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

In Photo: Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in the Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 sci-fi horror film Alien.

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.”

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 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.

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?

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.

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

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.

When did you finally commit to her?

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.

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

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.

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

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 / Los Angeles Times

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