It must be hard doing your drama training with Meryl Streep. While she was cast in all the glamorous leads at Yale Drama School, her contemporary, Sigourney Weaver, was palmed off with a lot of old women, interspersed with the odd prostitute. "They told me I had no talent," Weaver recalls with a sigh.
Perhaps she should now return to Yale and wave under their noses the $5m she is said to command per picture. Or maybe she should send them the accounts for the first three Alien movies, which grossed $350m world- wide. Or how about the receipts from other blockbusters she has starred in - such as Ghostbusters, Working Girl, and Copycat - which could hardly be termed flops?
But that sort of headlining power did not come easily to Weaver. She had been scratching around in the theatre when she auditioned at the past- it Hollywood age of 29 for her breakthrough role of Ripley in the first Alien picture. (The studio had already failed to land its first two choices - Jane Fonda and Faye Dunaway.) Weaver's only previous movie experience had been a non-speaking walk-on in Annie Hall.
But even after the boffo box-office of the first radical feminist in space, Hollywood has still been wary of a Stanford and Yale-educated actress who clearly has too many brains for her own good. Her statuesque height - she is 5ft 11ins - doesn't help, either. In person, she is an imposing presence, her sheer stature reinforced by eyes that fix your gaze and a piercing intelligence. She has the self-possessed air of a hot-shot academic, with no hint of her reported temper.
Studio bosses, though, remain too unimaginative to cast her as anything other than what she calls "ice-queen heroines". "I love doing love stories," she asserts, "but because I'm tall and well-educated, producers don't quite know what to do with me. It would be foolish for an actor to think that a studio would show any imagination in casting - it's not their job."
Her very Hollywood successes, however, have given her the freedom to ignore the Tinseltown tycoons, and plough her own filmic furrow. (This unconventional streak is reflected on the day we meet in the pair of purple sneakers that offset her immaculate dark business suit.) She has started her own production company, Goat Cay, to generate the kind of thought-provoking screenplays she feels are lacking in LA. "I throw away most of the scripts I'm sent," she laments. "For a story to work, it has to have a good structure and be unsinkable. No actor is talented enough to rescue a movie which has nothing to say.
"There was a time when I felt like Chekhov's Masha," she continues. "I was so dissatisfied with the conservatism and conventionality of Hollywood films. Now I'm doing something about it. I'm commissioning playwrights from all over America to write the screenplay of their dreams. If you're waiting for the studios to come up with something for you, forget it. It's never gonna happen." She is currently developing Dear Rosie, a comedy of letters with Peter Cattaneo, the director of The Full Monty.
For the moment, we can see Weaver as Janey, an unfulfilled housewife having an affair with neighbour Kevin Kline in The Ice Storm, a beautifully realised portrait of disintegrating families in early 1970s Long Island. "I felt it was like a Chekhovian comedy where people could act inanely throughout the film before it gets very bleak at the end," the actress observes. "I'd always wanted to play Masha and Janey is very much a Masha character, smouldering with discontent at the way people are behaving and what's going on in her life."
As he did so memorably with Sense and Sensibility, the Taiwanese director Ang Lee brings the lucidity of an outsider's vision to this historical drama. At the start of filming, the director gave each of the cast and crew a dossier on the 1970s. "He drenched us in the period," Weaver remembers. As a result, the details are meticulously evoked; it's all wind-chimes and wife-swapping. The wardrobe people have had a field-day, too, turning up exquisite turquoise trouser-suits and airplane-wing-sized collars.
Weaver has been portrayed as cornering the market in strong women, but she doesn't see it like that. "A lot of parts I've played are women who are isolated and not necessarily strong - like in Copycat or Death and the Maiden," she contends. "But they're placed in a situation where no one is going to make it easy for them. They have to do it for themselves. That's how they find strength. Look at Ripley. She's a feminist icon, but to me she is an ordinary person who, in these extreme circumstances, has come up with a lot of leadership and decision-making.
"If you read news reports about Sarajevo, it's always the women who are keeping the family together," she carries on. "I don't try to play strong women, but when I play parts realistically, they just come out strong."
As for her understated technique, she says she learnt this from the director Peter Weir on The Year of Living Dangerously, with Mel Gibson. "I'd just been fired as Lady Macbeth by Nicol Williamson from his production," she recounts. "My morale was very low. I was still coming from the theatre where you play a character. Peter taught me to just be myself - to be Sigourney talking to Mel. That was a breakthrough for me. Since then, I've tried more and more to get out of the character's way and just be there. I had to stop doing what we had learnt at Yale, which was to write down a whole page of motivation for each individual moment."
When not expatiating on acting, the 48-year-old Weaver claims to be happiest at home in upstate New York, being "a school mom" to her seven-year-old daughter, Charlotte. "I go on school field-trips as a chaperone - that is the heart of my life. I certainly don't sit around in a set of rollers saying `Now, Maria, will you clean this ashtray again?'. I'm never a movie star - except on junkets or at the Oscars. Then that's my job. You can't be a movie star when you're doing your laundry or when you're getting your food at the local grocery store."
`The Ice Storm' opens on Friday.
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