In Bustle’s Q&A series 28, successful women describe exactly what their lives looked like when they were 28 — what they wore, where they worked, what stressed them out most, and what, if anything, they would do differently. This time, My Salinger Year star Sigourney Weaver talks about going from an off-off-Broadway comedy to Alien.
Sigourney Weaver showed up to the audition that changed her life a little late, wearing boots with heels so high she estimates she must have been a “foot taller” than director Ridley Scott. When he asked her thoughts on the script, she gave him notes honestly. “Luckily, Ridley loves actors who shoot from the hip,” Weaver says. And so she got the role of Ripley in Alien, and her career changed trajectories altogether.
In 1977, the then-28-year-old Weaver’s career was picking up some steam — she was gaining the kind of prominence in off-off-Broadway plays that “meant you could actually pay your rent” — but it was nothing like the acclaim that would come with Alien. The 1979 sci-fi thriller was a hit at the box office, quickly spawning sequels (and eventually prequels) and catapulting Weaver to fame.
In many ways, she began to feel like her character Ripley. “I [felt like] she's flying by the seat of her pants the whole time and hoping that she's right and she can save her crew. There's no time to think, Did I do the right thing? Because you're always on to the next horrible crisis,” Weaver says. “Looking back, I feel it’s a tremendous gift to me that I certainly didn't ever feel like the star of a movie — and I think that's appropriate because it's an ensemble movie. I felt like a survivor; at a certain point, sure.”
It was also the perfect project for an actor who wanted to learn a little bit of everything. She watched John Hurt writhe and die for a whole day, and never once felt like he was acting. Crammed into the cramped spaces of the Nostromo with Ridley Scott and the crew, Weaver had a front row seat for a crash course in feature filmmaking, something she relished despited being consistently covered in “dirt and blood and guts and slime.”
Below, Weaver, 71, looks back on shooting Alien and reflects on how the experience became her professional compass.
Take me back to 1977. How were you feeling about your life and career at 28?
I had been working steadily, but never for any money. I did get my first professional job at the Public Theater just as I was 27. At that point I was suddenly offered a lead in a TV comedy — for me comedy has been king, especially television comedy. But I turned down that job, because I realized that I loved what I did, and I loved not knowing where it would take me. I didn’t want to do the same thing possibly for five to seven years. I realized even though I was very worried about making a living, I didn’t want to trade my freedom for financial security at some point. It was such a temptation to grab a great job, but I wanted the unknown.
So that’s where you were in your career when you got the pitch for Alien?
Well, in those days no one was really pitching me anything. Ridley was given a shortlist and I was on it. I read the script, and although it’s a wonderful, terrifying script, if you don’t know Ridley Scott, you don’t know what the creature is like. So it was a little hard to understand what was so amazing about the film. If you picture a big blob of yellow Jell-O running around it’s not nearly as scary.
So what happened when you got the call for Alien?
I did a whole screen test where I did a run through of the character in the movie; Ridley had me do about seven scenes and he built a whole set to have me do it. At the same time I was trying not to get my hopes up because my chances of getting this role was very slim. There were people who were names, apparently, who wanted this part. But the writers, and maybe Ridley, insisted it had to be an unknown because they didn’t want anyone to think this person’s going to survive. What they hoped was the audience would think John Hurt’s character was going to be the hero, and when he dies it’s a tremendous rug being pulled out from under you. But no one would ever think this girl, so green behind the ears, would suddenly be the survivor and come out of it. So it was kind of a feminist [ending and] what works best for the story, to cast an unknown.
I was so lucky to be cast. I think I’m more grateful now because I realize what an unusual thing it was. At the time I was so involved I couldn’t do anything but catch my breath.
What was it like to go from theater to making a feature film like Alien?
I don’t think I had much time to think about what I was thinking. I could have been afraid, terrified. But in fact, what I thought was there was something about this film that was so unconventional with its Giger designs, and it was so special that I felt it was the continuation of off-Broadway work, it was sort of off-Broadway film. So in that sense, as an actor, I didn't feel a change of scale. I’m going from one small thing to another small thing.
Ridley didn't really enjoy rehearsal. So everyone just sort of had at it, you know, and there was this feeling for a theater actor of no net, you know? But I also felt it was good for me. I felt what I learned from Alien was just to go for it. It also felt very, very right for our film where the bottom falls out of our world almost immediately. It's just one long, visceral experience of fear and not knowing what to do.
Because I was in over my head all the time, and I knew it kind of, I think it helped my performance. I knew it was a movie, but it was also the kind of movie where you just had no time to think, which is wonderful for an actor. All you could do was listen, look, hear, you know? Just all of your senses on high alert, and get from one scene to another. When Ridley said, “Here's an explosion, you better run into this corridor,” I knew I should run because I could feel the flames licking at my uniform.
Did you feel confident as a performer then?
I was the only newcomer in that cast. Everyone was a real veteran with proven talent and a lot of experience. So I guess I felt pretty green the first week; Ridley had to ask me not to look in the camera. And I said, “Well, I'm trying not to look in the camera, but you keep putting it in front of me.” The only other person who had as little experience in film as I did was actually Ridley, it was his second film. And he joked with me that for us, it was just trial by fire. You know, we would either live or die based on this film. And I thought that was very apt.
Did you ever have a sense that Alien was going to be really special?
[At the time] there were no videotapes, no DVDs. There was no way a movie could keep in people's minds. I guess at some movie theaters they might bring it back for a Ridley Scott festival, but otherwise it really wouldn’t stay in the zeitgeist. I felt we were making a really cool movie, a really good story. I was so lucky to be part of something that good, but did I think it would last? No, I don't think I did.
It’s relatively rare for an actor to have their first film be something of such magnitude. How does it feel to have Alien as part of your acting legacy?
Well, I’m just stuck with it. I must say, when they put my audition on some of these DVDs, I can't look at them, they’re so awful. Really, I'm so lucky that the film is still somewhat relevant today, because it’s a great scare, and I happen to be in that. I think there's so many good movies that get forgotten, and somehow this dark little film [made it].
Ripley is now seen as this feminist action hero. Did you think about that or the politics of your representation at the time?
What I loved about Ripley in the first one, thanks to [producers] Walter [Hill] and David [Giler], and in the second one, thanks to Jim Cameron, was that I didn't really feel like a badass heroine ever. What I felt was like you or me in this situation, [wondering] what the f*ck you were going to do.
It was an everyman character that could be any of us. That was very unusual at the time that a character, a woman character, went through a whole film, doing difficult things by herself, a lot of the time, and didn't have some scene where she bursts into tears and cries in a corner for a while. Because I'm telling you, in those days, they really wanted women to be sympathetic. And that meant that either you had to be in a little skirt and run around, or you had to have these scenes where you cried and broke down because they thought if you didn't that you would seem unfeminine. So I was so lucky that I avoided all of that because I was doing science fiction, because I was in the future. And I was just playing this character who was put in this situation. And it was written like a man. It wasn't written like the way they wrote women in those days.
So you went from off-off-Broadway to filming this movie abroad. Did that change your life financially? What did you splurge on as a 28-year-old?
I just remember that I was paid — according to people in the business — I basically wasn’t paid very much; I think I got $30,000 or something. Honestly I thought I could live on that for the rest of my life. I was so excited to go out and just pick up the tab. I remember thinking, Oh well, now I don’t really ever have to work again. It was so much more money than I’d ever made, and that made me really happy that I could support myself.
There’s a great thing I heard George Wolfe, the director, say: Life is a casino, and you’re all at your slot machines. And everyone’s pulling the lever and you hear these jackpots going off all over the room, and you keep thinking as you put in your quarters, Nothing’s happening with my machine, there must be something wrong with my machine — in other words with you, that you’re not where you think you should be now. And what George said is, “Stick with your own machine.” Stick with what you do, and do it with all your heart, and do it with great courage and generosity, and don’t worry about that, don’t worry about success. Just stay on your path.”
I was immensely relieved to feel that I could have a career, because I wasn’t getting paid anything in off-Broadway. I didn't make another movie for two years because I really wanted to do theater, and I turned down a lot of stuff, but I think I was right to do it because it was a big change for me to make movies. It's very, very different from doing theater. And I needed to take that time and absorb what had happened. It was a big deal, and suddenly I was on the cover of Newsweek. I wasn't really sure if that was a good thing. It sounds good, but also it was sort of scary because I was so used to a modest, almost invisible life in the theater. We were like little moles working Broadway, you know, underground. That's what it felt like!
And that's why I love working off-off-Broadway. Everything I've ever done since, I think, has been inspired by the the joy and the madness of stuff I did off-off Broadway, where I played multiple schizophrenics and a little girl who kept a hedgehog in her vagina, all these crazy things I did. And I'm so lucky, because it was so much fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.