‘Alien’ at 35: Sigourney Weaver reflects on Ridley Scott’s masterpiece

Oct. 06, 2014 | 12:07 p.m.
la ca 0908 sigourney weaver 204 Alien at 35: Sigourney Weaver reflects on Ridley Scotts masterpiece

A scene from the 1986 sequel "Aliens." (Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)

la ca 0908 sigourney weaver 205 Alien at 35: Sigourney Weaver reflects on Ridley Scotts masterpiece

A scene from the 1986 sequel "Aliens." (Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)

la ca 0908 sigourney weaver 206 Alien at 35: Sigourney Weaver reflects on Ridley Scotts masterpiece

A scene from the 1986 sequel "Aliens." (Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)

1884113 ca hcff 6 lkh Alien at 35: Sigourney Weaver reflects on Ridley Scotts masterpiece

Sigourney Weaver is the guest of honor at the 2014 Hero Complex Film Festival. (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times)

1884113 ca hcff 7 lkh Alien at 35: Sigourney Weaver reflects on Ridley Scotts masterpiece

Sigourney Weaver is the guest of honor at the 2014 Hero Complex Film Festival. (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times)

Ridley Scott’s landmark “Alien” arrived in theaters 35 years ago this year, introducing moviegoers to an actress named Sigourney Weaver. As Ellen Ripley, Weaver delivered a mesmerizing performance that catapulted her into the Hollywood spotlight and broke significant ground for women in genre.

Three decades later, Weaver notes that any message of empowerment the original film might have communicated was accidental and not an effort on Scott’s part to blaze a new trail.

“I always felt that the decision to make Ripley the survivor was not made out of any great feminist sentiment,” the Oscar-nominated actress said. “It was, ‘No one will ever guess that this girl will end up being the survivor.’ It wasn’t a statement of any kind, but he really made it work.”

Sigourney Weaver is the guest of honor at the 2014 Hero Complex Film Festival. (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times)

Sigourney Weaver is the guest of honor at the 2014 Hero Complex Film Festival in June. (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times)

Intentional or not, “Alien” set a new standard for outer space cinema, with Scott’s painterly eye capturing the planes and angles of the workaday ship the Nostromo with delicate precision, cultivating a palpable sense of claustrophobia before unleashing a nightmarish predator to stalk the vessel’s unsuspecting crew. As the gleaming ebony xenomorph claimed new victims, Weaver’s Ripley summoned reserves of courage to face down the threat — and survive.

Earlier this year, in advance of the Blu-ray release of a repackaged “Alien” anniversary edition from Fox available this week, Weaver spoke to Hero Complex about her ongoing relationship with Ripley, who has now anchored four films in the sci-fi franchise, and why the embattled heroine matters so much to so many.

Hero Complex: Do these landmark anniversaries prompt you to reflect on the importance of Ellen Ripley in a way? How has your perspective on the character changed?

A scene from "Alien." (Robert Penn / 20th Century Fox)

A scene from “Alien.” (Robert Penn / 20th Century Fox)

Sigourney Weaver: She’s a big canvas to me, and I’m always surprised by her and the connections I have with her. I was surprised every time I came back to her. I didn’t ever feel I was retracing my steps with her. … Each time she would evolve — often against her will — into a whole new situation that she had to get her arms around and come through. I always felt very engaged by the character. Because I would come back to it every few years, I would know that much more about acting on film and have that much more confidence and feel like I could bring that much more to it. But the fact that it continues to be of interest to people I think is partially because our directors were so good and because science fiction is so endlessly relevant.

HC: Do you recall your first meeting with Ridley Scott about the role?

SW: I remember all of that very well. I was a terrible snob. I didn’t want to do movies. I only wanted to do theater; I wanted to do regional theater. I almost didn’t go to the audition. I had read the script and I thought, “It’s just ‘Ten Little Indians’ and this monster.” Ridley said, “Well, what did you think?” I said, “I thought it was OK. It was a pretty bleak story, and there were some things that I thought were really hard to believe.” I could tell that the casting person in the corner, she just wanted me to be quiet because I was being critical of the script, but for Ridley, he’s such a straight shooter that I think he liked that right away.

He pulled out these drawings, [H.R.] Giger drawings, and I think some were by Carlo Rambaldi. I still to this day have never seen anything like it. I couldn’t believe you could actually make a film with these kinds of images, they were so powerful, they were so unsettling and terrifying. I don’t know what I thought about science fiction — that it was sort of “Flash Gordon” — this was on a whole different scale. I thought, gosh, I think I’d really like to be a part of that. I still hadn’t made a commitment to the character.

HC: When did you finally commit to her?

SW: That took me quite a while longer. I didn’t really make a commitment to it until after I’d gotten the part, after I’d done the screen test. Even then I was a bit skeptical of the whole thing. Once I was in that world and working with Ridley, I really liked him. I felt like he had such an eye for truth, but I still thought of it as an off-off-Broadway kind of movie, which is why I liked it — a dark little dirty movie, this cool, scary existential movie. The idea that it’s had such legs is quite extraordinary to me, but it doesn’t surprise me because I think Ridley is such an amazing director. The way he shot it, all those camera moves that he came up with on the spur of the moment, the way he shot the planet, the way he threw us all at each other, improvised a lot of it, it still feels like it’s just happened.

HC: Famously, there was a certain amount of tension on set. Was that a means to elicit a certain kind of performance?

SW: I don’t know if [Scott] did it intentionally. I think films are hard to do. They don’t have that wonderful thing that you have in the theater of telling the same story every night and you all go out and have a drink. There’s a kind of wonderful rhythm to doing a play, whereas a film is much more all over the place, much more chaotic; the material, I think, especially in science fiction, is tough material to live with month after month. It’s all about death and loss and fear. He wanted it to be real.

We never rehearsed, and we didn’t necessarily say our lines. It was often just improvised on the spot, working at a very high pitch. I think it helped me enormously because I’d never really done anything before. You kind of felt like it was life and death in front of the camera. You had no sense of any world outside the world of this story. He didn’t speak very much to us, but he would certainly tell you if he didn’t believe it. I loved working with him. He watched out for me, for her.

HC: Why do you think “Alien” and Ripley have enjoyed such cultural longevity?

SW: Even at the time it came out, a big deal was made of it because he turned that pristine notion of science fiction that we all had — probably because of Kubrick — on its head and created this real-life atmosphere with people working in space bitching about wages and hours and leave. He made space part of our world, an extension of Earth, and it was so cleverly done. Now we’re actually talking about mining in space. If anything, our world, when you look at companies like General Motors and BP, Weyland-Yutani doesn’t seem that aberrant. Unfortunately, our world seems even closer to the world of “Alien.”

— Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

[For the record. 2:55 p.m. Oct. 6: An earlier version of this post referred to Sigourney Weaver as an Oscar-winning actress. She has been nominated three times, but has never won an Academy Award.]

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Comments


30 Responses to ‘Alien’ at 35: Sigourney Weaver reflects on Ridley Scott’s masterpiece

  1. Carlos says:

    Sigourney Weaver has neer won an oscar, has been nominated 3 times but never won, so the statement is wrong.

  2. atemple2000 says:

    The best part of that movie for me was then the alien popped out of the guys chest these two gray haired old ladies sitting in front of me got up shook their heads and walked out.

  3. Laurie says:

    Sigourney Weaver ROCKS.

  4. Hubbell says:

    Sigourney Weaver won't be "laughing" when her time comes – THIS MOVIES HAS PURE EVIL IN IT !

    THE ENTIRE SCRIPT IS COMING FROM THE 'EVIL ONE', WHETHER ANYBODY REALIZES IT OR NOT!

    • Alex says:

      What sort of nonsense are you talking about? Alien is one of the finest films of the 20th century. You talk as if you still inhabit the 16th century and think electricity is "evil hocus pocus". What are you even doing on the internet? Get back to your pitchfork!

    • Rob says:

      It's funny you say that, I once read somewhere that Giger, the designer of the Alien creature, once had a dream where the devil appeared to him in person and it looked just like the Alien. Then he just drew it for the movie. hahah that just makes it more awesome to me.

    • @PandoranAge says:

      I thought Dan O'Bannon wrote it?

    • James says:

      So if you dig into the ground beneath your feet at some point you'll find "hell" and if you fly above the clouds high enough you'll get to " heaven" by your philosophy, the parental controls on your internet access needs to be reset child. Your accessing free thinking material…… log off now.

    • randallmckay says:

      It's funny how Zealots all sound alike when they're writing or talking about something — always on the edge of desperation, of fear — I think people like this are really just afraid of life, of living. Alien wasn't just about death and evil, it was about surviving that fear and evil. That's a true story.

  5. James says:

    I saw the movie on Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, VA. No less than 20 people walked out from various parts of the theatre when the alien burst out of the man’s chest. As for me, I stayed until they went looking for the alien, but found the little kitty instead. It was then I walked out!!!

  6. Alison says:

    One of my favorite movies and still scares me when I watch it. Something about the movie Alien is still just so scary to me even without today's movie technology. The darkness and suspense is just "old school" scary! Love Sigourney Weaver…amazing in everything she does.

  7. srsly lol says:

    I saw the first alien movie as a teenager when it first hit theaters.

    I went with some friends. the theater was half full.

    there was a group, 5 or 6 of 20-ish guys a few rows in front of us and when the movie started they lit up a few joints and started partying. when the alien burst out of John Hurts chest, the party guys freaked out. HARD. lol.

    I remember the ride home from the theater and no one in the car spoke a word.

  8. Christopher says:

    I absolutely loved this film. My Mother took me to SF to see Alien in 1979 and she was (as I was) completely awed by Sigourney Weaver's performance. My Mother was so psyched to see a strong female character outwit, outlive and outshine all the others. This was a big deal to see this kind of thing in 1979-I'm a Sigourney nut! She is just so tremendous. She should have won the oscar for "Gorillas in the Mist" she is just a superstar actor. The chest burster is the most terrifying thing ever invented! Love me some ALIEN!!!

  9. amanda reid says:

    I was born in Jan 79 have watched the movie, love it plus my grampa called me newt, I was six weeks prem, so I was minute and the name stuck, freaked me out once I’d watched aliens, love the franchise.

  10. Fotografen says:

    excellent article. Please do another alien more

  11. John says:

    Sigourney Weaver has one of the best voices in the world. She's up there with Dame Judi Dench.

  12. I saw it this when I was 8 in a theater and actually walked away (with my older screaming cursing me all the way back home). I was terrified for several years by this movie. The best way I found to excorcise this demon was becoming a Fan. :P. Now I´m a big Fan of Alien, Aliens and Prometheus. :)

    • C.Roskam says:

      Nice said Jorge…. I was 9 years old, going to the night cinema…. It was so heavy…
      I had nightmares for a few months, didn´t dare to tell my mom (as I was suposed to be sleeping with a friend, whose brother of 16 took us to this night cinema). After that someone told me it was just a movie, and everything was ´made´. I still wonder how I survived, but since then I never had problem with scary movies..
      By the way, the original drwaings are really awesome.
      I cannot understand how people can walk out of a movie like this. Were we in those days so much stronger than the softies nowadays?

  13. Kathy says:

    I never thought , that Ellen Ripley will be so similar to me . Hard to believe but after I saw Alien movie maaaany years ago everything changed in my life . I love this movie , I saw all next parts about Aliens And I thing , that Sigourney Weaver is absolutely fantastic in each of them .
    They made other Movies like Aliens versus Predators ( different autora And different locations ) but it was nothing compared to Real Aliens with Ellen Ripley . I wish somebody would make another Alien movie with Sigourney as Ellen Ripley showing us how she is doing after her back to Earth .
    I have some idea about this story ( i started write a script few years ago ) although probably I will never send it to anybody but……..perhaps somebody else will decide to create similar script And we all will be able to see Ripley once again in her biggest performance !!!!

    • Rishi says:

      Kathy…do you mind sending me your script? I am a scriptwriter and a budding director. I'd love to read your thoughts. A female perspective especially by someone who grew up with the films would be fascinating. Let me know.

  14. Paul says:

    It's unbelievable that's she's never won an Oscar
    Amazing actor
    There are so many terrible actors out there that have won more than one Oscar!

  15. Mike says:

    ALIEN is my second most beloved film ever (right behind 1971's The Andromeda Strain), and one of my most influential films. It showed me how movies could be done, post Star Wars. The xenomorph is not some cute little "alien", but a very intelligent, fierce, and powerful being, that broke all the rules! The visual effects are amazing, yet they are not the focal point of the movie, as we see in today's films. The story, characters, and of course, the ALIEN itself are what made the movie SO incredible! And t top it off, we get one of Jerry Goldsmith's best soundtracks! ALIEN, THE best Sci-Fi horror film ever made, and one of the best FILMS of all-time!!!

  16. lisamistry2 says:

    I first saw the movie Alien while pregnant. Not good.

  17. JASON RICHARDS says:

    SIG: BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: BRING BACK ANOTHER ALIENS:

  18. Hannah says:

    I grew up watching the Alien movies, my Mum is a huge fan and absolutely love them, I am one of the biggest sci fi geeks going and I know the alien films were a huge part of that.

    My Mum told me that when she and my Dad saw Aliens at the cinema, she had a huge Coca-Cola in her hand, and when the facehugger moved behind the glass in the jars she jumped so hard that it flew all over this woman in front of her with long blonde hair, she had to wring it out, then her boyfriend stood up, he was this huge guy with long hair and a long beard. My mum said that my Dad thought he was gonna get beaten up, he was so scared! Luckily they understood and all enjoyed the film.

  19. Bill C. says:

    Apart from "Alien", her two best roles were in "Copycat", in which she was terrific, and in "The Year Of Living Dangerously" … ditto.

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