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Alien: Anatomy Of The Chestburster Scene
An oral history with Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver & John Hurt…
Part Two: Sigourney Weaver On The Alien Saga & Ellen Ripley
Our man in LA spoke to Weaver last week about the saga
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Part One: Sigourney Weaver On The Alien Saga & Ellen Ripley
The actress gives us the full story on her most iconic character

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Note: This first Sigourney Weaver interview originally appeared in Empire magazine. Check back tomorrow for a brand-new interview with the star.

What do we know about Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley? She’s worked the deep space shipping lanes from Thedus to Earth on an ore hauler called Nostromo. Back then, she was young but no violet, not easy to like, a tough-minded, by-the-book type, good in a crisis. Which is lucky as she’s spent much of her life in one. She’s a mother. Or was. Of Amanda Ripley-McClaren, who died aged 66 while her mother was sleeping. Those maternal instincts stuck with her. Ask Newt. But she died too. Ripley’s good with guns, but none too keen on them. Then she died. And made a dramatic comeback. But she wasn’t quite the same. She’s gone shoulder-length, cropped, bald and luxuriantly haired.
While the men in her life have been inconstant, turning out dead, deranged or artificial, she’s had this on-off relationship, a real love-hate thing, with a species of lethal and peculiarly glans-shaped extra-terrestrials. They’ve crossed time and space together. It could be destiny. And through every steam-clogged corridor and deathly secretion, she’s been played by Sigourney Weaver...

Part One: Sigourney Weaver On The Alien Saga & Ellen Ripley

“So this is about the Aliens?” she asks, an eyebrow arching. Time does not seem to touch Weaver. She is still unmistakably Ripley — tall, beautiful and Yale-educated smart, infused with something enigmatic as if party to dark knowledge.

Actually, it’s about Ripley. About you.

“Oh, Ripley is much bigger than what I brought to it,” she returns, waving away the idea. “She is an iconic person. But I’m grateful to her. Who knows if I would even have had a career without her? I was able to do an Alien film every few years then go off and do my thing. Periodically have this huge blockbuster which would remind people in Japan who I was.”

She’s too modest. Weaver has been vital to the Alien movies: she centres them, grounds them, gives them a Ripley who feels real. And if Ripley feels real, the science-fiction that spews around her also holds firm. Weaver/Ripley gave the entire enterprise credibility. It could, of course, have been so different. Ripley began as a standard-fit male hero and Weaver, 29 at the time, initially thought she was up for the role of screwy screamer Lambert.

“I just had a thought. What would you think if Ripley was a woman?” Ridley Scott asked a studio already discomfited by his peculiar vision for this sci-fi B-movie: all this weird biology and art. “She would be the last one you would think would survive — she’s beautiful.”

Scott had this striking woman in mind: “I wanted a good physical type, preferably tall. With authority and brains.” Perhaps he’s retrofitting, but it sure sounds like Weaver. Yet it took him forever to find her. Sets were built. Giger was scribbling hell’s own spawn over in Zürich. The studio was growing exasperated — where was she? “I think they were probably thinking of replacing me at that point,” grins Scott.

Then someone (no-one seems to remember who) suggested this girl they’d seen in an off-Broadway show for Lambert. Scott now makes the meeting sound like the first time Selznick glimpsed Vivien Leigh. “I met her and bang — there was Ripley. She was 6’ 2” in high heels, a giant. That was it.” Except it wasn’t. The studio, already reeling at a female lead, was now aghast at an unknown female lead. It forced the director to do a video test. Studio head Alan Ladd Jr. gathered the females on his floor of Fox HQ and played them the tape. To a woman they raved. For a paltry $30,000, Weaver was in. “God, that was a while ago,” she laughs.

How much of Ripley was in the original script?
Actually, I hadn’t liked the script very much. It was very spare, like a blueprint, and the rest of it was whatever we brought to it. But they were very crafty in how they cast the film — they wanted individuals. We created our own backstories.

So what was Ripley’s background?
She came from a family of fliers, people in this business. A space family rather than an army family. I also based her on a friend who runs an environmental lobbying group. Nothing fazes her, and if it does you’d never know it. Ripley was pretty inexperienced; this was the biggest job she’d had. She was by-the-book because of the inexperience. In the course of the story, she has to go from earnest infant to full-on survival mode — like an animal.

Was there much of you in there?
Of course. Some. I was very inexperienced at the time. If you watch the film again, it’s clear that if they had followed Ripley’s instincts everyone would be alive. She was right. But for a young person to say that over people like Dallas she couldn’t be sure. That is what makes Ripley human. The reason I always loved playing her is that to me she is like all of us. She takes her job seriously because lives are at risk. She wants to believe there is an order to things. The series is about her coming to terms with the fact that there is no integrity, that it’s all about greed and people are expendable. Everything she thought about the world is turned upside-down.

How much did Ridley give you? He has a reputation for not communicating much with the actors on set.
I was so callow, he kept telling me not to look in the camera, but it was right there — I was sort of learning on the run. I trusted Ridley. I trusted his eye for what was real and what was not. His concept of this world and these people was very graspable and immediate. He kinda had a tiger by the tail with all of us. But you always know where you stand with Ridley.

Part One: Sigourney Weaver On The Alien Saga & Ellen Ripley
Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Riply on set with director Ridley Scott

Another Alien legend: Early in the shoot, Scott was getting frustrated with his actors as they attempted a kitchen scene. In the middle of a take, he suddenly lurched forward and grabbed Weaver’s hand, growling, “I don’t want to give you the motivation to pick up your fucking teacup!” Weaver burst into tears and fled through corridors she would soon enough be fleeing through forever. Scott gave chase. Finally catching her, he apologised. “I’m so sorry, it’s just I wanted to say that to John Hurt, but I didn’t feel I could...” “That was sweet of him,” recalls Weaver. “Otherwise I would have worried...”

The legend goes he deliberately fostered tension among the cast so that it would feed into the crew of the Nostromo...
I would say it was more generous than that. Even for my screen test, he didn’t expect me to look at a potted plant and say, “It’s an alien!” He kept us thinking, put it that way.

Do you remember seeing it for the first time?
It must have been opening night with everybody else. First of all, you have to watch yourself, which is unpleasant. But with the added sound... that sound was so terrifying. I saw it a few years ago when they re-released it (for the 25th Anniversary). God it really held up. It really viscerally put you in the room.

Does it feel like 30 years have gone by?
You know, it feels like ten minutes ago and 30 years ago, somehow. I’m happy — I’ve been busy for most of them.

Ripley, of course, survived. She slept for 67 years, before being nudged from hyper-sleep by a salvage ship. Six years passed on Earth, as Weaver fostered a decent career on the back of this smash-hit science-fiction movie, this evil Star Wars. The last thing on her mind was that she would ever return to Ripley’s interstellar strife. Yet, in LA, producers Walter Hill and David Giler were interviewing this tyro director named James Cameron about a film project they had in mind. Instead, he pitched them a sequel to Alien. “This time it’s war,” he grinned. And Ripley was slap-bang in the middle of it.

Weaver was in France, recently married. “I suddenly got this script,” she laughs. “And this note to start shooting in three months. I had another film to do before (One Woman Or Two). I read it — Ripley was on every page! You would have thought they would have let me know earlier. It was almost like an afterthought: ‘We better send this to Sigourney.’”

But she knew the script was good. Especially the way it expanded Ripley’s character: we learned her first name, Ellen; a backstory of a lost daughter; she became a mother figure to orphaned Newt; and found the strength to confront the Alien menace again, in the none-too-sturdy embrace of a regiment of Colonial Marines. “It was this amazing tour-de-force. I mean, Ripley is quite a small part in the first movie, she becomes significant as the story progresses. In this, the whole point of the story was how this kind of hardship flushes out who people are. It had so much depth.”

Part One: Sigourney Weaver On The Alien Saga & Ellen Ripley
James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver consult on the set of Aliens

Was it easy getting back into character?
Yes, oddly easy. It was strange, I literally went from one film, four days later I was Ripley again. But I had made a few films by now, I had more confidence. I had learned not to look at the camera! I mean, this whole running idea of the Company fucking us over and Ripley getting sidelined and isolated by her experience, and the failure of everyone to believe her. To me it got very existential in a good way. She began doubting her own experience. I loved all that, it gave me a lot of room. We even used my own mother’s photographs for the 3-D picture in the film of Ripley’s daughter.

How much say did you get into the new script?
Jim was open to any suggestions I had. The biggest danger was that people tend to write her badly, like an irritated gym teacher. Jim Cameron never made those mistakes. He was able to give her authority and still illuminate this woman who was so alone. But she was also a normal woman who would have liked a regular life.

With it being another hit, were you open to further sequels?
I have always been uncomfortable with a series of movies. I hate that word ‘franchise’ — it always makes me think of French fries. What I felt each time was that we were going for broke, that this was going to be the last in the series. You can’t count on anything. At the end of each one I felt this is it, it ends here. I mean, I died in Alien³...

Part One: Sigourney Weaver On The Alien Saga & Ellen Ripley

First, though, she said no. Enough already with these endless corridors, duplicitous androids and Alien antics. “I didn't want to be making alien films all my life, as much as I loved them. I didn’t want to be part of a franchise.” Perhaps the confusion started there.

What do you do without Ripley? She was, is, essential to the make-up of the films. Fox pressed, but Weaver held firm. So scripts were written without her — in cyberpunk author William Gibson’s version, Ripley was trapped in a coma and the plot follows Hicks and Newt. Renny Harlin was set to direct a script by David Twohy that cut her entirely. It didn’t work, and Harlin walked. Eventually, they arrived at a young Kiwi director called Vincent Ward with an exotic idea of monks in space, a wooden planet and infusing the franchise with religious fervour (see LINK HERE). But Fox still wanted Ripley back. She was always the way in for the audience.

“It was kind of fascinating, this idea of an ancient world,” says Weaver, who had started to sway. “There was this one scene where an Alien grabs a monk from inside a toilet. That’s everybody’s nightmare.”

Ward, though, hadn’t worked out what to do with Ripley. With Weaver interested, arguments began at Fox and Ward walked. “I wasn’t too displeased when Vincent disappeared,” she comments. Enter David Fincher and the nightmare truly began. “The problem was we didn’t have a script,” says Weaver honestly — she has become a past master at defending Alien³. “Fox wanted to keep the schedule, and it became this mad scramble over the summer to get this script ready.” What they had was a remix of Ward’s idea. Out went the monks, in came the prisoners of Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, but they kept the religious dimension. Yet it wasn’t fully formed: the Alien took a back seat, while Newt and Hicks were dispensed with. It just became weird. Ripley even had sex. With a human.

“My notion was that the third movie would be Ripley’s acceptance of the notion of sacrifice,” claimed Fincher recently in a rare moment of candour (the director all but denies the film’s very existence). “She’d come from the periphery of the story. Anybody could be the commander as long as they stuck to their guns and had a moral compass. Then she found a maternal instinct. In the third she realises that it’s not her generation. She was going to galvanize the wretched into self-sacrifice for the future.”

“I loved the choice of David Fincher,” Weaver asserts. “I wished they (the studio) gave him more support. As soon as they hired him, they tried to stop him being Fincher, which was a mistake. I think they were in denial about what we were doing.”

Part One: Sigourney Weaver On The Alien Saga & Ellen Ripley

Was it hard to maintain a through-story for Ripley in that troubled context?
No, that was my job. She had earned the right to a normal life, yet everything had been taken away from her. No-one believed her, and she was in such a bleak world. Again.

Regardless of how people perceive it as an Alien movie, it’s a good Ripley movie. She goes to such a dark place.
(Laughing) I remember saying to Fincher, “How do you see the character of Ripley?” He just chuckled and said, “Bald.” It was hard, there was hardly a day off, and the part did affect me — it is all about death. But I also think he assembled a very compelling story and a terrifying world.

Was it true you asked for Ripley to have no guns in this one?
Yes, I felt we had gone as far as we could in the second one. I have always been a big proponent of gun control. Being so busy the year Aliens came about I skipped over a lot of stage directions (while reading the script) — one of my bad habits as an actor. I didn’t realise how often I would have to shoot and bazooka the creatures. I also felt having so many Aliens denuded their power. We needed to recover some of the mystery and alarm with what the Alien intelligence was.

Was it your idea to die?
Oh, I had to kill her. I had no choice. It also seemed to me that in terms of the story that was the appropriate ending — giving birth to an Alien. And they were talking about that Alien Vs. Predator movie. No-one was more surprised than me to find out there would be a fourth one.

Part One: Sigourney Weaver On The Alien Saga & Ellen Ripley

Indeed, Fox were already talking about this sickly commercial team-up of franchises: Alien Vs. Predator. Two for the price of one. Flicking through Variety, Weaver’s stomach turned. How could they do that to Ripley? “We had a good thing going,” she moans. “I wanted to make sure we went out with the integrity intact... I have never seen these Alien Vs. Predator things.” She almost spits in disgust. “I think the Predator beats the Alien too, which really pisses me off.” So when the call came, strange as it must have been to resurrect the dead, she took it seriously. Anyway, the idea they pitched, based on a script by a young Joss Whedon, was a thrilling rethink on Ripley. Something Weaver could really run with as an actress — a clone.

“I would only do it if something has gone wrong with the cloning process,” explains Weaver, “so that I have Alien DNA in me and my loyalties are torn.”

There was even a plan, abandoned in the creative whirlpool and rigorous cost-cutting that forever circled these movies, to give the Newborn, Ripley’s strange offspring, a version of Weaver’s face. It would have marked the fulcrum of Ripley’s evolution. Ripley as Alien.

That was quite a sea change for the character...
It was appropriate to create a Ripley you couldn’t predict — you didn’t know which way she would go. Even she didn’t know. She had all this anarchy sizzling around inside of her.

How much fun was it to play with something so amoral?
I enjoyed that. It was just fun to play a Ripley who didn’t feel the need to save everyone. If questioned, she would save herself. Things had come full circle.

In many ways, this movie demanded the most from you physically — even taking you underwater.
I don’t think they could have made it more terrifying for the actors. A bleakly dark room filled with the most hideously pointed objects and filled with water. You would have to take off your mask and swim for as long as you could. Then a diver would come and give you air, you couldn’t surface. It was about six weeks of that. I remember telling my husband, “I don’t think I can do this.” He said, “You can’t do it, but Ripley can.”

Part One: Sigourney Weaver On The Alien Saga & Ellen Ripley

Finally, another Alien legend: Clone 8, our weird other-Ripley, throws a basketball unsighted and straight through the hoop. What you see in the movie is the real thing. Weaver simply threw the ball over her own shoulder and into the net. Look at Ron Perlman’s reaction, he nearly kills the damn scene he grins so hard. “I had worked so hard, and then right as we were about to shoot, Jean-Pierre (Jeunet) said, ‘You don’t have to do the shot, we can do a special effect.’” Weaver turned to the French director, the last in the line of visionaries, and told him she was going to take the shot. Coursing Ripley, Alien-Ripley, through her veins, on the fourth take the ball glided into the net. A perfect shot. The trouble was, the filmmakers hadn’t got a perfect shot. The ball rises out and back into frame. Jeunet was disconsolate, “Everybody will think we faked it!” Weaver laughs remembering, “I simply replied, ‘They will not think we faked it, I am going to tell everybody I meet for the rest of my life about that shot...’ It was such a cool, Ripley thing to do.”

I don’t have any great need to play Ripley again,” concludes Weaver with just a whisper of regret. “I’m satisfied with what we did and that we left it where we did.” Talk has arisen of a new adventure, a prequel. Something even cloning couldn’t shuffle Ripley into. God forbid, anyone comes up with time-tripping wormholes for the weary heroine to slip through. “I’ve always felt I was part of the group that should say ‘no’ to protect the franchise. So I’ve resisted doing another.”

Surely it’s a satisfactory place to have left her — crash-landed on a future Earth. Home at last. Weaver disagrees. “I didn’t want to go to Earth at all, that felt like a mistake. The whole reason you go is to be transported to another world.” She’s partially right. The whole reason to go is to be transported there in the company of Ellen Ripley.

Does she keep any mementos from all those desperate journeys in all those dark worlds? “Oh yes, I have the costumes,” she says. “You hold on to these things to remind you they happened. I even have a baby Alien.”

She has a Chestburster? “Oh yes, in a drawer somewhere,” she laughs, that eyebrow arching again. “He’s very sweet...”

Interview by Ian Nathan

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