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Character Driven

Sigourney Weaver applauds the education that inspired her career. But what does Shakespeare have to do with Alien?

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

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By Kevin Cool

The famous actress showed up for her Friday morning appointment at Dinkelspiel Auditorium on time, alone, smiling. A student on a bicycle buzzed past, then slowed and turned in a moment of “hey, is that who I think it is?” recognition. Perhaps he was expecting an entourage.

Sigourney Weaver glided up the short stair set and extended a hand. At 57, she looks more like 45, a fashionable middle-aged mom on a campus visit. Her daughter, Charlotte, was trying to decide whether Stanford was a place where she should apply, and Weaver had been in town for three days.

Two nights earlier, she had delighted a large Cubberley Auditorium audience at a screening of Snow Cake, a low-budget Canadian film about an autistic woman played by Weaver, ’72, and co-starring Alan Rickman. And the day before that, she had been in Hawaii, where director James Cameron marched her and other cast members through rehearsals for his science-fiction film Avatar. Cameron, you may recall, was the director of an earlier sci-fi movie that pitted Weaver against one of the most fearsome Hollywood creatures ever hatched—an acid slobbering, lizard-like parasite from hell that deposited its embryos in human hosts. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

In an eclectic series of films across 30 years, Weaver’s characters have channeled demons, lived with gorillas, slept with Mel Gibson and smacked around Ben Kingsley. (sidebar.) Kristine Samuelson, MA ’73, professor of art and art history and director of Stanford’s MFA program in documentary film and video, notes that Weaver has done what few in Hollywood can claim: succeeded both as a bankable movie star and an acclaimed actor. “Sigourney seems to approach acting on her own terms, moving from starring roles in blockbusters to roles in independent dramas and comedies,” she says.

Weaver comes from a family of entertainers. Her uncle, Winstead “Doodles” Weaver, ’35, was a character actor in more than 100 films and TV episodes and was well known at Stanford for his outlandish pranks. Her father, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, was president of NBC in the mid-1950s, and created The Tonight Show. Her mother, Elizabeth Inglis, was a British actress who worked with Alfred Hitchcock and Bette Davis before retiring to raise her family.

Considering that background, Weaver’s career as an actress might have seemed preordained, success guaranteed. Thankfully, the real story is much more interesting.

Weaver transferred to Stanford as a sophomore in 1969 with an East Coast prep school education and no firm plan. If she imagined herself as anything, Weaver says, it was as a writer or teacher, not an actor. She was passionate about literature. (Born as Susan Weaver, she changed her name to Sigourney at age 14 after a character in The Great Gatsby.) At Stanford, she dove deep into the classics, “immersing myself in Chaucer and Shakespeare,” she says. “It was incredibly nourishing.”

Meanwhile, outside of class, she met a cohort of gifted and energetic student dramatists who would help inscribe her future.

Sam Blackwell, ’71, was one of those students. Now a screenwriter whose credits include several TV movies, Blackwell organized a scrappy traveling troupe known as The Company. Entirely student-initiated, the group looked for new ways to tell old stories, and performed in unusual places. “We bought a flat-bed trailer and built a stage on it, and we would take it around and do shows,” Blackwell says. “We’d set up in front of the library, or the Claw. Once we did a show in the parking lot at a San Francisco high school.”

Blackwell directed Weaver in The Three Cuckolds, a play by Leon Katz in the improvisational commedia dell’arte tradition of Italian theater. “It was quite filthy,” Weaver recalls, chuckling. “Nobody told us we were too young to do this. It was a fearless group.”

While the company was preparing to stage King Lear in the spring of 1970, the United States invaded Cambodia, and there was serious discussion about whether to cancel the performance, Blackwell says. Stanford students went on strike, and some of the cast members were taking part in an occupation of the Student Union. The show eventually went on, with Blackwell in the lead and Weaver as Goneril.

The tumult of the times affected students’ lifestyle choices, Weaver says, and that informed their creative endeavors. “People were experimenting, living in tents and domes, up in La Honda. It was a different time.” Weaver lived for a while in a tree house, and was known for showing up to class wearing an elf costume. It seemed in keeping with a spirit that Blackwell says made her a natural for the push-the-envelope theater company. “Sigourney was wonderful; always ready to try something new. That made her exciting to work with.”

The creative mojo that characterized their work as student actors carried over into their careers, Blackwell believes. “Having that base, that core, to draw from has probably been a big part of why we could survive the more strictly professional aspects of the business,” he says. “When you’re doing this with people whose only interest is the art of it, who are willing to go out and drag a trailer to some spot and see if an audience will show up—that educational experience was priceless.”

Weaver agrees. In class and out, she says, “I felt very empowered by the passion and excellence around me. It was the best possible preparation for a career in my industry.”

By her senior year, Weaver says, her literature courses were becoming “a bit dry—critics on critics.” When she learned from her adviser that graduate programs would be more of the same, she started looking at drama schools instead.

She chose Yale, where her contemporaries included Meryl Streep and playwright Christopher Durang. But it was a poor fit for her, Weaver says. “It was so intellectual and constraining. I was coming from this experience where 20 of us crowded around a mirror in makeup and piled into a van together after the show. I missed that. The joy wasn’t there.”

Teachers told her she didn’t have enough talent to act professionally. The hurt still burns. “Life will tell you quickly enough in this business whether or not you can make it, without your teachers discouraging you,” Weaver says. “It took me years to rebuild my confidence.”

In 1978, after several appearances in off-Broadway stage productions, Weaver was noticed by director Ridley Scott, who cast her as Ellen Ripley in Alien, a dark, futuristic thriller about a marauding stowaway that ravages the crew of a spaceship. Her salary: $30,000. The film was a huge hit, and Weaver became an international superstar almost overnight. Alien also launched a franchise that eventually included four films, all of which starred Weaver. The most highly regarded is the second in the series, Cameron’s Aliens, and Weaver’s Oscar-nominated performance in that movie remains a signature of the genre. In the climactic scene, enraged that Ripley has torched her nest of eggs, the alien queen goes after an orphan girl, Newt, whom Ripley has protected throughout the movie. As the alien closes in on the terrified child, Weaver emerges in a mechanized construction suit with giant pincer claws and confronts the beast with a Hall of Fame throw-down line: “Get away from her, you bitch!” She then proceeds to knock the snot out of the alien, eventually blasting it into space. Not bad for an English major.

In fact, Weaver credits her Stanford literature study for the motivation needed to play the role. “I was sort of a snob and didn’t want to do a science-fiction movie, so I had to come up with a way to make this interesting for four months,” she says. “It occurred to me there were some similarities between Ripley and characters I knew from the masterworks. I thought ‘this is my Viola.’ Approaching it that way allowed me to give [Ripley] a size and weight and context to keep myself interested.”

Weaver didn’t have to literally impersonate a man as Viola did in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but the challenge was similar: convey the qualities the audience normally associated with a male protagonist. “If that character remains meaningful, it’s because of what my English major endowed me with,” she says.

The Alien quartet established Ripley among the most important female characters in cinematic history. Premiere magazine ranked her eighth in its 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time. Weaver’s salary was historic as well—the $11 million she earned in Alien: Resurrection was more than the entire budget for Alien and helped set a new benchmark for women in leading roles.

Her turn as demon-possessed Dana Barrett in the 1984 megahit Ghostbusters mostly required Weaver to flop about and look menacing but strengthened her credentials as a box office heavyweight. Later work brought Weaver critical recognition. In 1988’s Working Girl, she is a scheming corporate climber named Katharine Parker; Harrison Ford plays her boyfriend and Melanie Griffith is her assistant whose ideas Parker steals to win favor with her boss. Despite having only a few minutes of screen time, Weaver earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination and won a Golden Globe. That same year, she portrayed naturalist Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist, was nominated for Best Actress, and again earned a Golden Globe.

In recent years she has played supporting roles in several small-budget movies, often to winning reviews. In one of her latest films, The TV Set, she portrays Lenny, a television executive who comically foils a screenwriter played by David Duchovny. In one scene, Lenny lobbies for a change in the script so that a main character doesn’t die. After all, Weaver says in perfect deadpan earnestness, “Suicide is depressing to, like, 82 percent of everybody.”

Weaver’s criterion for selecting roles is pretty simple: “I look for good stories,” she says. “No actor can hold an audience for two hours without a good story, I don’t care who they are.”

She evaluates her decision to accept a role by the experience she has making the film. “I look at it from a selfish point of view, so I really don’t care what the critics think. I care about how well it does in theaters because that means people are seeing it the way they should see it, with a group of people on a big screen. But for me the most important thing is whether the role takes me somewhere I haven’t been before. People ask me if I have a favorite character and I’m hard-pressed to pick one. I like so many for so many different reasons.”

Although lack of good roles for women is a familiar complaint, Weaver has worked steadily for 30 years. “Great stories have characters of all ages. In many stories it doesn’t matter whether the character is a man or a woman. Why can’t I play Sean Connery’s parts?” she says. Ben Stiller was originally in line for her role in The TV Set, and when he withdrew, Weaver stepped in. “It was actually funnier for my character to be a woman because the character is obsessed with trying to figure out whether women’s breasts are real.”

TV Set is one of four movies Weaver will appear in this year, including Vantage Point, with Dennis Quaid and Forest Whitaker, due out in October. She also narrated the celebrated Discovery Channel documentary Planet Earth that began airing this spring. Even so, she says, “I try not to work too much. Mainly I’m a mother. Jim and I take turns.”

Jim is Jim Simpson, a writer/director and Weaver’s husband of 23 years. He co-founded The Flea Theatre, an 88-seat playhouse in Lower Manhattan that stages the work of new and established playwrights, with an experimental bent. Weaver performs there on occasion, perhaps most notably in 2002 when she appeared alongside Bill Murray in the premiere of Anne Nelson’s The Guys, a story of a fire captain struggling to eulogize his men who died on 9-11. The play, which Simpson directed, earned strong reviews and sold out the Flea. “The audience is energizing and that’s what I missed early in my film career. I missed rehearsals and being part of an ensemble,” Weaver says.

Not surprisingly, Weaver is a stout advocate for live theater. “I’m more optimistic about theater than film. It must be discouraging for a director to see his movies played on a screen this big.” (She makes a small square with her hands, simulating a portable player like an iPod.)

“There is an ancient human need to come together and tell stories. Since 9-11 I feel people have a renewed interest in experiencing stories together. It’s a fertile time for creativity, maybe because it’s a troubling time. Young people are trying to figure out what’s happening around them.

“In a society as estranged as ours, we need the arts to help us understand each other. Arts are a catalyst. They get you thinking from the other side of the map. If you read a masterwork from the literature of another country and then meet somebody from that country, it’s a great bond between you.”

Weaver admires Stanford’s film studies programs, which have a liberal-arts focus, and she supports Stanford’s efforts to broaden humanities teaching throughout the curriculum. She calls it “earthling education.”

“Students seem in a hurry to accomplish what society sees as useful. They feel such a responsibility not to ‘waste’ a moment in their education. I wish I had taken more philosophy, more poetry.”

She suggests providing ungraded electives that allow students to stretch without fears of ruining their GPA. “We should say, ‘We know you’re smart, we know you can do great things, but we want you to play a little.’ There’s a magical rewiring of the synapses that happens when you play. It leads to possibilities being ignited.”

Her February trip to the Farm put Weaver in mind of her own undergraduate years, and she preferred the role of teacher/collaborator, not visiting celebrity. At the Snow Cake screening, she came in through the front door at Cubberley, stood in the aisle during her introduction, then welcomed the packed house to “enjoy our little movie.” She stayed long after to take questions and meet students. The next day, she and her husband conducted a workshop for film students. Asking Samuelson about it later, she wondered, “Did it go a little too long?” Samuelson shook her head. “They were eating it up,” she said.

And then Weaver was off to walk among the plazas and courtyards where her muse first beckoned, the site of some memorable moments on a rickety trailer bed, reinterpreting Shakespeare. “A great education makes you a contender for life,” she says. “I know how lucky I am.”

Comments (1)


  • Mr. Paul Falletta

    Wonderfully written article.  I happened to be at Stanford at the same time and attended a performance of King Lear in 1970.  I remember Ms. Weaver as a formidable Goneril, and Mr. Blackwell as Lear.  But despite the dramatic prowess of those two, in the production I saw professor Larry Friedlander stole the show, as the Fool.

    Paul Falletta, A.B. English, 1971

    Posted by Mr. Paul Falletta on Jul 25, 2016 12:53 PM

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