It’s hard to believe that Sigourney Weaver, Oscar-nominated actress, sci-fi icon and doyenne of stage and screen, was once told she’d never make it in acting. ‘My teachers at Yale said I had no talent and would never get anywhere,’ she smiles ruefully, clearly quite happy that she’s proved them wrong. ‘I tried!’ she laughs. ‘I wanted to work in a flower store or a bakery, but my friends, who were mostly playwrights and directors, kept casting me in plays in New York, so I worked all the time, even though I wasn’t being paid.’
She has been working ever since and now the 59-year-old Weaver’s career has spanned nearly four decades in film. ‘I feel it’s nice to be in my age bracket because I get thrown so many different challenges,’ she explains, as she talks me through her upcoming roles. As befits an actress who has tackled just about every genre from comedy to sci-fi and drama, her latest projects are as varied as ever, with releases including Crazy on the Outside, a comedy directed by Tim Allen, through to Russell Mulcahy’s Prayers for Bobby, the true story of gay rights crusader Mary Griffith, and Avatar, the big-budget 3D blockbuster from Titanic director James Cameron.
Born Susan Alexandra Weaver in October 1949 to English actress Elizabeth Inglis and Pat Weaver, the future president of NBC, she had a gilded upbringing in New York and California. While on the surface at least, life seemed perfect, the family moved home a lot and Weaver reveals that she wasn’t a very confident child. ‘I was terribly shy, really geeky and terribly tall – as tall at 11 as I am now,’ says the actress whose 5ft 11in stature is as celebrated as her acting prowess. At the age of 14, she decided to change her name to Sigourney after a dedication in F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel This Side of Paradise, because, she has said, ‘Susan’ just didn’t seem appropriate for a girl of her height.
Literature was her first great love and, on finishing school, Weaver enrolled on an English Literature degree at Stanford University in California. She was all set to be a writer when, on a whim, she decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and try acting. ‘I had almost finished college and, on a lark, I auditioned for the Yale School of Drama,’ she says. ‘Because I got in, I thought I should pursue it.’ Pursue it she did, studying at the same time, although not in the same year, as Meryl Streep.
On graduating, Weaver spent most of the early Seventies appearing in off-Broadway shows, carving out a career as a stage actress. ‘My dream was to be part of a repertory company and play big parts in one play and little parts in another,’ she explains. ‘I loved being part of an ensemble’. She would have happily carried on working the stage had a chance audition with a maverick English director not changed her life for ever.
This year  marks the 30th anniversary of Ridley Scott’s Alien, the film that catapulted Weaver into iconic status in the role of Ellen Ripley – arguably, the first female action hero. Weaver’s portrayal not only shone new light on her acting skills, but also redefined how women were seen on screen. ‘It was a time when a lot of women in America were taking on these traditionally male jobs such as being in the army and navy, so I think it was a very timely character,’ she muses. ‘I was lucky that the script was all about character and action, as opposed to looking fantastic in an unbelievable outfit. It was such an original and innovative movie, showing space as it might be. And Ripley was a woman from that world.’
The role that would change her life wasn’t even something that she was initially interested in. ‘To be quite frank, I was a bit of a snob at the time,’ she laughs. ‘I had gone to drama school and I wanted to do a few films, but really I was a theatre person. I almost blew off the audition.’ Luckily, she didn’t and, wearing thigh-high boots, she towered over Ridley Scott and won the part. ‘When he asked me about the script, I told him that it was a very bleak picture of life and some of it was completely unbelievable. Fortunately, Ridley likes people who speak their minds, and perhaps because I didn’t really want it, they wanted me – that’s always the way it works.’
Following the phenomenal success of the film, Weaver went on to make three Alien sequels, as well as combining big Oscar-nominated movies such as Working Girl and Gorillas in the Mist with more left-field projects such as Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden and Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. More often than not, these were tough or troubled characters who carved their own way in life. ‘I’ve played a lot of women who were quite isolated,’ she concedes. ‘I always end up playing these loony women who are very much on their own.’
Despite playing tough, dramatic roles, Weaver showed a lightness of touch and great comic timing in Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest and Heartbreakers. ‘I would run a mile to do a comedy. I started out in comedy on stage and it’s my favourite thing to do,’ she says. ‘I would maybe have liked to have done comedy earlier in my career, but I think Ripley made such an impression it took a long time for someone to trust me with it.’
She has recently voiced roles in two animated films: Wall-E and The Tale of Despereaux, showcasing once again her willingness to explore a variety of roles. And despite the differences, Weaver maintains that there is a link between all of them. ‘When I look at my career, I’ve followed the same model. I don’t care how big the part is; if it’s a good story and hangs together it’s something I want to be part of, and that’s thrown me into all kinds of projects. For me, it’s all about the story. I’m not saving lives, but I feel there’s something very important about being a storyteller and to give someone a sense of what it is to be someone else.’
As an actress, Weaver has travelled the world. She values the great service and sense of calm that comes with staying in a Mandarin Oriental hotel. ‘The first time I stayed at a Mandarin Oriental hotel was in San Francisco when I was filming Copycat,’ she recalls. ‘It was such a difficult film and I was so grateful that I was able to stay in such a lovely place.’ Since then, she has visited several Mandarin Oriental properties and has always been impressed by the attention offered to guests. ‘I like the unique philosophy and way of taking care of people. It’s a wonderful reason to adventure all over the world, knowing that you have a lovely place to stay.’
As a discerning New Yorker, Weaver was exactly the kind of person Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group was looking to impress when it opened a hotel in the city. ‘It was the perfect pairing,’ she says. ‘There’s a very international population in New York, and Mandarin Oriental is a truly global brand. It really takes your breath away.’ In the near future, she hopes to visit more of the properties – work permitting, of course.
Busier than ever, Weaver says she is ‘more satisfied with what I’m being offered now than with what I’ve been offered before’ – which is amazing when you consider the length, success and sheer variety of her career. From stage to screen, she has created her own unique path – even more impressive when you think that years ago, she was told she’d never get anywhere.