Sigourney Weaver: ‘I want to do an Irish accent’

The towering star of ‘Alien’, ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Avatar’ deals with death in ‘A Monster Calls’

 

I can confirm what you likely already know – or think you know – about Sigourney Weaver. Standing at 182cm (5ft 9), she’s tall, but in a lean, elegant way. She speaks in precise, patrician vowels, but more softly and girlishly than one might expect from one of cinema’s great ass-kicking action heroines. She’s way too classy to have had “work” done. She’s full of questions, laughter and compliments.

When Weaver talks about Liam Neeson, her costar on the tremendous new family movie A Monster Calls, she marvels at his performance: “All that strength. All that grace. All that ferocity. All that gentleness.”

And at 67, she can make a pale blue cardigan look like the coolest garment on earth.

“You’re so lucky,” coos Weaver, as she waves an invisible brush next to my hair. (I know, I know. For one thing, Sigourney Weaver is standing beside me cooing over my hair.) “My father’s family were all redheads,” she sighs. “My mother was so disappointed when I didn’t have red hair.”

Her mother, as she explains, had a rather precise set of specifications in other respects: “Both my brother are I were born in October. My mother told us that she made sure we were Libra. Because she thought it was such a lovely sign.”

Her mother was the English actor Elizabeth Inglis, who attended Rada with Vivien Leigh before appearing in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and The Letter alongside Bette Davis. Her father, Pat Weaver, was the head of NBC Television in the 1950s, and the pioneer behind The Today Show and The Tonight Show. Her uncle was the comic and Mad magazine contributor Winstead Sheffield Glenndenning Dixon Weaver, better known as Doodles.

Sigourney Weaver was born to be a star. Or so you’d think.

Not a nice business

“Oh no!” she cries. “Growing up, I was much, much too shy to ever think that I was going to be an actor. But once I became an actor – and more specifically a working actor – I felt so very lucky. Because I knew that it was not a nice business. I knew that going in. I had seen my father try all sorts of wonderful things. He was very successful at some and completely defeated in others. Even though they were very important, worthy ideas.

“My expectations of the industry were very low. I’m still constantly delighted with how I’m getting on.”

Her birth certificate reads Susan Alexandra Weaver. As a teenager, she plucked “Sigourney” from F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Is this evidence of a wilful adolescence?

Her eyes widen: “The opposite. I was not ballsy or confident. But at 14 I was Suzy and I was already this tall.” She widens her arms to maximum wingspan. “As tall as I am now, in fact. And Suzy is a lovely, little creature’s name. So I picked a name that was as long as I am. I had a long middle name but I didn’t feel grand enough to be an Alexandra. I certainly didn’t feel like a Sue.

“I look back on it and wonder, what the hell were you thinking? The truth is, I never expected it to last. I thought I’d call myself Sigourney until I could figure something better out. The irony is that now, everyone calls me Sig or Siggy. And I was named after this brilliant English woman who helped start the Flying Doctors in Africa. If I had met her before I changed my name, I don’t think there’s any way I would have changed it.”

Having graduated from Stanford with a BA and the Yale University School of Drama with an MFA, Weaver only once attempted to make use of family connections.

“When I first got to New York my father suggested I call on a friend of his. And I did. And I said ‘Hi, this is Sigourney Weaver, Pat’s daughter. My dad suggested I call you in case I could be in something at NBC.’ And he said: ‘Do yourself a favour kid: get a job at Bloomingdales.’ And that was it. And I never, ever called a friend of my father’s again.”

Rolls on a role

As it happened, she didn’t need any assistance. She had already carved out a successful off-Broadway career by the time she scored a tiny role in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). Two years later, her turn as Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien would make for one of cinema’s most lasting icons. In 1989, she attended the Oscars as a rare double nominee, with nods in the Best Actress (Gorillas in the Mist) and Best Supporting Actress (Working Girl) categories. A versatile performer who is as soft in Ghostbusters as she is hard in The Ice Storm, Weaver is currently working on various Avatar sequels with James Cameron.

“I have four Avatars to do,” she says, with a more than a hint of giddiness. “I’m playing a different character – a wonderful character – and it’s really cool. I’m very excited about it. It’s like doing theatre. That’s why I love it. You don’t have to do a lot of coverage or shots. The technology is so advanced that if he gets a master that he loves, he doesn’t have to do close-ups. He can go in to the computer and take what he needs from that same master.”

Weaver hopes viewers will soon realise the work that goes in to performance capture: “It’s so interesting and people just don’t quite get it. They think were sitting in sound booth putting a voice to something that has already been made.”

It was required for Liam Neeson’s titular giant in A Monster’s Call, where Weaver plays a more earthbound English grandma. Based on the much-loved book of the same name by Patrick Ness, JA Bayona’s film concerns Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a troubled teen who fights with his father, grandmother, classmates, and a gigantic, nocturnal creature (Neeson), while his mother (Felicity Jones) struggles with cancer.

“I don’t know why anyone thought of me,” says Weaver.” There are plenty of wonderful British actors who could have played the grandmother. I hadn’t even told my agent how much I wanted to work with Bayona because I had seen his first two movies [The Orphanage and The Impossible] and loved them. But you can’t just pick up the phone and say ‘I want to work with this director’. That’s just not how the universe works. Yet somehow it all worked out.”

She suspects her late friend, Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, would have appreciated A Monster Calls: “He always said that children need dark stories because they allow them to make sense of a world that is, in many ways, dark. I’ve seen the film twice now and it’s so uplifting and cathartic.

“We’re all very happy that this is opening around Christmas, because this isn’t a movie that you should drop the kids off at the matinee; this is the kind of movie that a family can go to and sit down together afterwards. There’ll be so much to talk about.”

A decent sending off

She has theory that Irish audiences will be particularly attuned to the film’s themes.

“I think the Irish are better at dealing with death. They know how to give people a decent sending off. Going to a funeral forces you to be more in touch with this huge part of our reality. Like sitting Shiva does for people who are Jewish. My parents were atheists, so I don’t really know about the rites around death. This movie is one of the ways that people like me can come to terms with it.”

A Monster Calls is a heavy favourite for the incoming awards season. But Weaver is not overly concerned: “I live in New York,” she laughs. “I look at those things and think: that’s an LA problem.”

She still enjoys going to the movies, especially with her theatre director husband, Jim Simpson, and their daughter Charlotte. “I love going but I have very childish tastes. I will go and see Finding Dory [which features her voice] again and again over heavier films. I would actually love it if there was a cinema in my neighbourhood that showed more European films. Like in the old days in New York.

“When we go, it’s probably going to be to Jurassic World or something like that. On a big screen. Some of the better movies we might wait for, because we just want to see them as a family.”

One might imagine that there are no worlds left to conquer for the actor known as Sigourney Weaver. But there’s something she’d still like to take a crack at. “I keep wanting to do an Irish accent. It has such music in it. Majella Hurley, my voice coach on A Monster Calls, is Irish. And there are huge numbers of Irish in New York. Still coming. Thankfully. So I think I have some kind of ear for the different Irish accents.

“I know there are so many amazing Irish actors that I can’t compete with. But if anyone out there wants me, here I am.”

Is there a casting director in the house?

- A Monster Calls opens January 1st.

AT A GLANCE: SIGOURNEY WEAVER ACTS!

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Warrant officer Ellen Ripley (Weaver) first comes face to face – or, rather, face to tentacle –with the monstrous “perfect organism” she’ll meet in four films and two videogames to date.

Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)
Spectre hunter Bill Murray competes with demonically possessed accountant Rick Moranis for the affections of cellist Dana Barrett (Weaver).

Death and the Maiden (Roman Polanski, 1994)
Paulina (Weaver) takes a doctor (Ben Kingsley) captive, suspecting that he is a fascist who tortured and raped her for weeks while she was blindfolded.

Gorillas in the Mist (Michael Apted, 1988)
Weaver plays naturalist Dian Fossey, who struggled to protect rare Rwandan gorillas as the Congolese crisis rages.

Working Girl (Mike Nichols, 1988)
Big-haired Staten Islanderl Melanie Griffith usurps her Wall Street boss (Weaver), while the latter recovers from a skiing accident.

The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1997)
The kids are alright but their swinging 1970s parents are bloody miserable over an eventful Thanksgiving weekend.

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