The icon reflects on her legendary pop culture legacy — from Alien to Avatar to Ghostbusters to Galaxy Quest — plus her latest work on Marvel's The Defenders

By Shirley Li
July 25, 2017 at 03:00 PM EDT
Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

Since bursting into the spotlight as Ripley in 1979’s Alien, Sigourney Weaver has reigned for nearly four decades as the queen of sci-fi, not to mention being one of the most hotly anticipated actors to hit Hall H whenever she comes to Comic-Con. Now, on the eve of her Marvel debut on The Defenders, she looks back on Ripley’s legacy and examines how Hollywood’s attitude toward heroines has evolved since the first time she fought a xenomorph. (Note: This interview was conducted before the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con. Some of her responses have previously been published.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were approached about Alien when you were a young actor relatively fresh out of drama school. What made you want to try a low-budget horror/sci-fi film?
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: It wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but I’d done so much weird Off Broadway stuff that I thought, “This is sort of the film equivalent of that.” And I liked Ridley [Scott] right away. So to me it was a very cool, dark, low-budget movie with amazing elements in it, a great cast, and a clearly brilliant director. And I was so tall that regular executives and producers didn’t know what to do with me, so I thought this was a good fit, because I could do my own thing.

How so?
There weren’t any preconceptions. Since the part was written for a man, I thought the writers were especially smart in that they didn’t turn Ripley into a female character. She was just a character, a kind of Everyman, a young person who’s put in this extraordinary situation. Believe me, when we did [the sequels], I saw how hard it was to write a woman in a heroic, straight, unsentimental, authentic way. So many people in this business would have said, “We have to make her more sympathetic.” So then there’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? [Laughs] If she’s still a relevant character, I think it’s because I didn’t have any of that dragging me down.

After Alien, how did your selection process change? What are the elements — the director, the script, the role — you’ve prioritized over time when choosing what projects to do next?
It really hasn’t changed at all. I really loved reading growing up, so to me, it’s all about the script and whether the script is about something more than just the people in it. If you don’t have that larger context, the movie won’t have the weight an audience deserves. I do care about the director [too]. It has to be someone who’s slightly out-of-his-or-her-mind obsessed with this project. The least important thing to me is the role, because I figure if it’s a good project about something, I can make that part work.

20th Century-Fox/Everett Collection

Speaking of directors, how have your conversations with them changed over time? You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the industry: James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Mike Nichols, Ang Lee, David Fincher…
That’s an interesting question, because I think there are fewer conversations [between actors and directors] now. I was never a big yakker, but at the same time, I feel like directors don’t direct you as much as they used to. I don’t know whether that’s because they don’t think I need direction — which of course is not true, actors always need direction [laughs] — but I think either they don’t have the experience to know that they can be very helpful or they’re hoping you can just get along without them. The young directors now, it’s harder for them to get the experience they need with actors sometimes. [Directors] are your partners, and that’s a point of view that’s sadly not very evident anymore, because there’s such an emphasis on money and on how it’s going to do and all these other things.

I actually just had one day on Noah Baumbach’s new movie [The Meyerowitz Stories, in which she cameos as herself], and Noah had everyone doing, like, 40 takes and trying so many different things. I thought it was incredibly exciting. And I found that just wonderful, to be working with a director who wanted to take the time to explore the material. That’s what we’re there for. Jim Cameron is very much the same way. He really wants all the actors to try as many different things as they want to, and he really turns it over to you, and it’s always a very generous thing for a director to do that. It’s a really good partnership for nourishing that kind of exploration, and it’s just getting more and more rare, I think.

Have you ever considered directing?
was very interested in a project that was offered to me as a director a few years ago, but I had a daughter, and I could just tell that it was going to take so much time. As an actor-slash-mother or mother-slash-actor, you try to pick jobs where you don’t have to be separated from your family for too long, and it was going to be a little complicated. I was going to have to edit in Canada, I think it was, and I wasn’t willing to give up time, but it’d be interesting to try it at some point. And I don’t know that I’d be technically [proficient], you know? I’ve worked with such amazing people like Neill Blomkamp [on Chappie and the short film Rakka], who knows everything about the business, about the designs, about the technology. If I can just concentrate on the actual story, I’ll be okay.

In 1987, you were the first person to receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination for a purely sci-fi film, for AliensNowadays, A-list actresses like Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, and Charlize Theron have all pivoted to the genre at the height of their careers. Why do you think that is?
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. 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. 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.

And yet, 2016’s female-led reboot of Ghostbusters drew hate, largely from male fans of the original. As a star of the first film who also made a cameo in the new version, how did you react to that response?
I was very surprised by the backlash. I can’t begin to interpret it, frankly. I thought it was very childish and cruel. I guess if you saw the movie as a kid you would feel possessive over it. But come on, things change. Women are at the table, and there are plenty of projects to go around. It was a good movie, I thought. They were splendid in it, and no one’s taking away the original.

So I’ll never be quite able to understand what happened except that it was unfortunate. I think it might have more to do with the internet and showing your secret small self on the internet in a way you’d be embarrassed to be if you were out at a bar with friends, acting like a jerk. So I don’t know, I don’t think this is the end of this kind of thing, because it’s happening in so many areas, personal and professional, to all kinds of businesses. [Sighs] I thought it was really sad that it happened to that project. But I think they’ve all moved on, so hopefully everyone learned something from that.

Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

Going back to your point about Ripley’s relevance after all these years, how do you feel when actresses say they’ve modeled their performances after yours as Ripley? Jennifer Lawrence said she based Katniss in The Hunger Games off of Ripley, and Charlize Theron recently pointed to your work as well for her role in Atomic Blonde, which comes out July 28.
I’m very flattered when actresses talk about Ripley, that she’s been important to them. I think, again, it was a really fresh idea at the time to have the woman be the hero, and I think the character holds up. I can’t wait to see Charlize in Atomic Blonde, was it?

Yup, Atomic Blonde.
I think that’s great, I think that’s a reflection, again, of our society. Ripley [came at a time when] we were moving into these new [male-dominated] fields, of being policemen, firemen. It was a very new idea. I was really lucky.

And considering how Ripley was originally written to be a male character, are there any male characters you wish you could play? This might be hard to answer on the spot.
Hmm… In terms of a great movie that I often look at, something like To Kill a Mockingbird would be great. It would be great to see a woman play the lawyer. Not that I want to tamper with a masterpiece like To Kill a Mockingbird, but you know, it would be very interesting to have these iconic male characters played by women. You can’t help but see that the world has changed.

NEXT: Weaver shares Comic-Con memories, talks The DefendersAvatar, and Galaxy Quest

You’re heading to Comic-Con with Marvel for The Defenders. [Note: This interview was conducted before the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con.] You’ve attended before for Paul in 2010 and for the Aliens 30th anniversary reunion in 2016. What do you remember from your previous Cons?
Paul was a great movie to go to my first Comic-Con with, because even though I’d done Galaxy Quest, and we had that wonderful scene where it’s like you’re at Comic-Con and everyone’s dressed up — it was one of my favorite scenes in the movie — I’d never gone to an event like that.

I actually went with a friend. I grabbed a mask, I think it was a Batman mask, and we walked through, because I just wanted to see what everyone was talking about. It was so wonderful to see all these different people in these incredibly elaborate costumes they obviously worked hard on, looking so fabulous. You know, [you’d see] three of the same character all chatting with each other as we walked by! [Laughs] I thought, “What a great thing.” I actually feel sort of sorry for the other genres because there’s no Con for drama or comedy [laughs]. There should be, because it’s so much fun for movie lovers to get together.

I’m glad you brought up Galaxy Quest, by the way. It’s a personal favorite.
I loved doing Galaxy Quest. I’m much closer to Gwen than I am to Ripley [laughs]. I’m not very heroic. I’m much more, you know, if there’s a spider in the shower, [I go] “Darling, come and get it!” [Laughs] That movie was a great love letter to actors in this genre, and to the fans.

Oh, for what it’s worth, I think Gwen is heroic.
Well, thank you. It took guts to do what she did.

Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

Going back to your Comic-Con experiences, do you remember when you were introduced at New York Comic Con? The Defenders cast have all said that was a highlight, your surprise appearance and casting announcement.
Well, I have to give Marvel the credit for that. It was a lot of fun. Jeph [Loeb], our producer, is such a master at building up anticipation and I was the last person to come out, so my fellow actors had already gotten the audience up to such a high level of excitement.

Do you remember what you were thinking when that happened?
I guess what ran through my mind was, “They’re very excited. I hope we can live up to this.” [Laughs]

As far as the plot goes, so far all we have are glimpses of you as Alexandra, the villain
I’m not a villain. I’m an adversary. [Laughs] Alan Rickman [her costar in Galaxy Quest and Snow Cake] always said, “I don’t play villains, I play very interesting people.” And I think that’s very descriptive of my character.

Then what would you say makes her different from her typical adversary?
Well, in many ways, she’s an admirable person. There are things she cares about deeply. She probably doesn’t care about the same things the Defenders care about, and that puts them on a collision course.

RELATED VIDEO: Jeph Loeb Teases Sigourney Weaver’s ‘Antagonistic’ ‘Defenders’ Role

What drew you to the role? Had you seen all of the standalone series?
No, I didn’t really know much about them. When they approached me about this they sent me some of Daredevil and Jessica Jones — and I’d worked with Krysten [Ritter, who plays Jessica] before on Vamps — and I was so impressed by the writing and by the whole thing about Marvel on the small end. These characters are regular people, and they have a couple of very important gifts, but they’re not superheroes and they don’t jump around in boots and capes. It’s not the apocalyptic moment; it’s all about the city, and I guess as a New Yorker, I really cared about that instantly. Making that block that much better for the people who live on it, that really spoke to me.

But I had to completely educate myself. I knew nothing. I kind of heard about [the Defenders] because they’re certainly in the zeitgeist, but I needed to watch them to really appreciate them. And then the idea that I was going to be [lowers voice] an adversary [raises it back] I thought was really fun. She’s a really worthy adversary. I thought it was a very beautifully written part, very ambitiously conceived, and challenging.

Can you explain your choice to call her an adversary and not a villain? Isn’t she the Big Bad? Aren’t those words all synonyms?
You know, we had a lot of talks early on about who this woman was, and with my work in general, I try to avoid things like the “ice queen” and terms like that that are often thrown at women who aren’t completely sympathetic. I hate all those terms so much. So I encouraged our little group, Jeph and Marco [Ramirez, the showrunner] and the writers, to not think in those terms, because I find them completely meaningless, and to help me understand who I was from a really un-cliché-ed point of view, and I think we succeeded in that. I really enjoyed playing Alexandra. I’ve certainly never played anyone like her. I felt like I was in heaven, I just felt very lucky to be a part of it.

Jessica Miglio/Netflix

After Comic-Con, you’ll be starting work on Avatar 2. The first film came out in 2009; why follow up nearly a decade later with four whole sequels? Just a few years back you were saying there might only be two.
There’s a very good reason why it turned out to be four sequels. Having read all four of them, I think they’re absolutely extraordinary and worth the wait. I love the way we’re doing them, we’re kind of doing 2 and 3 simultaneously and it’s going to work very well. A lot of the heavy lifting has already been done in 1, opening up the world and the characters and everything, and I think that Jim has had a wonderful time writing these four, and it’s going to be very exciting bringing them to life. It’s the most ambitious project by far I’ve ever been involved in, and the most moving, the most astonishing, beautiful. I think all of us who get to be a part of it are just in awe when we see the artwork. It’s just incredible to be living now when we can bring this kind of film experience to the public. Because I think as much as Avatar changed what people want in a film experience, this goes a hundred times farther.

What can you tell us about the stories in the sequels?
These films are very much about the peril of this beautiful planet, and [director James Cameron] is continuing the same themes of greed and callousness of the corporations and plight of the indigenous people. At this point after a long and very satisfying career — I can’t believe it’s been 40 years, but anyway — I’m very excited to be able to work on these four stories. I can really, really appreciate it. [Laughs]

And once you’re done with all of them, will you continue venturing into space?
[Laughs] I think after Avatar, I’m going to take a break. Maybe I’ll do a comedy.

Sigourney Weaver spoke with EW for a feature in this year’s Comic-Con issueBuy it here or subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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