Just when she needs it most, Sigourney Weaver has misplaced her groove thing. Facing a bank of mirrors in a cavernous rehearsal hall at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, Weaver is being taught how to samba for her role in a romantic comedy called You Again. A funky bossa nova number spills out of a nearby boom box, but the elegant actress is moving so stiffly to the music that you can practically hear the “Slow quick slow, one and two . . . ” clanging around in her head. Worse yet, as Weaver practices alone with a grim expression on her face, a couple of feet away her You Again costar Kristin Chenoweth is laughing merrily as she and a male dance partner soar through a body-twirling, elbow-flying routine.
Finally some gentle coaching comes from the movie’s ballroom instructor, Mimi Karsh. She tells Weaver, “Imagine that you are walking down a line and there are people on either side and you’re going to bump them.” Karsh demonstrates, gliding forward and saucily jutting out one hip and then the other at invisible partners. “Now you try,” she says. Weaver smooths the bottom of her chartreuse V-neck sweater down against her black-and-white print skirt and gives it a go. This time, she tosses out several rolling hip movements with enough grinding sensuality to elicit Karsh’s happy applause. “From now on,” the tiny instructor says, craning her head to look at her smiling student, who is five-foot-eleven in bare feet but is also sporting strappy high heels, “with you I’m using metaphors.”
Karsh needn’t fear: By the time the cameras roll, Weaver will have poured every ounce of her being into mastering a pulsating samba. (“I wake up in the middle of the night counting out steps,” she reports to me two weeks later.) After all, ever since Alien, when she first played Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (named by MTV as the second greatest movie badass, after Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry), Weaver, 60, has devoted her film, television and stage career to proving that she can take on any genre, excelling at sci-fi, biography, romance and comedy.
“What I loved about Sigourney was the complete commitment to what works,” says David Duchovny, who starred with Weaver in The TV Set, a television industry satire that’s now a cult favorite in Hollywood. No matter what she’s playing, “she looks like she believes in it, and that’s great acting.”
Weaver’s ability to bring bracing authenticity to her roles is one reason that director James Cameron wanted her for his 3-D sci-fi thriller Avatar. In the film, which cost a reported $220 million and opens December 18, Weaver plays Dr. Grace Augustine, a cranky scientist who becomes a mentor and mother figure to a paraplegic soldier (Sam Worthington). “She finds the universal human touchstone,” says Cameron, who directed Weaver to an Oscar nomination in the second Alien installment, Aliens. He knew that the way Weaver approached Ripley—playing her as a smart, regular gal just trying to survive—could serve as the entry point for moviegoers who don’t consider the sight of floating mountains, spectacular creatures and aerial battles reason enough to shell out an average of $12 a ticket for a 3-D screening (the film will also be shown in the standard format and IMAX). “She’s playing a botanist on another planet, and getting back to Earth is not that possible,” Cameron says. “That’s the science fiction. But she finds the reality of the character—like, how does a botanist think? How does a woman feel who has given up her personal life for a career?”
Finding the reality in the otherworldly is what makes a film like Avatar meaningful to Weaver. “As an audience member, I don’t always care what’s happening down the block. Take me to another place in the universe,” she says. “It’s exciting to me that [sci-fi characters] have the same challenges that we all do but in a new environment.”