Sigourney Weaves New Animated Tale
by Paul Fischer
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Sigourney Weaver has been a part of American film for close to three decades, starring in memorable films, from the Alien franchise, to the much-loved Dave, Gorillas in the Mist, to The Ice Storm, Galaxy Quest and recent roles in the acclaimed Girl in the Park and now as the narrator of the gentle animated film Tales of Despereaux, based on the bestselling novel. She is currently wrapping Avatar, which reteams her with Aliens director James Cameron. In this exclusive interview, Weaver talked about animation, acting and that age old question: will Ripley be resurrected?
Paul Fischer: Do you do a movie like Despereaux, Sigourney, for your kids, or for the child within you?
Sigourney Weaver: Gosh, I hadn’t thought about the child in me for a while. But I’m sure the child in me wants a Despereaux doll. They’re going to drop one off at my hotel, because I think he’s so adorable. But, I think because my daughter was getting older, I loved the whole storytelling process that happens every night. You know, no matter how tired you are, you have to come up with a story. And I actually loved Kate DiCamillo’s work, anyway. Even though my daughter was a little too old to fall in love with Despereaux, I loved reading it. And I just thought to be the storyteller in this, to be the narrator, was something I really wanted to try to do. Because I think Kate was going for a very different kind of narrator than the kind of [affects British accent] “Once upon a time, there was a little girl.” You know? So I wanted to get in there, and see what I could do with it.
PF: What different acting muscles are required of you to do a narration and make the narration interesting?
SW: Well, oddly, I think that every new acting challenge, regardless of what it is, you create new muscles. So with a narrator I’d done this series of nature programs called Planet Earth, which was fascinating. And they did not want me to sound like a science teacher. So I had to sound sort of like I was there, and that I would take care of the person watching the lions eat the elephant, because they were starving. Anyway, I got interested in being that kind of liaison between the audience and the story. And so I was delighted, because I’ve worked with Gary before, and he’s an old friend, to take it to this. And, you know, I think it was all new for me. I had to be much more who I am.
PF: And much more controlled, I would imagine. I mean, vocally, you had to be much more controlled. You had to avoid being too much or too little, right?
SW: Yeah. I know, and I’m not sure how successful I was. Except I knew it’s almost like, I know what I didn’t want it to be. And then finding what it should be for this particular story—which is quite complex, as we said different stories at different times—being the person who pulls them together and makes it work for the spectator. I felt like it was all new for me, frankly.
PF: When you came into the—normally, obviously, when actors do animation, when they do voices for animated films, they record all the voices first, and then the animators do the drawings. Now, in this case, because you’re not a character, were you privy to any footage that was completed before you narrated?
SW: Well, no, because they started with me before they had a drawing.
PF: That must have been tricky.
SW: Yes. You know, I mean, I trusted Gary to know what tone to set. And I also—the beginning of the book, which is no longer the beginning of the movie, but it’s so specific. It is something like, “Come a little closer. Take off your coat. Get comfortable. Because we’re going to be here for a while.” And it was just such a dazzling beginning, that someone was ushering you into this sort of magic room, where you were going to just be told a story. So I think that helped me enormously. And Gary kind of, again, knew—had a much better sense as a filmmaker where we were going.
PF: What message do you hope kids will get from this particular film, from Despereaux? What do you hope is the ultimate message for kids?
SW: I think there’s redemption for all of the characters. And that’s a pretty big message that things happen, things go wrong. But goodness is never extinguished. And I think my favorite message would be that mice aren’t born knowing how to cower. They have to be taught these things. And I love that. I loved his character, I loved his not knowing he was small, and not knowing he should be afraid. And he actually transforms this terrible situation that happens. And I think that’s a great message to send kids, too. That you don’t have to be like everybody else. That many times, people won’t understand what it is you want to do. And if you follow your heart and are honorable, that you can make great changes.
PF: At a time when actresses often complain that there’s never enough great roles for women, you seem to find fabulous parts the older you get. Which is really—must be really gratifying for you.
SW: Well, I’m awfully lucky. I have wonderful agents who think I can do anything. That’s different. And also, I believe—I believe that great stories, if you look at theater and if you look at literature, great stories have good parts for everybody in them. I don’t think that—I think there are more parts for men, but I certainly don’t think they’re more interesting. And there’s no question that as far as my career is concerned, my parts have gotten more interesting as I’ve gotten older.
PF: Now, I had the pleasure of seeing The Girl in the Park two years ago in Toronto, and I’m very disappointed that movies like that never get a chance to get seen.
SW: Well it’s a shame. They sold it to Harvey Weinstein, and he sold it to cable. It was a mistake. And it’s been given a proper reception elsewhere in the world. But it is a shame, because, talk about two great women’s roles and a fascinating story about women that would have definitely found a big audience. Yeah. Oh, I do, too. All I can say is that Lifetime—apparently—I think it’s Lifetime, is going to show it. And I’m going to see them, actually, this weekend. I’m going to tell them, I’m going to say, “When is it coming out, and I hope you’ll promote it.” Because I think it will be very popular with people.
PF: Your future film career is obviously shaping up to be incredibly busy. I won’t dwell too much on Avatar, but I would like to ask you what it was like reteaming with Jim Cameron after all this time.
SW: Well, you know, we picked up right where we left off. I adore him. I love working with people for whom it means everything to get it right, who have such a strong vision, and everything is about making it the best it can be. And Jim Cameron had written this script that’s so ambitious. Every creature in it is something that’s come out of his head. I mean, I’ve never encountered a script and a world that’s this unusual and exciting. And I have a great character in this, too.
PF: Did you enjoy the process?
SW: You know, it is performance-capture, where you’re leaping around in a leotard with green spots, but that’s not so bad, because it’s what I did growing up, you know. You would take an umbrella and say, “This is a sword.” And so you’re just on a bare stage, and everything is in your imagination. So, I loved all that.
PF: So it reminds you of why you wanted to become an actor in the first place.
SW: Totally. Totally. And everyone is in these absurd costumes. You absolutely stop seeing it after a while. It’s a very exciting process.
PF: Obviously I’m excited to see it, because Cameron hasn’t done a feature film for a long time. So, I guess there’s a lot of pressure on him to—but I’m sure it’ll be great.
SW: Oh, it’s going to be marvelous.
PF: Tell me what it’s like being directed by Tim Allen, whom I guess you haven’t worked with since Galaxy Quest, I would imagine?
SW: I’ve kept in touch with him. He’s a great supporter of our theatre in New York, The Flea, which really is a little greenhouse for new works. And I was delighted that he called me to play Vicky, which is such a fabulous part. It’s the part of the sister of Tim’s character, who can’t stop lying. And she’s been in prison, and she tells everyone—she doesn’t want to say anything about prison, so she tells everyone he’s been an artist-in-residence at the Louvre for three years, so their grandmother has learned French. I mean, the whole thing is crazy. And he did a great job. I think—I hear he’s quite pleased with it. I haven’t seen it.
PF: Is it refreshing for you to return to comedy? I mean, is that an area that’s—
SW: It’s my favorite thing. Comedy. Always my favorite thing. I—I did comedy, and then I did this—actually, for Lifetime, Prayers for Bobby, which is a true story about a Christian.
PF: Yeah, that sounds cheerful.
SW: Yeah. And so I guess as an actor—you know, for me, it was wild to go from a Tim Allen movie to that movie.
PF: What do you plan on doing next?
SW: Well, I’m about to work with Nic Roeg on Night Train, which is an adaptation of Martin Amis’ book, about a woman detective in St. Louis. And it’s a very dark, fascinating piece. And the character reminds me a little bit of Ripley, because she’s so forward in her—not forward in an impertinent way, but forward in her life. She’s direct. She’s so present. And it’s really going to be exciting. And I met with him. I’m a huge fan. We have Tony Richmond doing the cinematography. We’re actually shooting it in New Orleans, even though it takes place in St. Louis. And then I’m going to be doing this Gypsy Rose Lee story for HBO, based on a book called G-String Mother, written by her son, where—it starts with her still doing her act, but then it goes into the period of life after she stops stripping, and—she was an amazing woman. And so is her son, frankly. And the life they led together is a life all of us would like. [laughs]
PF: Is this a miniseries, or a TV movie?
SW: It’s a TV movie. It’s a HBO Theatrical Presentation? I don’t know what they call it. You know, I don’t know what that means. Maybe sometimes they put it in theatres, and then movies. I think it depends. So, I’m busy! [laughs]
PF: I can’t let you go without asking you the question that everybody always asks you, I know, at press junkets. But when you were working with Jim on Avatar, did the pair of you ever discuss the possibility of resurrecting Ripley in any manner, shape, or form?
SW: No, I don’t think so. You know, we talked about Aliens. It was a great experience for both of us. I think he was busy kind of recycling Terminator, because there’s a Terminator IV now. And, you know, I don’t think we have a deep, pressing need to finish the saga although it does definitely feel unfinished to me. And I think if I wanted to go and have a meeting with Jim about it, I’m sure he’d be game.
PF: So you’re not ruling out another Ripley?
SW: You know, nothing would surprise me in this business. I think it would be very hard to resurrect, because I think the character of the alien has been too exposed in those Alien vs. Predator movies, which I never saw. So, you wouldn’t be able to use that. You’d have to reinvent some of that.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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