Sigourney Weaver Is Still Getting Better at Her Job
If there is anybody still claiming that there are no good movie roles for women over 40, Sigourney Weaver would like a word. “They should stop saying such stupid things. Honestly. I don’t think reality bears it out,” she says. I sit up a little straighter in my seat, having just witnessed the elegant murder of a Hollywood cliché. “I do feel we’re in a very lucky time now where older characters are heard from more,” Weaver adds.
This fall, the three-time Oscar nominee adds several more of those characters to a résumé that spans 50 years and more than 100 acting credits. She plays an imposing Southern dowager in Paul Schrader’s thriller Master Gardener (which recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival) and the leader of an underground abortion network in Call Jane (in theaters October 28). On September 30, she reunited with Kevin Kline —her costar in ’90s classics Dave and The Ice Storm— for The Good House, an adaptation of the Ann Leary novel. The rare grown-up movie (call it a rom-dramedy) to earn a theatrical release in 2022, it stars Weaver as Hildy Good, a real estate broker juggling small-town intrigue, slow-to-launch daughters, and an escalating fondness for Merlot. “How often do you hear from a woman in her seventies about her love life, about anything?” she says. “That Hildy was given a platform like this, that I was given a platform, I feel that’s rare, but becoming less rare because people are smart. And they like to see us geezers who’ve been around forever and have a toolkit and can go to work and make something happen.”
It’s been more than four decades since Weaver’s breakout movie role as Ripley in Alien. Yet Zooming in to chat from her apartment in Manhattan, the actress looks like she just emerged from a hypersleep chamber. Nearing her 73rd birthday, she’s underdone and natural, an approach to beauty she attributes to her English mother (and her choice not to live in Los Angeles).
In conversation, she radiates the intelligence you’d expect from a Stanford and Yale School of Drama grad. Her famous voice is low and smooth. Not to put too fine a point on it, she remains dead sexy. And not in a ‘for a septuagenarian’ way. The key to Weaver’s longevity isn’t about drive, she says. She just plain loves her job. “I’ve gotten much better at it,” she says. She thinks back to the set of Aliens in 1985, where she was often the only person in front of the camera, looking out on some 300 crew members working behind it. “It blew my mind,” she recalls. And as she prepares to reunite with her Aliens and Avatar director James Cameron for four planned Avatar sequels (the first, Avatar: The Way of Water, is due December 16), she still takes joy in the teamwork. “Besides my husband and daughter, the love of my life has been this job,” she says. “I think it’s because it’s with people—it can only happen with a family of people. And it’s sometimes terribly hard, and miraculous things can come out of this interaction. I find that just as exciting now as I did at the beginning.”
On early naysayers
“I was told at drama school that I had no talent and I’d never make it in the theater. And my father said, ‘Please stay at the drama school. I’ve already paid for a year and a half, and I want you to get the degree.’ My mother said, ‘Just pack your bags and leave.’ I don’t know why I didn’t have the kind of confidence to come right back at them and go, ‘Well, you are wrong.’ But I was so ambushed. I certainly didn’t have any confidence. I took it to heart for too long. They plunge a sword into your chest by saying you can’t do the thing you want to do, which I don’t think any school should tell students. Teach them and let them find out in the world. So I was always much luckier in the world than I was at drama school.”
“Because I was told early on that I wouldn’t make it, I had no expectations for myself. And I think that was a great advantage in a way, because when I went to do an audition, I just did what I wanted. I didn’t harbor some hope of getting the job. I just went and I thought, Okay, I’m going to get out there, do my thing. And every now and then I’d get lucky and get the part, but it wasn’t the be-all and end-all for me.”
On her versatility
“The business loves to pigeonhole actors, especially actresses. You’re the sexy one. You’re the pretty one. You’re, in my case, the strong one. I was mostly doing comedy in New York in the beginning. And that’s what I’m good at. After I did Ripley, no one could think of me for anything but another Ripley kind of thing. It helped me that I was never seduced by the part. I was always seduced by the script and—secondary but still important—the director and their vision. And funny, I think that ended up throwing me into different [kinds of] parts, because I wasn’t looking for the role ever, ever.”
On kiri, her role in Avatar: The Way of water
“I play a 14-year-old Na’vi girl. I didn’t want to do an imitation of a 14-year-old. I wanted to find that girl in myself because I knew she was still there. No one has a great adolescence; mine was really icky because I was this tall when I was 11. So I was really like a giant spider. Those memories are very fresh in my mind. I tried to be completely open to whatever this teenager would be feeling—very strong emotions as we have then. Their sense of injustice is so fierce, and all those things came back to me. And so that was a great adventure for me. I haven’t seen the movie, so who knows? But just the fact that [Jim Cameron] would entrust this role to me was so exciting. With performance capture, you can really turn into anything.”
On the repeal of Roe v. Wade
“[Call Jane star] Liz Banks, who has worked with pro-abortion groups and been in front of the Supreme Court, probably saw it coming. I thought there’d be a national dialogue about it. I didn’t know a decision would come from on high. It’s just inconceivable for me that people actually think it’s a good idea to make a woman have a pregnancy and give birth to a baby that she doesn’t want or can’t have, and pretty terrible for the child too, regardless of whatever fantasies they have about how it will be good for the woman’s character or some nonsense like that. I remember what it was like before Roe v. Wade. It was a dangerous time, and I’m brokenhearted about it because I think it’s going to take a while to reverse it. And so we’ll have that national dialogue, but we’ll have it under duress with a lot of women suffering and families suffering.”
On the impact of the #MeToo movement
“It’s a huge change because of the open communication between women. In my day, of course, there were these horrors going on. One friend would tell someone else, ‘Be careful of this guy.’ So it was all kind of under the radar. And to have it out in the open and to see Harvey Weinstein punished and to see these men having abused their leadership positions for decades losing their jobs—we certainly have a long way to go, because the trauma stays with women—but I feel it was a huge sea change, and so welcome.”
“It’s ongoing. These are habits that are hard to change. It’s just like former governor Andrew Cuomo. He has three daughters. He couldn’t see what he was doing. We can see it, but he couldn’t. It’s just amazing to me that these men think, ‘Oh no, but I’m special.’ They’re lucky. That’s why they’re wearing makeup on the weekend, to look good for me. No, stupid man. The egotism involved is just unbelievable.”
“I was lucky because I was 28 when I did Alien and Ripley was my first role. I don’t think anyone tried anything after that in case I had a flamethrower in my purse. When you’re younger, it would be very, very, very hard to see what not to do, what situations not to put yourself in, because it’s a business that does involve a lot of trust. You’re baring your soul for the camera, for fellow actors. When I think of so many women being taken advantage of, especially when they’re young.… To me, it’s a miracle that [#MeToo] happened, and thanks to the journalists and the women who came forward, who showed such courage.”
On her advice to young actresses in Hollywood
“Live in New York? I started off in New York in off-off-Broadway. I’ve always loved being close to those roots. I have great admiration for actors in Hollywood, because their life is so public. In New York, nobody cares who you are. They’re all so obsessed with what they’re doing. And I love that. I’d much rather be in a place where what I did is one of the many things that’s going on around me.”
On whether an Oscar is a goal
“At one time, it would’ve meant a great deal to me [to win] because I’d been discouraged. And now, of course, I think it’s a great honor, but I think whoever wants it the most should get it. What I love about the Oscars is that it is about our community saying hello to each other, thanking each other, celebrating the fact that all these different people come together to make a story. And to the extent that the Oscars also come from the whole community, I think that’s what is most meaningful, or would be to me if I received one.”
Her one regret
“I wish I’d studied singing more. Because I really loved the cabaret act I used to do with Chris Durang, and then Sondheim would ask me to do something and I felt I didn’t have a trained voice, so I wouldn’t be able to do eight shows a week. So I wish I’d done more singing and more dancing. I would’ve loved to have had a Vegas show. That would’ve been really fun.”
On her legacy
“I don’t have any time for [reflecting on] that. I’m a very lucky person. I’ve worked hard mostly because I love the work. I’ve learned so much. I’ve been able to go all over the world. Actually, I think one reason I became an actor was I couldn’t figure out what to do. And I thought, eventually I’ll play something and I’ll go, ‘Oh gosh, that’s what I want to be, a marine biologist!’ And then I’d give up acting and do that. But in fact, besides my husband and my daughter, the love of my life has been this job.”
Hair by Orlando Pita for Orlando Pita Play; Makeup by Linda Hay at AIRE for Tom Ford; manicure by Kayo Higuchi for Chanel LeVernis; set design by Colin Lytton; Photographed on location at Saks Fifth Avenue; produced by Travis Kiewel for That One Production.
This article appears in the November 2022 issue of ELLE.