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90 Minutes With Sigourney Weaver

An actress with a particular talent for playing male roles. A fierce defender of OffOff Broadway theater. And a woman not afraid to tangle with the Secret Service.

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Some facts about Sigourney Weaver, gleaned over lunch at Brasserie:

She reached her full height (six feet tall) before turning 12 years old. She went to the Yale School of Drama, where she spent three years playing old women and prostitutes, and thinks it was pretty much a waste of her time. She first met her husband, a director named Jim Simpson, at a party at the Williamstown Theater Festival. She got up the courage to ask him to dance when her friend Dianne Wiest said, Go, Siggy, go! and gave her a little push.

She’s been to the White House once. It was during the Reagan administration, and an 11-year-old Saudi Arabian prince and Ghostbusters fan had requested her presence at a dinner, but was disappointed that she didn’t turn up as Zuul. While there, she tried to discuss abortion with President Reagan but was promptly whisked away by the Secret Service.

Other things: She lives in midtown, doesn’t love Broadway, and is devoted, above all other things, to the Flea, a nonprofit OffOff Broadway theater that she and her husband founded almost fourteen years ago.

She is fairly imposing in person, like a former field-hockey champion, or the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school in some earlier time, a time that involved diction and twinsets and the history of art.

At the moment, Weaver has six forthcoming films, the splashiest of which is Avatar, James Cameron’s phantasmagoric 3-D odyssey. It is the most expensive film ever madeit cost more than $230 millionand it opens on December 18. In it, Weaver plays a botanist, and also the botanist’s avatar, who is ten feet tall and blue. It would seem to be the opposite of her beloved Flea, where productions typically feature stripped-down sets. But, to Weaver, the worlds are rather close indeed. It’s not like she had to put on any of the weird stuff you’ll see her in onscreen. Just a black leotard is totally normal to me, she says of making the film, much of which was cooked up inside a computer. So far, she’s only seen it in two dimensions and is worried that her heart might not be able to handle the 3-D version. I’m going to have to try to stay calm, she says, though it seems, from her generally still demeanor, that staying calm is not really a problem for her.

Weaver is 60. Her face is elegantly, and only slightly, lined and is capable of the full range of human expressions. She does not believe that work dries up a bit with every birthday; she is, in fact, working more than ever, and she’s always worked a lot. I’m not trying to be the girlfriend, she says of the types of roles she getsor seeks. I’m just kind of game. Often the role they send me is a man’s role, written with a man in mind. But character is character; it’s not about gender. Writers write these male stereotypes, and it makes it ten times more interesting if a woman says the lines. In Jake Kasdan’s The TV Set, for example, Weaver took a man’s role and even kept the name: Lenny. Lenny had things to say on the topic of boobs. I think it’s more accurate coming from a woman, Weaver says.  I don’t think her boobs are real’ is definitely something a woman would say.

And there are other projects in the pipeline, too. There’s the film Weaver’s developing about Gypsy Rose Lee and her son, Erik Lee Preminger, during the years when she was finished taking off her clothes for a living. She’s just returned from London, where she joined the Maharaja of Jodhpur at a charity event devoted to helping victims of head trauma, and she’s recently also been to Washington. She went with the Natural Resources Defense Council to screen a documentary she narrates about the problem of ocean acidification (Climate change’s evil twin, she says). She’s hoping to teach a master class to the resident actors at the Flea (who are called bats; the terminology at the theater is all based on vermin, she explains). I’d love to tell actors about all the things they don’t need to worry about. Less is more. If you have it inside, you don’t need to show too much. People pick up on things.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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