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.”
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.”
Weaver feels lucky that when she made her debut in sci-fi, “I didn’t have to be a superwoman in a tiny outfit doing bizarre things.” Indeed, her Ripley look consisted mostly of khaki jumpsuits and an expression of sweaty apprehension. “My impression is that [today’s young actresses] want to be more glamorous, like, ‘Why can’t I be smart and powerful and sexy?’ Well, to me what was sexy about Ripley was that she was who she was.”
In between the first two Alien installments, she played the poised British embassy official who has a fiery affair with Mel Gibson’s dashing journalist in The Year of Living Dangerously. “It was an odd situation to be the girl in a romantic story when the man is so much more attractive,” she muses. “When I first saw Mel, I felt like a little brown mouse.”
Then came two movies that yielded Oscar nominations for Weaver in the same year. In Working Girl, she gave a delicious performance as a backstabbing boss who steals her assistant’s ideas—“sort of the humorless character in a comedy,” she says, “which is the basis of a good comedy.” And in Gorillas in the Mist, she had “a huge, eye-opening experience” playing primatologist Dian Fossey. “It was the first time I understood what a small part of the big plan man is,” she says.
The acclaim she received was especially resonant because Weaver was famously told by her professors at the Yale School of Drama that she had no talent. “I wanted to prove them wrong,” she says. “It activated in me some sort of spite.” She has often talked about how bone-deep hurtful this evaluation was, and now she reveals that despite decades of success she carried the grudge until very recently: “I’d say within the last two or three years,” she says. “A friend of mine said to me, ‘You know you have to forgive them,’ and I said, ‘Really? But I don’t want to.’ He said, ‘No, you really have to forgive them.’ And, in a way, forgive myself for being so vulnerable and letting it get to me.”
Today she’s simply focused on what’s ahead. “I have wonderful agents who think I can do anything and know that I want to try,” Weaver says. “I feel very blessed that I get to read a lot of scripts.” A recent high point for her was improvising dialogue with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in the surrogacy comedy Baby Mama. Her schedule is now studded with projects, including two movies in the can (the comedies Paul and Crazy on the Outside); You Again, which she’s shooting; and an HBO biopic about Gypsy Rose Lee toward the end of her burlesque career, which she’s prepping to star in. “I don’t care what the genre is, and I don’t really care how big my part is,” she says. “If it’s a story worth telling, I just want to be a part of telling it.”
When Weaver isn’t working, she can usually be found in her hometown of New York City, trying to pass herself off as just another denizen of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “I wear dark colors a lot because I don’t want to be noticed,” says the actress, who, asked how her personal style has evolved over time, adds, “I have a real horror of trying to not be my age—although I do think that women of many ages can wear many different styles.” So paparazzi won’t be snapping photos of her strolling around in those navel-revealing, skintight jeans that practically beg their wearer to be called a cougar? “My jeans might not be the same ones I wore 30 years ago, which were pretty funky,” she says. “I like things that fit well, so now they’re more elegant. But if someone were going to take away my jeans, I’d have to strangle them.”
Her brisk confidence and natural air of East Coast privilege—her parents were British actress Elizabeth Inglis and former NBC president Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, who created the Today show and the Tonight Show—make it hard at first to believe Weaver’s persistent claims to possessing a loose, playful side. But the proof can be found in a session of phone tag, in which Weaver’s messages reveal an affinity for funny voices and self-mocking delivery. Who, I ask her, is that woman on her voice mail who announces in a thick Italian accent, “It’s Sig-ORRR-neee WHEE-ver . . . ”? “That’s me,” she says, laughing, “and it’s supposed to be Russian.”?
Weaver and her husband, theater director Jim Simpson, celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary in 2009, and little about their marriage has changed over the years, she says: “I can honestly say that my husband is still one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.” She loves that as we speak, Simpson is by himself in the Adirondacks, hiking on unmarked trails, determined to complete a 20-year quest to conquer all 46 high peaks in the mountain range. “So while he’s doing that,” Weaver says, “here I am learning how to dance the samba. It just has a nice symmetry to it.” Reminded that disgraced South Carolina governor Mark Sanford has rendered that kind of trip suspicious for faithful husbands everywhere, Weaver pauses, then smiles. “Well, I think Jim is in the Adirondacks,” she says dryly.
Last year, the couple faced their empty-nest anxieties together as they dropped off their cherished only child, Charlotte, at college. “We sort of panicked,” says Weaver about the terrible silence they imagined in a Charlotte-less household. On impulse, they drove through the night to a 1,400-acre farm on the shores of Lake Champlain, in Vermont, where they stayed for three days in a Victorian-era inn. “Suddenly we were the happy empty-nesters. Because our daughter was safe, she was doing what she had to do,” Weaver explains. “You know, I miss her, but I have to say that I think what you miss is not your grown-up child—I can text her. I miss the companionship of the little person who used to always be with me.”
She and Simpson seem to have finally gotten past the overcompensation phase of Charlotte’s absence. “We were the busiest people in the world last fall,” Weaver says. “Too busy. Now we’re trying to figure out how to balance some of these wonderful opportunities with the chance to sort of slow down.” One commitment she will always make time for, though, is her work with the Flea, Simpson’s 13-year-old award-winning downtown Manhattan theater company. “It’s the most important thing I’ve done on the planet,” she says. “I believe Off-Off-Broadway is a little greenhouse for new talent, which sprouts branches to inform the rest of the business.” As a founding member of the company, she appears in some productions, rounds up movie-star friends such as Bill Murray for fund-raising benefits and uses portions of her Hollywood paychecks to keep the theater afloat.
Not only is Weaver energized by such a packed schedule, she can’t picture herself otherwise. “To find the kind of peace to sit in your garden and just appreciate the day? I’d like to be that person. But it hasn’t happened to me yet,” she says. “Maybe it will.”