Profile: Sigourney Weaver - An alien force
SIX FOOT tall in her stockinged soles, with a face more handsome than pretty and a razor-sharp wit that does not suffer fools gladly, Sigourney Weaver was never going to be your typical Hollywood air-head.
Instead, now 60 years old, she is the ultimate tough cookie, a woman who single-handedly created the first female action hero with a flame thrower, a well-aimed expletive, and a small pair of pants.
But it wasn't always that way. Indeed it is hard to reconcile Weaver, who appears as a serious, no-nonsense scientist in James Cameron's new 3D epic Avatar, with the shy, nervous child who was constantly humiliated at school with jibes about her height.
"Growing up, I was always very vulnerable. I wasn't cool," she said once. "And almost every character I've played has been a woman who doesn't fit in."
Weaver grew up by the sea in Long Island Sound near New York, the daughter of Elizabeth, an English actress, and Pat Weaver, a TV executive for NBC who created the famous Today show. Much of her drive to succeed was inspired, she says, by her father, who died in 2002.
"I worked hard and made my own way, just as my father had. And just, I'm sure, as he hoped I would. I learned, from observing him, the satisfaction that comes from striving and seeing a dream fulfilled."
She was a bookish teenager, gawky and awkward, and went on to Stanford to study English. It was here that she first became interested in acting. But when she enrolled at Yale School of Drama, she was promptly told she had "no talent and would never get anywhere". Instead, lead roles at the college were heaped upon another pupil, Meryl Streep, who was one year behind Weaver and apparently turned to a psychiatrist in an attempt to deal with the guilt she felt about the situation.
Yet Weaver never really wanted to be a movie actress. It was the theatre that appealed to her, and it was this medium she pursued after her graduation in 1974. She was appearing in tiny off-Broadway theatre productions when director Ridley Scott spotted her in 1979, plucked her out, and cast her as Ellen Ripley in the first Alien movie, a role for which she was so inexperienced that Scott had to spend the first week of filming telling her not to look into the camera.
Weaver figured that, if nothing else, it would be a reasonable way to spend a few months while she waited to be taken on by a repertory theatre company. But nobody could have predicted the reaction to Alien when it was released. Complex, frightening, with layered messages about reproduction and the female sex, it propelled Weaver to superstardom and reinvented the action hero genre at a single stroke.
Weaver said later that she was attracted to the role of Ripley because she was "written like a man". Scott claims that Weaver "has the authority of a male", one of the reasons he chose her for the part in the first place. Weaver went on to make three more Alien movies, each with a different director, placing Ripley in the pantheon of great female characters and herself as one of the few credible character actresses of the latter part of the 20th century.
Yet success in the Alien series has been such that it has almost overshadowed her other roles, although she has worked consistently in the years since. In the 1980s, there were hugely successful movies such as Ghostbusters and Working Girl, not to mention the role of naturalist Dian Fossey in Gorillas In The Mist, while in the 1990s she experimented with parts such as that of a repressed housewife in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, and sent herself up in the spoof sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest.
Despite the wide diversity in the parts she has played, her mantelpiece does not creak with trophies. In 1988 she was nominated for two Academy Awards, best supporting actress for Working Girl and best actress in Gorillas In The Mist, making her one of only 11 actors or actresses honoured in this way – but she failed to win either. And there was no Oscar for Alien, or any of its sequels, despite a nomination for the first movie.
Perhaps that is why, when her agent turned down the role of a mute Scottish woman in The Piano without consulting her, a role for which Holly Hunter went on to win the Oscar, Weaver allegedly fired the person.
Yet there has been more to her life than the parts she has played on screen. She married theatre director Jim Simpson in 1986. Their daughter, Charlotte, now 20, is studying archaeology and recently spent time in Shetland on a dig. And despite the pull to Hollywood, Weaver has resolutely remained an East Coaster, flying out to LA only to make movies, before retreating home to New York.
She has Scottish heritage on her father's side, and last year told Scottish talk show host Craig Ferguson on his Los Angeles-based Late Late Show that as a backpacking student she had visited Dunvegan Castle on Skye, ancestral seat of the MacLeods, which her father had told her was the family clan. It wasn't until she excitedly phoned him from the island to tell him that he realised he'd actually meant Macfarlane, not MacLeod.
Now entering her seventh decade (although her smooth skin and natural looks belie her age), she is an active environmentalist, and can often be found campaigning against climate change, going on protests and flag waving for more awareness of green issues.
In 2006, despite much sneering about Hollywood types dabbling where they shouldn't, she even addressed a conference at the start of a UN General Assembly policy deliberation, outlining the widespread threat to ocean habitats posed by deep-sea trawling, an industrial method for harvesting fish. "People don't realise there might not be a later," she said in a recent interview. "That we might just have miles of weeds and nothing in the ocean, that we are at a point perhaps of no return."
Her activism is also one of the reasons she was attracted to her latest role in Cameron's Avatar, where she spends much of the film fleeing down corridors in a white coat, her hair a vibrant shade of red, in a film that examines what happens when humans are forced to populate another planet after burning out the natural resources on earth.
As she enters her seventh decade, she certainly shows no signs of slowing down. Last year she made five films. Next year, she plans to make several more. Asked recently what her secret was, she replied, "I have no idea."
A typical response, perhaps, from the woman who never quite fits in.
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