Return to Transcripts main page


Interview with Actress Sigourney Weaver

Aired July 6, 2011 - 05:30:00   ET



ANNA COREN, CNN ANCHOR: She`s played extra-terrestrials in the 1979 film "Alien", as possessed by a demigod in the comedy hit "Ghostbusters", and led a team of scientists in the fantasy epic "Avatar".

SIGOURNEY WEAVER, ACTRESS: Stay with the ship. One idiot with a gun is enough.

COREN: It`s these roles that have made Sigourney Weaver a firm favorite at the cinema for more than 30 years and awarded her the affectionate title, "The Queen of Sci-Fi". Since her screen debut in Woody Allen`s film, "Annie Hall" -- that`s her on the far right -- Sigourney Weaver has proven to be one of the industry`s most versatile actresses.

But she`s also used her fame to champion causes close to her heart.

WEAVER: We need to do a better job of keeping oceans healthy.

COREN: After "Gorillas in the Mist", she became a vocal environmental activist and highlighted the fight for gay rights with the made for television film, "Prayers for Bobby".

RYAN KELLEY, ACTOR: Why can`t you admit that you can`t stand what I am?

WEAVER: What you`ve become.

COREN: This week on "Talk Asia", we sit down with Sigourney Weaver to find out more about her cinematic success, how Hollywood`s leading men deal with her near six-foot frame, and why she`s been nominated three times for an Oscar, but never won one.


COREN: Sigourney Weaver, welcome to "Talk Asia".

WEAVER: Thank you so much. A pleasure to be here.

COREN: You have been in Hollywood for more than 30 years. You have starred in some 60 movies. You`re probably working just as hard as you ever did. What drives you? What keeps you in this industry?

WEAVER: Well, I think a lot of luck, probably. I don`t feel very driven. I feel very like -- I think now, because I`ve done such a range of movies, that directors know I`m pretty game and open to all kinds of strange stories. And I think right now I`m also seeing a generation of filmmakers come up who grew up watching "Alien" and "Ghostbusters" and everything, and so they`re part of those movies` fan-base. And so I often meet young directors who, you know, had a "Ghostbusters" picture on their wall as they were growing up. And it`s really nice. It just shows how inter-generational our industry is.

COREN: It was the role of Ellen Ripley that made you an overnight sensation in "Alien". Did you have any idea how big that film was going to be and how it would change your life?

WEAVER: No. I think we all felt we were making a really interesting, dark, spooky, science fiction film. I have to give a lot of the credit to Ridley Scott, because I think he sort of re-conceptualized space. It used to be, you know, this sort of "2001: A Space Odyssey" sterile environment, sort of cerebral atmosphere. And he made it real. You know, he made it a place where humans could really imagine living and working and quarreling.


TOM SKERRITT, ACTOR: Open the hatch.

WEAVER: Wait a minute. If we let it in, the ship could be infected. You know the quarantine procedures.

24 hours for decontamination.

SKERRITT: It could die in 24 hours. Open the hatch.

WEAVER: Listen to me, if we break quarantine, we could all die.

VERONICA CARTWRIGHT, ACTRESS: Would you open the Goddamn hatch? We have to get him inside.


WEAVER: I think that`s the genius of "Alien" -- is really Ridley`s take on the design and on the whole gritty, uncomfortable world of it. He made it a place -- he made it ours, so I really have to give him all the credit. I was just lucky. I was in the right place at the right time.

COREN: Tell us the story about how that came about.

WEAVER: I`d met Ridley Scott and a couple of the producers. And then I had to meet Alan Ladd Jr., who was running Fox at the time and had the power of making these decisions. And I did a screen test for Ridley over in England. And he built a whole set for me and we did a few scenes, which was interesting for me because it was sort of like a little run-through for the part.

And I think I was the only person they tested. But then, Laddie, Alan Ladd Jr., said he wanted all the secretaries in the building to come up and watch the screen test. And, at the end of watching the screen test, he said to the secretaries, "Do you like her?" And they said, "Yes, we like her." And that`s how I got the part. I owe it all to them. I`m very grateful. Whoever the secretaries are, thank you.

COREN: You have worked on four "Alien" movies with four different directors. Obviously, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Was there one in particular that you gelled with?

WEAVER: I think I gelled with all of them. I think that the genius of 20th Century Fox was always to pick a young director who was very talented, very ambitious. Who wanted to transform what was now being called a franchise into something, you know, something of their own.

So Fincher, for instance, killed everything that Jim Cameron created. The sort of space family that Ripley had and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, again, you know, transformed it. So I think our good fortune was that Fox picked these very brilliant directors.

COREN: You were co-producer on the final two. Will you be involved in a fifth?

WEAVER: No. I think that now they`re doing an "Alien" prequel. And I think that Ridley Scott is directing it, which makes me very happy, because I know he`ll do a great job.

COREN: 30 years after making the original "Alien", you reunited with James Cameron for his blockbuster, "Avatar". Was that a hard sell?

WEAVER: No, I mean, you know, I`ve kept in touch with Jim. I think he`s an amazing person as well. And so he, you know, called me up and sent me this script that was -- honestly, it took me about three days just to read it -- it was, you know, between the Banshees and the horses and the thanators -- you know, I was just astonished. I thought, well, I`ve never seen a movie like this, but if anyone can make this happen, it`s Jim.

And so it was, you know, a very easy sell. I wanted to work with him again and I want to be part of something that was so bold and so new.


WEAVER: So you just figured you`d come out here to the most hostile environment known to man, with no training of any kind, and see how it went? What was going through your head?

SAM WORTHINGTON, ACTOR: Maybe I was sick of doctors telling me what I couldn`t do.


COREN: Well, movie making has changed so much in those 30 years from "Alien" to "Avatar". Do you think that the magic has been lost or has movie making been redefined?

WEAVER: That`s an interesting question. I think the story telling, regardless of the medium -- whether it`s on stage or in movies -- is very much the same. You know, you have to have a story that`s about more than just the people in it for it to really resonate with an audience. So I`m always kind of excited by all the different forms and transformations, because I know at heart the essence is the same. You`re still taking people out of their lives and putting them in another situation.

And now with, for instance, 3-D, it really puts you somewhere else and we`ve only begun to sort of plumb the gift of 3-D. I don`t think we`re going to be able to do it well for another few years. I mean, Jim Cameron is the super perfectionist, so his was seamless. But it`s a very hard act to follow.

COREN: Coming up, Sigourney Weaver shares her secrets to keeping a show biz marriage intact.

WEAVER: We`re very fortunate. Probably get divorced, but no.



COREN: Sigourney Weaver hasn`t strayed too far from what she knows best with her latest film.

WEAVER: I want E.T. back in his fishbowl or dead ASAP.

COREN: The comedy, "Paul", tells the story of an alien`s encounter with two self-confessed sci-fi geeks headed to the ComiCon.

SETH ROGAN, ACTOR: I`m Paul. I`m in a hell of a pickle and if you don`t help me, I could die on this road tonight.

SIMON PEGG, ACTOR: I don`t know, we`re on a quite tight schedule.

COREN: It didn`t take much convincing for the film`s makers to cast the sci-fi veteran, nor for Sigourney Weaver to take up the roll.

WEAVER: Someone sent me the script, which I fell in love with. It didn`t take long for me to say, "Whatever, I`ll play a tumbleweed".

NICK FROST, ACTOR: We have had Sigourney Weaver on set. On this very set. It was absolutely amazing. She was very beautiful and tall and it felt like we had royalty on set.

PEGG: She got it completely. She knew what was required of her and she just delivered.

COREN: And it`s delivering at the box office. "Paul" rocketed to the number one spot in the UK in its opening week.


COREN: You`ve described yourself as a late bloomer. You were 30 years old when you starred in "Alien". You are now 61, and I must say that looks defy your age.

WEAVER: Well, you`re very sweet.

COREN: What has been your attitude towards aging in front of the camera?

WEAVER: Well, gosh, I don`t really worry about the camera. I figure, you know, to me, I think of Lucian Freud, the painter. You know, who would you rather pain? A face that is sort of -- has no definition, or a face that`s lived? I mean, to me, the face that`s lived has much -- many more stories to tell. So I feel like you`re doing a disservice, in a way, to the camera if you make yourself look like you`ve never lived. How many characters is that really suitable for?

But that`s just my personal opinion. I totally think that you should do whatever you`re going to do. But for the camera, particularly, I feel like -- I think that, as human faces become older, they become more interesting.

COREN: You were born "Susan" but you changed your name to "Sigourney" when you were 14. How did your parents feel about that?

WEAVER: They called me "S". My parents called me "S" for a long time, because they thought I might change it again to "Sarah" or "Sally" or something. They knew I liked the initial. And yet, when I thought about it, my mother`s name was Desiree. She was British. She changed her name to Liz, which was her mother`s name. And then my father`s name was Sylvester, after his father, but everyone called him Pat, because he had red hair.

So, I thought this is genetic. If I`m changing my name, it`s really their fault and I think I just was always called Sue. And I was this tall, I was six feet tall, I needed a longer name. So, I didn`t ever mean to really change my name, but now that I look back, I think that is the age where kids try to reinvent themselves.

COREN: Well, speaking of your parents, your mother was an English actress, your father was an ad man and a one-time chairman of NBC. Did they influence you in becoming an actor?

WEAVER: I think they probably hoped I wouldn`t become an actor. My parents -- we were always in what they called "the racket". And I could tell that my father had a very good time at work. You know, he kept things pretty light. He actually ran NBC for many years and he really thought comedy was very important for life. And so, I think I grew up with all those things. But I was so shy, I think that they never thought I would actually choose the business and go into it.

COREN: After majoring in English Literature, you then went on to the Yale School of Drama. Meryl Streep was a fellow classmate. But it wasn`t a place which built up your confidence. If anything, it stripped it. But it didn`t deter you?

WEAVER: I was discouraged at drama school, along with most of my peers. Even Meryl was given a hard time. I don`t know why they did that. It`s some sort of art school philosophy of tear someone down, and if they can get up, then they`ll have a career.

Actually, my husband and I founded a theater a few years ago called "The Flea Theater" and part of the Flea is that we audition and have in residence a young company of actors every year called "The Bats". And they`re our peers. You know, they`re not students. We all work together. I think mentoring is so important. Much more than teaching.

I don`t really believe in art school. I think it`s a great place to just sort of have different assignments, etc. and you know. But I think real life is a much better teacher.

COREN: You mentioned your husband, Jim Simpson. You`ve been married for, what, 26 years?


COREN: That is quite an enduring partnership, particularly in your industry. What`s the secret?

WEAVER: Gosh. I don`t know what the secret is. I can`t believe -- neither of us can believe we`ve been married for such a long time. He`s -- I think I just chose well. He`s such an interesting person. He`s so talented. Kind of a maverick in his field. He`s also from Hawaii, so he`s got a lot of aloha. He`s very laid back. We are just a good team and I think you just have to be lucky to find that person. I really can`t take any credit for the longevity of the marriage because it feels like we`ve been together about six years, you know?

COREN: It`s very special, though.

WEAVER: Well, I knew -- we`re very fortunate. I`ll probably get divorced, but no.


COREN: You are a very tall woman.


COREN: Five foot, 11?

WEAVER: Yes, probably.

COREN: Shy of six foot? And that`s without high heels. Growing up as a kid, what was it like? Because I know you were, what, this height at the age of 11.

WEAVER: I was 5`11" at 11. And it was kind of mortifying. I guess everyone has something in high school that`s excruciating. I was very uncoordinated. I was always looking like a giant spider as I went through the room. I was always in trouble because, you know, some little short person would do something wrong in class and no one would see them. Then I would do it, and I would get in trouble.

But my mother was very short and she was always saying to me, "You`re so lucky you`re tall. Someday you`ll be so happy". So, I think I knew someday I would grow into my height. I was a terrible basketball player. I`m actually a better one now.

COREN: Throughout your career, has your height ever been an issue with shorter male cast members?

WEAVER: There are actors who are insecure. Sometimes very tall actors go, "How tall are you?" And you just go, you are towering over me, you can`t be -- one of the most secure was actually Mel Gibson. He didn`t care if I was three inches -- you know, I could wear huge heels and he`d be fine with it. But it is sort of a litmus test for -- to me it`s very old fashioned to worry about whether a woman is taller than you or not. I always went out with men who were shorter than I was.

COREN: Did you?

WEAVER: I guess I like to dominate them.

COREN: What about your husband now?

WEAVER: He`s maybe half-an-inch taller. He grows his hair. His hair goes up, so it makes him maybe an inch taller. But we`re basically eye-to- eye. I think that`s good.

COREN: Coming up, the woman who opened Sigourney Weaver`s eyes to a cause she now holds close to her heart.




COREN: One of your iconic movies is "Gorillas in the Mist" where you play Dr. Dian Fossey. You were nominated for an Oscar, but it wasn`t just an outstanding performance. It had a profound effect on you.

WEAVER: Well, I did "Gorillas in the Mist" and you know, had the privilege of playing Dian Fossey, who had a very wonderful worldview. I mean, I was given one letter that Dian wrote to a friend -- the one letter told me everything I need to know about Dian. It was a letter addressed to "Cindy" and it started with a description of Cindy`s family and then it went right to "You and I have always tried never to cry in front of each other."

Anyway, it went on and on. It was about a two-page typed letter. And you realized at the end of it, that she was writing to her dog. Now, that sounds like a joke line, but when I realized that she`d written this letter to Cindy, I realized that, for Dian, she did not feel that it was humans and then animals. She felt we`re all equal citizens of the world and that we all had the obligation to share all the riches of the world with each other.

You know, the mountain gorilla is our cousin and, if they can`t survive in this world, it really doesn`t bode well for us. So, I think it was a big eye-opener for me to work on "Gorillas in the Mist".

COREN: You returned to Rwanda 20 years after making the film. Describe that experience to me.

WEAVER: Well, I got to go back to Rwanda with the BBC and now there are many more rules. So we could only spend one hour. We went back to the same group that I spent so much time with, which was 25 members and now is 50. One of the youngsters that I watch is now the silverback that leads the group. And it was too brief, but we had the most amazing visit with them. And I also got to take to Roz Carr -- who is in the movie, played by Julie Harris -- after the civil war started an orphanage. And I was able to take two young people in to meet the gorillas for the first time. I taught them some gorilla noises.


WEAVER: Which is sort of the "hello" noise. And then we got to go in with a gorilla group and it was wonderful. You know? I mean, it just feels like -- I think Dian would be thrilled by the progress and that what unites us is the reverence for these creatures and how much we can learn from them. How much they tell us about ourselves as humans. The joy that people feel when they`re with the gorillas is really amazing.

COREN: You`ve been nominated for three Oscars. Best Actress, for "Gorillas in the Mist" and also the "Aliens" sequel. Best Supporting Actress for "Working Girl". You have missed out. When you look back, is that disappointing?

WEAVER: You know, I don`t really sit around -- I felt it was such a great honor for me to be nominated for those movies. And I think, particularly for "Aliens" because, you know, science fiction doesn`t get that kind of response. And I have to give Jim Cameron a lot of the credit for that, because the role was such a magnificent one.

You know, I feel so fortunate that I get to work in so many different kinds of movies with such talented people. I love being part of this community and I feel fine without an Oscar.

COREN: That`s not to say that there won`t be one in the future.

WEAVER: Absolutely, you never know.

COREN: There are rumors that you are making or will make "Ghostbusters 3". Can you confirm that?

WEAVER: I`ve heard about "Ghostbusters 3". Harold Ramis said if all the rumors were true, we`d be making 30 movies. I think all of us would love to get back together again.


DAN AYKROYD, ACTOR: Well, I could go to hall of records and check out the structural details on the building. Maybe the building itself has a history of psychic turbulence.

BILL MURRAY, ACTOR: Right, good idea.

HAROLD RAMIS, ACTOR: I could look for the name "Zuul" in the usual literature.

AYKROYD: Spates Catalog.

RAMIS: Tobin`s Spirit Guide.


MURRAY: Tell you what, I`ll take Ms. Barrett back to her apartment and check her out. I`ll go check out Ms. Barrett`s apartment. OK?


WEAVER: I`d love to work with those guys again. They`re such generous people. They`re all brilliant and it would be fun. And you know, once -- actually it was last year -- I love Halloween, so in New York I always go to a friend`s house and people drop by and trick-or-treat. And so I opened the door, and I saw a father and a son, who were both dressed as Ghostbusters. And the mother was dressed as Dana. And I thought, "Man, so funny".

So, I think there`s still an appetite for "Ghostbusters" and it`s very exciting that the movies are so beloved.

COREN: Do you think you`ll always be making movies?

WEAVER: You know, my role models are people like Jessica Tandy, who I think won an Oscar in her 80s and Maggie Smith, who is so wonderful. You know, I look to these older actors and, when I see what they can do with a line or a look, I`m just so filled with admiration. So, I do think it`s a career that you can keep going if you`re lucky and die with your boots on. You know, I think that would be amazing. These, you know, actors like that, to me, are so precious. And it`s so important for our industry that you have all the generations, you know, as equals. Sort of inspiring each other.

So I hope, you know, knock on wood, I will be able to continue. I`d certainly love to.

COREN: Well, I hope for our sakes that you continue acting. We love watching you on the screen and it`s a pleasure to meet you.

WEAVER: Well thank you so much. Thank you very much for having me.