She may be forever known as the woman who did hand-battle with aliens. Susan Griffin talks to Sigourney Weaver about A Monster Calls
Sigourney Weaver plays a grandmother for the first time in her new movie, A Monster Calls.
“I think people will say, ‘It’s about time!’” the 67-year-old says with a laugh, looking glamorous in a dark green trouser suit.
“My daughter [Charlotte, 26, from her 32-year marriage to stage director Jim Simpson] tells me I’m not even allowed to think about being a grandmother in my real-life, so I was, in a way, very grateful to be asked.”
The film is directed by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible, The Orphanage) and based on the award-winning novel by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay, from an original idea by the late Siobhan Dowd.
It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching story, which tells the tale of Conor, a bullied 12-year-old who’s looking for guidance, while coming to terms with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) illness and being forced to spend time with his emotionally distant grandmother (Weaver).
One evening, he unexpectedly summons a monster [Liam Neeson] that’s made from an ancient tree. The monster shares tales with him over a number of nights, and in return asks for Conor to tell his own story, and admit the truth he’s hiding from.
“I wanted to work with this director after I saw The Orphanage and The Impossible. I felt his world was so unusual and enticing,” explains Weaver.
“I guess the only thing that was scary to me was the grandmother,” she adds. “People have very mixed feelings about her at the start. I just wanted to make sure we went for that, and didn’t sentimentalise it.
“I certainly didn’t want to be ‘the grandmother you hate but is actually OK’. I had to earn that in the story, I had to win them [Conor and his mother] back, just by coming towards them in the story. It was a very challenging role, and that was part of the appeal for me.”
She quips her “main problem” was spending time with Lewis MacDougall, the young Scottish actor who plays Conor - “and making sure I didn’t have too much fun, because he’s so lovely to be around and my character’s not very likeable in the beginning”.
Weaver, a three-time Oscar-nominee (for Aliens, Working Girl and Gorillas In The Mist), credits Bayona for allowing the cast time to “germinate”.
“It’s quite rare these days to have a director who understands the importance of an actual read-through,” notes the star, who was born in New York to parents Elizabeth, an actress, and Sylvester, a pioneering TV executive, and studied at both Stanford and Yale.
“It’s not only helpful, but it was so exciting to hear everyone, and then we were able to spend time together in Manchester,” she continues.
“Most directors are either not allowed to do that kind of work ahead of time, or they don’t know it’s actually very important. Not having Lewis and Toby [Kebbell, who plays Conor’s absent father] hang out, not every director would think of how important it is. It’s unusual these days, where everything is money and rush, rush, rush.”
Bayona, who’s currently working on the next Jurassic World film, due in 2018, reveals he cast Weaver in the role “because there’s something about how strong she looks but at the same time, she has this motherly attitude”.
“You can notice that in her career; this wide range that goes from being very strong but at the same time very vulnerable,” notes the 41-year-old Spanish film-maker.
The actress believes her statuesque height (she’s 5ft 11in) was also a contributing factor.
“I think Bayona wanted to go with the story that she is a forbidding character, so a child could have these strange feelings about her, that she could be a witch. Even in the first scene, from Conor’s point of view, she kind of looms over the room in a scary way.”
As a youngster, Weaver would use drama as a way of escaping her own nightmares. “I also read obsessively,” she reveals. “I think as children, our imagination fills up a lot of our time. I had a brother who was quite a bit older, so I was on my own a lot and had to invent a lot. I feel very lucky I had all that time.”
She admits she’s bemused by her tough on-screen persona. “I’m such a pushover and scream at a spider, so I think whatever it is people imagine, it comes from them,” she states.
As for the motherly instinct Bayona refers to, she adds: “Once you’re a parent, I think it’s very hard not to carry that with you in every part. And even though I hadn’t had children when I did [1986 smash hit] Aliens, to me, I always found it more interesting to play a mother than to play a Vice President.
“To me, these family stories are the heart of what we do, so when I’m offered one, which is rare because people think of me playing career women, I’m so grateful.”
Not least when faced with the prospect of filming three more epic Avatar films, and their heavy use of motion capture, with James Cameron.
“The thought of doing this lovely, small, intimate, dear story was just a treasure,” Weaver adds of A Monster Calls, and says she could “completely relate to” the script.
“I’ve lost both my parents, and I spent a number of years looking after them. It was some of the most precious time I’ve ever spent, because I had to take care of them and you have to learn how to do that.
“Loving people and losing people, that’s happened to all of us.”
She’s watched the completed movie a couple of times now.
“Even though I know the script so well, I completely lose touch with the reality... I can never predict what the monster’s going to say, or what’s going to happen next.
“I go on the journey,” says Weaver, “which I’m sure, and hope, every audience member goes on.”
A Monster Calls is released on New Year’s Day