By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist December 16, 2011 at 3:46PM
Outside the "Avatar" and "Alien" franchises, Sigourney Weaver has worked with some top names, not least of whom, Woody Allen, who gave the actress her very first big-screen role, as "Alvy's Date Outside Theater" in "Annie Hall." Though the role is pretty minute, she was actually cast in a bigger part, which she turned down due to theater commitments. Regardless, she has good memories of her first big screen experience. "He’s very sweet, very shy…I feel like Woody Allen discovered me. He always laughed at whatever I did, even though I only worked with him a couple of days. He’s someone I admire very much and I’ll always be grateful to him because he gave me my first job."
That she got that part, let alone the offer of the larger one, sounds somewhat miraculous given her description of the audition: "I auditioned for this bigger part, it’s the part of the girl he tries to create the same love with that he has with Annie Hall...who does the lobsters. What’s funny about the girl is she has no sense of humor, she doesn’t understand the irony of anything. So I read it very straight and at the end he kind of went like [makes unimpressed frowny face], which could have meant anything, and that was a little unnerving. And I was in a room that had four doors so I said, thank you so much, but I’ll just go and I got up and I opened the door and it was a broom closet, so I opened another door and it was another closet, so it was like the fourth door and by then we were all laughing, and that probably got me the part."
The subsequent decade saw her star rise dramatically, culminating in three Oscar nominations in the space of three years (“Aliens,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” “Working Girl”). But while she believes she was “already working in a very instinctive way” it wasn’t until she went to work on Roman Polanski's 1994’s “Death and the Maiden” that she consciously realized she was changing in her approach to acting. "My decision to play this part meant that I was going in a different direction as an actor, I was going into these very heavy dramatic roles."
However time constraints reduced the level of interaction she could have with director Roman Polanski (check out our brand-new retrospective on his work here) and instead Weaver credits her coach with helping her access new areas of her craft. "For this character I had to play a woman who had been tortured and raped, and I haven’t been tortured and raped so Roman wanted me to work with this very wonderful guy, [acting coach] Jack Waltzer. He allowed me to access memories of mine and work in a more, perhaps, 'method' way then I had before. In fact it was great fun for me, frankly, not to have to do this work by myself. Roman was too busy -- it was actually the work you would do with a director."
Nowadays Weaver’s star is firmly established, and her acting chops widely acknowledged (though not, as yet, in the form of a small gold statuette from the Academy). And despite her aforementioned work ethic, she is determined to also use her profile to actively support causes and projects near to her heart. She follows politics closely (“I think in our country you can’t help it”) and identifies in Obama a “wonderful, talented leader who represents all of us, [but who] has been frustrated with the lack of progress [he was allowed to make].” This frustration she shares: “I certainly didn’t expect that people would continue to [work to] make the party fail when we have so many huge problems with unemployment and Wall Street going crazy…”
Her hopes for the global political future are, rather endearingly, somewhat sci-fi inflected: “I feel like with the European Union there’s an effort to all work together, almost in a science fiction way. You know when you see even those bad movies when all the different creatures from different worlds are all working together? That’s what I think the future of Earth is, we [need to] have a United Nations that really works.”
Additionally she is passionate about environmental issues and frequently addresses women’s groups and other organisations on this topic. “I want to make sure that the environment is remembered as we talk about politics and finances.” And it should also be noted that, as President of the short films jury at the Marrakech Film Festival, Weaver is an advocate for the format: “There are some stories that should be short. In many ways I think they’re harder to do with a smaller canvas -- the statement has to be stronger. I think the problem is that it’s just not what we’re used to in our watching.”
Short films are not the only rather maligned and underfunded creative outlet that Weaver finds time for: she also co-manages and fundraises for a small New York theater, The Flea. “We have a young company of 90 actors, the most diverse in the city, six young directors... And we’re building a new building that will be permanent, we’ll have dance and music and theater.” She becomes truly animated talking about it. “I probably care more about this little theater than anything, because to me it is about the next generation and we need to hear these voices, the concerns of emerging artists.”
But in the end, Weaver’s greatest legacy to date is in her film roles and her unique persona: that sometimes unnerving steeliness, the underlying smarts and the manner in which she personified Ripley, who more or less redefined the idea of the female heroine. But she doesn’t see her characters as displaying any more bravery or heroism than the women she sees around her. “I think I play normal women in situations where they have to do whatever they have to do, a man isn’t going to come in and save them," she says. "Most of the women I know take care of family, and a job and everything else. Ripley, she was more a character who doesn’t want to give up…so she goes oh, that didn’t work, I better try this. I play women who, it’s not that they’re brave or strong, it’s that they have to rely on themselves and figure something out. So to me I’m just reflecting what I see, which is women having to take care of others before they take care of themselves and [for whom] panic is a luxury.”
So is she as unflappable as some of the characters she plays? “No, I panic if I see a spider,” she laughs. “If my husband’s not there I have to get the spider and put him out the window anyway. But my initial reaction is to give a little screech.”
Ladies and gentlemen, Sigourney Weaver. Icon. Advocate. Arachnophobe.
This is part 2 of our Sigourney Weaver interview – you can read what she had to say about “Avatar,” “Prometheus” and “Alien 3,” in part 1