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Weaver shares experiences, offers advice to students

Caitlin Housley | Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Born to an NBC executive father and actress mother, it seemed Sigourney Weaver was always destined to appear in blockbusters like “Alien” and “Avatar.” Early on, however, she had different career ambitions.

Weaver wanted to be a “gypsy dancer.”

“I was very disappointed to find out there was no real job called a gypsy dancer … [I’m] still looking for that job,” she said.

The Academy Award nominee spent Monday evening at Saint Mary’s O’Laughlin Auditorium sharing personal stories of Hollywood challenges and triumphs with students, faculty and members of the community.

After realizing that gypsy dancing and ballet school weren’t for her, Weaver attended an all-girls boarding school. She emphasized the impact the knowledge and intellect she developed in her early school days had on her film career.

“I’ve been extremely fortunate to have a long career in Hollywood that includes a lot of films that are beloved and commercially successful,” she said. “Some of it is luck, but the greatest part of my luck is that I have the privilege of this amazing education, and I bring it to everything I do.”

Weaver, who graduated from Yale, said she still uses her education to evaluate scripts for potential roles.

“When I get a script, I literally let loose the thunderbolt of my education on the script,” she said. “I look to see if this story sustains itself. Does it catch me up and maintain my interest? Is the theme about something I believe in? Is it bigger than just the people in it? And very few stories make it by the skill of my education.”

Weaver said that even after a script makes it past her rounds of scrutiny, her education continues playing a role.

“It allows you to speak up and communicate, and solve problems in a way that a lot of times [directors and producers] don’t expect actors to be able to do,” she said.

After encouragement from a teacher, Weaver said she applied to 50 different summer stock or repertory companies before college, and was accepted at one.

While there, she said she performed six plays in seven weeks. It was at the stock company that she finally landed a role she loved. Weaver, however, was soon fired because of her height.

“I called my parents [after I was fired], and my mother said to me, ‘Oh, it’s only the first of many heartbreaks that you’ll experience,'” she said.

After leaving the acting company, Weaver applied to college to study drama.

“I got into all of them, which I thought was a good sign,” she said. “I went off to Yale with high hopes in not only acting, but also in writing and directing … a year and a half later, the two heads of the department told me I had no talent and I’d never get anywhere.”

Despite their discouragement, Weaver graduated with a Master of Fine Arts and began searching for roles off Broadway, she said.

Four years later, she had an agent and was offered her first major role in director Ridley Scott’s “Alien.”

“It seems like I got ‘Alien’ overnight, and everything was rosy, but, in fact, I spent years working in flooded dressing rooms without bathrooms in terrible, broken down condemned theaters, and I wouldn’t exchange a second of it for anything in the world,” Weaver said.

While the film offered Weaver a “big break” after years of challenges, she was hesitant to accept the role after reading the script.

“I had no pictures, so I just pictured this giant glob of yellow jelly kind of bouncing around doing something to people,” she said.

Weaver said she was honest when Scott asked her if she liked the script. She attributes her ability and confidence in articulating those feelings to her strong educational background.

“I said, ‘Well I didn’t like it very much,'” she said. “‘I thought it was quite unbelievable. It has a picture of human life that is very bleak, and I thought the love scene didn’t make any sense at all.’ I had my education and I opened my mouth, and luckily it was Scott who really cares that I spoke my mind.”

Weaver was ultimately offered the role and accepted it. The film was a success, and she went on to land roles in other well-known Hollywood films including “Ghostbusters,” “Working Girl” and “Holes.”

Despite the ups and downs of her career, Weaver said she wouldn’t trade her experiences for anything. Instead, she advised students in any field to embrace failure and enjoy the path they are traveling.

“I can’t predict what’s going to happen, but I’ve never really wanted to,” she said.

Weaver said she looks to a speech by George Wolfe, a former producer at the Public Theatre, for inspiration. In the speech, Wolfe compares life to a casino.

“People around you are hitting the jackpot, and you think, ‘Gosh, obviously there is something wrong with my machine,” she said. “I want to go over to that machine, that is obviously a better machine … and George said … ‘Stick with your own machine. It may take longer, you may have to make adjustments but accept that everyone has a different timetable.”