There are a lot of people responsible for making Alien into the phenomenon it became–director Ridley Scott is at the top of the list, along with screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and the artist H.R. Giger, who designed the franchise’s iconic monster. But it’s hard to imagine the film taking off the way it did without its protagonist, Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver.
Reflecting on the life-changing role during an interview on WTF With Marc Maron, Weaver admits she had trouble breaking into the film industry. Not that it bothered her much, because she was happy doing theater—and even when the Alien script came around, she “wasn’t very interested.” The original script had ten male characters, but was rewritten so that the survivor would be a woman, “because no one in their wildest dreams will think it’s going to end up being a girl.”
Weaver ended up on the shortlist of actors for the role, even though “I don’t think Fox wanted me,” she says. “I was an unknown. I think there were people with names trying to get this part.” She remembers meeting Scott in a pair of “hooker boots” (“I don’t know what kind of thing I looked like when I walked in”) and immediately trashing the story: “We had a great talk about the script that I was pretty critical of. I said, ‘Eh, it’s pretty bleak, I don’t know about this love scene, would you really get it on while this thing is running around?’ Anyway, we had a good talk.”
It doesn’t sound good, but it obviously was good—not only because Weaver was cast as the lead, but also because she was obviously right and the sex scene ended up being cut.
Still, even when filming began she didn’t have a sense that she was part of a cultural juggernaut. Instead, she pretended it was an off-Broadway production: “I did that all the time, because I thought, ‘Look, it’s not a really legitimate movie. It’s like a little dark movie over here. So I’m still in my world.’”
She did take Ripley’s journey very seriously, however, sharing a conversation about the character with co-star Ian Holm. “I remember saying to him, ‘Huh, do you think Ripley knows what she’s doing? Do you think that she thinks she’s right all these times?’ And he said, ‘Yes. I think she does know that she’s right.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think she does. I think it’s a total crap shoot, and she knows it. And she’s just got to fly by the seat of her pants, hoping’ … because I think that’s the story.”
“It’s a kind of every-man story. It’s about someone who, you know, thinks that the trip is gonna go this way, and she has this sort of manual of how things should go, you know, she’s a young ensign. And she has to give up all of that order and deal. And to me, it’s everyone’s story,” she continues. “And especially for a woman, because she’s not gonna whimper in a corner and say I need help, cause she’s gotta do it herself. Which I think is what—that’s why I am an actor, I think that’s what women do. We do the tough stuff all the time. And I love telling that story.”