While it's to some degree an obvious and unfair comparison to draw, it's also irresistible: Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver, two classmates at Yale Drama School, who went on to redefine our perceptions of women in film in the 1980s. At school, Streep was the golden child, adored by her mentors, hailed by her peers. She stepped out of the hallowed halls of the Ivy League and right onto the stage at Lincoln Center, earning immediate approbation from the New York theatre community and propelling her into perhaps the most oft-awarded career of any living actress in Hollywood.
Meanwhile, Sigourney Weaver toiled in the shadows. Unable to win lead roles in school productions (her teachers called her "talentless"), Weaver turned her attention to comedy and cabaret. She was blessed, of course, by having the brilliant writing of fellow classmate Christopher Durang to inspire her. After Yale, Weaver auditioned and auditioned in her native Manhattan, like most young performers taking whatever jobs she could get. It wasn't until Ridley Scott cast her in his inauspicious sci-fi horror film Alien that Weaver gained recognition-but the recognition was instantaneous, as the film went on to become a box-office smash.
Fiercely powerful, lithe, and sexy, Weaver as the no-nonsense Ripley was the center around which an action movie franchise was built, four films total. To date she is the only woman to carry such a series. And outside this dark world of slavering extraterrestrials, Weaver continued to show off her comedic chops in films such as Ghostbusters and Working Girl. Yet, despite her successes, financially and critically (including Oscar noms for Aliens and Working Girl), Weaver still hadn't broken into the sphere of dramatic starring roles-despite forays into thrillers, political and otherwise, such as The Year of Living Dangerously, Half Moon Street, and Eyewitness. In Weaver's mind, she was fulfilling the prophecy of her Yale professors.
Meanwhile, by the late '80s, the chameleon-like Streep had already played her greatest roles, garnering Oscars for Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie's Choice, and nominations for The French Lieutenant's Woman, Silkwood, Ironweed, and A Cry in the Dark. Unlike Weaver, who cannot seem to hide her patrician appearance or her striking physical presence, Streep melted into each character, seemingly losing herself in each role. Come the '90s, it appeared that Weaver was destined for more light comedy and action sequels, while her Yale sister was destined for further glory.
Death and the Maiden changed all that. Ariel Dorfman's brutal character piece about a political torture survivor who turns the table on her former captor was brought to the screen by director Roman Polanski with Weaver in the emotionally distraught lead. While not a tremendous financial success, the film was well received by the critics and marked a new kind of role for Weaver-the dramatic female lead.
It's territory Weaver returned to again as the chillingly sensual yet painfully lonely Janey Carver in The Ice Storm, and recently in perhaps her most challenging performance to date as Alice Goodwin in the film adaptation of Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World. As the film's everyday mother/heroine, Weaver has finally been given the "Streep" role, and if her recent Golden Globe nomination is any indication, critics are taking notice. As Goodwin, a former city dweller trying to pass as a contented farmer's wife, Weaver must overcome the tragedy of a child's death that threatens to tear apart the central friendship in her life. Weaver delivers the kind of raw, textured performance that is at once as clearly natural as it is broadly iconic.
During this same current Oscar season, Weaver is entertaining audiences in the hilarious sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest, a far cry from the tear-jerking Map of the World (which goes into wide release on Jan. 21). Comparing this diversity to Streep's missteps into the comic genre with She-Devil and Death Becomes Her, perhaps the 1974 Yale Drama grad who can do anything isn't the one we thought.
Back Stage West: In the past five years, starting with Death and the Maiden, it seems that you've been offered more serious dramatic roles. Have you felt a shift in your career?
Sigourney Weaver: Yes, I think when I did Death and the Maiden, first of all, it was a huge dramatic part, and secondly, I studied with a new teacher Roman Polanski turned me on to-Jack Waltzer. Jack studied with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sandy Meisner, all of them, so he's sort of a living treasure of theatre. And he has his own techniques, too. Working with Jack gave me different ways of approaching a role that were much more from the gut and also gave me a new confidence.
I think I was never really a very secure actor. When I was at drama school, they told me I had no talent. So despite the fact that I always seemed to be getting as much work as everyone else, sometimes more, I used to think, Well, I'm not really an actor. Finally, I realized-being paid for it, etc.-I guess I'm an actor. But that was a long time coming.
At Yale, they had said to me, very strongly, "You're the Kay Kendall type. Do light comedies. Don't do anything serious." And I swear to you, as stupid as it is, until after my daughter was born, I never thought, Why do I continue to hear these evil voices in my ears telling me to stay away from these kinds of projects? Because largely the career I had before Death and the Maiden didn't really reflect who I was, except for Working Girl, a little bit in Ghostbusters.
And of course I was always, I thought, a very good comedienne. That was an area where I had a lot of confidence. But I had never gone after these roles that, say, Meryl Streep took, or Jessica Lange. I just thought, I'm fine over here. And suddenly I started to get offered these roles, and, with Jack's help, I just started to break through again and again. And by the time I did A Map of the World, that kind of emotional-you know, sort of throwing yourself out of a plane without a chute-had become much more natural to me.
BSW: How is this approach different from your studies at Yale?
Weaver: You know, at Yale you were taught to double-think every single gesture. For example, with every prop you used, you had to write down how you were going to use it. And you had, like, these three columns you had to make on the left-hand page of the script and all of this crap. It was so intellectual and so not what I needed. I'm more of a gut person. And the work with Jack and the roles I was getting just liberated me and gave me much more confidence.
In Map of the World, I play this character, in a wonderful ensemble of actors, who is so out there. She's so full of joie de vivre. Alice is so acerbic, so straightforward. And I felt like I was just picked up and taken to a whole new area with her. I think that the movie is very liberating to watch, whether you are a man or a woman, a husband or a wife, whatever. But I also think the character was very liberating for me personally; there's a lot more of myself in it. You know, like Alice, I am the mother of a young child. I am part of a two-profession family. It was remarkable to bring one's self to a movie that deals with real people in such a matter-of-fact, unsentimental way.
BSW: As different as these two characters are, do you see a connection between the roles of Ice Storm's Janey Carver and Alice Goodwin?
Weaver: I was thinking you were going to say Julianne Moore's character and Alice, because their friendship was one of the most accurately caught things in Map of the World-this friendship that mothers develop with other mothers when your kids play together. It's the kind of friendship you never anticipate. When you're in your 20s, you never think, That person's going to be my best friend for several years because our kids are going to be playing together all the time. But Julianne and I both loved that about this movie.
But, to your question-Janey, I think, is completely closed down and only inhabiting about a quarter of herself, whereas Alice is just front and center in her life, you know. Talk about someone who is outward and someone else who is so inward.
It's interesting, because they both have problematic marriages. But Alice is one of these people who is a confronter and is not terribly impressed with personal problems. She just doesn't take herself very seriously. Whereas, for Janey, there's nothing else in her life except getting through the day and going from one tryst to another. Janey is much sadder.
BSW: The scene in A Map of the World in which you discover the drowned child is one of those scenes where it would seem difficult to do an "as if" believably as an actress. How did you arrive at that moment?
Weaver: I didn't want to know about it. I like to be surprised as an actor, so I'll often say to the director, "I don't want to know what I'm going to see." For instance, I didn't want to see what my son looked like in Alien: Resurrection. They kept saying, "Please come over and give us any advice." And I said, "No, I want to see it when I see it."
So for the scene in Map of the World I was trying to, as Alice, have the most normal day: It was a good day, the first day of summer. The kids were downstairs. They were actually having a good time. No one was fighting. I could actually get something done. Alice is kind of a relaxed mother, in the sense that she's not a control freak at all. And so when I kind of wandered out of the house, I pictured all the places that she could be. We had toys on the other side of the house and in the front of the house they were lots of places where she could have been. The last place in the world I expected her to be was through the gate by herself, at age two, all the way down at the pond. And that was sort of the last place I went...
[Director] Scott Elliott and Seamus McGarvey, a wonderful cinematographer, based the shot around what I was doing. I rehearsed everything up to that moment. And then they did this shot where they sort of told me where I'd have to see her. But we never rehearsed it. Of course, they wanted me to walk down the hill to make sure I wasn't stepping on anything awful, but I just did all that as mechanically as possible. So when I actually was really looking for her and saw her, it was so... It was all instinct after that.
BSW: What was your first experience in theatre?
Weaver: My father [Pat Weaver] ran NBC when I was young, and he commissioned Peter Pan to be put on TV. So I remember driving-it must have been in to Queens, because we had to go through a tunnel. And I'd never been through a tunnel before. I was about six. We went through this tunnel, in which I expected water to come pouring down on us. And I got to meet Mary Martin and watch them do a number. It was "Captain Hook." I got to see the crocodile and everything. We have pictures from it, too. I'm just this little creature with these big eyes, like some sort of wombat.
BSW: Did it make things easier for you, growing up in a family so connected to the entertainment industry?
Weaver: Growing up, I was very fortunate in two ways. One, because there was a lot of talk about shows and performances and I could tell that that life was really fun. My father never came home hating his work, ever. He just loved what he was doing. And my mother had been an actress in England. But the other fortunate thing was that over the years I learned about the realities of the business from my father. My father left NBC and he tried to start a fourth network twice. He wasn't allowed to. He started the first cable television in 1963 out here in L.A., and received death threats and everything from these theatre owners, and lost everything.
But he's not a bitter person at all. That was very inspiring to me. He's the same way with everyone all the time; he doesn't have different personalities that pop up. And he's always made cracks about people who weren't particularly honest or fair. I think that was a great advantage in that even though my heart was broken at Yale I was able to keep some perspective.
I think I pretty much had a nervous breakdown at Yale, too. I didn't know it at the time, thank goodness. That would have scared me. I mean, I had no job to look forward to, like everyone else, but also I was cracking up. Luckily I didn't realize that crying for four hours every day meant that you were crazy. But from my father, I learned that business was not fair; I knew that things did not happen in any kind of logical, nice way. I didn't believe that people necessarily got what they deserved. Knowing that the business was unfair helped me.
BSW: Enjoying the kind of roles you've gotten in the last few years, do you wish you could go back and do things differently in your career?
Weaver: Not really, because I think it would be terrible to know the future. For instance, I remember I really wanted to be the lead in this movie and I didn't get the part. Instead I went off and did The Year of Living Dangerously with Peter Weir. And it turns out that that was a great experience and a wonderful film. Peter was the first director to teach me what I didn't need to worry about on film-how to relax and embrace the process. I would have had an awful experience doing that other film. It was a turkey anyway. So you can't know. You just can't know. It's such a blessing that we can't look into the future and really see what happens to us, because we'd never learn to trust ourselves and develop perseverance.
Perseverance and laughter, I think, are the two keys. And I also believe it's always better to say yes to something than to say no. Don't say no to anything. I used to say no to everything. I was such a snob, but I realize now that I was just terrified of being found out. I was also an English major, so I used to pick the script apart and if it wasn't perfect, well, then... I didn't realize at the time that a script is just a blueprint. I've since learned that.
BSW: Despite your continued work in Hollywood, you never made the move to the West Coast for an extended period of time. Why?
Weaver: Maybe it's changed, but I do know that when I first came out to L.A., I was very thrown. I'd go up for these parts-I didn't have an agent, I couldn't get an agent for years. But anyway, I'd be in these rooms with all of these other actors who were up for the role-all kinds of different roles, you know, and not just young actresses-and the way these women would talk about their work was so sad compared to New York. They'd say, "Oh, what a piece of shit this is," or "Did you read that piece of shit?" In New York, acting is a noble profession and you're treated with respect, and out here you are a piece of meat. And I was just not strong enough to do that out here. I needed the support of that tradition. That's the one thing I think that would be hard about not making it out here-making it is so much more important out here than it is in New York.
Of course, I've noticed that more and more students who come up to me or who I go and talk to, whether in L.A. or New York, are concerned about what commercial type they are and all this stuff. It's just a disaster to be thinking about that when you're studying the theatre. You should be playing roles in Jacobean drama and not even thinking about all these things.
BSW: It seems that you've made great strides in your craft in recent years, but at some point early on you must have been given some encouragement to continue working as an actor. Can you pinpoint one of those moments?
Weaver: When I left Yale, I had absolutely no expectations. But I think it was a great advantage in a way, because I had nothing left to lose. I would go into these auditions and I would think, Well, I don't know what they want, but I'm just going to play the hell out of this part for the next five minutes. And that actually got me more work than people who had been encouraged at Yale and taught to think that they were somebody.
I was so thrilled to have the freedom to audition, instead of being told that I had to play this prostitute or this old woman. I was never cast in anything good at Yale except cabaret and stuff like that with my friend Chris Durang. And you know, I used to just scour Back Stage, because I had gotten my Equity card at Yale in my last week. (I had done The Frogs by Stephen Sondheim. I was in the chorus.) So I had an Equity card. And I used to buy Back Stage every week, and I tell you it kept me going because there would always be Equity open calls and I went to absolutely every one of them.
I finally went to one open call where I auditioned for a stage manager and then I was called back. It was for this play that Ingrid Bergman was going to do. It was a juicy little part: her best friend, who has an affair with her husband. It was a really cunning little evil part, and comedy, so I knew I could do it, right?
So I went up to the New York School of Ballet-that's where the auditions were-and I walked in and Mitch Erickson, the stage manager, who I still thank on my knees every time I see him, said, "Sigourney, I'd like you to meet the director." And he brought me over to this white-haired man and said, "Sigourney, we'd like you to meet Sir John." And I said, "Hello, Sir John, so nice to meet you." And I walked up to go to the stage to do the part, and I thought, Sir John? Sir John! It was Sir John Gielgud. But I thought, Don't think about it, just do the scene. And I got the part. It was the understudy part.
I would go to these rehearsals and would see him direct everybody and he was so detailed. I kept all my notes. But what was very liberating was that Sir John Gielgud had chosen me to understudy this wonderful part, sort of the second lead. That meant so much.
We did a huge national tour. And the girl who played the part was out a lot during rehearsal, and so of course I was in there-I mean, I knew every line. I was having a ball. I know he would have let me play the part, and she was sort of ambivalent about playing it; she called me Eve Harrington for the rest of the run, because she knew I was dying to go on. There are professional understudies and then there are people who really want to go on. I never got to go on, though.
But Sir John Gielgud giving me that chance made me think, Hey, who are these schmucks at the Yale Drama School who told me I had no talent? And that was encouraging to me. I needed that.
BSW: So was there ever a time when you thought you'd give up acting?
Weaver: Definitely. But when I look back I'm so glad that I didn't give up. It took me about five years between the time I arrived in New York and when I got Alien. And during that time, I did pretty much everything. I did a soap, I did this, I did that. And I'm now really happy about that time. Of course, it was very frustrating. I always felt I had a lot to prove, particularly because I had been told that I had no talent. That really ruined my life. But I'm grateful for that time, because some of that work I did with Chris Durang and all those wonderful playwrights downtown are my favorite memories. Das Lusitania Songspiel is still the favorite thing I've ever done.
My husband [Jim Simpson] directs at the Flea Theatre. Last year he had a whole group of what we called the furballs, who in exchange for working at the theatre were getting lessons in Kabuki and all kinds of other things. And I always said to them, "Listen, enjoy this time-this is the good time. This is when you're making all kinds of good friends who will go on to do all kinds of different things in the business. These are your peers and these are the people that you are going to be working with. So really enjoy this time, Don't worry about the future." I know that's hard.
BSW: Is there any other advice you have for performers who haven't gotten their break yet?
Weaver: The best thing I ever heard, in terms of advice, was a graduation speech given by George Wolfe at the NYU Tisch School for the Arts graduation. It was so brilliant. He said early on he'd written this musical called Paradise and he'd had great hopes for it. And the day it opened was the day it closed. He looked out at all the students and said, "I'm going to tell you what your greatest teacher is, and the greatest creative tool you have in your career. It's failure. Failure will teach you all these things that you need to know." He said, "It's like standing in a huge casino and everyone has a slot machine. And you're feeding your slot machine and nothing is happening and all around you people are hitting the jackpot and getting all this stuff. And you're going, Well, I want to go over there to that machine-that's obviously a better machine than my machine.
"But," he said, "stick with your own machine. It may take you longer. But when you hit, you're still yourself." I thought that was so great. I still remember that.
You know, Meryl Streep was at school with me. And she was obviously ready for success-more than nerdy me, at least. And it was hard, because she went right from Yale into Lincoln Center-no showcases at all. But I've learned that everyone has their own timetable and that's just the way it is. Everyone has their own path. It may not be the path you want, but in the end it's better for you. BSW