigourney, he can’t do it. And the truth is he can do every other job. I’m talking about every single department, from art direction to props to wardrobe to cameras, he knows more than everyone doing the job. But he can’t act. And therefore he is in thrall of actors.
WEAVER: He thinks we can do anything. He’ll let you try anything. There are very few geniuses in the world, let alone in our business, and he’s certainly one of them. I remember how vulnerable your character was in True Lies and so powerful, and very unique in the lexicon of his work.
CURTIS: It was beautiful and very emotional. It’s about a marriage. Jim believes in marriage; he believes in family.
WEAVER: Only someone who believes in it would be married five times.
CURTIS: I’m from a family of multiple marriages, so I was actually going to say that you and I have a lot in common. We’re both married to our first husbands.
WEAVER: [laughs] So far.
CURTIS: Tell me about this movie that you’re working on now.
WEAVER: It is written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, who did District 9. I’m the CEO of this tech corporation, and Hugh Jackman and Dev Patel are in it. And what I love about Neill’s work is that his stories are small human stories. But what’s interesting about Neill’s movies is that they’re set in the future but they’re so incredibly timely that it feels like maybe in the present in the next dimension. It feels like it’s happening now. The universe is very recognizable, in many ways. Chappie is terribly funny, incredibly moving, and also it has its action moments, but it’s resolutely set in the very near future, because I think robots are about to take over everything. And so I play not necessarily one of the good guys, but a person who’s very representative of our time right now. And we just had the most wonderful time, we tried everything 40 different ways, and it was just such an incredible pleasure to work with him. We were in South Africa, and, I mean, I always have a good time when I work, but I particularly enjoy working with Neill. Like Jim, I think he probably knows how to do every single thing technically. He’s a great artist, and he can probably invent whatever’s needed. I think that’s what I really dig about science fiction these days—we’ve caught up to it in a way. It’s no longer about people with huge brains. Now it’s really much more, as Jim says, the nature of being human. What it is to be human in society. How to retain one’s humanity in society. And Chappie is very much about, What does it means to be human? And is that something that only humans can have? So it’s a very interesting, and I would assume, having just seen bits of it, a highly entertaining piece of work.
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CURTIS: I look forward to seeing it.
WEAVER: Love it, and so will your son.
CURTIS: There you go. But he won’t go to the movies with me anymore. That’s a separation of church and state. So as I’ve been talking to you, I’m sitting in my office, in sunny California, at my very neat desk—thank you, Marie Kondo. Sitting directly in my line of vision is the Joni Mitchell compilation that has just been put out by Rhino, with a self-portrait that she painted, with her eyes in shadow. The name of the box set is Love Has Many Faces. And what I realized as I was talking to you is that Sigourney has many faces. Here’s Joni Mitchell, a woman of a certain age entering this really creative time in her life, and I feel that way about you too.
WEAVER: I feel that way about you, and I think it only gets sweeter. If one is married for a long time, and one does have a family, I feel it’s so incredibly nurturing for women in their careers, because you never lose track of what’s important. It is like an energy, a wonderful fire that never goes out underneath you, to help you go out into the world and do your damnedest.
JAMIE LEE CURTIS HAS STARRED IN HALLOWEEN, A FISH CALLED WANDA, AND TRUE LIES, AN WILL STAR IN RYAN MURPHY’S UPCOMING HORROR SERIES SCREEM QUEENS.
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