When Cameron started thinking about casting Grace, he admits to ruling Weaver out at first, worried that she might bring too much iconic Ripley baggage to the screen. “Then one day I thought, quit being a dummy. Sigourney’s perfect for this. So I pleaded with her to read the script right away. Fortunately, she loved it.”
Part romance, part raucous adventure, part we-humans-are-destroying- the-planet cautionary tale, Cameron’s first narrative feature since Titanic takes place about 100 years in the future, far from an overpopulated Earth on the beautiful jungle moon Pandora, home to a species of 10-foot-tall blue creatures called Na’vi. In what is close to a dual role, Weaver has scenes as both Grace and as Grace’s younger, fleet-footed “avatar,” a human–Na’vi hybrid into which Grace’s consciousness is projected, allowing the botanist to move around on Pandora’s surface, where the air is toxic to humans.
It took a month of intensive shooting to create Grace’s avatar scenes, which were filmed using the technique known as performance capture (think Gollum in Lord of the Rings). Weaver, the A-list actress perhaps best equipped to swing with new special effects technology because of her Alien franchise experience, makes it sound like business as usual. “Basically we were in an empty room with all these cameras, and Jim had a special one,” is how she starts out, “and I’m in a little black leotard, with a helmet that had little ears and a camera on the end. They set up wooden platforms, and it was like, ‘This is a path’ or ‘This is a tree,’ and then you make believe! It’s great fun because it’s like you are six years old and you put a blanket over a chair and say, ‘This is my castle.’"
What was it like, months later, to watch her high-tech playtime in its final, 3-D animated form? At a screening, “I sat next to Stephen Lang [who plays the base’s head of security], and we were nervous as two kittens,” Weaver says. Then, in her cultured voice, she adds: “About a third of the way in he turned to me and said, ‘People are going to piss themselves when they see this movie.’ I thought to myself, they’re going to piss themselves again and again and again. Because it’s just one amazing scene after the other.”
That’s a quintessential Weaver anecdote: frank, funny and containing unexpected flourishes. Even though she’s been talking to the press for 30 years now, she shows no signs of interview fatigue; instead, as we settle into a conference room not far from You Again’s rehearsal hall, she fixes me with her clear brown eyes, which radiate intelligence, and answers every question, including a revisiting of her career highlights, with verve, thoughtfulness and a quick wit.
What does she remember about her breakthrough role in Alien? It didn’t really click for her, she says, until director Ridley Scott pulled out the sketches for the monsters: “I had just pictured this big yellow blob of Jell-O running around killing people. When I saw the drawings, I was like, ‘My god, this is the world we’re going to make a picture of?’ I thought it was the coolest thing.” Her screen test included “a scene that’s not in the movie, where the captain and Ripley have sex. I said to Ridley, ‘That is so ridiculous. Who’s going to have sex with that thing running around?’ ” Then, when it came time to film Aliens, she admits that she didn’t read the script’s stage directions very carefully. “I work for gun control, and I was just appalled, frankly,” she says. “I had to use not only a machine gun but a flamethrower and a bazooka, often at the same time. But you do a little target practice to get ready, and it’s very addictive, I’m afraid.”