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COVER STORY : Weaver’s Believe It or Not : As the iron-willed Ripley of the ‘Alien’ saga, the actress embodies feminine strength, but that’s not how she feels: ‘I worry all the time’

<i> Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Sigourney Weaver’s very long legs are inserted into a pair of very old, very pressed blue jeans that look the way jeans look on women whose closets are full of evening gowns and furs. Possibly she has come into town straight from the boarding stables or the flower beds of a Tudor mansion in Connecticut. She’s even got on this sort of ratty red-and-white-checked blouse that would almost allow her to pass for a suburban housewife headed to the market except that when she opens her mouth to speak, you begin to hear the sound of a cello in the background.

Weaver is the kind of woman someone less privileged or less gifted could really dislike if she weren’t so nice, although maybe you could dislike her for that too. (How can anyone say all the right things all the time?) After meeting her one is taxed to imagine this perfect Upper East Side hostess, this poster girl for the Yale School of Drama duking it out with studio bosses and guys like Walter Hill (“48 HRS.”) over the story line to a movie about slime monsters in outer space.

But then there is always the possibility that, like so many of us, she is not what she seems. Hollywood does not, as a rule, reward the meek and the mild or, God knows, the merely talented and well-spoken. Putting aside the truth of who she is, maybe it’s enough to know, just from the evidence up on the screen, that Weaver has already convinced millions of filmgoers the world over that she is Ripley, the sinewy, iron-willed woman warrior of the intergalactic thrillers “Alien” (1979) and “Aliens” (1986), and is about to do it again in “Alien 3" which opens for business Friday. She’s even going to be bald this time. Bald. Or at least Velcro-headed. Something to do with lice on the planet Fiorina 161.

Still, it’s amusing to hear her, an actress who attracted serious attention for her dramatic roles as a willowy British embassy attache in “The Year of Living Dangerously” and as the doomed naturalist Dian Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist,” say, as she says about “Alien 3" director David Fincher: “My worry was that he was feeling he was being saddled with parts of the franchise.” She may have more class than Sharon Stone, but she speaks Hollywood too.

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On a sunny afternoon in May in a hotel room just off Central Park, Weaver is having a late room-service lunch of bow-tie pasta and Perrier. Her lips are unpainted, and the soft freckles on her much-discussed porcelain face are showing. Her hair has grown back and she demurely sneaks her hands through it from time to time, as if to remind herself that it’s still there. Actually, she was thrilled about getting her head shaved for “Alien 3.”

When she and 20th Century Fox executives were interviewing directors for the picture and she met Fincher, who is only 28, she recalls, “it wasn’t until he said, ‘You should be bald,’ that I really fell for him. It was like the moment when Peter Weir said, ‘I think Linda Hunt should play Billy Kwan in “The Year of Living Dangerously.” ’ He had my heart forever. Because it was so right. It told me this guy is ‘out there,’ and I want to go ‘out there.’ ”

On “Alien 3,” she first went round and round, not with Fincher but with Fox executives, producers Walter Hill and David Giler and a list of writers longer than it would be prudent to name here. Creating the third installment in the “Alien” franchise turned into one of those studio-financed sack races through the Hollywood Hills, with clear sightings of the principals and a final draft appearing and disappearing from view over a period of years. 20th Century Fox Film Corp. Chairman Joe Roth wanted Weaver back badly enough that he made her a co-producer on the movie--her first such experience--though, as things progressed, the two didn’t always agree on the story line or style of the film.

“My inclination,” says Roth, “is to give an audience in a horror film or an action film every jolt you can. We had philosophical disagreements about how to get there.”

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Responding to rumors and published stories about the film’s arduous passage to the screen, he adds, “You’re in for a difficult time once you decide you want to make a sequel to a really good movie. You have to wrestle with giving them an experience similar to the one they had, yet not duplicating what you did before. It’s made particularly difficult in science fiction because you’re in outer space, somewhere in the future. It’s not like different chapters of ‘Lethal Weapon.’ So, along with choosing a place and a time, someone has to create that world, both in terms of writing and production design. It’s a big undertaking.”

With Weaver’s assent, Roth picked for this $40-million assignment a director, Fincher, who had never done a feature before, but who had performed visual gymnastics while creating music videos for Madonna (“Vogue,” “Express Yourself”), George Michael, Don Henley (“End of the Innocence”) and Paula Abdul. He had also done a Nike commercial.

“It was completely crazy,” Weaver says, who began the picture shortly after giving birth to her first child in January, 1991, at the age of 40. “If you had told me that a 28-year-old guy who had done a Madonna video, among other things, was the man to direct “Alien 3" part of me would have been surprised. Part of me would not have been because that’s exactly the kind of director we’ve always looked for.”

“What the first two pictures had in common,” says Roth, “was the sensational look and feel of another world. And the choice of David Fincher came from the same place. To take someone who had very little experience to go and try to create this spectacular world the way these two other guys did.”

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In “Alien 3,” written by Hill and Giler and Larry Ferguson, Ripley crash lands on a remote prison planet inhabited by hardened convicts who are searching monklike for redemption. The spiritual leader of the prisoners is played by Charles Dutton, who made his reputation on Broadway in August Wilson’s plays “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The Piano Lesson.” For these penitents, who have sworn off women, Ripley is an unwelcome visitor. She is the alien at first, until it becomes clear that she has not come alone.

Eventually she and the unarmed convicts must do battle once more with the Alien, the reptilian, slime-dripping monster, an incarnation of evil that ate all of Ripley’s fellow crew members in the original movie, directed by Ridley Scott, and ate a bunch more in the manic sequel, filmed by “Terminator” auteur James Cameron. Once again, we learn that the Orwellian company Ripley works for is scheming to capture the alien alive for military purposes and considers the humans threatened by it to be expendable.

“The three pictures are a body of work,” Weaver says, “yet this one is completely different from the first two. It’s darker and more cerebral, which is one reason I think Fox has been worried about it. But it doesn’t worry me, because it’s very much an end-of-the-century film. It’s about the ‘90s. There’s an anger and a sadness in it that I don’t think have been in the other two, and that I think is very appropriate.”

Darker and more cerebral? We must take her word for this for now since the ending is being fine-tuned right up to the eleventh hour and the film has not been ready for advance viewing by the press. In somewhat different form, the picture has been seen in various sneak previews, which filmmakers commonly use to gauge audience receptiveness, often making changes accordingly.

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“The studio wanted to make it more of a ‘ride,’ in the way that ‘T2' was a ride,” Weaver says, referring to last year’s “Terminator 2.”

“Fincher and I and other people resisted because we wanted it to be dense. We wanted the place to be an experience but not a Chinese food experience. I haven’t watched ‘Terminator 2' a second time. Certainly it was a helluva visceral experience the first time, but I don’t necessarily feel I need to go back and be with those people.

“I think one of the interesting things about ‘Alien,’ the first one, is that you go back because you want to be with Harry Dean (Stanton) again. You know, you didn’t quite get him the first time so you go back to see who is this guy? There are certain scenes that are worth seeing again and again, and we really want there to be some scenes like that in our picture. Because these movies will play again on video and on cable, and we don’t want people to go, ‘Oh, yeah, I know where the monster is.’ Because for us, it’s not about the monster. We had to live with it for a year, so we want it to be more than a monster picture.”

Weaver gets up from the couch where she’s been sitting and moves across the room to get more mineral water. She lets that thought sink in: Are these really more than monster movies set in outer space? Is there more than money (albeit millions) in the “Alien” franchise for a classically trained actress who has done Shakespeare, Pinter, Rabe and Durang and some fairly distinguished movies directed by Peter Weir, Mike Nichols and Michael Apted?

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She says, for the record anyway, that she has loved the “Alien” films, difficult and dirty as they have been--films in which the actors often take a back seat to technology and special effects. She sits back down and says, “With Cameron, I’d tease him because we’d always get to my favorite emotional scene like at 8:30 at night or something, having spent all day on how the plane moves or something. But that’s just part of the ‘Alien’ experience. The acting is like the last priority.”

She laughs as she says this.

“I can’t really explain why I have loved them in a way. They’re all so terribly hard. I’ve been injured, carrying the guns. I guess it’s because it’s an ensemble picture in a way that the cast and crew become one. We’re all covered with K-Y (Jelly) and Alien blood and dirt and grime and we’re all exhausted and working these impossible hours and never seeing our families and you become this infantry. And I like that about it. It’s an experience that I never get on any other kind of film.”

The motion picture academy rewarded her with an Oscar nomination for best actress in “Aliens,” which was considered something of an unusual honor for a woman in an action-adventure-horror film. She has also been nominated for Oscars for her roles in “Gorillas in the Mist” and “Working Girl.”

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There have been some lesser experiences along the way. In 1983 she made a film called “Deal of the Century” with Chevy Chase and Gregory Hines for director William Friedkin from a script by Paul Brickman, the man who wrote “Risky Business.” “It was a fabulous script, a black comedy about the military-industrial complex, and I had a fabulous part, but it was just a lost movie from the beginning, unpleasant to work on because no one quite knew what they were doing. It’s hard for me to watch it because anything interesting I did is not in the picture.”

A few years later she starred in “Half Moon Street,” with Michael Caine, a British production in which she played the juicy role of a Harvard-educated Middle Eastern scholar who starts working as a call girl to make ends meet. The only good notice the film got was for the parts of her body she exposed.

“Again,” she says, “I don’t think it’s a successful picture, and I don’t really like the final edit at all, but I think that what kills the film is its humorlessness. I think the book (by Paul Theroux) is very funny. As someone playing the role in the picture for the first time, I don’t think I had enough presence of mind to sort of see where the director (Bob Swaim) was taking us and how much we were missing. But I loved doing it, and I learned an awful lot. I mean, some of these things are not successes, but you learn a great deal from them. Coming from the theater, the best thing is to be working all the time. And then these things lose some of their importance as successes and failures.”

From what we have seen of her on the screen, from the tough-hearted Ripley to the brave Dian Fossey to the arrogant Ivy League executive in “Working Girl,” Weaver has come to embody feminine strength and confidence in postmodern overdrive, but she insists these portrayals reveal little of how she feels about herself.

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“I worry all the time,” she says, “whether I’m good enough or whether I’m going to be able to do things.”

When she was a student at the Yale School of Drama, one class ahead of Meryl Streep, her expectations for the future were small, as were the expectations of her teachers for her.

“I didn’t get a lot of encouragement from the top people there, and I left with no confidence at all,” she recalls. “In drama school you’re already talking about who’s going to make it and who isn’t, but I think ‘making it’ from our point of view was getting a job on Broadway or getting a season at the Guthrie. I think we were all careful to have modest dreams. Because the rest of it is so unpredictable and seems to have so little to do with you.”

She got some preparation in this area from her parents, who were in show business. Her father, Pat Weaver, was an executive and producer at NBC; her mother, Desiree Weaver, was an English actress.

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Weaver says, however, that “I don’t think anybody can prepare you for being a movie star.”

After she was cast in “Alien” and “The Year of Living Dangerously,” she discovered that her success adversely affected her friendships with former classmates and friends in the theater. “Quite a few of my friends were not doing as well, and I think it was more awkward for them to be gracious about my success. I always felt that these people--and I still feel this way--will become Anthony Hopkins. But it’s always been easier for me to be patient for them than it was for them.

“But for a lot of people that I’d worked closely with, they must have thought, ‘Why her and not me?’ And I had to ask myself the same question. I think a lot of it is luck. I know so many talented people who have either given up because they couldn’t financially survive or that are still doing incredibly brilliant work (in small theater) downtown. Eventually you have to make peace with it.”

Fame also affected her romantic relationships: “I think, for a long time, I didn’t date anyone, because it’s a very isolating experience when you suddenly become famous. You have to find someone who’ll love you in spite of the fact that you’re a movie star. Because it’s such an intrusion of privacy.”

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Weaver found such a person in theater director Jim Simpson, whom she met one summer while appearing in Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts. Later, he directed her in “The Merchant of Venice” Off-Broadway. “He was completely unfazed by all the stuff. For him, I think it means that we get to travel to interesting places. He’s a wonderful director. It’s very clear to both of us that his work is just as important as, if not more important, than mine, even though I get far more attention and far more money.”

And besides the attention and the money, what about the satisfactions of acting in front of a camera instead of an audience? “It’s the moment. Doing it. It’s very intense and very satisfying. You cannot think about what’s going to happen to it. You just have to make it as real and important for yourself and your partner. I don’t want to be crass, but it’s a little like sex in a relationship: You’re not thinking, ‘Am I going to be with this person in a year?’ No. You just do it for the moment, and that’s why it’s so exciting.”

Speaking of sex and the long list of Hollywood couples who got serious on the set (lately, Annette Bening-Warren Beatty, Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman and Susan Sarandon-Tim Robbins), you wonder if it has been difficult for Weaver not to get involved with her leading men, who have included Mel Gibson, Bill Murray and Bryan Brown.

“Gerard Depardieu,” she says, “said a wonderful thing to me when I first worked with him (in “One Woman or Two”). He is the most amazing man, just brimming over with joy and excitement. He said, ‘You love your husband very much, and I love my wife. This is good. Now we can fall in love in the film.’ And he’s right. I’ve never really gone out with an actor. Don’t ask me why. Maybe a couple of times. I’m much more drawn to writers and only really to one director, whom I married. But you have to allow your character to fall madly in love with whoever you’re supposed to fall in love with.”

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She recently acted with Depardieu again, putting in two weeks as Queen Isabella to his Christopher Columbus in Ridley Scott’s “1492,” due out at Christmas. It is the only film, besides “Alien 3,” that she has done or plans to do for a while.

“I’m selfishly spending time with my little daughter,” Weaver says. “I’m getting some very interesting offers, but my instinct right now is that I’m not going to make my career my biggest priority for the next couple of years. I’d love to have another child, and then there are my film children,” she says, referring to the three or four movies she is developing for her own production company at Fox, projects that she won’t necessarily act in.

Weaver, her husband and daughter Charlotte live in Manhattan, and although she has to be in Los Angeles frequently on film business, she does not keep a second home there. She stays at a hotel in Santa Monica.

If she hadn’t become an actress, Weaver says, “I would love to have been a lawyer. I love how tough they can get. I enjoy negotiations. I guess the three professions I admire are, first, a nurse, then I think all of us are amazed by a novelist, and I always wanted to be a choreographer--a great way to spend your life.” She studied dance with Carmen De Lavallade at Yale. “I think movement is a great way of expressing all your demons. And I think my dance experience has helped a lot on the ‘Alien’ films. Not that I look that graceful, but it’s just the discipline, the balance involved. It’s always been very physical.”

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She is, oddly enough, not a fan of science-fiction or scary movies in general. “Even if it’s bad and you can see the latex coming off the monster’s face, it’s, I don’t know, the music and everything,” she explains. When she watched “The Silence of the Lambs” with her husband, she says, he had to tell her when to look away and when it was OK to look at the screen again.

Weaver lets on that she is not crazy about some of the trailers promoting “Alien 3,” which inform us that “the bitch is back!"--referring not to her, but to the Alien. Other ads for the film tell us that “on Earth in 1992, everyone can hear you scream” and that “the suspense is back.”

Trying to lay out the scenario without giving too much away, she says, turning briefly into advertising copywriter herself, “The stakes are higher in this one, higher than they’ve ever been.”

It is no secret that this is meant to be the last of the “Alien” pictures, and speculation has been rampant as to the fate of Ripley, which is what the final re-shoots were all about.

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“We didn’t change the ending. We just added something,” she says. “It was something that was in the script that we both (Weaver and Fincher) didn’t have time for and hadn’t quite figured out what to do. Then, when we had the rest of the film together, it seemed important to investigate this other thing, so we just did that and that’s why it’s so late.”

It has been a long haul, full of arguments, dismissals, sweat, pressure and doubt, with the money meter running. The movie business at full bore.

“I think everyone is pretty pleased now,” Weaver says. “Finally, when we were able to shoot everything we were supposed to shoot, everybody relaxed. I do think the picture is excellent.”

Whatever its fate, she says it marks the end of this sort of thing for her: “I hope to be able to do more love stories. Ripley was never allowed to have a love story. She has one in this movie, but it’s very truncated. But I consider that home territory for myself. That and comedy.

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“ ‘The Year of Living Dangerously,’ I think, is my favorite picture that I’ve done, based on the picture itself and how much I learned from it. It was a formative experience for me. And it’s more like the kinds of pictures I hope to do from now on, with the ‘Aliens’ and ‘Ghostbusters’ behind me. I’d like to do those sort of hard-to-pin-down pictures.”

This is what she says, in any case. You can tell that she would not want you to go away disappointed. She has sized up her interrogator and tried to give the right answers. And she has. She is a quick study. She is good at this. It’s not something they can teach you at Yale.


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