On July 18, 1986, Sigourney Weaver returned to her most iconic character — the sci-fi action heroine Ellen Ripley — for James Cameron’s ‘Aliens.’ The film, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 ‘Alien,’ amped-up the outer-space horror with fully-loaded action; the end result was a box-office smash of over 100 million dollars and unanimous critical praise, particularly for the film’s leading lady.
In between her breakout performance in the first ‘Alien’ and the 1986 release, Weaver had grown into one of the Hollywood’s biggest stars, but ‘Aliens’ pushed her into the pop culture stratosphere. Her portrayal of Ripley not only created a memorable big-screen hero, but it also broke down gender barriers in the film world and netted her an Oscar nomination (making her one of the few actresses to be honored for both an action-driven role and a sci-fi-based story).
Sigourney Weaver sat down for an exclusive interview with Moviefone, reflecting on the 25-year legacy of ‘Aliens.’ While discussing her ongoing creative relationship with James Cameron and her memories of the demanding film shoot, Weaver also revealed that she wants to continue the ‘Alien’ saga with one final Ripley story — something she views as highly unlikely, given Hollywood’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for building sci-fi tentpoles around women of a certain age.
Moviefone: How did you approach ‘Aliens,’ knowing that it would be much more of an action movie than ‘Alien’ and it would require you to become an “action star”?
Sigourney Weaver: I don’t think I thought about it in those terms — maybe because those terms hadn’t been invented yet. What I thought was so exciting was the story: the story of this woman who survives this horrific experience in space, comes back fifty years later, tries to warn society about this evil, is dismissed, marginalized and is sent back out not being told the truth to fight this thing again. The structure of this story is so amazing.
I feel like Ripley is all of us; I don’t feel like she’s an action hero. She is called to reach down and find the resources to fight in every way possible. To me it’s about all of us. There’s a Ripley in all of us. I think that’s why people love the movie and the series. She’s not a special person, she’s an every-person, and we are put into these circumstances where we have to protect others and not give up. That’s what James Cameron to me is always like; to find the hero within.
What does James Cameron bring to movie-making that is different from other filmmakers?
I don’t think for him subtlety is important. It’s out there, it’s big, it’s bold, it’s exciting. His characters are very archetypal; he writes these big primary-color characters, and as a director he gives you the action and the world around which to play out these parts in a very bold way.
You don’t have a life outside the film. You’re constantly in the world of the film, with him cheering you on and pushing you to the extreme as an actor. When we did the action sequences, we did them in this abandoned power station called Acton outside of London. It was the middle of winter, it was freezing, just the most unwelcoming place. And we were there for a couple of nights just shooting this thing. And there was no other world beside this world. I love to work with Jim because it’s full-tilt; there’s no moderate speed, you’re always at turbo-charge [Laughs]. You’re always doing it together and it’s always going to be worth it; ‘Avatar’ is the same way.
What kind of discussions have you had with Cameron about continuing the ‘Avatar’ story?
I don’t think I’m at liberty to talk about that. Obviously it would be great if Grace could continue in some form or another. But I think we’re not at a point where we can talk publicly about it.
The ensemble of ‘Aliens’ was very different from the cast of the first movie; what was the atmosphere on set like with the Colonial Marines?
There were a lot of deaths and I gave a bouquet to each character the day they were killed; it was like “oh that’s your day today! You get killed today!” It was fun giving Paul Reiser his bouquet, I just gave him a bunch of dead flowers.
‘Aliens’ was also the only film of the young woman who played Newt (Carrie Henn). What was your relationship with Carrie like during filming?She was from a military family; she had lovely parents and her mother was always with her. We were all very close and it was a long shoot, and a movie like that really brings you together. You don’t forget those moments.
I know she’s a teacher now in Sacramento. I think she has good memories but ultimately wasn’t interested in the motion picture business. It’s not all working with Jim Cameron.
How involved are you with Ridley Scott’s quasi-’Alien’ prequel, ‘Prometheus’?
I don’t know much about it, but I certainly wish them well. I think it’s great for Ridley because he started it all, and I think it’s great for him to go at it from a different direction.
Do you think audiences will ever see another adventure with Ripley on the big screen?
I doubt it just because the way the industry is. While I can’t speak for them, I think for Fox, once you’re sixty, you’re not going to be starring in an action movie. I think it’s too bad that that’s the case. I would have liked to do one last story where we go back to the planet, where Ripley’s history is resolved. But I do feel like her story is unfinished.
I love the way the story has evolved, that every few years there’s another voyage into that universe with another wonderful young director. And certainly I’m blessed with lots of different wonderful jobs, so I’m not sitting at home ruminating about all of that. If I was really caught up in it, I would find a logical story and try to get them behind it, but she may just be left circling earth.
I could definitely kick that alien’s ass again. [Ripley]‘s a smart hero, it’s the way she thinks, but just looking at the way the business is…
Outside of Angelina Jolie’s movies or Uma Thurman in the ‘Kill Bill’ series, there doesn’t appear to be too many high-profile, female-lead action movies. Why do you think that is?
I think a lot of it has gone into comic books, and to me, in comic books, it’s all about the men — and because they were written in the 50s and 60s especially. It just wasn’t where it was at for those writers and there’s only so many band-aids you can put on that to make it relevant for today’s society. There are gorgeous, occasionally kick-ass characters like Scarlett Johansson in ‘Iron Man 2,’ but in general I don’t think those guys were thinking about women in those ways. I think as long as Hollywood is doing that, there won’t be these amazing action-women characters.
What’s so exciting about women in action is that women bring a different focus to the action and it comes from a different source. I love all the performances you mention, I think they are all terrific and I wish we could see more of them. Every woman you see, in her kitchen or wherever else, has a secret action heroine in her; just wait till something happens to her children or husband, then you’ll see it.
We have so many talented directors who grew up on movies like ‘Aliens’ and they are going to change that. And you’re going to see a lot of young women directors coming up who say “I don’t care if they are interested in that, this is what I’m going to do.” I think everything is going to change, we’re going to have a big revolution. I’m sure we’re going to see, even in very real films, women being much more physical and just being the kick-ass women that they are. Then they don’t have to be in outer space, it will be contemporary — look out!
When it comes to kick-ass performances, your fight with the Queen Alien is one of the most iconic movie moments ever. What was your perspective on filming that scene?
Pretty amazing. I had a guy in that power loader behind me; in front of me, I had the Queen Alien being controlled by all kinds of puppeteers. We had so many people running so many different parts of the set and the world. And it was just an explosion of all the great collaboration you get on a big movie, where everything has to be so in-sync in order to do it perfectly. It was a ballet with these two creatures, and we shot it in about three days. We didn’t have CGI, it’s all real, it’s all worked out, I practiced in that power loader every lunch hour for months ahead of time. It was a culmination of a lot people’s hard work.
I was really into it; we did it kind of late into the movie, so I wanted to kill the Queen Alien, and I meant every word I said. What was going through my mind was: “I hope I don’t f*ck this up.”
Photos from Everett Collection.