This month, the queen of science fiction keeps her feet on the ground in the miniseries The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart
To hear Sigourney Weaver talk about the Australian-produced Prime Video miniseries The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, you’d think she was a bit-part actress who had swindled her way into a lead role. “Australians have so many wonderful actors; why should they import someone?” she asks, calling from her home in Manhattan on the first day of summer. “I feel very grateful that I had enough of a name that I was valuable to them.”
Weaver, obviously, has more than enough of a name. She has been an iconic presence as a powerful female figure at the center of popular culture for the past 40 years. She’s the lone victor against the Alien xenomorphs who destroy all the men around her; the sexy, specter-stricken cellist who enchants Bill Murray in Ghostbusters; the intrepid real-life primatologist and conservationist Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist; and, of course, both the ethical scientist and the mystical Na’vi teenager in the Avatar films. Throw in a few dark psychodramas, such as Death and the Maiden and The Ice Storm, and her role in The Lost Flowers as a traumatized horticulturist grandmother seems almost made-to-order.
Weaver isn’t one to take things for granted, though. She speaks of the past year—one of the most fruitful of her career, with five projects, including Avatar: The Way of Water, a sequel 13 years in the making for which the 73-year-old spent a year in free-diving training—with awe and gratitude. For her, each part is a chance to try something new, and Lost Flowers, in particular, gave her that. “Actors are so rarely pleased when they watch themselves, but I was pleased to see that I’d never seen that person before in a job I’d done,” she says. “That made me very happy.”
What drew you to The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart?
Initially, I received this project that was going to shoot in Australia,and my husband and I both went, “Australia, how exciting! Let’s go!” He’s a surfer from Hawaii, so it’s understandable. Anyway, then I got to read the first three episodes, I read the book, and I fell in love with the scripts and with Holly Ringland’s amazing novel. It seemed to be about so many incredibly relevant things. It had so many wonderful women’s roles of all ages, which is such a rarity.
It’s also visually stunning—I’m getting Jane Campion vibes.
Its director, Glendyn Ivin, [is] extraordinary. I could tell from the way he talked about the story that he, as you just suggested, planned to film it in a very ambitious, glorious way. I’ve seen all seven episodes. It looks like nothing I’ve ever seen on television. It’s absolutely this huge, sweeping story with incredible landscapes, fires burning down cane fields … It’s really a visit to these parts of Australia, which, for an audience member like me, is one of the things I love most about this medium.
Watching it, I immediately wanted to be there.
Yes, absolutely. I miss it terribly, especially because we were surrounded by these amazing flowers. They’re so different from the plants we have in America—they’re much more rugged, a lot of seed pods and things that have thorns—but they’re incredibly beautiful.
You’re on the board at the New York Botanical Garden, so it seems fitting that you have two projects this year about flowers—this one and the Paul Schrader film Master Gardener. Do you have a favorite flower?
My favorite flower in Australia is the kangaroo paw. My character, June, is the grandmother of little Alice Hart, and [she has] a beautiful greenhouse, and as I take [Alice] through, one of the things I introduce her to is the kangaroo paw. They’re so unlike anything that we have in this country, and they come in so many different colors.
I suppose if I had a favorite American flower, not that it’s American, I would choose the peony, just because it means that spring is here. There’s a language of flowers that Holly [Ringland] came up with to enable people to say things that are too difficult to say in words. It’s something that I wish would catch on, because I think it’s very perceptive of her to realize that there’s some things that could be said better with flowers.
Speaking of language, I have to ask, what was more difficult: learning to hold your breath underwater for six and a half minutes to film Avatar: The Way of Water, or learning to do an Australian accent for this series?
[Laughs.] I think they’re equally challenging in completely different ways. I worked very hard on the accent. They didn’t want the accent to be very broad, which was helpful, but you had to really keep at it because when you’re working, when you’re playing the character, you don’t want to be thinking about your sounds. I found it challenging. I had an amazing coach who I worked with every week on Zoom. I had to do it, or I wouldn’t have been able to do the show. I was willing to do anything to do the show.
I was looking back at the New York Times review of Alien from 1979…
Oh my goodness.
… and the writer described your Ripley as “a young woman who manages to act tough, efficient, and sexy all at the same time.” I think that can be said about a lot of your characters: You have this ability to act tough and sexy at the same time, which I don’t think is easy. Where does that come from?
Well, I’m sure the costume design has something to do with it. People say to me, “Oh, you play strong women.” To me, women are strong. It’s women who end up taking care of the family, taking care of the old people, taking care of whatever needs to be done. I was always drawn to parts about women who are isolated and have to come forward—whatever courage and resourcefulness they have has to come forward in the project. I think women are sexy, and I don’t think sexiness and strength are oppositional.
You also seem so confident in your physicality. Is that partly from being nearly 6 feet tall by the time you turned 11 and just having to embrace that? Or is it something you learned in drama school, where they teach you to fully be in your body?
I don’t think I learned much at drama school. I had a very short mother who kept saying, “You’re so lucky, you’re so lucky, but put your shoulders back.” She said, “Someday, you’ll be so happy you’re this tall.” I was hopeless at basketball. When I came into high school, everyone looked at me and went, “Yes! We’re going to get the championship!”, and I was terrible. I went right into modern dance for the next five years. I did a lot of improvisation choreography, and it gave me a chance to develop a center. I knew I had to, otherwise I’d be drifting along with my head down and my shoulders hunched. I just knew that that was not cool. I grew up with a mother who constantly kept herself fit; she was the first person I ever knew who did calisthenics in the living room, who was jogging along FDR Drive before anyone else did. So it was very natural for me to go, “Oh, I want to keep doing the things I love,” and to do that, you really need to work on your balance, your strength, all those things. I’m getting these wonderful opportunities later in life—especially playing a 14-year-old—so thank goodness I’ve kept at it, because actors really need a lot of stamina.
What was it like, tapping into 14-year-old Sigourney in order to play Kiri, your new teenage Na’vi character in the Avatar films?
[I was] able to go back and unearth that 14-year-old girl and use that very uncomfortable human being—how sensitive they are and how excited they get, all those extremes that you feel when you’re an adolescent. I still had it all inside of me, hidden away. To let it out in the performance capture that Jim [Cameron] has designed and developed—it’s so actor-centric, and I didn’t have to push. I didn’t have to demonstrate or play 14; it was all going on inside of me, and it’s caught by these amazing cameras.
I took two 10-year-old boys to see it, and—this is a testament to how good it is—during the three-plus hours they never got up to pee.
Oh my god. I’m impressed. That is a great compliment.
There are plans for three more Avatar films in the next few years. Is it comforting knowing you have this work lined up? Or do you feel even more pressure to do other projects and not stay stuck in one world?
I often forget that I have more to do, and I think that’s why Lost Flowers meant so much to me, because it was so ambitious, and it’s so sweeping and raw. To be able to do something as completely different as Lost Flowers was an incredible privilege, because as much as I love the Avatars, you’ve got to get away from them.
I read that you always wanted to do repertory theater, and that’s the model you’ve used for your film career. I love that idea—can you tell me more about it?
I’m glad you picked up on that, because most people probably don’t understand what it means. My dream when I went to drama school was to work at a place like the Guthrie in Minneapolis, which is an old-fashioned repertory theater where they have a company, and the company does all the plays that year, which can be up to six to eight plays. I would probably never play the ingénue, but maybe you get to play the maid in one and then the queen in the next. It’s an incredibly challenging and exciting way to work.
But you realized that kind of job is few and far between.
So I thought, Well, it doesn’t matter, because I can pretend to myself that I’m in my own repertory company and play the maid in one and the queen in the other, and do comedy and drama and anything in between. I think it’s one of the reasons why I wasn’t a snob about any of these other genres—the more, the better. I didn’t go, “Ehh, science fiction…” Science fiction is an incredibly underestimated genre, because it is about the future; it is about what human beings are, and their decisions and their visions. That’s why I think it’s so popular: because it’s never obsolete.
How concerned were you with prestige versus success?
This sounds silly, but I never wanted an arty career. I really wanted a commercial career—my father’s influence on me. He’d read a script I was going to do, but he’d go, “Well, this is not going to get many people in those seats.” I tried to alternate between those wonderful small movies and bigger movies, like Ghostbusters or the Alien movies. Listen, I’m so fortunate that I had these opportunities, and no one is more aware of that than I am. I have friends who are just as talented as I am who did not get those opportunities, and a day doesn’t go by without me going, “Wow, I’m so lucky.”