Sigourney Weaver Is Ready to Tell All Her Secrets
Decades after she debuted onscreen as an action heroine, and just as incandescent, Sigourney Weaver shares how she made it all happen.
Last year, when Sigourney Weaver got an offer to guest star on the Netflix series Call My Agent!, she tried something that she’d never done before: saying yes without reading the script. The hit French comedy is about the inner workings of a Paris talent agency, and Weaver, who speaks good French and had watched the first three seasons of the series, was excited to follow previous stars like Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert. In the new episode, out this month, Weaver plays the show’s first American celebrity, an exaggerated version of herself.
The catch: When Weaver finally did read the script, she felt that substantial changes were needed. In Paris she sat down with the show's creators and cast members, reworking not only her character but her entire story line. Although you might not guess it from the deliciously comic result — Weaver is a Dior-clad diva who flirts with young waiters and at one point breaks into a Broadway-style dance number — she carefully scrutinized every line of dialogue.
“I often have…input,” Weaver says with a wry smile. “That’s both the advantage and the disadvantage of working with me.” Despite her natural affinity for comedy, the Yale-trained actress sometimes has to remind herself not to overthink things. On the set of Ghostbusters, she recalls, Bill Murray used to sneak up behind her and tickle her when she was nerdily prepping for a scene. But for Weaver, the main point of preparation is to set herself up for letting loose. “You’ve got to do your work ahead of time,” she says. “Then you just go for it. You jump off the cliff.”
With no fewer than seven new projects in the can, Weaver, 71, has proved again and again that she’s adept at taking the plunge. She has played a scrappy space warrior (in the first four Alien films), a crusading primatologist (Gorillas in the Mist), a devious executive (Working Girl), and a whip-wielding Connecticut housewife (The Ice Storm). Her role in the upcoming Avatar 2 is being kept secret, though it’s known that she filmed several of her scenes while submerged in a giant water tank.
Weaver’s somewhat fancy New York background may have primed her for a certain kind of success (mom was a classically trained English actress; dad was the TV honcho who launched the Today show), but she has done her best work when veering far off the conventional path. Along the way there have been roadblocks to navigate. Weaver still hasn’t forgotten that day in the mid-1970s when the two heads of her Yale School of Drama program sat her down and told her she would never make it as an actor.
"It was completely heartbreaking to me," she says. "They said that I didn't have the talent to be in the business, that they didn't think I should be at the school. It took me many years to get over it." Back then Weaver didn't yet realize that professors are not deities but flawed human beings with their own issues and agendas. "If anyone reads this who's an acting student, do not do what I did — don't take it so seriously and actually believe them. Just go out for a few drinks and say, 'Fuck them!' "
Weaver was in her late 20s when she began to suspect that her haters might have been wrong. After four years working in off-Broadway theater, fulfilling her craving to "be in funny stuff and play strange people," she was hired in 1978 by the young Ridley Scott for a slightly oddball sci-fi thriller, Alien (her fee: $30,000). The movie was a surprise hit, and Weaver's character, Ellen Ripley — originally written as a man — was compelling enough that director James Cameron decided to build the film's sequel, Aliens, entirely around the flame-throwing amazon. Weaver became Hollywood's first real action heroine, a feminist icon who made it OK for "serious" actresses like Charlize Theron, Natalie Portman, and Angelina Jolie to shoulder commercial blockbusters.
But for Weaver, badassery comes in many forms, including a commitment to choosing roles whose meaning transcends the films themselves. In Death and the Maiden (1994), she drew attention to the women who’d been raped and tortured in Chile during the country’s right-wing dictatorship. Even the Alien franchise, she notes, offers a critique of corporate greed and worker exploitation, issues that are even more relevant now than they were when the films were made.
Still, there's nothing like playing a villainous yuppie boss à la Katharine Parker, who battles upstart secretary Melanie Griffith in Mike Nichols's 1988 Working Girl. ("Tess, you don't get anywhere in this world by waiting for what you want to come to you," Katharine advises Griffith's character at the start. "You make it happen. Watch me, Tess. Learn from me.") Weaver's performance earned her an Oscar nomination, and she's still occasionally approached in airports by women who cheer on Katharine while trash-talking Tess for running off with Harrison Ford (who plays Jack, Katharine's boyfriend). Weaver finds it amusing that more and more women find a role model in Katharine, who was also written as a man in the script's first draft. "She does turn out to be a rat, but she's very confident, and the first impression of her is somewhat positive," Weaver says, joking that maybe some of Katharine's fans haven't watched the movie till the end, when Tess crushes her.
In two films due out this year, Weaver portrays complicated women whose layered pasts have left them with multiple edges, hard and soft. In the seriocomic The Good House, she's a New England real estate agent in denial about her drinking problem. (A romance with handyman Kevin Kline offers a poignant diversion.) For research, Weaver visited a couple of rehab facilities, but she also had plenty of material within her extended family, where there was "quite a bit of alcoholism," she says. "I just had to remember what my holidays were like." In My Salinger Year, she plays a formidable literary agent in 1990s New York who puts a young assistant (Margaret Qualley) through her paces. While the scary-boss story line elicits easy comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada, for Weaver it was a chance to explore the theme of female mentorship and to play one of the fascinating "career women" she used to admire while growing up in New York. "These women had broken into publishing or politics, where they had to work that much harder to get ahead," Weaver says. "They had so much flair and glamour — they were always beautifully dressed, in their own eccentric way. And they were so secure, or seemed to be."
For our Zoom interview Weaver has donned a cognac-hued cashmere turtleneck that she picked up while shooting in Paris, and some new gold earrings from Milan. (By quarantine standards, she says, "these are some of my nicest clothes — for you, Christopher.") Having caught the Dior and Bottega Veneta runway shows in Europe just before the pandemic hit hard, she's eager to see fashion come "roaring back" as soon as lockdowns are over. "Maybe dressing up will become more personal, more individual — and more comfortable, which I think is a great thing," she says. But no matter what outfit she's wearing, Weaver's no-nonsense side is never really hidden. After all these months of video calls, she's still not aware of Zoom's beautifying "touch up my appearance" filter; when I clue her in, she tries to locate it in the app but can't find it, so she laughs and vows to have her assistant enable it ASAP. (She really, really doesn't need it.)
Weaver's enduringly youthful glow is likely enhanced by all the time she spends canoeing and hiking with her equally outdoorsy husband, stage director Jim Simpson. One key to the success of their 36-year marriage, Weaver says, is that they're well-matched but not too well-matched (i.e., he's not an actor). Also, she adds, "I've always believed what they say in the psychology magazines — that whatever is wrong with your current relationship, you'll re-experience it in the next one. So why not stick with this great guy who you found and work things out with him?" The couple conceived their daughter, Charlotte, via IVF 30 years ago, when the technology was still very new. "It takes a toll on your body," Weaver says, "and on the marriage too, because you start looking at clocks and all that stuff. But I'm so glad we persevered."
Career-wise, Weaver's current strategy seems to involve a similar mix of persistence and trusting in fate. At her age, Weaver says, "you have to believe that the universe is going to help you, that a director is going to wake up in the middle of the night and go, 'Oh, I know who can play that — Sigourney Weaver.'" Cameron is one filmmaker who returns to her again and again: He executive produced Secrets of the Whales, the new National Geographic series that Weaver narrates. Out in April on Disney+, it's an intimate study of whales' complex social structures and how their lives are being affected by climate change. "It's staggering," says Weaver, a longtime advocate for ocean-related causes. "Each species is so different, with its own languages and music." And while Cameron's Avatar 2 will be released next year and Avatar 3 awaits release in 2024, Weaver has one more mega sequel out this summer, Ghostbusters: Afterlife. The details for this one are also top secret, though she says that Ivan Reitman, who directed the 1984 original, was there on set beside his son, Jason, who directed this one.
Weaver tells me she sometimes wishes that instead of going to Yale, she’d trained with the Second City, where the improv-based approach to performing has produced actor-comedians with a remarkable spontaneity and “aliveness” that she feels are invaluable these days, as more directors count on actors to improvise. But she says she doesn’t spend much time second-guessing her previous choices, except when she’s asked to look back on them during interviews like this one. When I press her about the origins of her first name, it sparks another round of pondering. Born Susan Weaver, she was only 14 when she stumbled on the odd-yet-elegant name Sigourney in a copy of The Great Gatsby and informed her friends and teachers that it would be her new moniker. It wasn’t a stage name, because Weaver wasn’t yet an actor. But she was already almost 6 feet tall, and she found that cute little nicknames like Sue and Susie just weren’t cutting it.
At the time, Weaver says, “I didn’t realize what a huge step it was to change my name, or what it probably said about me wanting to go my own way. I didn’t see it in that context. I just didn’t like being called Susie.” She laughs. “And look, now some people call me Siggy, which is just like Susie. You can’t escape your destiny.”
Photographed by Sebastian Faena/IMG Lens; Styling: Julia von Boehm; Hair:
DJ Quintero/The Wall Group; Makeup: Brigitte Reiss-Andersen/A-Frame Agency;
Manicure: Megumi Yamamoto/Susan Price; Set design; Todd Wiggins/Ilth House Agency.
For more stories like this, pick up the February 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Jan. 15.