Sigourney Weaver spills the beans on the unexpurgated "Galaxy Quest" and explains how her work in Roman Polanski's neglected "Death and the Maiden" fueled her powerhouse acting in "A Map of the World."

Published February 3, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Sigourney Weaver has long been every movie fan's Amazon.comrade -- the woman you want at the helm when you're searching out and destroying aliens. Even as a romantic or a comic figure, she is at her best in trouble zones, whether in the revolutionary Indonesia of "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1983) or the demon-infested New York streets of "Ghostbusters" (1984). Her marvelous confident stride, her impudence and freshness, seem to demand worthy obstacles.

The first (and better) half of the romantic thriller "Eyewitness" (1981) defines the Weaver appeal. William Hurt, as an educated janitor, falls in love with Weaver, a Gotham TV news reporter, from afar, and finds himself burbling out his love for her when she interviews him for a murder story. Yet Weaver isn't threatened or put off by this potential stalker; she's touched, amused, intrigued. Where angels fear to tread, Weaver skips merrily.

But for a dozen years, a more complex Weaver persona has been emerging. Even as the valiant Dian Fossey in "Gorillas in the Mist" (1988), Weaver began to bring out the hidden torments of her heroines. And ever since "Death and the Maiden" (1994), Roman Polanski's brilliant tale of a female torture and rape victim who turns the rack on her rapist, Weaver has specialized in characters who are at odds with both their environments and themselves.

That even went for "Alien Resurrection" (1997), where Weaver's talented Ms. Ripley, our stalwart deep-space warrior, was cloned with part-human, part-alien DNA. And it goes double for her 1999 efforts, the erratically powerful "A Map of the World," in which she plays a public-school nurse and farm-community outsider who is accused of molesting a child, and the blissfully funny "Galaxy Quest," in which she plays an actress trapped in the persona of her sci-fi TV series role.

When I spoke with Weaver last week on the phone from Los Angeles (where she had attended the Golden Globes as a best actress nominee for "A Map of the World"), she agreed with the notion that she now favors characters who carry around their own internal pressure chambers. "It's interesting you put it that way," she said. "It makes a lot of sense, when you look at my roles. But actually, there's never been any rhyme or reason to my career. I've never gotten things that I've gone after. I was lucky to get to play Alice Goodwin in 'A Map of the World'; her character is one of the richest I've ever had, so surprising and irreverent and uncompromising.

"She's different from me, but she's also similar in that I have a young child, and I work, and my husband [theater director Jim Simpson] also works. It's always this juggling routine to salvage the most you can from, oh, every other day, and have everyone stay healthy and clean. Alice is always playing catch-up; she's a pig, her house is a mess. And she has a dear friend, and I have a dear friend like that, the mother of children your child plays with."

As those who've read Jane Hamilton's novel know, early on, a child of that friend drowns while in Alice's care. Alice is still in a psychological tailspin when she is accused of molesting a schoolboy whom she happens to detest. Weaver said that, reading the script (by Peter Hedges and Polly Platt), she loved "the way it was told, that it didn't go for tear-jerking scenes or traditional 'women's' scenes; it was refreshing to come across real people -- it was like a job from heaven."

I don't agree with Weaver about the finished film directed by Scott Elliott. A better title than "A Map of the World" might be "Town Without Pity." In the film, as opposed to the novel (it's a matter of tone and emphasis), it's hard to take how rudely all the rural citizens act toward her after the drowning, and how swiftly everyone judges her after she is charged with molestation. Alice's husband (David Strathairn) can't get anyone to care for their kids -- and gets spit on in a parking lot, right in front of them. What's worse, Alice's own actions grow from ambiguous to murky. In the movie, it's not made clear why, in the TV room of the county jail, she knocks herself out on a table rather than grapple with a combative fellow inmate. (In the book, she aims to protect herself from a worse beating; in the movie she appears to be still punishing herself.) And the film turns her recollection of slapping the accusing boy into some kind of repressed memory.

But Weaver's performance gives the movie spine and bite. Weaver said that for all of Alice's ups and downs and fits and starts, "She's still Alice Goodwin, still opening her big fat mouth and still a bossy-boots. You know she won't compromise and that she will stay true to herself."

I told Weaver that the intense physicality of her performance made the character's mental states real. No matter what the setting, Alice comes off oddly clumsy -- as if circumstances like her husband's yen to be a farmer have made her a literal misfit. (Near the end, she looks more at ease in city streets.) "It's so funny you would say that," Weaver replied. "I guess what I feel about the body in acting is: The body does not know that you're acting. If you say certain words and you're in a certain environment, the body doesn't know that you are faking anything. If you are relaxed -- if you've done your homework and feel open -- the body feels that a child has died or that a husband is acting oppressive. The director says 'action' and the body plays the scene. Alice just seemed to me all elbows and knees, angular and testy."

Weaver can't explain precisely how her kinetic transformations work. She does say that whenever she needs help, she asks "for a physical stimulus -- the taste and feel and odor of fried food, the smell of dirty laundry. The body doesn't know you're just doing a job. It's your most powerful tool and the one you have to be relaxed with. I was able to see Charles Aznavour perform last year, and I was thinking, any great singer is relaxed with his voice that way; that's why his music is so amazing."

Director Roman Polanski's screen version of the stage hit "Death and the Maiden" was the turning point for Weaver. "Every time I wanted to be frightened," she said, "Polanski shot a gun off and it always scared the bejesus out of me." When Polanski first approached her about being in the movie, she told him she was tempted. But she comes from a privileged New York background and didn't think she could bring enough authority to a character tortured in a Latin American country. (Weaver's dad was in charge at NBC from 1951 to 1956 and started "Today" and "The Tonight Show"; Weaver studied English at Stanford and theater at Yale.) "What I said to Roman was: I'm flattered, but let's not be naive. What do I know about being horribly abused and raped during a military dictatorship?"

Polanski suggested that she try the Method. She began working "with this great teacher named Jack Waltzer. Jack teaches in New York and Paris. He studied with Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner and Lee Strasberg -- all the big honchos of the Actors Studio and the Method -- and I think he's the only one who pulls them all together and adds his own stuff. From scene to scene he made me ask myself, what is the essence of the scene and where do I know that from?

"You start to interweave your own experience and that of the character, and they don't even have to be reasonably similar. I worked for hours every weekend and every night trying to find threads of experience I could use, and learning a whole different way of approaching my work. It was obviously fruitful for me -- I'm still using it. You do sense-memory exercises about other places, other people. Then, when it comes time to do a scene, you don't need to do the exercises. You can think of one physical thing -- you can flash on a hat -- and you're in the scene.

"If there's anything I think I could teach, it's these techniques -- and the lack of technique. I mean, there's a lot of junk you don't need to know. Recently, my husband taught some third-year theater graduate students, and of course they were all in their 20s and wanted to do Chekhov, with characters going through midlife crises. One young actress made an effort to move as if she were wearing a long dress, and it was getting in the way of her performance. As an actor, you don't have to keep proving that you're right for the part -- we'll accept you in it as long as you say the lines. If you're in period clothes, then you let the clothes do the work for you."

When I mentioned that "Topsy-Turvy" director Mike Leigh told me how important corsets were for his cast of Victorian characters, Weaver responded, "Yes, but when you put the corset on, it's on you: You don't have to act the corset being on you."

Weaver chalks up the relative lack of attention for "Death and the Maiden" to "a tiny distribution budget" and the continued backlash against Polanski for living and working in Europe rather than face sentencing in Los Angeles after pleading guilty to a statutory rape charge. "Roman is an amazing director," she said. "I was surprised when I saw his finished film. It was really my movie when we were making it, but Roman wanted a bit of 'Rashomon' in it -- he wanted you to see me through the eyes of the other characters, too, and think, 'Maybe she's right; maybe she's crazy.' And he was a genius -- a genius to do that." She feels that connects to what she admired about "A Map of the World": "The realizations are not programmed into the script. They happen as they would happen in real life, in a surprising way, and when you least expect them."

Although Weaver doesn't rely on source materials in the thick of a performance, she said that during "A Map of the World" she often felt as if
her only real company "was Alice in the book -- it was as if she were the only one who could understand me. There wasn't time to find the places in the book containing all the scenes. But there were details I absorbed subliminally -- or maybe I made the same choices that Jane Hamilton did because I was relaxed and everything was working correctly. Like when Alice runs down the hill and sees the little girl's body in the water."

Weaver summoned up her memory of acting that moment: "I remember being slightly worried because you can't find the little one. But the little one has never wandered away before so you're not that worried. Then you're looking around when you see a little pink thing in the pond, and you don't know what happens next, you just go -- you're just trying to get down the hill as fast as you can. And when I went back to the book, Jane Hamilton had described how wildly and clumsily Alice had gone flailing down the hill." ("I ran like a blind person," the book's Alice relates, "stumbling over my own heavy limbs.")

Her description of that crisis illustrates her belief that "it's best not to know what you're doing. You have to trust yourself when you're actually shooting. After all, you'll never know when you've done the right work or enough work. You just have to let it go. As one actor said a long time ago, get out of the character's way."

Weaver did spend "a few hours" in the county jail in Racine, Wis., which she described as "a very helpful, dehumanizing experience. They take your clothes and you put on something other women have worn, and it's clean but it's filled with old smells. I saw where the prisoners see their visitors, and I realized how it would feel to be in for sexually molesting children, which doesn't endear you with the population there. It was an incredibly powerful assault."

Yet one of the more dynamic surprises of the film is that Alice's brow clears and she clicks into mental alertness after she's arrested. "Well," explained Weaver, "I felt that Alice was feeling so terrible about what happened that she was punishing herself more and more -- and when she's thrown into the county jail she doesn't have to punish herself anymore because she is being punished. She continually sees the absurdity of the situation. She goes back to her cell after her hearing and her cellmate is masturbating, and her look says, 'You've got to be kidding me.' It feels good to be punished, although the real punishment is being away from her family. She reads books not because she has time on her hands, but because she doesn't want to think about what her daughters and her husband are up to. She escapes into these books. She lives entirely in her head."

Alice in "A Map of the World" is the opposite of Gwen Demarco in "Galaxy Quest," who has been forced to live entirely in her body. On the "Galaxy Quest" TV series, Gwen plays Tawny Madison, whose sole function in the crew is to talk to the computer and repeat back exactly what it says. "With comedy I'm not sure you should think about any of it," laughed Weaver. "Comedy is its own special thing. I do feel that I was blessed with a small comic gift that I was born with. I think it comes from my dad's side -- my uncle, Doodles Weaver, who was a comic with the Spike Jones band."

Weaver said it was hard, but not impossible to apply her post-"Maiden" acting lessons to Gwen Demarco. "Basically I tried to give her a showgirl background, as if she just sashayed her way into the part. But I also gave her some of my own experience. I played her as if Gwen had turned down a small role in a Woody Allen film to take this series, and has never stopped thinking, 'God, did I do the wrong thing?' Twenty years later she's still in a cat suit."

Weaver herself did a walk-on in "Annie Hall" ("thanks to the kindness of Woody Allen") after turning down a larger role in it. She couldn't bear leaving "a showcase part" playing "a multiple schizophrenic who kept a hedgehog in her vagina" in her playwright pal Christopher Durang's workshop production of "Titanic." At the same time, she and Durang were appearing in a revue they coauthored, "Das Lusitania Songspiel," as "mad Midwesterners who think they know everything about Brecht and Weill and are wonderfully earnest and get all their facts wrong."

Weaver has no regrets about turning down the Allen role; she said the other parts "were probably two of the most fun things I've ever done." But her "Galaxy Quest" character does. "I think that Gwen always wanted to give it her all," said Weaver. "And that's how she gets hurt. Even at the computer -- as far as she's concerned, she's speaking Shakespeare. It was my idea to play her as a blond. I didn't see how Gwen could play a character like Tawny Madison without being blond. I saw her as this blond beauty who gives everything to her work but has low self-esteem because everyone treats her as a sex object who can't think. She has great confidence in how she looks, not what she says."

Seeing director Dean Parisot's previous film, the underrated "Home Fries" (one of my Top Eight for '98), made Weaver want to do "Galaxy Quest." She said the whole ensemble "dove into it with relish. My favorite may be Tony Shalhoub, squinting his eyes because he's playing an Asian, but Alan Rickman is so brilliant in it, and Tim Allen proves he has a much bigger range than people give him credit for -- when he has to become a hero, he's up for it."

Weaver is delighted to be appearing in "a good-hearted picture" that has turned into a word-of-mouth hit. But she is sorry that DreamWorks trimmed some smart and sexy jokes to land it a PG rating and a family-movie ambience. "They cut out about 10 minutes, including some of my best stuff. In the outtakes, I seduce two evil guards: One of them says, 'This is sick -- it is as if to seek pleasure with an animal,' and when I suggest to the other one that maybe he could leave us alone, he says, 'No, alien slut, on my planet we share.' Then I tell the computer to shut a section block -- it squishes them -- and I ask these piles of goo, 'Do you take me seriously now?'

"Maybe in the European version it will get put back. All of us had our more sophisticated moments removed. When the rock monster attacks Tim, and Alan tells Tim to figure out its motivation, Tim says, 'It's a damn rock monster. It doesn't have motivation.' And Alan says, 'That's your problem. You were never serious about the craft.' That much is still in the film. But then there was this hilarious bit of Alan figuring the motivation out: 'I'm a rock ... I just want to be a rock ... still ... peaceful ... tranquil.'"

Weaver surmised, "DreamWorks wanted a holiday movie, a film for kids out of school. And it was made to meet a release date, so I don't think many people at the studio honestly got a chance to see the movie and think about it before releasing it. It was like we finished it and it came out the day after." Then she caught herself and laughingly asked, "Do you think they'll be mad at me for saying this?"

But caution doesn't become her. "Acting feels amazing to me now," she said, "because you literally step off a cliff and don't know what will happen. I don't think I saw it that way before 'Death and the Maiden.' Anyway, I don't have to climb mountains or jump out of planes or bungee jump. I act, and that's as far out there as I need to get. If you're doing it right, it's scary!"

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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