Sigourney Weaver: Loving the alien

Sigourney Weaver faces up to more monsters in her new film. Hasn't she had enough of them by now?
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The Independent Culture

The tricky thing about meeting an actor for the first time is that you half expect to encounter their on-screen persona. The actor in question is Sigourney Weaver, and her famous cinematic alter ego is Ripley, from the Alien series.

The tricky thing about meeting an actor for the first time is that you half expect to encounter their on-screen persona. The actor in question is Sigourney Weaver, and her famous cinematic alter ego is Ripley, from the Alien series.

"I think Ripley is an amazing woman," Weaver remarks. "I say that not really feeling like she has much to do with me. She's one of these people who never gives up and keeps her head together. She's much more courageous than I am."

I'm talking to Weaver on her home patch, Manhattan, where she's promoting The Village, the fourth film from the wunderkind director M Night Shyamalan, following his success with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and 2002's Signs.

Weaver is breathtakingly striking: 6ft tall, with chiselled features that can give her (if she's not smiling) a rather serious look. Was her height ever an issue?

"Always," she says, leaning forward. "The first time I was fired from a play was when I was 16. They had sacked the leading actor and brought in the producer's boyfriend, and I was much taller than him." She rolls her eyes. "But Vanessa Redgrave was tall and that gave me hope."

Weaver looks younger than her 54 years. The fine creases on her face indicate that she hasn't succumbed to the pressures of plastic surgery, but she knows that, by Hollywood standards, she's considered way past her sell-by date. Despite that, she's made almost 40 films, proving her remarkable talent and range with characters that include the scientist Dian Fossey in Michael Apted's Gorillas in the Mist, a disgruntled housewife in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, and a washed up sci-fi actor in Galaxy Quest.

But Weaver is extremely self-effacing. "I was a very shy kid," she says. "I'm always amazed when I hear people say 'I've wanted to be an actor since the age of eight', because I would have never had that confidence."

She did make it to Yale's prestigious drama school, but felt outshone by her fellow classmate, one Meryl Streep. "They told me I would get nowhere in this business," Weaver reports, cheerfully. "I was put on probation, and I stayed on out of spite."

She is the daughter of Pat Weaver, one-time president of NBC television, and the English actress Elizabeth Inglis, who gave up her career to look after her family. Weaver contrasts her upbringing with those her most of her girlfriends experienced. "My father and mother were always a united front," she begins. "But there were many things they never talked about, such as feelings and money. I've been in therapy a lot and they think that's insane. My mother doesn't believe in simple pleasures, like massage, for example. She says: 'Why do I want a stranger touching my body?'"

Weaver clasps her hands. "I remember asking my mother, when I was about eight: 'Mummy, am I pretty?' And she replied: 'No dear, you're just plain.' It wasn't for a long time that I realised I was actually prettier than plain.

"When I talked to her about this, later, I realised that she never told me I was good at anything because she didn't want me to get conceited. I think Americans go overboard in the other direction. The English are tough. They send you away when you're a kid," she asserts, as if the entire nation's children are at boarding school with Harry Potter.

This October marks her 20th wedding anniversary to her director husband, Jim Simpson. The couple have a daughter, Charlotte, who's 14. "My daughter would probably be more independent if I took my mother's approach," she admits. "But children have a hard enough time without parents saying, 'You're stupid!' They need support."

The tension between nurturing a child and giving them the opportunity to face up to dangers on their own lies at the heart of The Village. Set in Pennsylvania in the 1890s, the village in the film has no name, and neither do the creatures that terrorise it from the surrounding woods. Trying to control the fear is Edward Walker (William Hurt), the community's leader, and the village elders, including Alice Hunt (Weaver), whose son Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) has a desire to step beyond the village boundaries. The film also marks Bryce Dallas Howard's debut - her father is the director Ron Howard.

"We don't see Alice Hunt hiding from the fear," says Weaver. "The danger for her is what her son might do. Young people are going to make their own decisions and that's where parents feel most vulnerable." That sentiment rings true in Weaver's life. "As a parent, I'm not as concerned with my own safety," she says. "I'm much more concerned with my daughter's."

In preparation for the role, the actors spent time in "boot-camp". Mobile phones, pagers and the like were strictly forbidden, while the cast practised the 19th-century way of lighting a fire using two sticks, and undertook lessons in blacksmithing, weaving and carpentry. "I particularly liked ploughing the fields," Weaver smiles. "As a woman, there was something quite empowering about that job."

Was she aware of the other-worldly nature of Night's film-making before accepting the role? "I came to it late," she says. "But now I'm an enthusiastic fan. I don't like horror very much, but what I like about Night's work is that it may be scary, but it's involving on a lot of levels. You really care for the characters. I think particularly of the moment in The Sixth Sense where the mother is angry with the little boy, and he's quite upset. He sees yet another dead person, a teenage kid, going into his room. The boy goes back to the mother. You think: 'She's probably going to stay mad at this poor kid!' But she says: 'Yes, you can sleep with me.' There are little moments like that which I think are so beautifully observed. He's a great storyteller. So, when I had the chance to work with him, I was thrilled."

Night's script also offered Weaver a role that was more than a cipher. "It's nice to be offered a character that has an emotional life beyond the obvious," she says. "If you're over 40, writers don't imagine you to be an emotional and sexual creature, so it was nice that Night wrote more than just a big romance for the younger generation, that the older people have feelings and passions. Most of the time, central roles for women over 40 are very negative. They are plot devices rather than human beings. I just try to find human beings in the movies and that keeps me pretty busy."

Ripley doesn't quite come into that category - by the fourth instalment of the franchise the character is a half-alien clone. If whispers about a fifth film are true, would she be interested?

"I'm not sure who started the rumour, although I'm grateful for the huge salary they said I was going to get," she says. "There's an Alien vs Predator movie out now, which is something I'm quite happy not to be in, and it's the reason I wanted my character to die in the first place.

"I really don't know much about the Predator except that it looks like a hedgehog," she continues. "It would be painful for me to watch the Alien get whupped; I'd be cheerleading shamelessly for it but I probably won't see it because I don't really enjoy that kind of movie.

"I always said to Tom Rothman, who runs Fox, that I thought it would be interesting to do a small, spooky movie, more like the first one; a psychological thriller that could take Ripley to whatever the next stage may be. Which side would win out, the Jekyll or the Hyde?"

Hasn't she had enough of aliens by now?

"No, I'd love to meet an alien," she replies. "But maybe that's the Ripley in me saying that."

'The Village' is released today. See Anthony Quinn's review on page 6