Sigourney Weaver Talks 'Avatar' Saga, #MeToo and How Sci-Fi Has Shaped Her Hopes for the World

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Sigourney Weaver

The Academy Award-nominated actress also keeps the hope alive for Neill Blomkamp's 'Alien 5.'

Among this year’s celebrity guests at Rome Film Fest, none brought out the fans like Sigourney Weaver. The groundbreaking star of films from Alien to Gorillas in the Mist to Avatar was swarmed by fans everywhere she went, even flanked by a group of men in Ghostbusters costumes on the red carpet.

The three-time Academy Award-nominated actress took a break after wrapping filming for Avatar 2 and 3 to enjoy the Italian capital. She entertained the festival audience with a “Close Encounter” talk in which she discussed her wide-ranging career.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Weaver at Rome’s Hotel de Russie to discuss what we can expect from the upcoming Avatar saga, what work she thinks the industry still needs to do around the #MeToo movement, the causes that are closest to her heart and why she hopes women will be galvanized to vote like never before in the midterm elections.

How would your character of Katherine in Working Girl be perceived today?

I think the difference would be, and I know nothing about this world except what I research, but I think what Katharine does, which was obviously bad at that time, maybe would not be such a bid deal now, because it’s sort of “whatever works.” If it’s successful, that’s enough, regardless if it’s immoral. You got to fight harder if you’re going to be playing with the big dogs. Unfortunately, the emphasis now is on who wins the race, not how they win it. That’s why I’m an actor and not an executive.

Have you seen the situation change at all for women?

What has been accomplished with #MeToo is such an important step in the battle for equality in the workplace. I think actually nowadays, women, in my opinion, do try to help each other. There’s a greater sense of sisterhood. When I was in college we really thought we would get equality in the Constitution. We’re still waiting.

What do you think needs to happen?

I’ve been working on Avatar 2 and 3 with James Cameron, and the base of his crew was so many guys he’s worked with over many years. And there are a lot of young people involved. I think one of the frustrations is that there haven’t been enough training programs to diversify the crew community, the cast community, but primarily there has to be a much bigger emphasis in the industry in bringing new people into the business.

Even if all the crews wanted to bring in a more diverse crew, more women, minorities, that hasn’t been prioritized. I think the answer is the unions and the studios need to actively start embracing that now. Everyone that I work with agrees that it would be so much better if, when you looked around the stage, it reflected what life is like in America, which is a diverse community.

Many executives are being encouraged to reimagine roles written for men as women. Ripley in Alien, of course, was written originally as a man. Do you think any role could be played by a woman?

I pretty much do. I think they should absolutely do that. I always said to writers that the secret to writing any woman character is to just write the character. Think of her as a man, and then don’t change a word. Have a woman play her. Don’t make any kind of strange scenes where she suddenly collapses into tears because, “Oh we have to make her sympathetic.” That has always been a huge problem. They’ve been told to make the women sympathetic, when of course that’s what we admire in a man. They don’t suddenly break down in a corner. It’s a huge step forward in the battle for equality, for women in general in our country, and I think #MeToo extends all around the planet. It’s very exciting. It’s overdue. It absolutely needed to happen. I have been asked a couple of questions by Italian men who I think expected me to go, “Oh, it’s horrible,” and I went, “It’s great!”

They expected you to say the #MeToo movement is horrible?

One gets the feeling that in America we all understand what it is and maybe over here they think that we’re against all romance or any kind of flirtation. What we’re against is the abuse of power… sexual exploitation towards people who are more vulnerable. It’s very clear for us in America, except for a few holdouts. I think maybe it’s not as clear here [in Italy].

Were you ever harassed as an actress?

I was very lucky because I started out in the theater working with mostly gay playwrights that I knew from drama school, and gay producers, so no one was interested in me. Then I made Alien, which was basically my first film, and no one came near me. They were so afraid I’d yank out a flamethrower, and I think I was already too old for them to take advantage of me. I’m a New Yorker, so I’m naturally suspicious. You never know, because of course you want to believe in the sort of world of equals where women are listened to. It would be very hard to guard against this ambush for any woman. I’m lucky I didn’t experience that, or if I did, I blocked the memory.

Will we ever see a Neill Blomkamp Alien 5 project?

We almost started to do it when I was working with James Cameron. But by the time we were put off by Fox, Neill had gotten so many jobs that we’d have to wait probably. I’m busy doing Avatar 4 and 5. I love working with Neill and I think he’d do a terrific job, and James Cameron really thinks it’s a great idea, so you never know. Right now, I think Neill’s got like three projects going at once.

For Avatar, you’re playing a completely different role. Is it different for each of the four film sequels?

No, it’s a continuous character. We just finished shooting two and three. We shot it in L.A. and James has announced publicly that there’s a lot of underwater work, so we learned how to free dive and we did many scenes underwater, which was challenging and kind of cool.

I’m so lucky because I always grew up near the water and I’m married to someone from Hawaii and I had learned to swim. Also, you have the best safety divers in the world. The one scary thing is sometimes you have to be weighted down to be on the bottom. Luckily, I would have a safety diver on each arm to get me back to the surface. I was grateful for that, because otherwise I would still be there.

There’s no relationship to your past character?

No, not really.

Do the four sequels play as one story together?

It’s kind of one story. They’re all independent. It works without four and five, but it really is a big saga.

Why do you think the new Avatar films will change the cinema experience?

I think that because the water becomes another world. The scripts are amazing, and in the first one, which I love, I think he hadn’t set up a lot of things. In this one he got to tell this very personal story. They’re amazing. There’s a message to not sacrifice everything for greed and conquest. It will take all four movies to really make that message loud and clear for the whole world.

What do you say to people who deny climate change?

I don’t know anyone really. There are. A couple people I know think things are going back and forth. Obviously, they’re not reading the same publications I am. So I’ve given them a couple of publications. I think in the end there are so many reasons they don’t want to believe, because they have an agenda. Unfortunately, the one thing that should bring all of us together is not doing that. It’s a difficult situation for us. And it’s being accelerated obviously by our current administration.

What can the average person do?

I think we should all do whatever we can. I’m still horrified by all the water bottles that are all over the world. Massive plastic is floating out there. There’s so many little things you can do. I know that even if we all agreed, it still would be so difficult, mostly for people whose livelihood depends on fishing. I’m very discouraged about the oceans. I think we’ll see it there first and it’s going to be happening, as you know, much faster than what was predicted.

People are beginning, especially farmers, they know the drought in their state has now lasted 10 years. It’s not going back and forth. People in the outdoors, whatever their livelihood; they’re seeing an impact. Leadership like Jerry Brown, he’s sort of seceded and they’re just going full throttle and I admire it so much. It’s a real ray of hope.

You met Lega Nord politician Matteo Salvini here in Rome. Had you known of him before?

I’m afraid not. I met him and heard a little bit about him. I was told that he was kind of not in the center. That surprised me, because he’s a young man.

He ran on an anti-immigration platform.

That’s the issue that breaks my heart. It’s inevitable that huge numbers of people are going to try to move to a place that they can live and find food and fresh water. That’s what disturbs me, that there’s no leadership now for the environment, because we all really need to have big environmental conferences and sit down and every country be encouraged to do what it can, because the mass immigrations are just starting.

It reminds me a little of the outbreak of World War II. There was a long period where America could have accepted so many Jews when the Nazis were still letting them out, before they decided to just exterminate everyone, and we lost a year, I think, because Republicans in Congress said, “What? No, we’ll take 555,” or something like that. It’s just horrific, the stubbornness and blindness. To me, maybe I’ve done so much science fiction, I really see us as a planet. I see all these glorious different kinds of human beings, but what unites us is that we are human. We’re living in this beautiful world and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be sitting down talking about this.

Do you regret working with Roman Polanski at all, now that more accusations have come out against him?

I don’t know about more accusations. I didn’t really get a chance to read a paper frankly. No, I mean I have to say that having lived a little bit in the '70s that, obviously what he did was wrong. He admitted his guilt and pled because the judge was going to throw the book at him. But, it’s still unresolved. I have to say, looking back, and I wasn’t really in Hollywood then, but things that I would hear, it was a much different time and that’s no excuse for what he did at all, but all I’m saying is it stands out more now than it did at the time because people were desperate to be in movies and I think it’s unimaginable now for a mother to drop off a 13-year-old with someone like Roman.

The story we were telling was a very personal story. He had been the accused, he had been the victim in Poland and had been the absolutely helpless husband. So, I felt that a lot of what his feelings about this issue were going right into this film, [Death and the Maiden]. He’s changed his life. He’s doing this film about the Dreyfus affair, a very important story to tell. Apparently he’s getting some push back about that. It’s tricky but I learned a lot from Roman, and I loved the experience of telling one continuous story so that we would run the movie up until that point of the scene we were doing that day. Obviously, I think it’s exactly what #MeToo is about. As sisters and mothers and daughters, we are all aligned so that this kind of thing, putting a young girl in harm’s way, just simply wouldn’t happen.

Would you work with him again?

Yes, I think I would. To be quite honest I think I would. He’s now happily married; he has two children. I’m sure that he and the children have had some interesting conversations about it. He pled guilty. Does he regret it? I’m sure he does.

The #MeToo movement asks that we listen to those who’ve experienced sexual harassment or assault — really listen. So when Roman’s victim asks us all to move on with understanding and compassion, I choose to listen to her. 

The #MeToo movement has also brought attention to how difficult it is to prosecute sexual assault crimes. How do you reconcile the industry supporting people who haven’t been charged in a court of law because their crimes are outside of statutes of limitations?

We all know. I think watching these powerful men fall and stay fallen and being backed up by the corporations for whatever reason, I think it’s very much on people’s minds in a very positive way. [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh was a step backwards obviously. That was impossible, for every woman that I know. It was just unreal, to see the reaction of Congress. We’re rising up, in part because of that, because we’re not listened to. The thing, whenever I see it, is believe women. That is the crux and I hope it will galvanize people to the midterms.