Interview with Sigourney Weaver, 1979

The daughter of Sylvester Pat Weaver, who was president of NBC in the fifties, Sigourney Weaver, 30, began her acting career in numerous stage productions, mainly by the new playwrights, including the original production of ‘Gemini’ and ‘Marco Polo Sings A Solo’. She also appears frequently at Joe Papp’s theater in New York, and portrayed the head of the family’s wife in a PBS television entitled ‘The Best of Families’. Sigourney, which is a Slavic word for gypsy, had received much praise for her role in ‘Alien’. Critics have even gone as far as to compare her to superstar Jane Fonda. A theater buff, Sigourney splits most of her acting time, when not on the screen, to appearing in both the classics and new plays in New York City.

FF: Alien was your first film. How did you feel about ‘Ripley’ being your first film characterization?

Weaver: I felt the role was going to be a tough one. All the characters and relationships in the film were written very loosely and the casting people were trying to choose actors who would bring an individuality to the roles. As a matter of fact, after I read the script I came back and they said, “Well, what do you think?” And I told them I felt that the human relationships all seemed very bleak. I thought it was best to put all my cards on the table because if they really wanted a “Charlies Angel” I knew it wouldn’t be right for me. But they were the first to admit that it was going to take a lot of development and close working together.

FF: Did you know your part was originally written for a man?

Weaver: Yes, but I wouldn’t have been surprised. I think they told me that a little before the screen test.

FF: What did you do for the screen test?

Weaver: We all did a quick synopsis of the whole film. About seven scenes. A mini-run through for both Ridley and myself. There is one funny thing, though; I had just finished doing a workshop at the public theater where all of us had to smoke like Humphrey Bogart (laughs). When I was doing the screen test Ridley wanted me to smoke. So I smoked like Bogart. And when Alan Ladd Jr., President of 20th Century Fox saw the screen test, he said, “Great, we’ll go with her. But don’t let her smoke – she looks ridiculous.”

FF: Was the role of Ripley a difficult one physically for you?

Weaver: It was a very demanding film. A lot of the footage I had to go through has been cut. The cat box and the gun each weighed about 50 pounds. So to try to run through CO2, which takes up all the oxygen, through corridor after corridor, day after day, was just exhausting. And I was bruised. But you don’t think about that while you’re in the middle of it. Not until you get home, see the bruises and think, “Oh God, what’s happened to me?”

Young Sigourney Weaver. A stage veteran until the movies called. First, a squint-or-you'll-miss-it cameo in Annie Hall, then Ridley Scott's Alien.

Young Sigourney Weaver. A stage veteran until the movies called. First, a squint-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo in Annie Hall, then science-fiction fame in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

FF: Did you take the film home with you every night?

Weaver: Yes. But because there was no other input in my life at that time, I think I would have taken home the film no matter what kind of film it was. In this case, yes. Alien is a film about such terror and loss that after you have been working on it for a while – well, I’m not sure how far I ever got away from it. And I did have one odd nightmare once. It was so strange. I dreamt I was visiting some people up in Vermont in a farm house and all of a sudden the Alien came out of the chimney. I know it sounds real silly. It was a film and suddenly I was dreaming about my own life. You would think it could only happen in space but if you start to dream about it coming out of your air conditioner or something, it puts a whole different reality to it.

FF: How did you get through the scene where the Alien pops through John Hurt’s chest?

Weaver: What affecting me the most was the why John Hurt was lying on the table, with this false body – most of him was underneath the table and there was a hollow cavity that the baby Alien was supposed to come out of. Just to see John not whole was upsetting to me. But by the time it actually came out of his chest, it was especially awful. Plus I knew that the special effects men were trying to rig the blood so that it would hit me. I was absolutely green. There had been a huge vat of kidneys and livers and intestines floating around on the set for two days and the stench was awful. All the cameramen were covered with blood. By the time we had been filming for two days it was just awful.

FF: Were there many impromptu scenes like the chest scene?

Weaver: They were mostly all impromptu.

FF: The dialogue also?

Weaver: We did a lot of improvising because the script was absolutely bare bones. Which was something new for me because in the theater you don’t change the words.

FF: How did you feel about the scene on the shuttle where Ripley takes off her clothes, not knowing the Alien in on board?

Weaver: What could be more natural than to take off that sweaty thing I was wearing, like a snake shedding its skin. Actually there was also some nudity in the script in the beginning of the movie. When we all wake up we were supposed to be naked. It was very provocative visual concept to see these people moving through such a very harsh environment in just their natural state. But that was changed later.

FF: How did you feel about Ripley being the only one to survive?

Weaver: It’s interesting that people say, “How great it is a woman is the one who survives.” I think that Ripley survived because she had the attributes necessary to survive. She wouldn’t give up and had the ability to go into overdrive. The thing I thought was the most interesting about Ripley when I read the script was here’s a woman who lived her life very much by the book and believed that rules existed for a reason. But when the Alien appears there’s nothing in the book to go by and she has to react only from instinct, and that’s very hard for her.

Ripley in the Alien nest aboard the Nostromo.

Weaver as Ripley in the Alien nest aboard the Nostromo.

FF: Are you a fan of horror and science fiction films?

Weaver: I don’t usually go to see them. I have a very low threshold for horror movies. I’ve never seen The Exorcist, although I loved Jaws. And I wouldn’t go to see Dawn of the Dead just because of the pictures outside the theater. I know that would give me nightmares for years to come. Alien is different from those films where someone opens a drawer and there’s a hairy hand from the devil or something. Those things really upset me.

FF: How do you feel about how the Alien was physically portrayed?

Weaver: I think the Alien was very beautiful, and very erotic. But, the one thing the film doesn’t deal with adequately is why we never tried to communicate with it. The Alien shows us very quickly what it wants from us. But you don’t know if it’s attacking maliciously or in self-defence. After all, its first priority was to perpetuate itself. Which means it’s us or it.

FF: Are you looking forward to a sequel?

Weaver: I don’t know how the script writers could get Ripley back in space. I really don’t. But there’s that planet still sitting around out there, full of Alien eggs.

FF: What are your future career plans?

Weaver: I’d like to do some Shakespeare and continue working with new playwrights in New York. And hopefully to do other films.

FF: Did you think Alien would be as big a draw as it is?

Weaver: I thought it would be a very special film and a well done film. I was sure that in its way it would be a classic. Not being a fanatic scary movie fan, i wasn’t aware of how much people like to be scared. But I was pleasantly delighted at all the screenings I went to. First the people would scream and then they would scream-laugh-scream-laugh. And that made me feel good because it was so wonderful to hear people laughing at these terribly horrible things. I didn’t feel they were laugh at us because they thought we were taking it too seriously. I felt they were laughing because they were allowing themselves to take it so seriously. They were detached enough to enjoy themselves, because they knew they were being tastefully entertained.

Originally published in Fantastic Films #12, November 1979.

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