‘Avatar’ star Sigourney Weaver as queen of sci-fi: ‘Outer space has been good to me’
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‘AVATAR’ COUNTDOWN: 10 DAYS
You may have heard about a little film called ‘Avatar’ that opens Dec. 18. We’re counting down the days here at Hero Complex and today we bring you a conversation with Sigourney Weaver, arguably the greatest female star in the history of fanboy films.
Sigourney Weaver, with a chuckle, says she will never grow tired of space travel. “I’m always up for going to another planet,” the three-time Oscar nominee said. “Outer space has been good to me.”
This is the 30th anniversary of Weaver’s career breakthrough with her role as Ellen Ripley in the first “Alien” film. But far from resting on her laurels, the 60-year-old actress is again on extraterrestrial active duty with “Avatar,” the James Cameron sci-fi epic that opens Dec. 18.
Weaver plays botanist Grace Augustine, who is mentoring a brash young marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in the beautiful but treacherous jungles of Pandora, an inhabited moon that humans hope to conquer for its natural resources. Weaver is the biggest name in the cast and was thrilled to reunite with Cameron, who directed her in “Aliens,” her 1986 reprise of the Ripley role.
With four “Alien” films, two hit “Ghostbusters” movies and her work in the ingenious spoof film “Galaxy Quest,” Weaver came into “Avatar” as royalty among the Comic-Con crowd that now hold so much sway over Hollywood. It was no coincidence that the makers of the film “Wall-E” got Weaver to voice the computer aboard the Axiom starship – she’s been the voice in the ear of fanboys for three decades.
“It’s absolutely my favorite fan base,” Weaver said. “I love those guys.”
Weaver’s first film role in 1977 was a fleeting one – in “Annie Hall” she played Woody Allen’s date outside the theater – but two years later she became a star with “Alien,” and stepped into a franchise role that would earn her one of the very few Oscar acting nominations given for a pure sci-fi movie (‘Aliens’ in 1986). More than that, the flinty and always believable Ripley became an icon in genre films and routinely tops the list when fans discuss the top female characters in science fiction.
Still, Weaver came out of the first “Alien” film with a focus on finding varied roles and unexpected projects. She said actors who revisit the same ground too often quickly undermine their ability to surprise audiences and themselves.
“I certainly didn’t want to play Ripley for the rest of my life,” said Weaver, who stands at a willowy 5-foot-11. “I always wanted to jump around a lot. I wanted to boomerang as far as possible and as much as possible from one genre to another. But I love being in science fiction because anything is possible, especially I think for women.”
In “Avatar,” one of the things that possible was for Weaver to inhabit the body of a giant blue biological entity that was created from the mix of human DNA and the genetic material of the Na’vi, the indigenous tribe of Pandora that is the target of human aggression. The film as a whole is being framed as a “game-changer” in Hollywood history because of its innovations in 3-D technology, motion-capture technique and real-time imaging on the set; it also happens to be the most expensive film ever made, with a budget that will end up somewhere north of $300 million.
While Weaver said the thrill of the new may bring audiences to see the film, their lasting memory of it is likely to be the very traditional use of archetype and romance that give the sweeping alien epic its very human heart.
“I think it’s an astonishing movie to look at, but what I love about it is the fact that it is a great, old-fashioned story,” Weaver said. “It has the amazing, seamless technology that takes you to another world but the story is told in a classic way. I hope people are prepared. This is the movie that Jim [Cameron] said he wanted to see when he was 14 and, really, I think there’s enough 14 in all of us to make this movie something special. That’s a shared feeling.”
The actress said her character is “exasperated and impatient, sort of fed-up with a wry view,” but finds a sense of abandon while running through the otherworldly wilderness of Pandora. Weaver said she was impressed with costar Worthington, whose career may take off with this film.
“He has such a good sense of the arc of his character and he’s really there as an actor, he’s very present,” Weaver said.
Most of all, though, she said it was Cameron’s mastery of storytelling that keeps “Avatar” grounded even as it flies off to other worlds. It would be very easy to lose sight of the soul of the movie with all the massive moving parts, but Weaver said Cameron was all the more intense on his cast and script because of the special effects.
“He was so aware of that,” Weaver said. “He was so passionately committed to that fact and I think that’s one reason this cast is pretty small, just so he could make sure that each character is followed and developed. He is so good, too, at giving us wonderful women characters. There are more than one of those great woman characters in this movie, too.”
Weaver won’t name names, but she said she realized how bad most sci-fi and action movies are these days when she watched one of the top movies in recent seasons and found it be an unpleasant alien experience.
“It was a very popular and recently distributed science-fiction movie and I had to turn it off,” Weaver said. “It was so lacking in story and lacking in charm and lacking in humanity. And it happened that ‘Aliens’ came on and I hadn’t seen it in years. I watched just the beginning. Every single little scene was a kernel of wonderful humor and each character was so winning in their own way. There was a perspective, too, to what it would be like to be a human in space. Jim writes in these archetypes but they really hold up in the big picture. He has such a good sense of character and story and, again, the female characters.”
Weaver is well aware of the harsh realities that face an actress of a certain age in Hollywood, but she approaches them with a certain carefree attitude and also a sense of longtime familiarity – even when she was in her 30s her height and patrician features made it a challenge to get roles, so she became accustomed to shrugging off the industry setbacks that were beyond her control.
Weaver accomplished her goal of a far-reaching filmography with work in films such as “Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey,” “Working Girl,” “The Year of Living Dangerously,” “Dave,” “The Ice Storm,” “Baby Mama” and “The Village.” It’s those roles in the “Alien” films and “Ghostbusters,” though, that people mention when they ask for her autograph.
Dan Aykroyd, one of the stars of “Ghostbusters” and the co-creator of the paranormal comedy characters with writing partner Harold Ramis, has been pushing to revive that franchise. He told the Hero Complex earlier this year that all the original cast members would be back with a ‘new generation’ of spook-chasers. The interest in the third film appears to be ramping up, but Weaver said that after talking to Ivan Reitman, director of the previous “Ghostbusters” films in 1984 and 1989, she says she doesn’t expect to be part of the franchise’s new afterlife.
“As far as I know, I think Bill [Murray] is actually the only one in it,” Weaver said. “That may be wrong -- the last time I talked to Ivan was a couple of months ago. It’s not meant at this point to be a reunion of our particular group of ‘Ghostbusters’ at this point, it’s a younger group. My only wish is that Oscar, my [on-screen] baby in ‘Ghostbusters II,’ has grown up to be a Ghostbuster, too.”
Her next film, “Crazy on the Outside,” hits theaters next month with Tim Allen, J.K. Simmons, Kelsey Grammer and Ray Liotta. Allen (who is also making his feature-film directorial debut) portrays the fresh-from-prison brother who comes to live with his loving sister, played by Weaver (which reunites the ‘Galaxy Quest’ costars).
In the meantime, Weaver has been living in the future by promoting “Avatar” and getting ready to revisit her past – she will be sitting down in the weeks to come to watch all of “Alien” films as part of the process of recording commentary for the upcoming Blu-ray release of the four-film franchise.
“I’ve never done that, watched all of them in a row,” Weaver said. “I just recently made my [19-year-old] daughter watch them. She had never seen them before, believe it or not. I think she just prefers to think of me as good ol’ mom, you know, not some person running around a spaceship with a flamethrower.”
-- Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED
PHOTOS: Sigourney Weaver portrait by Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times. Second photo: Weaver and other cast members in a scene from ‘Avatar’ (Fox). Third photo: Weaver in ‘Ghostbusters’ with Rick Moranis. Fourth photo: ‘Galaxy Quest’ stars in action (DreamWorks). At bottom, Weaver in ‘Alien 3' (Fox).
UPDATED An earlier version of this post referred the the ‘Alien’ franchise as a thrilogy. There are four movies but, y’know, I kinda blocked out the memory of the third one so that threw off my count. This post also had a line that was vague about which ‘Alien’ film got Weaver an Oscar nomination, it was the second.