All Things ‘Alien’

John Clark is a frequent contributor to Calendar

In a loft in lower Manhattan, actresses Winona Ryder and Sigourney Weaver are parading around in various stages of undress. It’s all very professional. There’s catering to keep them fed, publicists to keep them happy and music to keep them loose. They’re doing a photo shoot to promote their new movie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Alien Resurrection.” This is the fourth installment in the “Alien” series, an outer space epic featuring Weaver as Ellen Ripley, a resourceful everywoman who battles slimy monsters and the corporate interests that want to use them as biological weapons.

What distinguishes this “Alien,” which opens Nov. 26, from its predecessors (Ridley Scott’s 1979 “Alien,” James Cameron’s 1986 “Aliens,” David Fincher’s 1992 “Alien3") is that Ripley is dead and that a star of equal stature (Ryder) will be playing opposite her. Plot details are being kept under wraps, but apparently Ripley has been cloned along with an alien queen inside her, and she and Ryder join forces when things, as they inevitably do, go wrong.

This will be Ryder’s first foray into science fiction. Now 26, she began her career as a haunted teenager (“Beetlejuice,” “Heathers”) and as an adult has done more than her share of period pictures (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “The Age of Innocence,” “Little Women,” “The Crucible”). Weaver, who is 48, has made her name onstage (especially for playwright Christopher Durang) and on screen in a variety of genres: romance (“The Year of Living Dangerously”), comedy (the two “Ghostbuster” movies, “Working Girl,” “Dave”), biopic (“Gorillas in the Mist”). But it is as Ripley, arguably the only female action character in movie history, that she’ll be remembered.

Fully clothed now that the photo shoot is over, Weaver and Ryder compare notes on the “Alien” experience. They seem to have developed a kind of master-apprentice relationship.

Question: Did you give Winona a “Surviving Aliens” handbook?

Weaver: I would have to get a ghostwriter. I don’t think I did, did I?


Ryder: Well, no, you did in terms of preparing for it and things like stamina. When we were doing the underwater stuff, I was having complete anxiety attacks. We’d go underwater, and I was so scared. You reminded me to act. We’d go down with scuba stuff, but then they’d take it away from you.

Weaver: You’d take off your mask, take off your respirator and swim under this ceiling for about 30 feet, and you could not come up. And you couldn’t see a thing. You basically had to keep going till you ran out of air and hope that your safety diver would come and get you. Float you down and in and out and then up.

Q: So relief wasn’t immediate.

Weaver: No. If it had been, if you have in the back of your mind “If I get in trouble, I can just come up for air,” which Kevin Costner had [in “Waterworld”] but we didn’t have because we’re women. . . .

Ryder: Also you’re wearing these weight belts to keep you down. I remember swimming up to one little opening and my weight belt was, like, I couldn’t do it, and then I released the belt and I floated up, and right as I came up I was about to grab this thing and this grip goes, “You probably don’t want to touch that. You’re going to get electrocuted.” So it was this choice between drowning and getting electrocuted.

Weaver: If you were to grab something where we did finally come up, the set was covered with these needle-sharp protrusions, thousands of them everywhere. And I said, “Why are we in this place where all these exposed needles are?” and this guy says, “I don’t know. It’s for the set design.”

Q: How many takes did you do?

Weaver: We worked on this for three weeks. It’s an amazing part of the picture. I must say I didn’t even think about it when I read the script.

Ryder: Me neither. And I trained beforehand in a swimming pool, and it was pretty easy. Once you got there it was so different. Also what was really hard was the phlegm and germs. Everyone was sick.

Weaver: The filter broke.

Ryder: You know that people were going to the bathroom.

Weaver: Well, you had to hope. I just hoped the honor system was really intact. But there were some grips who were down there 12 hours. I hope they had special suits on.

Q: That must have been a drag coming in every day knowing you’d be doing that.

Weaver: It was so intense. I wouldn’t call it a drag. That’s such a casual feeling. It was like [slams her hand on the table]. And there was a picture that my makeup artist took of the last time we came out. It’s like there’s nothing left. There’s barely a human being there anymore.

Ryder: And this is the beginning of the shoot. This was the first stuff that we shot because we had to get it over with.

Weaver: It was a very interesting way to get to know everybody. We had to really watch out for each other and cooperate with each other.

Q: Did you two know each other before this?

Weaver: We met at ShoWest the year before. There were all these famous people, and Winona was just sitting quietly. I have to say I liked Winona right away because she’s so herself. I thought, “Oh, this is going to be fun.” I was told Winona wanted to be in it earlier and I was delighted about that, but it was also nice to meet her, and I thought she was such a regular. . . .

Ryder: And I of course worshiped. . . .

Q: I thought you weren’t going to do one of these again.

Weaver: Yeah. I lied.

Q: I’ve heard that after every one of them.

Weaver: No, I never said that. You have to remember in the dark ages when I stared this series there was no such thing as sequels. So it was actually Jim Cameron who wrote this script, basically came to the producers and said, “I want to write a script about [a sequel to] ‘Alien.’ ” To their surprise he created this whole big thing. And then after that, I think it made so much money that eventually we knew there might be a third. But then I died to set the series free, because I felt like if the new director has this extra burden of this continuing character who’s always waking up in this spaceship saying, “Listen, you don’t understand. . . .” First of all, it becomes so boring for me. And also I had actually heard that they were going to do “Alien vs. Predator,” and I didn’t want any part of that.

Ryder: Sounds like a video game.

Weaver: They have these cartoon magazines where Ripley has huge breasts and Newt [the little girl she rescued in “Aliens” who died in “Alien3"] has grown up and there’s a whole Predator thing. And there were many other things I wanted to do. They said, “We’re going to do another one,” and I went, “Really?” And then I heard that Winona wanted to be in it and they were very excited by the script, which finally, like, four months later they sent to me. And I was really taken by its weirdness and originality and a great opportunity to return to Ripley but as a whole different kind of character. But I think I was skeptical until we started rehearsing with Jean-Pierre. But I have to say I’m glad I died. I would not have the opportunities I have in this picture had I stayed alive. So I’m as surprised as anyone to be back.

Q: I read a synopsis on the Internet that said you had enhanced powers.

Weaver: What I see it as is not enhanced powers but if you died and you come back, the stuff that human beings care about, a lot of it is ridiculous. So philosophically it’s such a different point to start from. Life is not necessarily precious. Ripley does not necessarily feel that she needs to save people or teach people. I’m not still trying to save the day.

Ryder: Yeah, that’s my job.

Q: So you were on it before Sigourney was?

Ryder: No.

Weaver: Yes, you were. You said you told [Fox] that you wanted to do it.

Ryder: I went to have a meeting there, and I didn’t know what it was going to be about. They said, “How do you feel about action, science fiction?” I said, “Oh, I’d love to do something like ‘Alien.’ ” I was using that as an example. I went, “I don’t usually like them. The only ones I really like are the ‘Alien’ movies, but they’re over so. . . .”

And they’re like, “Well, actually we’re thinking about making another one.” I said, “Oh, that’s great, but I couldn’t be in it unless Sigourney Weaver was in it.”

Weaver: You got me the job.

Ryder: I knew that nobody could come in and do another “Alien” movie without you. And I thought, “Who would I play? Newt’s dead, and she’s a blond.”

Weaver: I thought they were probably just looking around to see where the franchise was. Until they had Joss [Whedon] write the script. . . .

Ryder: Which I didn’t even know if it was being written. I didn’t really know anything. All I knew is that they said they’d talked to you.

Weaver: They said that?

Ryder: Yeah. Were they lying? They said that you were going to do it.

Weaver: They said that I wasn’t going to do it?

Ryder: They said that you were going to do it. And I said, “Do you think she wants me to be in it?”

Q: Maybe they were playing both ends against the middle. They were telling each of you that each of you was involved.

Ryder: There was no way I was going to do anything without her, and they said she was going to do it. . . . I remember the day so well because it was so monumental for me. . . . I was getting really excited: “Really? Oh my God!” Because I do that and then it’s hard for her to negotiate later.

Weaver: It was so much fun because when we went to ShoWest, we were on “E!” or one of those things. Winona and I were being interviewed at the same time. They said, “Winona, why are you doing this movie?” And she said, ‘Well, when I was 8 I had a poster of Sigourney on my wall.” Isn’t that sweet? But it was so funny to have it happen on camera. I went, “Winona, shut up!”

Ryder: I did have the poster. And it was one of the hugest impacts on my. . . .

Weaver: Your young life.

Ryder: My young life. . . . It was like the first strong female character. It was the first time the woman survived. And it was also one of the first sci-fi types that had really good acting in it because those movies, you don’t think of the performers--you think of the monster. But if you think about “Alien,” you think about the actors. That’s why I said to [then-Fox president of production] Tom Jacobson I’d only do something if it was like “Alien.” Because they were like, “Do you want to do ‘Chain Reaction’?” And then Ripley having the relationship with Newt, you see this whole other side of her. And then in the third one, it kind of being really dark and her making that choice and having sex. . . .

Weaver: [Laughing] With Charles Dance.

Ryder: [Laughing] It’s a really character-driven series, and Ripley is going to go down in history.

Q: How was this experience different from filming the last one?

Weaver: Well, I think the fact that we were physically on the lot and we had a regime that was remarkably in tune with how original it could be. And there were so many capable directors who could have done a big action picture, but they wanted someone in the “Alien” tradition, someone who was brilliant and meticulous and had a vision for the picture that they thought was right. And they finally found Jean-Pierre. I met him in Paris. I saw “Delicatessen” and “City of Lost Children.” They’re great--his movies are so claustrophobic. And I know if anything they wanted to rekindle the spirit of the first one, that sort of elegance and the idea of the alien as a very intelligent creature that can almost read your thoughts and is always one step ahead of you.

Ryder: I remember [current Fox president of production] Tom Rothman saying that sense of lurking instead of just blowing them up right and left. In the first one, you really don’t ever see it that much. You don’t know where it’s going to be, but it’s there. This one has that sense of lurking.

Weaver: He [Rothman] was totally supportive. If things were being cut that we thought were precious to the picture, we could go to him, we could go to [executive vice president] Jorge [Saralegui] and present our case. And I always felt they were listening. They were always concerned about the budget, but they also wanted to make the best “Alien” picture they could, one that would actually stand on its own feet without the other three. I think actually that’s what seduced me.

Ryder: They let us, when we had the script and there were some lines that I could not get out of my mouth, they were so good about letting me change them. That usually doesn’t happen.

Weaver: Oh, really?

Ryder: I didn’t think it would on those kind of movies.

Weaver: We had a wonderful interpreter. I speak French, so I was able to talk to him generally. But on the set we always used the interpreter, because you don’t want to just have him babble and [you] go, “Oh, OK.” He’s very meticulous, so I always wanted her to translate exactly what he meant.

Ryder: But then you would speak French to him.

Weaver: Would I?

Ryder: Yeah. We were all so jealous. It was easier than I thought it was going to be, though. I’ve worked with American directors who I didn’t understand more than Jean-Pierre. Something happens where it becomes telepathic anyway. Because of the restrictions with the language, he gestured so much and he’s very expressive with his face.

Q: Do you think he was nervous about tackling this?

Weaver: I imagine he was, but I think he also has a lot of confidence or he wouldn’t have taken it. I also think he’s been remarkably flexible working with the studio, which did cut some of the things that he really loved that he’d put into the script. He cut them before we were able to shoot them. For some idiotic reason even the smallest effect now costs so much, and you think, “If I could just get two 14-year-olds in Long Beach who are obsessed with movies, they could do this for $10.” It was stuff that was, like, just little details that were part of the reason that we wanted to do it in the first place and made it really special. So we went to [Fox chairman] Bill Mechanic’s office.

Ryder: Trying to be extremely assertive and macho in our outfits, our space togs.

Weaver: And we walked in, and he was like, “Hi, how are you guys doing? I’ve got to show you the new ‘Titanic’ trailer.” He put it on, and it was like this massive, breathtaking, huge, expensive trailer. We’re like, ‘OK, well. . . .’ ”

Ryder: “Could we have whatever’s left over from the ‘Titanic’ project?” Which I guess was nonexistent.

Q: Can you tell me anything about your on screen relationship? Are you antagonists?

Weaver: In the beginning we are, and then--I would say the reason we are aligned is that there’s something about each of us that doesn’t fit in with the others. It’s very. . . .

Ryder: Dignified.

Weaver: I don’t know that it’s dignified. Maybe it is for you. [They both laugh.] But for me it was probably the oddest relationship I’ve ever had in a film, in a very good way because it was so filled with different possibilities, which we just sort of rub against, we sort of hint at, but nothing happens.

Q: What kind of possibilities?

Ryder: Two chicks in outer space.

Q: We’re not having sexual overtones here, are we?

Weaver: No, I don’t think so. There are a lot of sexual overtones in the picture, but I don’t think they’re between us.

Ryder: But I am looking forward to my new following.

Q: You’ve been associated with some dark movies in the past. I’m sure people think, “Oh, she’s perfect for this.”

Ryder: I haven’t really gotten that. People still can’t really believe that I’m in it.

Q: Is it people you know who think that?

Ryder: No, people who know me know that I’m a big science-fiction fanatic and a big “Alien” fanatic, but people who associate me with corsets, those other kinds of period pieces.

Weaver: Are you saying there’s a difference between this and “Little Women”? It’s just “Little Women” in leather.

Ryder: I don’t know. I just hear a lot of jokes about me.

Weaver: She’s so moving in the film. [to Ryder] Yes, you are. Very surprising performance, in terms of what she endows her character. It’s not in the “Alien” tradition. It is, but it isn’t. It’s in the Ripley tradition in many ways. Very idealistic and very impassioned.

Ryder: That’s why hopefully if they do another one and I get to be in it, I can be like. . . .

Weaver: She can kick some ass.

Ryder: I am pretty idealistic in this one.

Q: Sort of like Sigourney was in the first one.

Weaver and Ryder: Exactly!

Ryder: I want a chance to be kind of cynical, wisecracking.

Weaver: What will I do then?

Q: You’ll have to be like Yoda.

Weaver: [Laughing grimly] Great! Then your children, Winona, can have this aged picture of me, like a Yoda, alien Yoda, when the next generation comes to see Ripley. *