At 73, Sigourney Weaver Continues to Craft Her Own Unique Hollywood Success Story
Sigourney Weaver, who continues to score big roles at 73, says she "never expected to have any career at this age." Style notes: Contrasting an embellished topper with a poetic blouse adds drama. Coat, Christoper Kane; blouse, Alberta Ferretti; pants, Salvatore Ferragamo. Photo: Craig McDean, Styling: by Jason Rider
It was her crazy long limbs that hooked me. In October 1984, I was on my first proper date with the man I’d eventually marry. I’d just moved to New York to work for GQ magazine, and I’d scored tickets to the show on Broadway, Hurlyburly. Written by David Rabe and directed by Mike Nichols, it was about Hollywood louches, and starred William Hurt, Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, Jerry Stiller, Judith Ivey, Cynthia Nixon and — most thrillingly for me — Sigourney Weaver.
“That’s a head-spinning first date,” Weaver said, when I mentioned this during a phone interview in September. Yes it was.
I’d already seen Weaver on screen, towering over Woody Allen at the end of Annie Hall (she’s 179 cm tall, nearly 5’11”); as an embassy officer in The Year of Living Dangerously, over which I swooned; hilariously possessed in Ghostbusters; and kicking extraterrestrial ass in Alien.
With Alien (1979), Susan Alexandra Weaver — who grew up in Manhattan and coolly re-christened herself Sigourney at 14 after reading the name in The Great Gatsby, because she hated being called Susie — had given women everywhere a huge gift: the first female action hero. Ellen Ripley, the last survivor of the starship Nostromo, was formidable, brave and fierce, but also skilled, competent and great at her job. Before her, “woman action hero” meant Jane Fonda’s space bimbo in Barbarella, Linda Carter in hot pants as Wonder Woman or the bouncy curls (and chests) of the original Charlie’s Angels.
But Ripley was a revelation. When, in the final scenes of Alien, director Ridley Scott gave us a long look at Weaver — clad in a white tank top and teeny bikini panties, reaching up to the ceiling to flip a batch of switches — he wasn’t objectifying her, he was searing her image as a pillar of female strength into pop culture. After the sequel Aliens arrived in 1986, news stories abounded about how Ripley inspired young women to pursue careers in science and engineering. Weaver starred in two more sequels, in 1992 and 1997, allowing Ripley to mature over 18 years. And because the four films together grossed US$559 million worldwide, Weaver proved that female heroes could win at the box office, too.
Weaver’s limbs were even more resplendent on stage in Hurlyburly. She took up space. If her castmates weren’t so high-powered, she would have crowded them out just by crossing her legs or flinging her arms over the back of the sofa. I saw her around New York from time to time, out at the theatre with her equally elegant parents: her mother Elizabeth, an English-born actress, and her father Pat, a television executive who was president of NBC in the 1950s and created The Today Show.
“My mother was quite an athlete,” Weaver says. “I think she was the first jogger in New York City. She used to run up and down FDR Drive, and cars would slow down and ask if she was all right. They thought she was being chased.”
I roared over the two Esquire photo essays Weaver did in the mid-’80s with playwright Christopher Durang, whom she met in a singing class at the Yale School of Drama (she graduated in 1974; they’ve remained friends and collaborators for nearly 50 years). In one piece, Weaver and Durang dressed up in safari clothes and pretended to be on a hunt. In another, they donned evening wear and ate blinis smothered in sour cream at the Russian Tea Room. (“I’m so sensuous! I’m so sensuous!” Weaver exclaimed in the latter.) She was everything I longed to be: a New York woman, a force, but also wickedly funny and mischievous.
Despite meeting Durang there, Weaver struggled at Yale.
“Instructors discouraged me from pursuing acting,” she says. “All I wanted was to be part of a great theatre, like the one in Stratford, Ont. I used to go up there to watch Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. It was always my dream to be an actor in a company like that.”
Though she landed steady work on stage right away — at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Yale Repertory Theatre and New York’s Public Theatre, among others — her instructors’ faithlessness still stung.
“I decided that secretly, in my head, I’d create my own repertory theatre, and stealthily jump from small to big parts, from comedies to dramas,” Weaver says. “It’s been very entertaining to me, as well as fulfilling. It’s like a wonderful sense of lemon sherbet in the back of your mouth.”
She certainly pulled it off. She’s been nominated for three Oscars — best actress in 1987 for Aliens and in 1989 for Gorillas in the Mist, where she played a watchful Dian Fossey; and best supporting actress, also in 1989, for her comically villainous boss in Working Girl. (At least she lost to great women: Marlee Matlin in 1987 and, in 1989, best actress Jodie Foster and supporting actress Geena Davis.) Weaver’s co-stars in Working Girl, Melanie Griffith and Joan Cusak, were also nominated, but Weaver nearly steals the movie with a single scene. Her leg in an enormous cast from a skiing accident, she nevertheless reclines, in a peignoir, in a Swiss hospital bed, hosting a party (“Hi, Schatzi!”), swilling champagne, all while cooing orders over the phone to her assistant (Griffith), back in New York.
Weaver injected humour into her dramas — watch how, in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, her chilly Connecticut swinger dismisses her lover’s (Kevin Kline) inane chitchat with a single sentence: “I have a husband” — and threw herself into her comedies, such as the space spoof Galaxy Quest and the mother-daughter grifter caper Heartbreakers. If you haven’t seen Heartbreakers, put down this story and go watch it. When her character gives the cigarette executive (Gene Hackman) she’s conning mouth to mouth, and then emits a tiny cough and a cloud of smoke, I die every time. And every fledgling comedian should study her rendition of “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” delivered in a broad Russian accent.
In 2009, she teamed up again with her Aliens director, James Cameron (a patron of that stealth repertory company she created), to make Avatar, which is still the No. 1 film of all time, grossing nearly US$3 billion worldwide. Her character, Dr. Grace Augustine, dies defending the Na’vi, a race of blue, 10-foot-tall humanoids, who live on the moon Pandora, against human exploitation.
Most recently, Weaver (who is fluent in French and German) slayed me in the French series Call My Agent as a hyper-entitled version of herself, swanning into Paris and imperiously upgrading to a deluxe hotel suite that her agency can’t afford — then ordering up an elliptical machine, so she can work out on the balcony with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Having a sense of humour about yourself is “the key to everything,” Weaver says now. “Don’t you think so?”
It’s that rare combination of elegance and giddiness — Katharine Hepburn had it; so did Anne Bancroft — that makes Weaver so fascinating, and kept her career thriving in a landscape where too many women fall off the map after age 40.
“I was just walking the dog, looking at the tugboats pushing this enormous barge down the East River,” she says. “I thought, ‘I am a tugboat in my business.’ I have endured.”
Not merely endured, but thrived. At 73, Weaver still lives in Manhattan with her husband of 38 years, the theatre director Jim Simpson, near their adult child, Char, who uses they/them pronouns. And she’s launching four (four!) projects in late 2022. In Master Gardener, which wowed the Venice Film Festival in September, she plays “a fabulous older woman of appetites” who commands sexual attention from a younger employee (Joel Edgerton). In The Good House, available on demand, she plays a successful real estate agent “who takes care of everyone but herself,” Weaver says. “Her one indulgence is at the end of the day; she unhooks her bra, leans back, talks to her dog and drinks a secret bottle of pinot noir.” (It’s Weaver’s third film with co-star Kevin Kline, another member of her unofficial repertory group.)
She also stars opposite Elizabeth Banks in Call Jane, a true story about a women’s group in Chicago who helped women obtain abortions before Roe v Wade legalized them in 1973. And in the long-anticipated sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, out Dec. 16, she plays a 14-year-old Na’vi named Kiri, the adopted daughter of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and Jake (Sam Worthington). Rumours abound that Kiri is the reincarnation of Dr. Augustine, but Weaver isn’t allowed to say. Playing a teenager “catapulted me back, for better or worse, to my 14-year-old self,” she says. Like every actor I’ve ever met, Weaver swears she was an awkward adolescent. Unlike every other actor, I believe her, because she had reached her full height at age 11.
“It was excruciating,” she says. “I was incredibly self-conscious, very shy. But also very clownish, always getting in a bit of trouble. When a teacher turned around, I’d be the one they saw. We all remember that time in our lives, because everything is so important. We see things so passionately. I tried to bring that sense of justice and injustice to Kiri.”
Keenly aware that Alien made her a role model for women, Weaver tries to choose projects that are “close to my heart,” she says. “Avatar: The Way of Water is very much about protecting the planet. The Good House — my family has struggled with alcohol disorder. Alcohol can bring solace and comfort, but at a certain point, we’re not able to control it. Call Jane is unfortunately newly relevant since the U.S. Supreme Court [which struck down the Roe decision earlier this year] handed down its Ayatollah decree. That’s shocking. We have to get busy and do something about that.” And with Master Gardener, “I’m extraordinarily fortunate to play a confident woman in her 70s who still has a sex life.”
Are these films proof that Weaver’s secret career plans worked? “I don’t think I expected to have any career at this age,” she replies, laughing. “I’m astonished. These four characters are women who don’t want to be pushed aside, don’t want to shut up. Each has something to say that I care very much about. And, as my husband reminded me the other day, ‘No one was asking John Wayne to play a 14-year-old when he was in his 70s.’”
Weaver has always been physically fit — “actors have to have a lot of stamina,” she says — but Avatar: The Way of Water pushed her to new limits. The film employs cutting-edge motion-capture technology: First the actors, wearing suits studded with sensors, performed the stunts; then their characters were animated based on their movements. Because she was “determined to keep up with the kids in the cast,” Weaver undertook a regimen of burpees, parkour (a training discipline that turns the world into an obstacle course, with practitioners running, vaulting, climbing and swinging from point to point) and freediving (underwater swimming without oxygen tanks).
“One reason I love my job is that it takes me into areas I never would have foreseen,” Weaver says. “For the ocean swimming, I trained for over a year with a master freediver from Canada, Kirk Krack. I was a decent swimmer, but now I’m a much more courageous one.” Krack also taught her to hold her breath for long periods — her personal best is six-and-a-half minutes.
For me, learning that Weaver structured her career as if she were getting away with something only makes her more deliciously admirable.
“Remember, I started out in theatre, where there are great roles for women of all ages,” she says. “I’ve never lived in L.A., never subscribed to the Hollywood way of looking at women. I mean, think of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. They were great actors, but by their late 40s they were relegated to doing films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Because her parents were in show business, Weaver started with a workaday, show-must-go-on attitude that served her well. “And I haven’t asked the business to give me anything, or to make me happy,” she continues. “I believe you have to bring what you can to the business.” She’s grateful that she wasn’t so busy that she didn’t have a family. “They are my inspiration and my great support,” she says. “I’ve never felt that as strongly as I do today.”
Both of those convictions coalesce in Avatar: The Way of Water. It’s not just the most anticipated sequel to the most successful film ever made. It’s also about family — the lengths to which people will go to protect each other, and their home. “
The world is struggling so much,” Weaver says, sounding every bit as passionate and idealistic as her 14-year-old character. “But whatever our issues, at heart, I believe people will take care of each other. Regardless of our political or religious beliefs. I feel there’s a great deal of humanity in each person that isn’t being tapped right now in news reports and on the internet. Everything is highlighting the divisions between us, which are considerable, and very upsetting to me. But ultimately, I feel there is so much more that unites us, and we will come together to work things out.”
Early in her career, when I was first falling for her, Weaver would walk into a film meeting and all the producers would sit down, because she towered over them.
“Immediately, they’d reject me for any kind of love story,” she says. “It was always a strange director who would hire me. As frustrating as that sometimes was — because I would have liked to do more love stories — it also protected me from conventional films and filmmakers. So I’ve been able to play women who are on the fringe, with great commitment.
“I think that’s been a huge asset,” she sums up. “I was not normal. Nor did I want to be.”
And I couldn’t be more grateful.
A version this article appeared in the December 2022/January 2023 issue with the headline ‘Dream Weaver’, p. 38.