After over 30 years in the spotlight, Sigourney Weaver continues to create new and compelling characters. But perhaps even more central to her legacy is the generation of new, empowered women on the big screen, which were inspired by Weaver’s most iconic creation: Ellen Ripley, the survivor-turned-badass of the Alien franchise. The 67-year-old icon admits that she’s “heard from some actresses I admire very much” who have said just that (count Charlize Theron among those who have said it in public, and appreciates that place in cinematic history.
“I created Ripley at a time when women were moving into all these fields which were traditionally male, including the armed services and all kinds of other industrial jobs,” Weaver reflected during a conversation about her new show, Netflix’s The Defenders, at Comic-Con. “It was a time of great feminist passion, and I just feel like, nowadays, they’ve really started in earnest to create — in this [sci-fi] world especially — dynamic, real, compelling women heroes who are real women, not just sexy little creatures. Real women with real courage and drive and commitment, and I think it’s way overdue — and I think it’s unfortunately not happening as much on Capitol Hill.”
Weaver invokes politics quite often during the conversation, both because she is a fervent activist and because she incorporated her ideals and observations into her latest role. She plays the chief antagonist in the new Marvel team-up show, the rich and wicked Alexandra, and somewhat fittingly says she based the character on rich, conservative men she’s known in New York. Any New Yorker will recognize the tropes and trappings of this new and very dangerous socialite, from her love and support of classical music to a maniacal focus on success at any cost.
“My role models for this were all men in business, men I’ve met who are great patrons of the arts, but all their money comes from burning fossil fuels or some awful other thing,” she said, laughing ruefully. “They think they’re terrific, they love what they’re doing, they want to keep on doing it, and your objections to it because of the planet makes them giggle secretly inside. They’re just like, ‘Oh yes, pish posh.’ And I think there are a lot of real people like that, at least in our country right now, who are jumping up and down and wringing their hands in glee under Trump.”
There are plenty of rich men who fit many of those descriptions in New York, but one pair of brothers fit all of them. When Weaver talks, it’s hard not to think of David and Charles Koch, the mega-billionaire industrialists whose wealth is derived from the fossil fuel industry, bankroll far-right Republican politicians, and have their name on Lincoln Center — a building the actress frequents.
Weaver pointedly says that she doesn’t consider Alexandra a villain, in part because the character truly believes in what she’s doing, regardless of the cost to others. That’s likely more generous than she’d be to the real Koch brothers, but being able to play with big themes and ambiguous morality is part of what she loves so much about working in science fiction.
Sure, she’s created memorable roles and iconic characters in lots of other genres, from comedy (Working Girl and Ghostbusters) to drama (Gorillas in the Mist and Political Animals), but Weaver is likely best known for her sci-fi roles. Not only is she the center of the original Alien franchise, but she is also a major part of the Avatar series (she also starred in Chappie). And unlike some performers, she has no problem embracing genre as a true art form; in fact, the metaphors and fantastical universes in which it operates has allowed her to convey messages and push society in ways that straight dramas would not.
“That’s one reason why I love this space,” she said. “So much progress can be made in terms of story and hero and diversity. All kinds of issues are brought up in this space, and it doesn’t get enough credit. It’s dismissed by major critics as ‘oh, that’s science fiction’ when, in fact, we’re dealing with very important issues.”
Her approach to sci-fi is actually instructive. Any number of factors are required to make a character iconic enough to last the test of time, but as she notes, focusing on their humanity instead of getting bogged down in the details of the fiction is key to that effort. When asked what it’s been like to transition to sci-fi villains — or antagonists — after an early career filled with heroes, Weaver suggests that both the genre and battle lines are sort of irrelevant.
“I don’t approach anything in this genre any other way than I approach anything else. I know I’ve picked some very good projects, but I’m an actor from the theater, and I’ve done mostly straight stuff for a long time,” she said. “I just approach most of the stuff in this genre in the same way, and it’s my job to create a compelling, believable character in opposition to these four wonderful actors [the heroes of The Defenders]. And I think we all just went for it in terms of who we are, with a very high standard on this show in terms of the acting and writing.”
The Defenders hits Netflix on August 18.