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Sigourney takes '70s by 'storm'

Scene from October 13, 1997
Web posted at: 3:49 p.m. EDT (1949 GMT)

By Jane Wollman Rusoff

NEW YORK -- Years before she battled outer space creatures, Sigourney Weaver wrestled with career choices: Should she become a marine biologist? A journalist? A number of challenging lifestyles whetted her college-student appetite. Then she realized that by being an actress, she could sample a host of different lives. And so she has -- from Shakespearean heroine Portia in "Merchant of Venice" to science-fiction Warrant Officer Ripley in "Alien" to real-life ape scientist Dian Fossey in "Gorillas in the Mist."

And so it was to explore a life unlike her own that motivated Weaver to take the role of housewife Janey Carver in "The Ice Storm" (which opens October 17), a powerful drama set in 1973, co-starring Kevin Kline and Joan Allen. In the film about wife-swapping and death in Connecticut, Weaver plays an unhappy, unfaithful suburbanite, desperately determined not to let the sexual revolution pass her by. She describes her restless character: "On the surface, she is direct and no bull. But, in fact, she's very vulnerable. Minute-to minute, she wants oblivion, escape -- sexual release. She hates driving the station wagon and doing the laundry. Everyone else is in couples therapy; she doesn't even bother. She knows that's not going to help her marriage."

Dressed in a bathrobe, the striking Weaver, 48, is in her Manhattan apartment, where she lives with husband Jim Simpson, a theater director, and their 7-year-old daughter, Charlotte. The actress is smart, funny, unaffected and, though she claims to be shy, extremely talkative.

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She made the family breakfast at 6:30, then took Charlotte to school and attended a Halloween-party planning meeting with other class moms. Now it's early evening, and before reading Charlotte some "Nancy Drew," she pauses long enough to discuss her many lives.

During the time in which "The Ice Storm" is set, just when the woman's liberation movement was really revving up, Weaver was a spunky, single Stanford University student. "Playing Janey was like going on the other side of the 'Looking Glass' and seeing how pissed off the older generation was because we were having such a good time while they were missing it all," she says. "It was interesting playing someone who was so trapped at a time when I had been so wild and free."

In "The Ice Storm," directed by Ang Lee ("Sense and Sensibility"), long-haired Weaver at her most feminine beds her neighbor's husband, played by Kline, a friend in real life. The movie was a major hit at this year's Cannes Festival.

According to Weaver, Lee calls "The Ice Storm's" conflicted adult characters "adolescents trying to work out, in a very clumsy way, their desire for sex and connection." The script, based on a tragic, scathing novel by Rick Moody, appealed to Weaver because it reminded her, she says, of Chekhov "in the way that Chekhov is comedy. It isn't dreary and depressing."

Comparing her own life in the early '70s to that of Janey Carver's, she says: "I certainly took the whole sexual revolution for granted -- that wasn't even news. I remember being very caught up in politics, outraged at what our country was doing in Vietnam."

But she was hardly neglecting her love life: Costumed as elves, Weaver and her then-boyfriend had set up housekeeping in a tree house. "We wore matching outfits that we made ourselves: red clown pants trimmed with very bright blue pom-poms and little vests, with nothing underneath," she recalls.

As for their strange domicile: "I'd been sharing a house with four other girls who were all cheerleaders. ... And I suddenly felt as weird as I actually am, so I started to climb in and out of the window of my room, instead of living in the house," Weaver says matter-of-factly. "It was only a question of time before I ended up living in the tree house full-time. We had a little hibachi up there and a mattress, but no walls. We used to climb down and steal vegetables from the Stanford Experimental Garden."

All those shenanigans, of course, occurred before she got serious about acting: at Yale Drama School and after, charging around New York in search of a job -- and well before her Tony nomination for "Hurlyburly," her Oscar nominations for "Aliens" (sequel to "Alien"), "Gorillas in the Mist" and "Working Girl," and her work in "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Ghostbusters" and "Dave."

"Alien," Weaver's first movie, put her on the map in 1979. She followed that action blockbuster with two sequels and, this November, stars in her fourth go-round as hero T. Ellen Ripley in "Alien Resurrection," with Winona Ryder. The three "Alien" films have grossed more than $350 million worldwide. Of her soldier character in this latest reprise, the actress says: "I have feelings for the alien that are very complicated. There are connections that turn out to be intimate and sensuous."

The actress was born Susan Weaver, in Manhattan, the daughter of television pioneer Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, NBC president from 1953-1955, and British actress Elizabeth Inglis. By age 11, young Weaver had grown to her adult height of 5-foot-ll. That's why she asked to be called Sigourney, a name she'd come across reading "The Great Gatsby" at 14. "I was sort of a goofus, very uncoordinated," she admits. "I felt so much bigger than a Susie or a Sue. At that age you, feel sort of crazy inside. So when I saw this name -- it was long and sort of curvy, and from the research I did, it meant 'gypsy' -- I just started using it."

Weaver's height, in fact, has dictated the direction of her career. "It's protected me from doing a lot of conventional stuff. When I'd walk in for a job, the producer's face would always cloud over because I was too tall for what he considered to be the ideal image for the part. I've been fired a couple of times for being too tall."

Yet she's always insisted on "flaunting" her rangy build, and to audition for "Alien," she wore "the highest hooker boots you've ever seen -- at least 4 inches." She laughs. Her agent had pressed her to try out for Ripley even after Weaver expressed distaste for science fiction. "I wanted to do Shakespeare ... but then I reread the script and thought, 'You know, I can do something with this part.'"

Yes, Ripley did die in "Alien 3," and it was Weaver who insisted on her demise. "I'd heard that they wanted to do 'Alien vs. Predator,' and it made me ill. How dare they even think that!"

A "dynamite" script seduced her into resurrecting Ripley, Weaver says. She'll make $11 million from the role, a figure she herself -- not a representative -- negotiated. "I had to be very clear that I would walk away if terms weren't met. I felt very strongly that I wanted to get considerably more for the fourth movie. Still, it's so much lower than any of the male action stars would get for the fourth one of anything. ... Sexism is built into the industry. No one wants to be embarrassed by paying a woman too much."

Weaver earned $33,000 for the first "Alien." "I had a terrible agent," she says.

Right now, Weaver is sticking close to home; she has spent the last year shooting both "The Ice Storm" and Showtime cable TV's "Snow White: A Tale of Terror," which was filmed in Prague. In the latter, she plays -- what else? -- the crazed, murderous stepmother. Upcoming is "Dear Rosie," a romantic comedy she's developing. "I hope it will be eccentric," she muses.

Despite A-list stardom, Weaver has tried hard to avoid an ivory-tower lifestyle. "Fame can make you very isolated. ... I have a dread of being pushed into this netherworld of celebrity -- separation from humanity," she says. So she likes to stay real: "I wash the dishes. I get the groceries. I pick up the cleaning. I'm not a good movie star. But my fear is that if I don't do all those things, I'll lose touch as an actor with what life really is."

She is, nonetheless, utterly put off by the approach of aggressive fans. She half-jokes that successful actors should be rewarded with anonymity, not celebrity. "Then you could go on the bus and study all the people, the way you used to before you were famous. Now everyone is staring at you, and you have to put on a hat and glasses and (have) a book in front of your face. When they come over and invade your space, it's frightening. I'm very shy about that. If I'm ever run down by a car, it'll be because I've been looking down at the pavement for 10 years."

© 1997, Jane Wollman Rusoff. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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