More than 30 years since her big screen break, Sigourney Weaver talks to David Gritten about life at 60 and her upcoming role in James Cameron's highly anticipated sci-fi 3D blockbuster, Avatar. It's hard to imagine it now, as Sigourney Weaver strides resolutely across a chic Manhattan patisserie towards me, but this was a woman who, in her younger years, was plagued with low self-esteem. She lacked confidence to such a degree that she has been, as she admits, "a slow starter" in most areas of her life. Certainly it's true of her professional career; we know her now as the greatest female action hero in movie history, yet at the age of 29 she was still a complete unknown. That changed abruptly when she agreed to play Ellen Ripley in Ridley Scott's film Alien, a role that would effectively set her up for life. But even then she only accepted the part at the second request.
Now she's 60, and any self-doubt has long vanished. At 180cm, she cuts a commanding figure, and I notice the gaze of other diners, tracking her to my table. She has a clear, level gaze, a firm handshake and, it turns out later, a nice line in self-deprecating humour. The light laughter lines around her eyes confirm that she thinks too highly of herself to resort to cosmetic surgery, and her clothes - a sensible, tweedy autumn coat, a long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans tucked into boots - suggest that she no longer craves attention.
"I had a hard time as a young girl," she admits. "I was painfully shy. My mother would never tell me I was pretty. She didn't want me to become conceited. But it got to the point that I developed a real inferiority complex." By the time she was 14, Weaver had grown to almost her present height and was, in her own words, "a gauche, gawky kid". It was around this time that she changed her given name: she was born Susan Weaver, but she decided to become Sigourney, taking the name from a character in F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
She was so insecure and unhappy that her parents sent her to a therapist. And later, when the young Sigourney first expressed an interest in acting, they tried to talk her out of it. Her English-born mother, Elizabeth Inglis, was especially set against her daughter trying for a career in Hollywood: "They'd eat you alive out there," she once said. They knew a lot about the entertainment business: Weaver's father Pat was the hugely influential chairman of NBC television, and Elizabeth had been an actress; she came to America and co-starred with Bette Davis in The Letter, before giving up her career to raise her children. Weaver describes her relationship with her mother as "complex".
"She could be tough, but she was her own person. She inspired me in some ways. She was a great beauty, and she never had facelifts. She thought it was best to grow old gracefully." Like mother, like daughter. Still, the combination of therapy and leaving home helped boost her confidence. She moved to California, and gained a degree in English from Stanford, then became a Master of Fine Arts at Yale School of Drama, where she acquired a taste for stage acting. Significantly, a couple of Yale professors cast doubts on her prospects of an acting career; by then she felt strong enough to ignore them.
And of course, the past 30 years have brought her huge success: Alien and then three hit sequels; a prominent role in the two Ghost Busters films; Oscar nominations for her work in Aliens, Gorillas In The Mist and Working Girl. Now Weaver has returned to science fiction, playing a 22nd-century botanist in writer-director James Cameron's 3D sci-fi spectacular Avatar. It is reputedly the most elaborate, and at an estimated US$237 million (Dh870 million), one of the most expensive films ever made, and a film so ambitious and futuristic that it would be another 14 years before technology caught up with Cameron's vision and he could film it the way he wanted.
The much-hyped science fiction extravaganza will finally be released around the world just before Christmas, although it will be shown at the Dubai International Film Festival a few days earlier, on December 15. It has been kept tightly under wraps prior to its release, with journalists allowed just a 15-minute sneak preview of scenes from the film's first half. At this stage of her career, I'd expected Weaver to be supportive about her latest film, as actors usually are, but given her dry, ironic sense of humour and her wise, sceptical outlook about Hollywood and its ways, little more than that. Instead she turns out to be enthusiastic about Avatar, to an almost evangelical degree.
"You won't have seen anything like it," she assures me. "This film is going to change the way we look at movies. The whole movie is in 3D, even normal scenes between two people. So you feel you're in the room with these characters. You're always in the best seat in the house." It's true that Cameron's movie is ground-breaking. Set 100 years hence, its hero, paraplegic US marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is chosen to travel to an alien planet called Pandora, where he is telepathically transformed into his "avatar" - a slender, athletic creature, nearly three metres tall, blue-skinned, with a long tail and fully functioning limbs.
These avatars look like the Na'vi, Pandora's native people. The Na'vi are being colonised by humans, who have polluted Earth and are using their military might to do the same to Pandora. Jake falls in love with a Na'vi princess (Zoe Saldana) and gradually becomes opposed to his fellow colonists. Weaver plays Dr Grace Augustine, a wise mentor, guide and almost maternal influence on Jake. This is Cameron's first feature film since Titanic 12 years ago. It is undoubtedly remarkable to look at, with every scene shot in stunning 3D. The planet Pandora, blue-green in colour, looks astonishing, from its fierce creatures to its extravagant plant life. And Weaver, whether in human form, or as her three-metre tall avatar with her facial features perfectly recognisable, commands the screen.
Cameron has been preparing Avatar for a decade, and everything in the film, including the script, bears his stamp. He invented an entire language for the Na'vi, with help from linguistic experts. He created the look of Pandora, its plant life and fierce, prehistoric-looking creatures. Most remarkably, he created a revolutionary 3D camera which curves in a semicircle in front of his face and which he personally held while directing.
All this involved a new way of working for the actors in Avatar. They played their roles with a camera fitted to a kind of skull cap, which picked up every change of expression, facial tic, even the dilation of their eyeballs. They also had to wear "motion-capture suits" black leotards with white reflective spots that relayed information about their movements to banks of computers placed around the set while Cameron, holding his curved 3D camera, walked around filming them.
"All the actors loved it," Weaver says. "It was like being a kid again, putting a blanket over the kitchen table and saying: 'I'm in my castle.' It was playful, and it reminded me of working in theatre at its best." This came as a relief to Cameron: "I have to say I was nervous that she might reject the whole process," he admits. "It was interesting to see Sigourney, as an actress of great stature and 25 years' experience, coming to do this kind of work. But I think she enjoyed it."
Cameron is known as a shouter and screamer on set, a director whose relationships with actors can be combustible. But his respect for Weaver is evident and may even be tinged with fear. They go back 25 years, when he co-wrote and directed Aliens in 1986, in which Weaver starred. "Sigourney is a good person to have on your side," he reflects. "She's so smart, she speaks well on any subject and presents her ideas very clearly.
"When we worked together on Aliens, she was fairly new. She'd only done a couple of significant films, but she was very independent and wilful. Yet she can always be appealed to on the basis of logic. Though she's logical in her thought processes, as an actor she's passionate and very in touch with her emotions as well." Weaver knows of Cameron's reputation, and admits: "Working with Jim is always intense. And on Avatar, he was under the most tremendous pressure, working all hours. But he loves his actors. He picks them so carefully. And he's interested in what you have to say."
She also admires Cameron's gift for storytelling. "What's so amazing about Jim is that he doesn't write this pompous sci-fi crap. He grounds his characters. You care about them. It's all about people. The moment you first see Jake, this young man in a wheelchair, unable to walk, it breaks your heart. "Despite all the amazing technology, Avatar is an old-fashioned story, almost like one by H Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Jim says it's the movie he wanted to see when he was 14. But only now has technology advanced sufficiently for him to have written and directed it in the way he wanted."
These days Weaver lives a busy but civilised life in New York, not far from where she grew up, in an affluent part of town on the east side called Sutton Place. When we met, she was having an eventful week, celebrating her 60th birthday and her 25th wedding anniversary. Her husband, Jim Simpson, is the artistic director of a small off-off-Broadway theatre named the Flea, which consists of two stages in a converted downtown factory. "If you're not doing anything else, do you want to come along tonight?" she asks enthusiastically.
She and Simpson help subsidise the theatre by commissioning playwrights to develop new work there. Weaver even lends her acting talent to the Flea, and has appeared in two productions in its larger theatre, which seats all of 74 people. Simpson is a highly regarded director, and she says of him fondly: "He is the most interesting man I know." Their daughter Charlotte, 19, has left home and is in her second year of college. She has trod the boards at the Flea herself: "But she tells us she wants to write, she's not interested in acting," Weaver muses. "People keep asking her to audition and she says 'no'."
Weaver long ago made her peace with her mother, who died two years ago, at the age of 94. "It was just before I was due to fly off to New Zealand to shoot Avatar," she says, thoughtfully. "And it was as if she knew if she held on, I'd be thousands of miles away, worrying about her. It was a very graceful exit." Weaver now has the luxury of choosing her work, irrespective of commercial prospects. In the past decade she has starred in low-budget films with interesting scripts, some by first-time directors. In Map Of The World (1999), one of her best performances, she played a small-town mother whose world crumbles when a neighbour's child drowns on her land. She was the matriarch of a dysfunctional family in Imaginary Heroes (2004) and an autistic woman in Snow Cake (2006).
"The trouble is, those films barely got released. Almost no one saw them. The studios are moving away from material like that. These days, there's not one grown-up film a month." Still, these little, overlooked films matter to her. "I love to do stories that are about more than the people in them." Weaver insists she didn't even do Avatar just for the money; it was important to her that it also had a strong pro-environment messages. "It's a love letter to the sea, visually," she says. "Jim's fascinated by life in the deep oceans, and he's seen at first hand how the carbon dioxide in the seawater has turned acidic, and creatures in their shells are dying."
This doesn't mean that every film she embarks on has to be serious: "Not at all. For instance, I'd love to do a romantic comedy." Really? "Yes, a romance with 60 year olds. I'd like to do that."
She flashes a challenging gaze at me. "Why not?"
She may have been teasing but I wasn't inclined to argue. Weaver is not the sort of woman to let herself be browbeaten. You'd think twice before crossing swords with her; beneath her affable manner, she exudes a patrician air of authority. Her days as a young woman sorely lacking self-confidence are far behind her.
Avatar will screen at the Dubai International Film Festival on December 15 at 8pm.
1 Avatar's US release date, December 18, is the same as that of Cameron's 1997 film, Titanic. (Avatar was initially set to be released in May 2009). 2 It took Cameron two years to figure out how to perfect Avatar's final scene, which has been kept under wraps.
3 The director's work on underwater documentaries inspired the plants and animals in the film. 4 He started his first experiments with model-building and filming after watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, which took 25 years to break even. 5 He made his directorial debut with Xenogenesis, a 12-minute pilot inspired by Star Wars, which he co-wrote and directed with Randall Frakes. Raj, an engineered man, and Laurie are sent to search space for a place to start a new life cycle. Raj decides to explore the starship, where he gets into a duel with a robotic cleaner. To fund it, Cameron collected US$20,000 from a group of dentists. You can watch it on Google Videos.
6 Studio executives of The Terminator, another movie written and directed by Cameron, initially wanted OJ Simpson to play the Terminator role. 7 On the set of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, crew members made T-shirts that read "You Can't Scare Me: I Work for Jim Cameron". 8 Ubisoft, the software company developing James Cameron's Avatar: The Game, has shrouded its work on the project in so much mystery that the Montreal headquarters where the game was produced is nicknamed the "bunker". Computers in the "bunker" have no internet access or USB ports.
9 Three books on Cameron's Avatar are available to buy on Amazon: James Cameron's Avatar: The Na'vi Quest, Avatar: A Confidential Report On The Biological And Social History Of Pandora and The Art Of Avatar: James Cameron's Epic Adventure. 10 www.avtr.com is a website dedicated to the world of Avatar with remarkably believable propaganda posters for Resources Development Administration, the monopoly responsible for products shipped, derived or developed from Pandora.
Nadia El Dasher