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.
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.
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?
I 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 Aliens. Nowadays, 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.
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 Defenders, Avatar, and Galaxy Quest…