Sigourney Weaver: The TV Squad Interview
by Mike Moody, posted Jun 24th 2009 11:54AM
Sigourney Weaver is earning strong Emmy buzz for her lead performance in Lifetime's Prayers for Bobby. In her first TV movie, the three-time Oscar nominee plays a religiously conservative mother who refuses to accept her gay son.
The film, based on a true story, examines Mary Griffith's (Weaver) transformation from intolerant mother to gay-rights crusader after her son Bobby commits suicide. Weaver says she was drawn to Prayers for Bobby because, like the book of the same name, it has the potential to start important conversations about tolerance and acceptance in homes everywhere.
Prayers for Bobby won't be Weaver's last TV movie. She's currently working on a biopic for HBO about famed burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee. She's also set to appear in a pack of high-profile big screen projects, including James Cameron's hush-hush sci-fi thriller Avatar, the Andy Fickman-directed comedy You Again, and Greg Mottola's Paul with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
I got a chance to chat with Weaver about Prayers For Bobby and the Emmy buzz surrounding her performance, plus her big screen career and the future of the Alien and Ghostbusters franchises.
What inspired you to make Prayers For Bobby?
It was a true story, a very disturbing story. I think in combination with reading the script and then hearing from the producers that this was the book that kids gave their parents when they wanted to start that conversation of coming out, I felt it was very important to do a good job of putting it in another form so you could have another way of opening that conversation.
I'm blessed to have so many friends who happen to be gay, and I felt blessed, frankly, to have the opportunity to tell a story that could help the next generation. Because ... it's just a mine field often, this transition for the family, and I think what was so moving about the Griffith family was that they made terrible mistakes, but they wanted the story to be shared so that other families would not make the mistakes they made. I wanted to be a part of that.
I read the film as a tribute, in part, to those who work to spread tolerance and understanding. Why do you think it's important for the Lifetime audience, specifically, to receive this message?
That's a good question. I'm not sure I know who the Lifetime audience is, except that I think Lifetime, along with other cable networks, show very compelling stories about what it is to be human in a way that a lot of films don't now, except for small independent films. They're interested in a smaller canvas and I think those stories are very helpful for people and I think that they bring us together. They remind us of what it is to be human, and they remind us that we have far more in common with each other than not.
There's such an important place for this kind of story. I was thrilled personally (to be a part of the film), because I've labored so hard on several independent films, which deserved an audience and didn't get one because of lack of distribution or what have you. So the fact that Lifetime embraced this project and was going to get the word out into as many homes as possible, I was thrilled by that idea. It was immediate. Not too soon either. I wish we'd gotten it out last year.
The character you play, Mary Griffith, is a very conservative Christian woman who cannot accept her gay son. How did you prepare for the role and do you feel you have anything in common with her?
I was working out in California so I asked to meet Mary because, frankly, I didn't want to make any intellectual judgments about this person. I simply couldn't imagine thinking, you know, what was behind my son's gayness was Satan. That was a huge leap for me. So the Griffith family invited us up. Their house is filled with things that Bobby made, and he's very much still in their lives.
As a mother, we just had so much in common, and I do believe that she felt she had to be strong to inspire Bobby to fight this. This was her point of view. Every time she felt any empathy for Bobby, she convinced herself that Satan was testing her, as well. The next life was much more important to her than this life, so she was constantly convincing herself that she was doing the right thing by punishing him, by refusing him love, by pushing him so hard.
You're a mother. In preparing for this role, did you ever think about what it would be like to be separated from your daughter like Mary was separated from Bobby?
Constantly. I actually felt that because my daughter is graduating from high school and going off to college. So I think I was in the throes of my own feeling of lack of control, so it was good timing in that sense. And if my daughter was at risk, I would fight like tigers for her, so I tried to bring that to the role in the most personal way I could.
Prayers for Bobby challenges notions of religion and the Christian faith, but it never outright denies that faith helped Mary Griffith overcome her grief. What kinds of responses have you received about the film from the faith community?
I think Mary would be the first person to say that she now believes in a God who is the epitome of unconditional love. So I think that she's still a spiritual person, but organized religion, depending on where it comes down on these issues, I think she feels it's not their place to make these distinctions. To make a child feel unworthy and unloved when every child is God's creature, she feels is immoral. I think that, if nothing else, (the film) is a very important starting point for a discussion in the church. As she says in the town meeting (at the end of the film), there are Bobbys everywhere, and people need to be aware that children are listening.
I'm in touch with PFLAG (Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and they've opened several more centers around the country, I think partially in response to the audience response to this film. There is such a need and I think, for better or worse, Prop. 8 showed everybody how entrenched some of this ignorance and bigotry is ... I haven't heard whether Christians say "Don't watch this" or "Do watch this." I imagine that if you can think of a response then someone has had that response for good or bad.
Are you excited about the Emmy buzz for your performance in Prayers for Bobby?
I'm thrilled for all of us because we shot so quickly in Michigan, and I'm delighted that it has attracted this kind of attention and support .. I do think this is a story that is important for as many audiences as possible to see. All of the Emmy buzz and everything helps that.
Switching gears now, is comedy one of your favorite things to do? Is that why you joined Greg Mottola's next movie, Paul (with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost)?
Yes. And then I'm doing Andy Fickman's next movie, You Again. Yes, I love comedy.
Can you tell me a bit about your role in Paul?
I can't really. It's kind of a secret; I'm surprised you know about it. It's a wonderful movie, It's a great, great, great script.
The rumor is you might revisit one of your famous comedy roles, Dana Barrett, in another Ghostbusters sequel. Where do you think Dana and Peter Venkman's relationship will be when the new movie picks up?
Yeah, I'm pretty sure. I think they're still writing it, but (laughs) I'd be very surprised ... You never know. I just did a benefit with Bill (Murray), and we love working together, but I think they're trying to create something new completely with the Ghostbusters, although I know Bill is in it. I hope my little son Oscar (from Ghostbusters II) is a Ghostbuster!
So, you won't be appearing in the movie?
No, I don't expect to have anything to do with it, although I wish them well.
Let's talk a bit about Alien. How do you feel about Ellen Ripley recently being named one of the most important science fiction and fantasy heroines of all time by the Web site Total Sci-Fi?
Oh, I didn't know that, but that's great. I was very pleased that MTV named her the second biggest badass in movie history, although I think she could take on Dirty Harry. That was cool. And it is the 30th anniversary of the first film. I love Ellen Ripley. She was a fascinating person to play in each incarnation and a great opportunity for a young actor.
Do you have any interest in being part of the planned Alien prequel movie, or appearing in the franchise ever again?
Well, I don't think that Ripley could appear in an Alien prequel because she doesn't have any access to the creature until the first Alien. But Ridley (Scott) is producing it and that makes me happy. I wasn't thrilled with the whole Alien Vs. Predator thing. I never saw them, but one of the reasons I died in (Alien) 3 was to not have anything to do with those (laughs). Just because, you know, I think it just seemed so economically motivated somehow. I feel we did four good movies, and I'm content with that. I hope if they do something new, they will encompass the idea of where the alien first came from, because I think that's an interesting idea -- to find out what happened and "how did it get to us?".
I know women who look up to you. My wife recently told me that she doesn't want to be Susie Homemaker, she wants to be Ellen Ripley. Growing up and studying acting, did you ever think you'd be playing such strong, iconic roles, such women of integrity?
I remember when they offered me the role of Ripley I was a little ambivalent and I remember thinking "Well, we don't get to do Henry V, so this is my Henry V." I think that when you're in an action movie it's great to mentally draw on all kinds of inspiration from theater and wherever, because you really need to animate a genre which is quite spare ... The fact was that we women never got to play these warriors and never got to play these leaders, and Ripley was that. And she was a great everyman kind of character, even though she was a woman. I think she represented the normal, ordinary person in extremis ... And she changes a lot in each one. It was a fascinating series to be a part of.
Even outside of the Alien franchise you portray very strong characters that I think are an inspiration to some women.
I guess I do. I hope that's true. I feel like I have people who really love Gorillas in the Mist and people who really love Working Girl ... I do feel that many actresses in my generation have left a really indelible impression, a really rich impression on what a woman is and what a woman can be. You know, (along with) Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, I'm part of a wonderful generation of actors ... We've really created some memorable roles for women, and I hope they inspire and touch women ... With my work, I'm trying to say to all women that we celebrate them, all of them, whatever they are. However they feel about themselves, we believe in them. With all of our frailties as women, we're terrific and we can do anything.
I know you're working on some big movie projects (including James Cameron's Avatar). Are you working on any more TV projects?
I'm producing a project for HBO about Gypsy Rose Lee called G-String Mother, about her relationship with her son. We've been developing it for a few years and we've finally gotten our final draft from Martin Sherman, who did Mrs. Henderson Presents. So I hope that will happen. I'm pretty busy this year, but I'm hoping (to start the project) in the beginning of next year.
Will you appear in the film?
Oh yes, I play Gypsy.
What inspired you to play Gypsy and make the movie?
Well, she's a fascinating woman, Gypsy. You know she had this terrible childhood playing the back of a cow in Vaudeville with her sister, as the musical Gypsy relates. Then she sort of reinvented herself at sixteen as a stripper, but she was really a comedienne. She was a very brilliant woman, and she never really took anything off ... Her son was her majordomo, and by the age of seven or eight, he was her stage manager and her dresser and he rehearsed the band. They were inseparable. Then as he got older and wanted more of his own life, things became difficult for them. But she's probably the most charming performer I've ever seen. She was so real and so down to earth and she lived ten lives. She was so much more in the moment than so many people, and very much a person we should know about.