Sigour­ney Weaver on Chap­pie, gen­der bias and those Alien ru­mours

Sigour­ney Weaver is still chas­ing only the act­ing parts that in­ter­est her.She talks equal­pay and a pos­si­ble re­turn to the ‘Alien’ se­ries, with Shilpa Gana­tra

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE - Chap­pie is out on gen­eral re­lease ans is re­viewed on irish­

I’d be dis­ap­pointed if Sigour­ney Weaver was any less of a pres­ence. Dressed in clas­sic black, tow­er­ing over her pub­li­cists, with a chic bob, pearl ear­rings and di­a­mond-cut cheek­bones, she’s spent much of her 35 years on screen as the queen of sci-fi, her Yale ed­u­ca­tion trans­lated into in­trin­sic con­fi­dence when on screen, as proved in her defin­ing roles in Alien and Avatar.

Yet when Weaver of­fers out a hand and a dis­arm­ing smile, the char­ac­ters within her dis­ap­pear (as do the pub­li­cists), giv­ing way to Sigour­ney her­self: unas­sum­ing, kind and so­cially in­tel­li­gent.

She’s well aware of the pre­con­cep­tions, which have shaped her ca­reer more than she would have liked.

“I’m six feet tall, so in the be­gin­ning, when I was au­di­tion­ing, I walked into a room and and the men would sit down be­cause no one would want to look short next to me,” she says. “Maybe it’s not the case now, but back then, I re­ally feel that a lot of pro­duc­ers were cast­ing what they had grown up with as the ideal woman, and they were usu­ally pe­tite, blonde and blue-eyed. So it took a re­ally un­con­ven­tional direc­tor to think of me.

“I haven’t done as many love sto­ries as I would have liked be­cause of that; I’ve not been in a lot of con­ven­tional movies. But I’m very grate­ful for that, be­cause I wouldn’t have en­joyed them.”

In­stead, Weaver has un­der­taken bound­ary-push­ing projects. Some films ex­celled ( Go­ril­las In The Mist, The Ice Storm),

oth­ers were mixed ( Half Moon

Street, Ram­part), but her in­clu­sion is al­ways a sign of a movie’s depth.

Her lat­est project, and the rea­son we meet to­day, is Chap­pie. It’s di­rected by Neill Blomkamp ( Dis­trict 9, Ely­sium), who will re­port­edly take the reins of the Al

ien fran­chise from Ri­d­ley Scott and James Cameron. Rem­i­nis­cent of 1980s clas­sic Short Cir­cuit, but with far more guns,

Chap­pie fol­lows a sen­tient robot duped into com­mit­ting crimes by South African anti-estab­lish­ment crew Die Ant­wo­ord, no less. Weaver plays the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the com­pany whose pro­gram­mers must stop him.

It’s a sup­port­ing role – Weaver’s scenes can be counted on two hands, with enough spare fin­gers to refuse the part. Which begs the ques­tion of whether she ac­cepted it to test-run her work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Blomkamp be­fore the Aliens re­boot.

“No not at all,” she says. “I fol­low the story. Al­ways. If it’s an in­ter­est­ing story, I’ll take what­ever part I can to help tell it, so I didn’t mind that it was small. We only started talk­ing about Alien dur­ing the course of the film. It was just talk at first, then he sent on art­work and a break­down of the ba­sic story – it was one of those se­cret di­a­logues for the whole year. So it’s ex­cit­ing, but it’s still hard for me to be­lieve that it might ac­tu­ally hap­pen.”

Sci-fier’s de­light

Weaver’s def­i­nitely-maybe replies on whether she’ll re­turn as Ellen Ri­p­ley (“Neill’s for­mal com­mit­ment is a good sign; I wouldn’t do it if he wasn’t”) sug­gests that con­tracts are be­ing fi­nalised be­hind closed doors, much to the de­light of sci-fi fans.

The ground­break­ing fran­chise car­ries as much weight now as it did when it be­gan in 1979. Twenty-three years af­ter

Alien’s re­lease, it was in­ducted into the Na­tional Film Reg­istry for its his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance; more re­cently it’s a stan­dard en-

try in on­line polls of best sci-fi films, along with its se­quel, 1986’s Aliens ( Aliens 3 and Alien

Res­ur­rec­tion lag a lit­tle be­hind). “It’s a credit to the di­rec­tors,” says Weaver, re­flect­ing on its en­durance. “Ri­d­ley came up with a lot of cam­era tech­niques, which are still in­no­va­tive. He gave us a vi­sion of space as a real place: dirty and full of girlie mag­a­zines, the way I imag­ine space would prob­a­bly be. And Jim [Cameron] con­tin­ued that.”

The in­no­va­tion ex­tended to cast­ing Weaver as the lead, mak­ing her the one of the first fe­male ac­tion he­roes af­ter Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown and Linda Carter’s Won­der Woman, and ar­guably the most in­flu­en­tial.

Fast-for­ward to the present. Weaver’s 1984 hit Ghost­busters is be­ing re­booted with a fe­male cast. Jen­nifer Lawrence is the lead in the block­buster Hunger

Games se­ries. Os­car win­ner Pa­tri­cia Ar­quette used her podium to de­mand equal pay for men and women (af­ter leaked Sony doc­u­ments un­cov­ered that the fe­male stars of Amer­i­can Hus­tle were given a smaller per­cent­age of prof­its than the male stars).

Does Weaver feel like she paved the way at all? “I don’t know,” she says, rather modestly. “But I ad­mire Pa­tri­cia for us­ing her mo­ment to speak out about pay. It’s re­ally time.”

Has she been paid less than her male co-stars? “Oh, yes. The dif­fer­ence is huge. Very sig­nif­i­cant. I let my agents and lawyer worry about that,” she says, gloss­ing over the de­tails. “The truth is, we do it be­cause we love it, but it’s so patently un­fair for male ac­tors to be paid more than fe­male ac­tors. It doesn’t make any sense. They give you this hul­la­baloo about how ac­tors bring men into movie the­atres, as if ac­tresses don’t. Come on,” she scoffs. “As if Scar­lett Jo­hans­son doesn’t bring them in. Come on!”

Salary squeeze

She segues into dis­cussing the treat­ment of ac­tors more gen­er­ally, ex­plain­ing that stu­dios are squeez­ing their cast as much as pos­si­ble, re­gard­less of gen­der.

“For ex­am­ple, Marvel doesn’t give their ac­tors any par­tic­i­pa­tion un­til the film has sur­passed the ear­lier film made. So if some­one joins a Marvel film and they are sup­posed to get a tiny cut, that cut doesn’t even go into ef­fect un­til the new film has made as much – like $2 bil­lion – as the film be­fore.

“It’s all so that ac­tors don’t get money. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to pay the peo­ple who help you do a good job.”

It’s cer­tainly a grow­ing trend, with tougher com­pe­ti­tion for roles and less rev­enue in Hol­ly­wood re­bal­anc­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions. San­dra Bul­lock fa­mously cut her ask­ing price from $10 mil­lion to $5 mil­lion to se­cure the role in The Blind Side over Ju­lia Roberts. Brad Pitt has ad­mit­ted that the days of eight-fig­ure salaries are gone (“that deal’s not fly­ing th­ese days”). The trend is to sac­ri­fice up­front lump sums for a share of the movie’s earn­ings, hence Marvel’s danger­ous prece­dent.

Just as I won­der whether this frus­tra­tion re­lates to Weaver’s ne­go­ti­a­tions for Blomkamp’s

Alien se­quel – con­jec­ture, of course – she concludes the sub­ject by mak­ing the crit­i­cal link be­tween the film in­dus­try and all other in­dus­tries (as sym­pa­thy re­gard­ing ac­tors’ salaries is limited, to say the least).

“I’m glad that it’s been brought up for ac­tors, and it needs to be dis­cussed for all dif­fer­ent fields in Amer­ica, where we have so many peo­ple work­ing three jobs just to make a living,” she says. “Com­pa­nies be­lieve in pay­ing a woman with three chil­dren $8 to close the store at 9pm and re­open at 5am. It’s called ‘clopen­ing’.

“The whole schism of what cor­po­ra­tions think they should pay peo­ple on any level is so weird. Be eth­i­cal. Pay peo­ple what they need to live on.”

If only the queen of sci-fi were also queen of the world.

The truth is, we do it be­cause we love it, but it’s so patently un­fair for male ac­tors to be paid more than fe­male ac­tors. It doesn’t make any sense

Tall sto­ries ‘If it’s an in­ter­est­ing story, I’ll take what­ever part I can to help tell it.’ Above right: Weaver with Hugh Jackman in Chap­pie

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