/ 8 December 2009

‘Avatar will change what people want in the cinema’

One of the first things that people think about when the name Sigourney Weaver pops into conversation, along with her braininess and patrician elegance, is her height. You only have to think of the scene in Infamous when she dances with Toby Jones playing Truman Capote, in which his head reaches somewhere around her navel.

Then there’s the story about how she acquired her name. She was christened Susan, but when she was 14 she decided it didn’t suit a person like her who was 6ft tall in her shoes. So she seized on the name Sigourney, having spotted it in The Great Gatsby. Sigourney seemed to her to be long and curvy: much more appropriate for someone her size.

I knew all that well before I met Weaver in a hotel in Los Angeles. So it sounds silly to say this, but I was, well, surprisingly surprised by how tall she is in person. As I entered her suite, she rose to greet me. Then she carried on rising. And then she rose some more. When finally she came to a halt, standing before me at full stretch, I knew how it must feel to be Ronnie Corbett.

The impressive thing about Weaver is not her height per se, but how comfortably, proudly even, she wears it. She is dressed in a black evening grown and high heels that accentuate it, as if saying to the world: “If you have an issue with my height, then that’s your problem, buddy!”

I ask her whether being tall has been a plus or minus in her career, and am surprised yet again, this time by her answer. “Height has absolutely kept me from working with conventional directors,” she says.

Really, I say. No conventional director would take her on, not a single one?

She smiles in affirmation. “And I haven’t got parts in conventional love stories because of my height.”

Doesn’t that make her angry?

“I’m very happy with the opportunities I’ve had,” she replies, adding in a smooth, theatrically sexy voice: “Maybe I’ll only do love stories from now on.”

The upside of such blatant discrimination is that the directors she has worked with, she says, have all been what she describes as “wild men. And I’m very grateful for that.”

She name checks Ridley Scott, her director in Alien; Peter Weir, who directed her in The Year of Living Dangerously; and Ang Lee of The Ice Storm. The other “wild man” she mentions is James Cameron, whom she has just got back together with on set after a break of more than 20 years. She plays a big role in his massively expensive and almost equally massively hyped new fantasy film, Avatar.

Her character is a scientist called Grace, who is involved with human exploration, and exploitation, of a distant planet called Pandora. Early on in the film she rubs up against a former marine to whom she takes an instant dislike. In one scene she prepares the marine for his transformation into an “avatar” — a hybrid being that is created from the fusion of his genetic material with that of the alien humanoids who populate Pandora. “Just relax and let your mind go blank,” she tells him, then adds with withering nonchalance: “It shouldn’t be hard for you.”

It is a classic Weaver one-liner, delivered disdainfully through her thin, slightly puckered lips, and made all the more crushing by the fact that it comes with a flick of her hair that has been dyed a startling flame red. You half expect Sam Worthington, as the marine, to curl into a ball and start blubbering like a baby.

For thousands of movie buffs and sci-fi enthusiasts, that scene in Avatar will be like a homecoming. This is the Weaver they know and love: spikey, brittle, intelligent, the Weaver who could take on the universe’s most dangerous alien and live to make the sequel. The Weaver who in 1979 went from obscurity to overnight stardom in the role of an inexperienced but resourceful spaceship officer named Ellen Ripley.

The irony, though, is that Weaver’s enduring association as the star of the Alien movies almost prevented her landing the part of Grace. Cameron and his producer Jon Landau were keen to avoid any parallels between Avatar‘s vision of the future and Aliens, the second film in the Alien series, which Cameron and Weaver made together in 1986. Landau told me that they initially ruled Weaver out of the casting list for that reason. The early drafts of the Avatar film script coincidentally featured a scientist called Grace Ripley, but they promptly changed the character’s name to Grace Augustine.

In the end, though, the film-makers put their qualms to one side and handed Weaver the role. Not that she didn’t sympathise with their anxieties — in fact, her desire to keep Alien firmly out of the picture explains that striking flame-red hair.

“I didn’t want anyone to be thinking about Ripley in this new world,” Weaver says. “So I decided on the red hair. It seemed right for Grace, who is such a natural beauty, but doesn’t bother with herself. So she has unkempt red hair, an expression of her energy.”

The wish to avoid the Alien connection is quite understandable, particularly for Weaver, who has had to carry the burden of those four films for years. Though her work since then has been very varied — from the slapstick of Ghostbusters to the intensity of Death and the Maiden and the dark pathos of The Ice Storm — her name still tends to be glued to the memory of Ripley.

But then the Alien films were revolutionary, not least in their portrayal of women. Before Alien, female screen actors were (largely) condemned to play the victim, cowering in the dark from their (male) predators. Then along came cool-as-ice Ripley, spitting out those classic one-liners and dragging Hollywood into a new era. Take the moment at the end of Alien, as the spaceship Nostromo explodes in a huge ball of fire, when she exclaims: “I got you, you son of a bitch!” Or that moment in Alien: Resurrection, when she casually flings a basketball backwards over her head, sending it soaring 20ft through the air to slam effortlessly into the hoop (yes, she really did do it).

Weaver as Ripley didn’t just break through a Hollywood glass ceiling, it shattered it into myriad shards and by so doing opened the way for later generations of female actors. As Winona Ryder, who starred alongside her in the fourth of the Alien films, Alien: Resurrection, put it: “Sigourney is the one person who has shown us you can do it all.”

I ask Weaver whether she was aware of the significance of what she was doing during the filming of Alien.

“I was aware more than our producers were that we were making a feminist statement because our producers were like, ‘Let’s make the girl the hero. No one will ever think that will happen!'” she says.

For most of the time on set, though, she was far too focused on survival to have smart ideas about the role of women on the big screen. This was the first big film role she had ever had, and she learned on the job. “I didn’t know what I was doing at all. And I think that was useful for Ripley, because her secret was that she didn’t know what she was doing either. She couldn’t let anyone see that she didn’t know for sure if she was making any of the right decisions.”

Which is a fairly good description, Weaver says, of how she herself coped. “I remember the first week, Ridley [Scott] said: ‘Can you please not look into the camera.’ I said: ‘I’m trying not to, but you keep putting it right in front of me.’ Of course!”

There’s another reason why Weaver didn’t dwell on any higher meaning, and that was because she wasn’t really that interested in working in film in the first place. Her sights at that time were set on following her English mother Elizabeth Inglis into a career in theatre, and her big ambition was to join a repertory company such as the Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota.

When Ridley Scott plucked her from an off-off-Broadway stage and jabbed a camera in her face, she consoled herself with the thought that it would be a useful time-filler until she started at the Guthrie. “I thought, if I have to make a movie, then this is a good one to do.”

Over time, though, she learned to love cinema, with a little help from her agent, the late Sam Cohen. “He really felt that film was an art form, and I needed to feel that for a long time.” The money improved too, which must have helped. For Alien she was paid a paltry $30 000, but by Alien: Resurrection her fee had risen to $11-million.

Now, having just turned 60, she finds herself working with Cameron again, an experience that she says has been all-too easy. “We are like an old married couple. I am a perfectionist, and I love working with Jim because I know he is going to stay longer on set than I will. He operated on every shot, holding the camera sometimes upside-down, hanging by a leg.”

Avatar is the first film Cameron has made since his blockbuster to beat all blockbusters, Titanic, 12 years ago, and everything about it is epic. It cost almost a quarter of a billion dollars to make. Each frame of the film took 100 hours of computer time to animate. Cameron invented new camera technology that focuses on actors’ eyes, allowing him to capture and animate their emotions as well as their movements — Cameron calls it e-motion capture technology.

The result promises to be something of an acid trip, taking you inside another world, replete with floating mountains and pink, flying jellyfish. Its half-human/half-alien avatars are remarkably convincing despite their blue skin, Spock ears and swishy tails.

Weaver appears in the film partly as Grace in human form, and partly as Grace’s avatar, which was created using digital manipulation of footage shot of the actor dressed in a black leotard. In the story, Grace’s avatar was created about 20 years before the start of the film, so what you see on screen is a distorted image of Weaver to make her appear at least two decades younger.

That must be quite something, I say — to see years shaved off yourself. “It was perfect, but also scary because she looks just like me and that was a shock. Not only am I years younger, but I’m 9ft tall and blue. With a tail.”

Avatar is certain to win plaudits for its technical wizardry, but does it work as a film? “It will pick you up and shake you like a little rag doll,” Weaver says, with such conviction in her voice that it doesn’t sound as if she’s repeating the party line. “I’m not too much of an emotional creature, but I was weeping by the end. I remember reading the script and thinking, I love this but how can he ever do this. Nothing like this has been done before — floating mountains!

“I think for a certain generation it will change what they want to happen in the cinema. It is as big as sound. I hope it won’t impact every movie, but for the big movies it raises the bar — it throws the bar away.”

Praise indeed. For Weaver, the power of the film is enhanced because it addresses one of her great off-camera passions — protection of the natural world. She regularly speaks at environmental rallies or to legislators about the threat to marine wildernesses, which she fell in love with as a child growing up by the sea in Long Island Sound.

She grows impassioned as she explains to me her mission, thumping the hotel table between us as she speaks. “People say ‘I want a coal plant’ [thump], ‘I don’t want it to be more expensive’ [thump], ‘We will have to worry about it later’ [thump], but they don’t realise there might not be a later. That we might just have miles of weeds and nothing in the ocean, that we are at a point perhaps of no return.”

The premise of Avatar fits precisely into that description. Earth has been denuded, and humans have travelled to Pandora to despoil it of its natural abundance instead. The scramble for minerals pits the humans and their hybrid avatars against the indigenous humanoids, known as Na’vi.

Though Cameron was so averse to implying any link with Aliens that he almost ruled Weaver out of the picture, there is one pointed similarity between Avatar and the Alien series. In Aliens the real bad guys of the movie are the bosses of a greedy firm on Earth, referred to as the Company, which is mining minerals in space and wants to preserve the aliens no matter what in order to exploit their genetic potential. In Avatar, the bad guys are the bosses of a greedy firm on Earth, referred to as the Corporation, that is exploiting the planet of Pandora for similar gain.

So it’s all about the Company, then. Weaver leans forward, an intense look on her face, and with another thump on the table says: “Now it’s time for us to take back the fort. We have to save those people from themselves, as people left to their own devices won’t make wise choices — they can’t see that far ahead.”

So is the Company winning?

Her eyes flash and there’s steel in her voice. Another classic Weaver one-liner is on its way.

“I think it has won.” – guardian.co.uk