Sigourney Weaver and director James Cameron first collaborated on 1986’s Aliens, which earned Weaver her first Oscar nomination. Their new project is Avatar (opening December 18), a massive 3-D sci-fi thriller set about 100 years in the future that cost a reported $220 million to make and is Cameron’s first narrative feature since Titanic. For MORE’s December/January cover story, on newsstands November 24, Weaver talked to Margy Rochlin about Avatar and much more; here, in a web exclusive, she and Cameron elaborate on the project that brought them together again.
Weaver plays Dr. Grace Augustine, a botanist who’s studying the flora and fauna of the jungle moon Pandora, light years from Earth.
Sigourney Weaver: We started by going to Hawaii, to a rainforest in Kauai. We did some of the scenes there. I worked with a botanist and learned how to take samples; it was incredibly useful. I loved Grace because she reminded me of teachers I had in high school in New England; they had devoted their lives to giving girls a good education.
James Cameron: Sigourney came up with the idea [that Grace should be] a fair-complected woman with freckles—pale skin, red hair. A kind of Irish look, maybe. It seemed very fresh for her; she hadn’t done that. I wanted a certain kind of warts-and-all quality, meaning that Grace didn’t really care that much about her human body. But at the same time I wanted Sigourney’s inner luminosity to come through. I think we hit exactly the right balance on that.
Grace becomes a mentor and mother figure to a paraplegic soldier named Jake, played by Sam Worthington (Terminator: Salvation). Grace and Jake each also have an "avatar," created for movement on Pandora’s surface, where the air is toxic to humans, and for interaction with the native species, 10-foot-tall blue humanoid creatures called Na’vi. The avatars are human-Na’vi hybrids into which Grace and Jake’s consciousnesses are projected. Those scenes were filmed using the technique known as motion capture, in which the actors act out the movements and expressions, which are captured by hundreds of cameras and then translated into 3-D animated form.
Weaver: It was the most ambitious script by far that I’d ever read. And it was really about something very important, which is finding the hero within yourself and finding something worth fighting for.
Cameron: The audience knows from the work Sigourney has done before in science fiction that she’s not going to play it campy, she’s not going to be over the top. She doesn’t accept the limitations of the genre, in a sense. She just plays it straight, like a person. Plus she’s very bright, very articulate. She’s good at taking concepts that can be a little cerebral and making them quite visceral. She took to it right away—she saw the possibilities.
Weaver: My avatar body can do anything. It was so cool. I remember reading the script and going, “How is Jim ever going to do this?” It didn’t seem physically possible. . . . All this technology doesn’t really worry me. It’s just going to give us more fun stuff to do. You’re never going to be able to replace the actor, because we’re the people who make the special effects work. Without Sam and Zoe [Saldana], they play the main love story—if they weren’t so good you wouldn’t care about being in that rainforest. To see their relationship flower in that world, that’s why you want to go there. It’s not because the colors are pretty.
Shooting on the floor with Jim had a kind of guerrilla feeling. He was operating on every shot—he’d invented these cameras and by god he was going to use them. He was unstoppable; it was fantastic. I think the filmmaker [in him] had been pent up for so long over those 12 years [since Titanic] that once he started shooting . . . you know, he’s probably still shooting a few things that we don’t know about.
Cameron: I think [Sigourney and I] have both kind of mellowed out [since making Aliens]. At that point we both were young, we had a lot to prove. We had a great working relationship on that movie but it was definitely adversarial in the sense that she would challenge me with ideas, and I would incorporate them—or I’d have to give her a damn good reason why not. On this one, we were both more confident and it felt like a much easier give and take, an easier partnership. She’s very demanding on herself. As a director, you have to keep pace with that —she’s not going to settle for second best.