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Sigourney Weaver’s career in movies didn’t begin with aliens or ghostbusters. It began with a bit part in Annie Hall. That’s a minor detail, yes, but it represents a larger point: behind the innumerable Ripley memes and feminist tributes to her iconic character from the Alien franchise, Weaver is a cinematic polymath. A revelatory actress whose varied filmography is too often reduced to action heroine.
“It’s funny that people forget some of the other kinds of movies I’ve made,” she says, “but I don’t forget them.”
Weaver’s got a point, but when you’ve been in sci-fi movies as popular and varied as Avatar, Alien, and Ghostbusters, those performances tend to stick out. It also doesn’t hurt that Weaver is still actively involved in all three franchises—making a cameo in this summer’s Ghostbusters and having both Neill Blomkamp’s untitled (and currently delayed) Alien project and the next installments of James Cameron’s Avatar movies at the top of her IMDb page.
And yet, Weaver is more than a sci-fi mainstay. Before her Aliens and Avatars, she’ll appear in December’s A Monster Calls as the authoritative grandmother to a young boy dealing with the terminal illness of his mother (played by future Rogue One heroine Felicity Jones). After Monster premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, WIRED sat down with Weaver to talk about Ripley as a feminist icon, studying Marvel movies, and how “terrifying” 2016 has been. (Yes, she brings up Donald Trump.)
The Ripley Legacy
Despite being regarded as a trailblazing feminist character, no one knew how groundbreaking Ripley would be when she was created. Today the character inspires countless imitators, but in 1979 Weaver just considered herself fortunate to be “working with a director and producer and writers who love women, and believe women are strong.” She continues, “We were showing that in this world, a young woman could find herself in this situation of being the lone survivor.” Enduring despite the facehuggers and Xenomorphs helped distinguish the character from others created at the time. Ripley was bold and powerful, “a woman who wasn’t dressed like some creature,” Weaver contends. “To me, Ripley’s an Everyman person. She is a woman, and she sees everything through that.”
A Feminist Icon and Action Star
As the Alien film became a franchise, the legend of Ripley only grew. Soon the character had her own mythology—a triumphant feminist symbol. She was a dazzling action star, an outlier in a genre of films dominated by burly men. “I feel very fortunate that I have made a few movies in this space, the science fiction/fantasy space,” Weaver says. Those movies include everything from Ghostbusters to Avatar to Chappie, but it was Alien that set her on the path—and came to define her career. “My first real movie could’ve been anything. I wasn’t head-over-heels about going into this space at the time, because I hadn’t seen the designs and I hadn’t met [director] Ridley [Scott],” she says. “Now I realize how incredibly lucky I was to be able to forge this character my way, and to be working with men who were like, Yeah! I wasn’t told what to do.”
The State of Women in Hollywood
Weaver’s impressive trajectory is not quotidian in Hollywood. It wasn’t in the 1970s and it’s not now—and she knows it. When you stack up Weaver’s experiences with what’s currently happening in cinema—a recent study by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found only 31.4 percent of all speaking characters in the top 100 films from 2015 were female, a figure that’s remained unchanged since 2007—her career is even more astonishing. As a veteran of the industry, Weaver seems unfazed by that statistic. Not blasé, just aware of the realities. And as an explanation for the stagnation in Hollywood, she suggests “even in literature there are going to be more men’s parts than womens’, unless we’re talking about Jane Austen.” That said, she’s always felt “women have more interesting parts, even though we don’t have as many,” adding that things are progressing, even if it’s not always noticeable. “I was looking through the Toronto Film Festival catalogue,” she says, “and there’s so many young women directors represented, and I thought, ‘It’s all changed.’”
The Marvel Studios Casting Couch
Weaver is right about the TIFF slate, but what about in big blockbusters? Despite the inroads Ripley made, it’s been harder for women to break into, say, superhero movies. But even that is changing with Wonder Woman coming next year and Captain Marvel hitting in 2019. And Weaver notes that there are good parts to be had in both serious films and spandex ones. “To me, a good movie you cannot generalize,” she says. “I have been watching, for whatever reason, some Marvel movies, and they cast really good actors.” That’s true. Brie Larson just got cast as Captain Marvel and she’s got an Oscar, and… Wait, why is Sigourney Weaver binge-watching Marvel movies? “I can’t tell you!” she says. Fair enough, but she will say she’s enthralled by the work Marvel is doing, and by the performers populating their ever-expanding universes. “How can you relate to someone flying around with a cape?” she asks. “That takes work.”
And Now, Some Thoughts on Trump from Sigourney Weaver
Actually, has there ever been a time when it felt like we needed heroes more than 2016? “It’s been a terrifying year,” Weaver says. “It’s terrifying to know that even though I think Trump will lose, he has revealed such a schism in our society (in which there are many) that I think is going to be…we have to reckon with it, to reckon with these different segments of our population who all feel very angry.” Weaver is equal parts empathetic, frustrated, scared, and optimistic. “I think in that sense it’s been good,” she says. “There’s been a lot of raw feeling out there. I only hope that people in politics, people behind the scenes, don’t try to deal with this cynically, but they take it to heart.”
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