by Ed Symkus

With two films coming out -- one this week, the other slowly around the country over the next couple of months -- Sigourney Weaver is proffering a double shot of her acting range. In the intimate indie feature, The Guys, she plays a sensitive New York writer who, in the fall of 2001, is asked by a fire captain (Anthony La Paglia) to help write eulogies for the men he lost in the World Trade Center. In the Disney-produced Holes, opening on Friday, she plays the evil warden -- complete with rattlesnake poison-laced fingernails -- of a boys' work camp where she rules with a steel fist.

Of course, it doesn't really matter what role Weaver plays. Mention her name and usually one image comes to mind: Ripley, the lone surviving crew member from Alien and its three popular sequels. Ripley was tough, seemed to be in control even when surrounded by bloodthirsty monsters, and had an affinity for kids and cats. Of course, Weaver (real name: Susan Alexandra Weaver; at age 14, she changed it to Sigourney, after the minor character Sigourney Howard in The Great Gatsby) has played all kinds of roles, from the romantic diplomat in The Year of Living Dangerously to the vindictive boss in Working Girl, from the regal Queen Isabel in 1492 to the buxom TV star in Galaxy Quest.

She draws on her "strong woman" persona in Holes, a kid-oriented film taken from the Louis Sachar novel. Sigourney is the wicked warden at a special prison camp who orders some misfit boys to dig deep holes in the desert every day without knowing the warden's very personal reasons for having them do this task.

"I like to think she's misunderstood," says Weaver, now laughing. "But she is a villain. And I'm not too sure how well I play villains. What I feel like is that there's a kind of blindness in these people that makes them villainous. In this case, although she's doing something wrong, she doesn't really see that. She's kind of desensitized.

"And it's a comedy," she adds. "So she's a comic villain. But she has rattlesnake venom on her fingernails, and I claw Jon Voigt's face, so I do a few evilly things."

Weaver says that playing the part was mostly fun. But as a mother, she "found it very hard to play someone who is in the position of harming kids. But I have to say I enjoyed playing a cowgirl, as it were, with a cowboy hat and all that."

Playing it tough and wearing an outfit like that only adds to the power Weaver already wields on the screen, partly due to her 5'11" height -- though she admits that's been a problem in landing certain parts.

"But I also feel that for me, being unconventionally tall has saved me from working with very conventional people," she says. "I am not the producer's dream. I don't come in 5-feet-2, blonde and blue-eyed. It's a statement to cast me, in a way, so I feel like the directors who are sort of off the grid have wanted to put me in their films. And that has made it possible for me to work with real iconoclasts."

An early one, in 1982, was Mel Gibson, when both were in The Year of Living Dangerously. Gibson is between two and three inches shorter than Weaver, but he appeared taller in the film. Weaver is asked if he was standing on a box.

"I don't think he was," she says, trying to remember. "I think he sometimes had little lifts. But Mel is so cool about my height, and he was so relaxed and confident. At the premiere in California, I wore these outrageously high heels. I towered over Mel, and he was totally cool. I've worked with much taller men who were much less happy about it."

She gladly addresses the rumor that she's thinking of playing Ripley again in another Alien sequel.

"Well, actually Ridley Scott" -- who directed the original -- "has talked to me in the last year about doing a fifth one," she says. "Frankly, we're both so busy that we haven't had a chance to get together and discuss it much. But if we could get a good script, would I consider it? Just to work with him again, I would."

But it seems that Ripley is never very far from her thoughts. A related rumor paints Weaver as someone who, when in a tough situation, has asked herself, "What would Ripley do?"

"I'm a terrible coward," she answers. "If I'm stuck in an elevator, then I would consciously think what would Ripley do. Because Ripley will do it better than I can do it. I'm so unlike her. And she takes care of people, and I think if you do that, you're less likely to start freaking out about 'What's gonna happen to me?' So yes, that's true."

Publication date: 04/17/03

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