Transcribed from Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies, 1984. Originally published in Films and Filming magazine. Interview by Danny Peary.
Danny Peary: Did you go to movie casting calls before Alien?
Sigourney Weaver: Not many. I’m sure I’d turned down a couple of films. One of the reasons I wasn’t crazy about getting Alien was I felt responses had been so encouraging at past auditions that I’d soon get another role if I didn’t get picked for Alien. That’s not to say I didn’t want the job. I did. I had no money for one thing. I was delighted to be considered. But I had high hopes. The fact that I didn’t slobber at the mouth when I was told I’d get a screen test helped me get the part.
DP: How were you even selected to audition for a lead part in a major film when you had never been in a film before?
SW: I had been out on the West Coast the year before, visiting my parents, and had met a few people out there. And I’d done enough work in New York already so that I wasn’t completely unknown. I was highly recommended to everyone involed with Alien. They had been trying to sell Fox on having a newcomer play Ripley. Fox had mixed feelings at first and casting took a long time. They saw a lot of actresses. I was asked to meet everyone here in New York, soon after I’d opened in the play The Conquering Event.
I remember going to the wrong place for my appointment and having to rush around in confusion. I met Ridley Scott right away, and the producers Gordon Carroll and David Giler. And then I met Walter Hill, who co-produced Alien. And they all liked me. Walter Hill and David Giler wrote the script I read, although Dan O’Bannon had written the original script and got the screen credit. You can tell Walter’s influence. He writes so sparely because he expects you to improvise. When I read it, I found that his characters, especially the males, seemed identical. That’s why when they cast Alien they chose distinct types who could make the characters interesting in ways other than just by saying the dialogue. It was a very skeletal script and that’s one of the reasons I liked it.
DW: At that stage of your acting career, were you secure enough to argue over problems you found in the script?
SW: Sure. That’s what it’s all about. On Alien, I immediately commented, ‘It’s a very bleak picture where people don’t relate to each other at all,’ and the casting director was there signaling me not to blow it by making such strong objections. But I figure if you put all your cards on the table, they can use that. After all, they’re hiring you. They can disagree with you but you must air your feelings so you can arrive at a resolution. You have to be careful and specific about what you disagree with. And you also have to express what you find positive about the project. I happen to have worked on many new plays with new playwrights so I have been encouraged to speak up – I didn’t know if people in movies were used to that. I thought they should be. You shouldn’t work with a bad director, one you can’t have a dialogue with. I just think it takes too much out of you if you don’t absolutely love the project. If you love it you can put up with a jerk director – which Ridley Scott definitely was not.
I think when you’re not fully committed to something, you shouldn’t do it. I have only done things I’ve felt strongly about. Even Alien, I sat down and thought about Ripley a long time before deciding I really wanted to play her.
DP: When were you told you had the part?
SW: I flew out to Hollywood to meet Alan Ladd Jr., and Gareth Wiggin at Twentieth. I lost my bags on the plane and went in my rotten clothes. We had a typical chatty Hollywood meeting where you’re all supposed to pretend you’re there for social reasons and no one mentions the film. Ladd agreed to screentest me, so the next week I flew to London where Ridley had built a whole set for me. I hadn’t yet been hired but I was the only actress they were screentesting. They hoped I would do well. And we did a run-through of the entire script. I wore old army surplus stuff for the screentest. We didn’t want it to look like Jackie Onassis in Space; we wanted to look more like pirates.
On the day I left for home, Ladd came to look at the tests. He asked all the women in the studio who worked as secretaries to watch my tests, too, and tell him their opinions. And the women just said, ‘Well, we like her.’ So they got me the part. On the day I got back to New York, they called and said I got it. I had sort of written it off every step of the way.
DP: Is there anything you tried to bring to Ripley when you were trying for the part?
SW: A no-nonsenseness to her. She’s a very matter-of-fact person. I think she grew up believing there is a certain order to things that could not be broken or changed. She had very rational training. And her beliefs are exploded in the film when she suddenly has to work on instinct and emotion rather than intellect. Looking back, in some ways she was the most unimaginative character I ever played – which isn’t to say I don’t like her. Actually the part I wanted to play was Lambert, Veronica Cartwright’s part. In the first script I read, she just cracked jokes the whole time. What was wonderful about it was that here was a woman who was wise-assing, telling stupid jokes just when everyone was getting hysterical. And she didn’t crack up until the end. That’s a character I could identify with because that’s how I assume I would act. If the elevator gets stuck that’s what I do.The character changed however when Ridley and Veronica decided to giver viewers a sympathetic character.
DP: It’s obviously great getting a starring role in your first film.
SW: It’s also dangerous in the sense there are so many good supporting roles that I’ll never be considered for. I really developed in the theatre by taking character parts and in a way that’s what I’d like to do in the movies. I think I’m considered for parts that are nothing like those I’m drawn to. That’s the “actor’s dilemma”. It’s not unique to me. When you are the lead in a film that costs a few million dollars, you do get the best hair and make-up people, and you dont have to worry about things in rehearsal you might not get if you were making an independent film or if you had a supporting role. On Alien there was some resentment towards me because I came from New York and got such a good part, the one character alive at the end. That was very difficult for me to deal with. There is a segregation between leading and supporting people in films that I find stupid and distasteful.
DP: So could you enjoy working on Alien?
SW: Alien was fun. I was excited about being in a movie and since it was my first time out, I was very easy-going. I didn’t realise until the four months were over that I’d been experiencing such tension. Every day Ridley would let me get behind the camera to look at each scene and I could tell Alien was an incredible film to be a part of. It was always fascinating seeing Riley work and how he put it together. And I loved working with Tom Skerritt, who played Dallas, the captain of the Nostromo. He’s great, a truly interesting person. Also I learned a lot working with actors who had so many varied acting backgrounds. For instance, the scenes I did with Ian Holm, who played Ash, the science officer who turns out to be a robot, were done word-for-word perfect, like I was used to doing on stage. However, the scenes I did with Yaphet Kotto, who played Parker, were probably nothing like the scenes that were written. However an actor worked, I was willing to work with him that way, I would have liked to have done more improvisation because we might have made ourselves into the ensemble we should have been.
DP: What did you think of the sets?
SW: They were great. In fact, I think the main reason I wanted to do Alien was because they had shown me HR Giger’s incredible designs for the Alien and the planet. I had never seen anything like it. I wish you could have seen the filming on the planet set because it was so fascinating to watch. They had Ridley’s two boys and Tom Skerritt’s son walking around in space suits being doubles so everything arouind them would look bigger. The amount of incense used was not to be believed – it was also used to diffuse light on the bridge and mess-room sets, where the ceilings were very low. It was like the incense burned at a Catholic funeral I once attended – people wore masks.
I remember taking my parents around this set. It was like wandering though some Playboy orgy room. There was this huge spaceship with vaginal doors and there were beautiful female bones. They were gulping, ‘Very interesting, very interesting.’ It was funny having never done another film [before], except for a week on something that was never released. I thought every actor got up, had breakfast, and went ot another planet. It seemed so natural to me.
DP: Did you like working with Ridley Scott?
SW: We got along very well. He’s an amazing man, a genius, and I think Alien is beautifully directed. He is one of those directors who will come up to you after you’ve done a scene who will say, ‘Well, I don’t fucking believe that.’ At first I’d be taken aback and wonder, ‘Where’s the stroking, where’s the diplomancy?’ And there just wasn’t any. And that’s why I liked him so much. In an industry where there’s so much bullshit I really appreciated his just getting to the point. We didn’t have to waste time. We rarely rehearsed and if we did it was only a day in advance of shooting. It was a high-pressured set. Ridley operated the camera. He hadn’t worked that much with actors and I think one of his priorities today is to become not an “actor’s director” but to be better with them.
I remember one time I asked for his help on a problem I was having with Ripley. And he thought about it for a long time and then he came over to me and said, ‘What if you are the lens on… (and he named a sophisticated camera)… and you’re opening and shutting…’ And there was a long pause. Finally I said, ‘Ridley, I’ll have to think about it,’ And he looked crestfallen because he hadn’t helped me and he added, ‘Well, let me think too.’ He really wanted to be part of the process. But having me be the iris of a lens? I said, ‘That’s okay, Ridley. I’ll figure it out myself.’ And I did. But I loved him.
DP: Had you seen many science fiction films before being in Alien?
SW: Only a handful, if that. Being in Alien made me want to see Dark Star, because Dan O’Bannon wrote that, too. I didn’t really remember 2001, but Ridley kept saying it was a masterpiece.
DP: In Alien there are two women who are integral members of the crew.
SW: At one point, Ripley was supposed to be a man. They changed the charater to a woman just before casting was started. There’s also slight sexual innuendo. There was supposed to be a love scene right in the middle of the picture. It was one of Ridley’s favourite scenes but it was never filmed. Ripley sees Dallas and starts to take off her clothes, saying, ‘I need some relief.’ And they built a special chair for us to make love in. It was a ludicrous idea – with that Alien running around loose in the ship, who would have wanted to take one’s clothes off to make love?
DP: Was there discussion over your famous strip toward the end of the film?
SW: Originally there was going to be a lot of nudity in the film. Of the matter-of-fact variety. There were going to be lots of shots of naked people walking around because it was such a harsh environment. It would have been a nice contrast. As for my strip… people have said, ‘Aw, how could you demean yourself by doing a striptease?’ And I say, ‘Are you kidding? After five days of blood and guts, and fear, and sweat and urine, do you think Ripley wouldn’t take off her clothes?’ It never occured to me for a second that people would think my strip exploitive. I think it’s kind of provocative – you’re almost seeing me through the Alien’s eyes. Suddenly I go from dark green animal to a pink and white animal.
Ridley and I had so much fun working out the ending. There were so many different endings. One of them was that the Alien would surprise me and I would run into the closet where I’d take my suit off and put on another. So there would have been a moment when the Alien would see me between suits and be fascinated. Because the Alien isn’t evil. It’s just following its natural instincts to reproduce through whatever living things are around it. Every now and then a reporter would ask, ‘How could you have been part of a film about such evil?’ And I’d go, ‘Good Lord! You take this very seriously, don’t you?’
So I liked all this stuff. You see the Alien in its birthday suit the entire film, so I thought it was a cop out having me wear the underwear, and not stripping entirely. Fox is always concerned about losing Spain, Italy, etc. But I must say, having received the mail I have, I would now think twice about taking off all my clothes in a movie and scampering around for an hour.
DP: Was there talk of Alien II?
SW: It was a great joke among us after the movie came out. Everyone at Twentieth wanted one because Alien made so much money, but none of us ever talked seriously about a sequel.
DP: You took a long time before doing another film.
SW: I was astonished to discover after finishing Alien how traditional scripts are in regard to women. For one thing, there’s rarely a script in which the woman can keep on her clothes.
DP: Would you like to do more science fiction films?
SW: Having made Alien with Ridley Scott – yes, I’d like to.