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Shirley Li
July 17, 2017 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Sigourney Weaver was relatively fresh out of drama school when she landed the role that would change her life, launch a franchise, and inspire a long line of big-screen heroines.

That role, of course, was Ellen Ripley in Alien, a film Weaver tells EW she didn’t hesitate to do. “I thought, ‘I’d done so much Off-Broadway weird stuff, this is just the film equivalent of that,'” she recalls. “There weren’t any preconceptions… Since the part was written for a man, I thought the writers were especially smart in the fact that they didn’t turn Ripley into a female character. She was just a character, an everyman, a young person who’s put in this extraordinary situation.”

Since then, Ripley’s been referenced again and again by actresses who take similar leading roles. While speaking about playing Katniss in The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence cited Ripley as a model for her performance. Kate Beckinsale, who helms the Underworld franchise, adores Weaver’s work as the heroine so much she nicknamed herself after her. Most recently, Charlize Theron — whose Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road drew comparisons to the Alien heroine — also brought up Ripley in an interview with Variety about her bloody, boundary-pushing role in the action-heavy thriller Atomic Blonde, saying she “would be remiss not to acknowledge” Weaver’s work, along with Linda Hamilton’s as Sarah Connor in the Terminator franchise.

For her part, Weaver credits the Alien films’ writers’ consistency with depicting Ripley. “I’m very flattered when actresses talk about Ripley,” she says. “I feel very fortunate that I got to play her, but I have to certainly acknowledge the writers…. Believe me, when we did the other Alien [sequels], I saw how hard it was to write a woman in a heroic, straight, unsentimental, authentic way. So many people in the business would have said, ‘Well now we have to make her more sympathetic.’ And then it’s suddenly this token scene that shows we’re actually feminine after all, and that’s frankly bulls—, because that doesn’t happen in real life. Ripley doesn’t have time to try to be sympathetic, you know?” She laughs. “If she’s still a relevant character, I think it’s because I didn’t have any of that dragging me down.”

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Aside from introducing action heroines to the big screen, Weaver also became the first actress to be recognized at the Academy Awards for purely sci-fi work, receiving a Best Actress Oscar nomination in 1987 for Aliens. Since then, A-list actresses like Amy Adams (Arrival), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), and, of course, Theron and Lawrence have migrated to the genre — a trend Weaver says doesn’t surprise her at all. “I think part of it is the desire for actors and actresses to be in something that a lot of people around the world want to see,” she explains. “Science fiction is a very undervalued space critically, and it makes sense to me that young people are very interested in the questions that science fiction poses to us as a species. You know, who are we? What does it mean to be human? What does the future hold for us?”

“It’s fantastic that they’re writing good women’s parts in these movies, because I think [the genre] reflects how powerful women are,” she continues. “And maybe we’re more powerful on screen than we actually are in the world — and certainly in the halls of Congress — right now. For a long time, it felt like there weren’t those roles, or if there were, there was a great emphasis on sexuality. Now we’ve sort of found a balance.”

Weaver spoke with EW for a feature in this year’s Comic-Con issue. Previously: her thoughts on the Avatar sequels, the Ghostbusters reboot backlash, and her hints about her mysterious character on Marvel’s The Defenders (out on Netflix Aug. 18).

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