Sigourney Weaver turns 70 – and reflects on a career as ‘the tall girl’

''I felt like a giant spider. I never had the confidence to ever think I could act''
Sigourney WeaverGetty Images

When she stops to think about it, Sigourney Weaver is somewhat astonished that she’s managed to earn a living as an actress, let alone be so successful.

As she celebrates her 70th birthday today, October 8, 2019, and looks back on a career that took off 40 years ago thanks to her role in the hit movie Alien, she recalls how shy she was as a child, largely due to her height.

Now around 6ft (1.82m), she was 5ft 10in (1.78m) by the time she was 11.

“I felt like a giant spider,” says Sigourney, who was christened Susan but changed her name at 13. “I never had the confidence to ever think I could act.”

When she began landing theatre roles after studying at the Yale University School of Drama alongside Meryl Streep, she was happy just to be earning.

“My only goal, frankly, was to be someone people wanted to work with again,” recalls Sigourney, the daughter of an English actress and American TV executive.

With her parents Elizabeth and Sylvester.

(Credit: Getty Images)

She was sure she’d blown her audition for sci-fi film Alien after turning up late because she’d gone to the wrong address.

Sigourney also then proceeded to tell director Ridley Scott that the script was too bleak.

“My casting director was in the corner making a face like, ‘Shut up. SHUT UP!'” she says.

But Ridley wasn’t put off, and when a bunch of secretaries at 20th Century Fox watched her screen test and told studio bosses she should get the job, her stellar career was launched.

“Thank you, ladies!” says Sigourney today.

She had no idea back then that the movie about a group of space scavengers who pick up an unwanted stowaway would be a game-changer.

“I didn’t want to do it,” she admits.

But to her “utter shock and surprise”, her portrayal of cool-headed warrant officer Ellen Ripley earned “Miss Nobody from nowhere” world-wide attention, and she hasn’t stopped working since.

She’s starred in movies such as Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest, The Ice Storm and Avatar. In 1988, she became the first person to win two Golden Globes in the same year, picking up Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress awards for Gorillas in the Mist and Working Girl.

She’s also reprised her roles in sequels to Alien, Ghostbusters and Avatar, some of her biggest movies.

Sigourney’s role as Ripley in Alien launched her career.

(Credit: Getty Images)

The actress has spent many months in New Zealand filming the next Avatar instalments (she’s playing a different character, as her original one died in the first movie) and admits it was hard doing the first one back in 2009 because it meant leaving her daughter Charlotte, then a teenager, at home in New York.

“I only have the one child so I’m probably too clingy,” says Sigourney.

“I don’t know why I don’t drive her absolutely crazy, but she couldn’t be sweeter. She seems very nice about the fact that I’m very attached to her.”

It helped that for much of Charlotte’s childhood, her dad Jim Simpson (63) – who’s been married to Sigourney for 35 years – ran a low-budget theatre, which gave him plenty of time to be around for Charlotte while her mum worked.

“In terms of what he’s given me, it’s priceless,” says Sigourney.

“If I didn’t have such a supportive husband, I couldn’t have done it. As it was, I did about one project a year. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that without him.”

The “clingy” mum with daughter Charlotte and husband Jim.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Now that Charlotte’s 29 and completing a writing degree, Jim’s been able to take on more demanding work as a film and theatre director.

He and Sigourney, who says she’s comfortable with the way she’s ageing, juggle his commitments with hers and she’s certainly showing no signs of slowing down, with plenty more job offers lined up.

“I enjoy working with younger people because I learn so much from them. And I like to bring in my own way of doing things. I’m always on time. It’s important for older actors to show you’re always prepared. And I’m getting wonderful parts.”

Sigourney suspects one of the reasons for her longevity is that she’s never really played the love interest.

“I’m a weird duck because I was never a ‘girlfriend’. I was always too tall to be the girlfriend. So I didn’t have to say goodbye to my sexual self and hello to my executive self. I’ve always played interesting people and that’s continued.”

Her mother predicted too that she’d come to terms with being tall.

“When I was younger, she always said I might not enjoy being my height now, but someday I’ll be glad,” tells Sigourney.

“She was right.”

Sigourney on filming Alien

Starring in Alien was a steep learning curve for Sigourney. Filming was challenging, she says.

“The scene where I’m floating in a white space suit watching the alien get pulled away? I remember the effects’ guys hung me up, 30 feet off the ground, and left me there while they went to lunch.”

In the famous “chest-burster” scene, the actors knew something was going to come out of John Hurt’s chest, but had no idea what it would look like.

When the creature burst out and fled across the room, thanks to tubes and pulleys, the actors were genuinely terrified.

“The cast was in shock because we were convinced it was real,” she says.

“I still don’t know how they did it.”

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