After a 200-year vacation, Officer Ripley is back, along with a load of

bad-mouthing Aliens. Sigourney Weaver talks to Minty Clinch about her dangerous habit and the up-side of being kicked out of drama school into an ice cool career.

Forget Demi Moore. It is Sigourney Weaver who is the real icon of androgynous self sufficiency in the final years of the 20th century. For that she has Warrant Officer Ripley to thank, space traveller and Alien-fighter for the past two decades.

It was a role she nearly didn't get - 20th Century Fox would have preferred Jane Fonda or Faye Dunaway - and a role she accepted in desperation because nobody else would hire her.

"I thought: `Science fiction! That's below even me! Why would I want to play an awful part in an awful film? Because the producers didn't care if I was 6ft tall, that's why."

Which, of course, she is, give or take an inch. She took the part in the Ridley Scott Alien, reprised it in the James Cameron Aliens and the David Fincher Alien 3 and then allowed Ripley to die. Or so she believed, naively forgetting that in Hollywood there's no such thing as a dead horse. Two years ago, she received her wake up call. "Bring me back? No way. It's a nightmare," she told Fox supremo, Peter Chernin.

Wrong. Alien: Resurrection, starring Sigourney Weaver, alias Clone 8, a 23rd Century Ripley lookalike, will shortly be opening at a cinema near you.

200 years was long enough for Weaver to grow her hair - (she was bald in Alien 3) and streamline her body (she has taken up karate) but otherwise the mixture is much as before, with loadsa' slime and a fashionable young director, Jean Pierre Jeunet, who built a reputation for creating labyrinthine nightmares in Delicatessen. "It's different because I no longer have to be some kind of hero saving the day," says Weaver. "They bring me back, but it goes wrong so I become a sort of anarchist. While we're alive, we believe that if things get really bad, we can check-out permanently, but now that cloning is possible, the ultimate escape no longer exists. I wanted to explore how it would feel to come back against your will."

But Resurrection doesn't shed much light on that or any other matter. The truth is that Fox used Weaver to create a series which earned $350m before Resurrection and Weaver used Ripley to build a career that puts her in the $5m per film bracket. Not bad for an actor who was suspended from Yale Drama school for lack of talent. "The people in the drama faculty said I'd never get anywhere, but I'm stubborn, so I stayed. It didn't occur to me that they were intimidated by my height and that the height would eventually work for me. At that age, you assume your teachers know what they're talking about."

Given Hollywood's obsession with stereotypes, the career that Ripley built was shaped in the space warrior's image. "I was perceived as an ice queen, so I was offered passionate women doing their own things in remote places," says Weaver, elegantly crossing one slim suede-clad leg over the other. "No wives, no mothers, no comedies, no sex. The movie business divides women into ice queens and sluts, and there have been times when I wanted to be a slut more than anything."

None the less, parts in films such as Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously, Michael Apted's Gorillas in the Mist and Roman Polanski's Death and the Maiden have established her as a serious screen actress.

Too serious, according to Bill Murray, her co-star in her breakthrough farce, Ghostbusters, in 1984. "I'd see this huge skull working," he recalls, "and I'd think, `Oh God, here's trouble', because thinking is the death of comedy. The problem is she's method and I'm not - so I'd literally turn her upside down, tickle her, shake her loose before every take."

Her preference is for more cerebral films like Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, a study of marital disintegration among wealthy Long Islanders in the Seventies.

`"For me, the Seventies was a very political time, dominated by Watergate and Vietnam," she explains, "but for Ang, coming from a different culture, it was a time when the perfect nuclear family started to unravel. My character doesn't have the courage to leave her husband so she takes the lesser risk of going to key parties - little partner swapping evenings that give her a taste of sexual freedom. What she and her friends don't realise is that every little step they take weakens the fabric to the point at which the roof caves in."

She approached Lee for the role, partly because she was keen to work with Kevin Kline again after their successful collaboration on Dave and partly because she likes to work in New York, which has been her home since she was born Susan Weaver on October 8, 1949.

As the daughter of Elizabeth Inglis, a RADA trained English actress, and Pat Weaver, a television multi-millionaire who pioneered the Today and Tonight shows on NBC, she had a sophisticated childhood and an exclusive education. The name change was inspired by a Sigourney in Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. "My mother was christened Desiree, my father Sebastian and my brother Trojan - so Susan was the short straw. It was always shortened to Susie or Sue and I was too tall for that. I wanted a graceful flowing name that expressed my personality."

Privilege couldn't help her in adolescence when she was faced with the reality of growing up outside the stereotype of contemporary female beauty. As an English major at Stanford in the late 60s, she responded to the rebellion in the air by living in a tree house with her boyfriend and wearing home knitted elf outfits. Lack of intellectual stimulation caused the switch to Yale Drama School, but it was Meryl Streep who took the headline roles, while Weaver played old women and prostitutes. If it hadn't been for a tutor who said, "you don't get rid of a Greek goddess because she doesn't dress well", she would probably have emerged embittered and without confidence. As it was, she could see no alternative to working as a bank teller. Instead, she was employed by John Gielgud in The Constant Wife and the rest is history.

Today she lives in Manhattan with her husband, Jim Simpson, and their 7-year-old daughter, Charlotte. They met at Yale and married in 1984, a kooky wedding ceremony with bagpipes and bongos in celebration of Simpson's Scottish ancestry and Hawaiian upbringing. As a late and much wanted baby, Charlotte was a source of guilt to her working mother. "I only made one film a year when she was very small and only then if Jim stopped work while I was away, but Charlotte made her dislike of my profession perfectly clear from the start. As a toddler, she said, `why can't you work somewhere I can find you, like other mothers?' You can imagine how that made me feel! Nowadays she just says, `Face it, mummy, I'm not a film set girl, I'm a home girl'. Somehow I don't think she'll be following me into the movies."

The child's worst experience was seeing her mother covered in slime and mud for Resurrection, but her antipathy won't necessarily prevent Weaver from playing Ripley in Alien 5. "I always think each one is the last one," she says with a wry smile, "but the new Ripley is much more like me than the old one, so she may have more places to go."

`Alien: Resurrection' opens on November 28 and `The Ice Storm' on February 6.