Sigourney Weaver is feeling reflective.
“I was so grateful last year when I found myself with time to read a novel,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, I haven’t done this in such a long time’.”
When she’s not working with James Cameron (a recent Avatar shoot involved deep sea diving while manta rays swam over her on the ocean floor), the acting legend is balancing fantasy projects with dramas more closely rooted to Earth.
She’s soon to shoot abortion drama Call Jane alongside Elizabeth Banks, and is currently on the virtual promo merry-go-round for My New York Year, about a college grad who takes an admin job working for the literary agent of the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger.
By her own admission, she is still offered “so many things” but she chooses wisely – and always has.
“I remember a moment in my early career where I was offered a job that had a lot of money and security and was a very good job, and I decided to stay in the theatre,” she recalls.
She remembers that stage role: “I was a Swedish maid who turned into the First Lady of the United States and gave birth to a full grown man who leaped over the cliff with a lot of lemmings.”
Back then, confronted with the possibility of leaving the theatre and extinguishing her worries about paying rent with her first properly paid acting gig, Sigourney chose to swerve financial security for the warm embrace of artistic integrity (and lemmings.)
“I remember that crossroads,” she recalls. “I think a lot of young people have to make that choice suddenly between security and some artistic path. Or to work with a huge company or to work with a small intimate company.”
It’s an approach which has informed the choices she’s made throughout her career, adding: “I think these are choices you have to make all your life.”
Integrity as a theme is threaded throughout My New York Year. Set in the 1990s, Sigourney leads the cast as Margaret. As the technophobic agent of literary great J.D Salinger, she tries her best to keep the world of publishing from changing to accommodate what she believes to be the pernicious new computer age.
Playing opposite her is Margaret Qualley as Joanna, the young upstart assistant to Margaret, trying to forge her own career as a writer.
“I don’t feel like Margaret, trying to keep the world continuing the way it is, at all,” she tells me.
Where Margaret is “clearly very fearful about change,” Sigourney relishes it. “I love working with young people and us continuing to find the craft together,” she says. “To me that is very exciting.”
Born in New York City in 1949, Sigourney majored in English at Stanford University where she got into theatre, graduating in 1972. She went on to study at Yale University’s School of Drama at the same time as Meryl Streep, and graduated in 1974 when she pursued theatre roles. Her big break came in 1979 with the first Alien film.
She’s a three-time Oscar-nominee, getting a Best Actress nod in 1987 for Aliens, as well as being nominated for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress in 1988 for Gorillas In The Mist and Working Girl respectively.
How does she feel about her own icon status, given she plays the protector of a literary icon in My New York Year?
“Well, I’m not putting myself in the position of J.D Salinger,” she laughs. “I shy away from that. I’m just a working actor. I love being part of ensembles.”
She adds: “What I appreciate is it probably also means that I’ve lasted a long time. And I continue to work and I’m very grateful for that. So I guess I sort of run away from the title icon – I don’t really know what it means.
She pauses, then passes on the icon title to her Aliens alter ego. “I think it just means a big poster of Ripley,” she laughs.
How about for young women today, attempting to carve out their own successful career paths as actors or otherwise?
“I think it’s harder than it was,” she ruminates, rattling off a “discouraging” statistic she heard on the news recently about how the pandemic has been a “disaster” for employment equality.
“Ultimately I believe a lot of good will come out of this year,” she proffers.
“I think for women it’s been a blow and I think it’s been a big blow for young people too, you know?” she says. “There’s no jobs for so many different occupations and everything being put on hold. I think a lot of young people have been really frustrated and I think that’s certainly true of women.”
For someone who likes to keep very busy, it’s a delightful turn of events that better dramatic roles for older women have coincided with her own advancing years.
This whole generation of women is not invisible – they don’t have to be invisible anymore.
“Finally at my advanced age, I think there’s a greater appreciation of what older women characters bring, and maybe older men characters too.”
She’s noticed a rise of “wonderful roles” that “don’t make fun of [older women].”
“Or make them caricatures,” she adds. “But just show how people do get more interesting as they get older and have more experience and become more daring and aren’t afraid of what people think of them.
“I can’t speak for young women but I think it does mean a lot to women to see that this whole generation of women is not invisible – they don’t have to be invisible anymore.”
She believes films could learn a lot about how to write strong female leads from the extended narrative arcs characters enjoy on TV.
“I would so love to shoot a seven hour movie,” she offers. “That’s what these series are, and I think in those, women gain strength.”
Alongside ambitions to tread the boards (“but I just get carried away on one film or television project after another”),Sigourney has more grand plans as she looks to keep her pace up into her eighth decade.
She plans to return to her mother’s native England she tells me, when she learns I’m an English journalist, although she won’t tell me what she’s got planned. “It’s not imminent. It’s down the road. So I’m very excited about that, because I’m in love with England.”
What she will reveal, though, is that she has a British matriarchal inspiration that buoys her as she plans to age gracefully in front of the camera. “I just think of Maggie Smith,” she laughs. “And I go, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it!’”
My New York Year is in cinemas and on all digital platforms now.