Actress Sigourney Weaver Talks About Redefining The Leading Lady Role

Jan 8, 2017
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to spend a few minutes with a woman who's redefined what it means to be a leading lady. Sigourney Weaver starred in the "Alien" movie franchise of the 1980s. Since then, she has cemented her icon status with memorable roles in movies ranging from "Ghostbusters" to "Avatar." She narrated the American version of the BBC's hugely popular "Planet Earth" series. Her voice is so recognizable that it was even a subplot in Pixar's "Finding Dory." And now she's in a new film which also focuses on a family on a quest of sorts, but it is very different. It's adapted from the dark children's fantasy novel by Patrick Ness. It's called "A Monster Calls," and it centers on a thoughtful, creative 12-year-old boy named Conor O'Malley who's negotiating some of the familiar turmoil of adolescence - bullying, an absent dad - while also navigating deep feelings about his mother's cancer, feelings that come to life embodied by a monster of his own imagination.

Sigourney Weaver is the grandmother struggling with her own fear and sadness in a performance that is both powerful and understated. And Sigourney Weaver is with us now from New York. Sigourney Weaver, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SIGOURNEY WEAVER: It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: So first, of course, I wanted to ask what drew you to this particular role?

WEAVER: Well, I loved Juan Antonio Bayona - the director's two movies that I had seen "The Orphanage" and "The Impossible." So it was actually the chance to work with him that I first jumped at. The role was a bit off-putting because she is not a sort of cozy, jolly grandmother. She's quite forbidding, and if you were to make this story into a fairy tale, she would be sort of like the wicked queen. So it was the chance to work with him because I thought this was the perfect marriage of a director and a story.

MARTIN: Well, let's play a scene talking about grandma who is a kind of a severe figure, and there's a scene in which Conor, who's the boy at the center of this, has to stay with her while his mom is undergoing another course of chemotherapy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MONSTER CALLS")

WEAVER: (As Grandma) When you go to the hospital, your father may not notice how tired your mom is getting. OK? So we have to make sure that he doesn't overstay his welcome, not that that's historically been a problem. No eggs. You've already had eggs twice this week. If you get hungry, there's spinach in the fridge which you can steam.

LEWIS MACDOUGALL: (As Conor) Yeah, sure.

WEAVER: (As Grandma) Don't touch anything.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about how you thought about her. And I'll just say for myself one of the things that I really admired about your performance is that it would have been easy to kind of overdo it in either direction, you know, make her a real nightmare or just to try to soften her edges. But you also really allow yourself to show the pain that she's feeling as a mother whose daughter is very ill. So talk to me a little bit, if you would, about how you thought about it.

WEAVER: Well, I guess I first looked at it - I'm very close to my daughter. And I thought to be in a situation like this when you didn't have good communication with your daughter would already be so heartbreaking. And my character is - first of all, it's rather rare when you play an older character in a movie in a supporting role to even get an arc. But in this case, the grandmother is quite forbidding in the beginning with all kinds of rules and not very empathetic to her grandson. And by the end, that armor that defines her for the first part of the story has been literally torn away practically. And you just see she's a woman who loves her daughter and is losing her and who loves her grandson and is going to make it work.

MARTIN: Conor's mother is struggling with an illness and over the course of the film, you see the toll that it takes. I think I'm thinking of the point at which it becomes really clear...

WEAVER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...That the situation is as dire. And, you know, we live in a very compartmentalized world now. A lot of people - unless you've had somebody in your own life who's been very sick, a lot of people don't know what that's like, right?

WEAVER: Yeah.

MARTIN: They don't know what it's like to be up close and have to hold somebody who's really sick and struggling, and I think that your character shows what it's like to be right there.

WEAVER: Well, that really means a lot because we had the time to do some research on our roles, and I remember Felicity Jones who plays my daughter - we went to a couple of hospices in England in the North to find out exactly what care was needed at each stage of any illness and where, you know, I wanted to know what could I do, you know, when you feel so helpless? What small things could I do that a very ill person would appreciate? And, you know, I took care of my aging parents. That was something I learned a lot from, but this was very specific. And we - Felicity and I and Bayona certainly, too - wanted to be as respectful as we could be to the specifics of the story.

MARTIN: Who do you think this movie is for? It doesn't feel like your typical holiday family fare, but who do you think it's for?

WEAVER: Well, in a way, I feel this is such an old-fashioned sort of classic movie the way our stories used to be in literature, Dickens and I guess I feel like to watch this boy conjure up this other life and this companion monster teacher to go on these journeys with, all the elements are there for - to me what is a sort of classic tale. And it's really a mix of genres as I think any great story is, so I hope that families will go. I think so many families are touched by illness and loss, and we kind of overprotect our children often, you know, we sanitize. And in this case, I think that the story is written with great respect for the point of view of the child and how hard it is and how frightened they can get if they don't have information.

MARTIN: Can I ask you while I have you about another movie?

WEAVER: OK.

MARTIN: Very different. Earlier this summer, your voice appeared in "Finding Dory." It's a surprisingly big role that runs throughout the film with all the fish and the - all the aquatic animals talking about you. How did you wind up playing yourself in it? Did you know you were going to be such a big part of the movie?

WEAVER: Well, I think not even Andrew Stanton knew I was going to be a big part of the movie. I think - I worked with Andrew on "Wall-E," and I'm a great fan. And I think when he was working on the movie, I was like a temp idea. I mean, I remember Andrew called and said, you know, I just want you to do a couple of lines, and I don't even know if it'll be in the movie.

So we met eventually, I did a couple of lines, and I don't think that he or I had any idea that they would use it so much and that it would become kind of a running gag. And, frankly, as someone who is involved with conservation, I was so flattered when the fish - when Dory said my friend, Sigourney. I was so touched by that because, even though I eat one occasionally, I do consider myself a friend of the fish.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WEAVER: I hope I am. I think it's such a marvelous movie. I was delighted to be a part of it.

MARTIN: Sigourney Weaver is an Oscar-nominated actor. Her latest film "A Monster Calls" opens this Friday. She was kind enough to speak to us from New York. Sigourney Weaver, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WEAVER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.