Name: Sigourney Weaver
8 October 1949 (Age: 64)
Where: New York, New York, USA
Height: 5' 11"
Awards: Won 1 BAFTA, 2 Golden Globes, nominatied for 3 Oscars
A question: how do you reach the Hollywood A-list when you're a woman, and Meryl Streep is getting offered all the best roles? What if you're charismatic, freethinking, well-read, extremely intelligent and six feet tall, and thus tower over the male lead in every department? What if you consider yourself to be a serious stage actress and don't think much of movies anyway? How DO you pull it off? Well, you could do it the Sigourney Weaver way, become the only bankable female action hero in franchise history and make hundreds of millions for the studios, thereby allowing yourself to do pretty much as you please. That's what Weaver did as Lt Ellen Ripley in the Alien series, a series that, over 20 years, has financed her extraordinary creative growth.
She was born Susan Alexandra Weaver on the 8th of October, 1949, in New York. Her father, Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, had been a lieutenant in the US Navy during WW2 then, on his return, set about building a TV empire for NBC, being its president between 1953 and '55. It was Pat who created both the Today and Tonight programmes, pioneering the desk'n'couch chat show format popular to this day. Along with his British actress wife, Colchester-born Elizabeth Inglis (born Desiree, credited in many 30s and 40s movies, including Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, as Elizabeth Earl), he also built a family. First came a son, Trajan - Pat having an abiding interest in the Roman Empire - then a daughter, named Susan after Elizabeth's best friend back home, Susan Pretzlik, a renowned explorer (though Pat preferred Flavia).
Young Susan grew up wealthy on the Upper East Side, surrounded by nannies and maids. The family lived in 30 different locations in her first 10 years. She remembers each by the elevator men who became her best friends. Susan was a bright kid, and a big reader, having devoured the likes of Moby Dick and Suddenly Last Summer by grade school. She wasn't ones for dollies - TV studios were her playpen - making her very mature, and distant from other kids. She attended the Brearly Girls Academy, then Chapin where, mocked for her height and gangling gait, she became the class clown.
Susan's life was difficult. She was uncomfortable in her own body and made all the more so when she compared herself to her beautiful mother. She'd also learned the British habit of never revealing her feelings. Thus, when she reached 13, her parents, feeling unable to communicate with this unusually sullen teenager, sent her into therapy (these were the days when psychiatry was believed to cure all known ills). Matters grew worse when the family moved to San Francisco.
Still painfully shy, missing the East Coast's social structures, and unable to relate to kids her own age, Susan asked to be sent to boarding school, having a highly romanticised notions of such establishments. Consequently, she was enrolled at the elite Ethel Walker school in Simsbury, Connecticut. It was horrible. She was known as Freshman Fink and roundly mocked once more for her height - she recalls crying for a year. She did gain a new name, though. Despising Sue and Susie, she was reading The Great Gatsby when she came across a passage where the cheating golfer Jordan Baker asks the narrator Nick Carraway to call her later, under her aunt's name - Mrs Sigourney Howard. "To my ear, Sigourney was a stage name", recalls Weaver "long and curvy". She assumed it for good, though her parents called her "S" for a while, convinced she'd soon change again.
. Having a stage name was important to Weaver. Unsure in her ambitions, she'd thought of being a doctor, a lawyer, a marine biologist and (predictably, given one of her most famous roles), an anthropologist working with primates. Her teachers had encouraged her to concentrate on literature, and to practise drama, her debut coming as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream. She'd taken to it naturally. Aside from her mother being an actress, her uncle was the famous comedian Doodles Weaver, a star on radio who'd also appeared in many movies, including The Birds and Jerry Lewis's Nutty Professor (He'd later turn up in TV shows like The Monkees and Starsky & Hutch. Sadly, he killed himself in 1983).
So, Sigourney began to pursue acting seriously. At 16, she took her first theatre job, with a summer stock troupe in Southbury, Connecticut. Here she played many of the extras in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Red Barn Playhouse. She also discovered what a problem her height was going to be. Cast as the lead, Alice, in You Can't Take It With You, she hopelessly overshadowed her male co-star. Her co-star being the director's boyfriend, she was sacked.
Sigourney moved on to Stanford University, in San Francisco. Studying English, she found that the drama facilities were poor, but took what classes she could and joined a local theatre group, playing in The Tempest and King Lear. Many of the productions were highly experimental in their nature. This was, remember, San Francisco in the Sixties, the epicentre of the detonating counter-culture. Sigourney took to this imaginative explosion straight away. She loved being a force for artistic change. She even dressed as an elf and, for a term, lived with her boyfriend in a treehouse she built herself. Though her degree was in English, it was acting she loved so, after spending time on a kibbutz in Israel, Sigourney enrolled at Yale School of Drama, having auditioned with a speech from Brecht's St Joan Of The Shipyards. Her hopes were high, but quickly dashed as she discovered her teachers considered her too tall and thus "uncastable". She played old women, whores, always extras. After a year, a newcomer arrived who took all the leads. Many actresses feel Meryl Streep gets all the best roles. Well, Sigourney suffered that even at college.
Weaver didn't get a single lead in 3 years. In fact, she was actively discouraged, told she had no chance. So she started spending time down at the writers' workshop, reading for an exciting new wave of experimentalists, many of whom would find fame - including Albert Innaurato, Kate MacGregor-Stewart, Wendy Wasserstein and Chris Durang. Weaver wanted to break boundaries and found keen support here, especially from Durang, who'd she'd work with on-and-off for years (most notably in his Beyond Therapy). She starred in his first Yale performance, Darryl And Carol And Kenny And Jenny, at one point singing a song called Better Dead Than Sorry while undergoing shock treatment. Totally deadpan humour - very Sigourney. At the time she was known as a "kooky comedienne".
After Yale, Weaver went to New York, working for some years in off-Broadway productions, constantly facing the strange, feeding off the rage she felt against her tutors at Yale. She appeared in Marco Polo Sing A Song, The Animal Kingdom, A Flea In Her Ear, The Constant Husband, Conjuring An Event, nothing easy. Aside from the out-there stagework, roles were hard to come by. Agents only thought to cast her as a posh girlfriend, sipping cocktails and looking handsome. Her first major part was as Avis Ryan, a woman who wants to become the first female president, in the daytime soap Somerset, which had also featured Michael Nouri, a pre-Poltergeist Jo Beth Williams, and Ted Danson.
Then came a break. Sigourney auditioned for Woody Allen's Annie Hall. But, though winning the part, she found she had theatre commitments and couldn't do it. Allen wanted her anyway, so she eventually appeared, for 6 seconds, as his girlfriend. Oscars were won, but not even Judi Dench gets them for 6 seconds' work. Weaver returned to the stage in The Conquering Event. The reviews were brutal. She was fast approaching 30, her career going nowhere.
And then it happened. Sigourney got a call from an agent named Mary Goldberg, an admirer of her work. She said Sigourney should meet up with producer Walter Hill, then in town looking for a woman to play the lead in an upcoming sci-fi horror flick. Sigourney went, but wasn't keen. First, she was unwilling to let down The Hunger Project, with whom she worked to prevent starvation in the world. Second, she thought that being chased around by "a blob of yellow jelly" in a trashy slasher movie was WAY beneath her. "I didn't want to play this awful part in this awful movie", she recalled.
But she went to meet the director anyway - Ridley Scott. He showed her HR Giger's designs, explained how the script had evolved. Originally, the space-crew was all-male, as it had been in Dark Star, which Dan O'Bannon had co-written with John Carpenter, and on which he'd based this new story. Producer Alan Ladd Jr, though, had demanded women, for a more rounded emotional effect. And one of these women was the star (this was originally intended to be Veronica Cartwright, who ended up playing the freaked-out Lambert), who unusually used intelligence, rather than beauty or big guns, to defeat the savage beast. She'd be sexy, but not naked. In the end, they even took out a scene where this woman walks into the captain's cabin, unzips and says "I need some relief" - much to Scott's chagrin, as he'd already had developed a wide chair on which the couple could have sex. This woman's sexiness lay in her resourcefulness. She was good at EVERYTHING, so she was no doubt good in bed too.
This all appealed to Weaver's sense of feminism and artistic class. So she signed up to play Lt Ellen Ripley in Ridley Scott's Alien and, of course, it was a massive hit, superbly realised, utterly terrifying. Weaver was now a star and, deeply perturbed by that prospect, returned to the stage, in a play she co-wrote with Durang, called Das Lusitania Songspiel (she speaks fluent German, by the way, and French). Then came The Janitor, where she played a TV reporter drawn into deadly danger by a besotted William Hurt, and more stage work in As You Like It and Christopher Durang's satire Beyond Therapy. The latter play would prompt Weaver to enter therapy herself. Still suffering the British curse of not being able to discuss her feelings, she began to use therapists as sounding-boards, a habit she continued for many years.
Next would come The Year Of Living Dangerously, concerning the 1965 revolution in Indonesia, and co-starring Mel Gibson. While filming in the Philippines, there was actually a real uprising. The cast and crew were protected by armed bodyguards and eventually rushed to the airport and taken to Australia, where filming was completed. Next came Deal Of The Century, a comedy about arms dealers, starring the red-hot Chevy Chase and directed by the Exorcist's William Friedkin. It was a major flop, just like the previous two movies. Sigourney was on the way down.
At this stage of her career, Sigourney fought hard for her roles. Wanting to work with Fred Zinnemann, legendary director of High Noon, she flew herself to England to win a role in the Sean Connery-starring Five Days One Summer. She didn't get it, hardly ever got anything she went for. Too tall, too patrician, you see. But she did manage to get cast in Ghostbusters, by pretending to be possessed in the audition. It was another mighty success. She was back. Of course, filmic success could never replace that theatre buzz, and so she continued her work on stage, appearing in The Marriage Of Bette And Boo and Hurlyburly, the latter seeing her Tony-nominated for her efforts as Darlene.
Her personal life was going well too. In her late teens, she'd dated journalist Aaron Latham. After Alien, she saw actor/playwright James McClure. She helped him try to get his Lone Star play made into a movie. Robert Altman was going to do it, Fox would provide finance. Then, 3 weeks before production began, it was scrapped. Amidst the trauma, the relationship collapsed.
Then, in 1983, Sigourney had signed up for Harold Pinter's Old Times. In charge of the non-Equity players was one Jim Simpson, six years younger than she. He'd been a child actor, appearing often on Hawaii 5-0 yet, having attended Yale, decided to direct instead. Weaver had met him before, when they both attended summer theatre festivals in Williamstown, Massachusetts, but now she kind of liked him. She asked him to dance at a party. He refused. Later that year, she invited him to her Halloween party (Sigourney's parties are famously good), and her friends persuaded him not to refuse. They talked, hit it off and, one year later, were married at Pat Weaver's Long Island Yacht Club.
Now came Weaver's most successful run. It began with Aliens. Weaver had not wanted to return to the Ripley role, but director James Cameron had written a script that appealed. Simpson and Weaver were trying for a child and Cameron had given Ripley a strong mothering instinct. One thing - Weaver is active in America's anti-gun lobby and didn't approve of all the hardware. But she says making the movie did at least show her how powerful people feel when heavily armed.
For Aliens, Weaver was Oscar-nominated for the first time. Another huge success, followed by another flop, as a researcher moonlighting as an escort and drawn by Michael Caine into an international conflict in Half Moon Street - including Sigourney's first nude scenes. No problem. Weaver now played Katherine Parker, the moody, hilariously manipulative boss undermined by Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. Then she was Dian Fossey in Gorillas In The Mist, the true-life tale of the activist and anthropologist who fought for animal rights in Africa and was horribly butchered. Weaver would visit Fossey's shack, where all her things were still laid out. Her blood still marked the mattress on which she was murdered.
So, a comedy, then a biopic of intense seriousness. It's a mark of Weaver's tremendous ability that she was Oscar-nominated for both. Then, after further box-office mega-bucks with Ghostbusters 2, a child at last, after 5 years of trying. Charlotte was the name given, and Weaver would now endeavour to make only one film a year in order to see her baby grow. But there was pain too. In trying for a second child, Weaver would suffer a miscarriage and suffer a year of depression. Eventually, though, she would come to terms with the fact that she could not bear another child.
Now she could pick and choose her roles. She made Alien 3, enticed by an existential script and, again, a new director - this time David Fincher, who'd go to make Seven and Fight Club - and the chance to shave her head and utterly de-glamorize the part. Then she was a particularly regal Queen Isabella in 1492: Conquest Of Paradise, and much the same as the First Lady in the comedy Dave.
Then came an important role, as Paulina Escobar in Death And The Maiden, an activist convinced her guest Ben Kingsley is the man who earlier tortured her on behalf of the government. Director Roman Polanski introduced her to acting coach Jack Waltzer, who taught her to be "the messenger", to go into her character and show the rest of us what it's like to be her. Being so smart, Weaver had always done deep research and, she now admits, tended to "over-intellectualise" her parts. Now she was being encouraged to feel, not think. For her, it was a revelation. From now on, she would research just enough, then attempt to live out her characters' lives before the camera.
On she went, in the sharp gay comedy/drama Jeffrey: as the agoraphobic Helen Hudson, menaced by serial killer Harry Connick Jr in the excellent Copycat (Weaver is herself scared of travelling in elevators): and onstage in Sex and Longing, a reunion with Christopher Durang. Next, she'd be the adulterous, cynical yet sad Janey Carver in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, then it was back to Alien with Resurrection, enticed by the presence of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, of Delicatessen fame, and a script by Buffy-creator Joss Whedon that had the now-dead Ripley brought back to life as a clone. Now, because of the horrors of Alien 3, in her DNA Ripley partly WAS the alien.
There were parts she was annoyed to miss out on. Having told her agent, Steve Dontonville, she didn't want to work during a particular period, you can imagine how she felt when Jane Campion asked him if he knew a Sigourney Weaver-type for The Piano and he recommended Holly Hunter. But, otherwise it was going great. She at last played a mother, opposite Julianne Moore in A Map Of The World, her favourite role, as she considers it closest to herself. "Most of the women I've played," she says "look either constipated or like they've never had an orgasm".