Sigourney’s Journey: Superstar Sigourney Weaver charts her own course while relishing her favorite role: motherhood
By William Campbell
Having flexed some seriously maternal instincts as a surrogate mom to the orphaned Newt in 1986’s Aliens, and as real-life primate paladin Dian Fossey in 1988’s Gorillas in the Mist, it might come as a surprise to learn that it took a long time for Hollywood to sit up and take notice of Sigourney Weaver as having potential in parental roles.
But it didn’t surprise the established superstar.
“It’s taken me a long time to be offered roles of mothers,” Weaver said — and she understands why. After all, blasting monsters in deep space and traipsing through the rain forests of Rwanda are far cries from cooking breakfast and changing diapers in the suburbs.
“Truth is though, I know a lot more about doing dishes and getting the laundry done and balancing five things at once than I know about going into outer space,” she said.
But Hollywood certainly kept sending her out there. With two more sequels to the Alien saga that followed, one in 1993 and the other in 1997, she further cemented her status as one of the greatest stars in the history of motion pictures.
From her six-second screen debut in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in 1977 to her most recent starring roles in Heartbreakers and Company Man, her career not only reads like a who’s who of world-class costars and directors, but features a filmography whose diversity is as exceptional as it is unparalleled.
She’s conquered countless aliens as the iconic Ellen Ripley, battled agoraphobia and a serial killer as a psychiatrist in Copycat, and even been demonically possessed in Ghostbusters. She’s played Queen Isabel of Spain in 1492: Conquest of Paradise, the first lady of the United States in Dave, and a first-class bitch in Working Girl. Her performances have made us laugh in Galaxy Quest, made us cry in Gorillas in the Mist, and compelled moviegoers the world over to look closer at an array of issues, events and epochs, be it the plight of primates, the psychology of torture and revenge in Death and the Maiden, the dysfunctional 1970s in The Ice Storm, or the 1965 Indonesian revolution in The Year of Living Dangerously.
Whether it’s science fiction or comedy, costume drama or political thriller, Weaver has woven her talents and towering presence as an actor through the gamut of film genres and back again with a success that amazes her probably more than anyone else.
“I still can’t believe it,” she says. “Even that I’m sitting here in a nice apartment in New York City that I paid for is a miracle.”
But for all the matchless variety her career has wrought, and the resultant accolades: Oscar nominations for best actress and best supporting actress, an Emmy Award nomination, a Golden Globe Award — even a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — down-to-earth roles still proved somewhat elusive.
“I think it was hard for me to seen in rather everyday circumstances,” Weaver said on the phone from the everyday circumstances of the New York City apartment near the East River that she shares with her husband, theater director Jim Simpson, and their 10-year-old daughter, Charlotte. “Typically I’m cast as isolated, special women. If they have a family, it’s a family that’s been assembled, not one that they’ve had organically.”
That finally changed in 1997. In interesting Hollywood fashion, it was her role as an adulterous, bored, and child-fearing housewife in The Ice Storm that she feels led tinseltown to see of what she was capable. The irony of that “mutha” of a character establishing her as a potential big screen mother is not lost on Weaver.
Following 1997’s Alien: Resurrection, roles came in after taking a two-year break to be a real-life wife and mother to her family. While she scored another hit last year with Galaxy Quest in which she had a ball “playing an actress who doesn’t know what she’s doing in space,” she also starred in A Map of the World, based on the best-selling novel by Jane Hamilton.
Though the film’s brief theatrical release barely let it register with audiences — something Weaver attributes to poor distribution and a shortage of promotion — it met with critical acclaim. So did her performance as school nurse Alice Goodwin, whose life is turned upside down after the accidental drowning of a friend’s child she had been babysitting. Weaver wound up nominated for a Golden Globe and buzz arose of another Oscar nomination, which did not materialize.
Statuettes aside, the statuesque Weaver says she was just thrilled and proud to have the opportunity to further stretch her acting talent.
“Map was a real roller coaster — very emotional. It was wonderful for me to be asked to play a normal woman whose husband is a dairy farmer in Wisconsin. I think it’s some of my best work because I am a normal person!” she says with a laugh.
In contrast, her most recent role of Max in the comedy Heartbreakers was far from normal. “She’s a different kind of mother and probably the juiciest character I’ve ever gotten to play.”
Professing a lifelong predilection for comedy, born both from a childhood growing up as the daughter of Sylvester (Pat) Weaver (the head of NBC who created Your Show of Shows and The Tonight Show), and honed during her theatrical training at Yale, as well as through her performances in plays in New York by the likes of Christopher Durang and Wendy Wasserstein, Weaver says con artist Max was the kind of work she used to do a lot on stage: “multiple schizophrenics and the like.”
What also appealed to Weaver was Director David Mirkin’s desire not only to create a very funny “old-fashioned movie,” but to center it around a very real relationship between Max and her con artist daughter, Page, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt.
“Max and Page live in these extraordinary circumstances and have this very unusual way of making a living — they’re criminals,” she says. “It was a great opportunity for me, being the mother of a daughter, to explore this whole ‘I’m not going to let you go even though I know you should be free’ idea that comes up more and more as your children grow older.”
And Charlotte is definitely getting there.
“Ten is still an age where they talk to you about everything,” Weaver says of her daughter, “but she’s very adamant that she’s now a pre-teen.”
While Charlotte may be in a rush to grow up, the 51-year-old self-professed late bloomer certainly was never in a hurry to have a family — not necessarily because of her career.
“I first had to find Mr. Right, and I didn’t really find him until I was 34,” she said. Even after marrying Simpson, it took several more years and the role of a lifetime for the baby bug to bite her — while on location in Rwanda.
Prior to filming Gorillas in the Mist Weaver had been spending a few hours each day with gorillas so she could get accustomed to them and them to her. No trouble there.
“There was a moment when I had four baby gorillas jumping up and down on me, pulling my hair, urinating on me — grabbing whatever was in my knapsack. And I remember thinking this must be what it’s like to be a mother. I think I’d like to try this!”
After Charlotte’s birth, Weaver took a couple years off from acting. “I didn’t work at all. I didn’t want to miss anything.”
Returning to filmmaking and now continuing it on a basis that keeps her close to home, Weaver admits the extended absences were hard in the beginning. “No matter how much support you have, and no matter how wonderful you husband is — and I have a wonderful husband who’s very hands-on — there are things that only a mother can do and I think that my daughter’s been very brave letting me go off.”
But as difficult as the separations might be, Charlotte is well aware that her world-famous mom can’t forsake her calling.
“Living near the East River and always seeing tugboats going by, I joked with her that I was going to give up my career and be a tugboat captain.”
Weaver recounts her daughter’s eyes opening wide in alarm and announcing in a very solemn voice: “Mommy, you’re Sigourney Weaver. You can’t stop being an actress.”
Nor will she.
It was near the end of an interview on the television program Inside the Actors Studio when host James Lipton asked Weaver what her favorite sound was.
“My daughter’s laughter,” she replied.
And her favorite roles? Onscreen, Weaver calls A Map of the World the most fulfilling and challenging, while Gorillas in the Mist and The Year of Living Dangerously were the ones that opened her eyes the most to the world.
“And I would say Heartbreakers, as well,” she adds. “To someone who thinks of herself first and foremost a comedienne, that was the job I’d been looking for for a long time.”
Offscreen, Weaver admits being drawn toward the prospect of producing films, including a project about Gypsy Rose Lee’s life after stripping. And at the urging of her husband, she’s also considering trying her hand at directing. But in the meantime motherhood is where it’s at for her, calling it the “richest core” of her life.
“Jackie Kennedy once said, ‘If you bungle bringing up your children, it really doesn’t matter what else you do well.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”
And while Weaver admires women who’ve “done it all,” there’s no question in her mind about where her most important job lies, “and that’s at home,” she says.
“I would rather have one child than five Oscars.”
Originally published in the May 2001 issue of Orange Coast Magazine.