In Imaginary Heroes, Sigourney Weaver’s character Sandy Travis matures disgracefully: smoking weed, getting arrested, picking up younger men and generally falling apart. Not that she doesn’t have her reasons; her whole family is spiraling out of control after the suicide of the older son. Weaver herself is maturing gracefully, but she’s far from a quiet suburban soccer mom. She’s passionate about acting, New York City, Ernst Lubitsch, the role of the arts in today’s confusing, straitlaced sociopolitical climate, and why working in independent films appeals to her as much as starring in big-budget Hollywood blockbusters: “Doing everything too fast, without any preparation, no time to take your breath — I love working that way.” Grin without a Cat’s Editor-in-Chief Adam Blair was part of a group interviewing Weaver a few days before Imaginary Heroes opened on Feb. 11, 2005:
Q: Did you talk about the parent-child relationship in this film with other parents, to see what they thought of that dynamic?
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: No. I guess I think of films as a little ‘surprise box.’ I think I talked to my husband [director Jim Simpson] about it, but I wouldn’t have known how to present the Travises to other parents. I think they’d go ‘What? The oldest son commits suicide and then they realize they’re doing something wrong?’ It would be hard if you didn’t read the script and saw how compassionately it approaches all these people as they’re spiraling out of control — I think it would be very hard to find a map through it. I’m always very leery of mentioning what I’m doing to other people, because I feel like part of the power comes from the secrecy of this world.
Q: The story is an extreme version of a family going through a crisis. What was your initial reaction to reading the script — did you feel like it was something you could play? Was it interesting to you?
WEAVER: Oh yes. I was sent the script when [writer-director Dan Harris] was all of 21. You read a lot of scripts, and I just fell in love with it right away. Here behind this normal façade of a house were these four crazy people, five in the beginning. I just felt it was — especially now during this era, the Bush era, to have this family bursting at seams and acting badly was in a way refreshing. Because they’re not bad people, but they’re floundering, and it takes them a while to find each other and help each other through it. And in the meantime, Sandy, my character, steals pot from her daughter, tries to buy pot, gets in trouble, picks up guys in supermarkets — all the things you do if you’re skidding around. But I felt there was so much compassion in it, and as much comedy as there was drama, which I think is the test of a really good script.
Q: Given your long experience in filmmaking, do you find yourself making suggestions on a film like this with people who have less experience, or do you find yourself in an awkward position where you want to say things but you don’t feel you should?
WEAVER: Well actually I did open my big mouth on this film a couple of times. When you have no money and you have no time, often people want to hurry you, to hurry the lighting and some aspects of filmmaking. The one thing I did do was have a little chat with the A.D. [Assistant Director] who was always screaming at us, and this wasn’t working. People weren’t being lit and everyone was really tense — you may not have that much money, but you don’t have to have a lot of money to make a good film. I just wanted to say that having been on lots of high-pressure pictures, this was not going to solve the problems we had; it was going to make it harder for us to do what we needed to do. And I got that message through. In the old days I don’t think I would have had the confidence to speak up, but I did.
Q: You hear so many actors say that being in New York doesn’t work for them if they want film careers so they had to move out to L.A. You are New York-based — how tricky has it been, or has it not been an issue?
WEAVER: Well, it’s worth it to be here. I think the actors are here, especially the younger actors who are still trying to do theater. The only thing that’s not here are the studios, but I think that’s sometimes an advantage — the fact that we’re not an industry town. When you’re surrounded by so many people who think what they’re doing is the most important thing and it has nothing to do with the [film] industry, it helps you keep your perspective. And even if you don’t have a job you can go out and see great theater, you can go out and hear great music. You can nourish yourself with the arts while you wait for the right job to come. I guess my role models were Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, who I guess lived out West for a while when he was writing. But I always trusted that you could have a good career here. If it was an expensive movie, they would have the money to come and interview you here, and if it didn’t have any money, then there were a lot of independent films.
Q: Could you talk about that in terms of your production company, Goat Cay Productions—I’m wondering why it’s working to develop voices from the theater into film. Why not just develop them into playwrights?
WEAVER: For one thing, when you’re working with a playwright they often are teaching in five different schools trying to make enough money just to live, so by trying to get them film work we were trying to get some money into their pockets. And we were also trying to do the industry a favor, by stimulating it with new voices and new forms. When I started my production company, it was at a point where the conventionality of film was almost making me narcoleptic. I thought oh my God, there’s nothing you can eat in this world, it’s just so conventional and every setup takes forever, and you do each scene, you do master, master, two-shot, close-up, close-up, close-up. Thank goodness independent film came along, because doing everything too fast, without any preparation, no time to take your breath — I love working that way.
Q: This is a dramatically daring movie. Do you think we’ll see more of these kind of American dramas coming? Do you think that that’s something the climate in this country is hungry for?
WEAVER: That’s a good question. I don’t know what the next four years are going to bring, frankly. All I know is having done some theater in the last year is that people are very, very in need of the arts. Things are so confusing now that people are looking for some kind of illumination, and some kind of bonding experience with other people in a theater. I do think the audience is going to make more demands on movies, because we need to be helped through this. You can tell I’m a Democrat — but I think that we need to be useful to people. I can’t think of many good things that are happening now, but I think one of the good things that might happen is that the work is going to change. How it’s going to change I don’t know how to predict, but I do think something’s going to happen.
Q: Have you picked some of the films you’ve picked because it gives you a chance to rethink your life?
WEAVER: It’s interesting — the next film I’m doing is with Alan Rickman, called Snowcake, in which I play a woman on the autism spectrum, and I’ve spent the last nine months spending time with people on the spectrum. We’re all in the spectrum, that’s one thing I know. It may be more obvious in some people, but we’re all in the spectrum, and there’s things like that you end up discovering when you’re researching a film. You don’t really know when you start how it’s going to impact on you, but it’s really profound.
Q: What do you mean by spectrum?
WEAVER: The autism spectrum — there are a host of different categories, social, visual, all kinds of different ways in which our brains work. People with autism theoretically have wiring different from ours, and certain things are very hard for them. When I hear about what’s hard for them, I think to myself, well that’s hard for a lot of us. It may not be as obvious, it may not be as excruciating, but we’re all so connected, and that’s a very exciting, moving thing to discover, that there’s no difference. I love my job because I get to travel into other worlds that always illuminate mine, and that one particularly I’m looking forward to doing. It’s a wonderful script and I hope I do a good job.
Q: Growing up, what was the film that changed your world?
WEAVER: What film changed my life? I’m not sure — when I was an adult I fell in love with Ernst Lubitsch, and I love all of his films unreservedly. I just think he’s fantastic, I could watch them all again and again. I love it when comedy and drama are presented together, with all the values of each, and I think that no one does it better than Lubitsch, although I think Mike Nichols is pretty awesome as well.
Q: What’s the best example of Lubitsch?
WEAVER: I personally love Ninotchka, I love Melvyn Douglas and Greta Garbo together, and I love those actors who were in all Lubitsch’s films, the guys who play the Russians. I think some of these ensembles we’ve had lately remind me of those great days when there were so many great actors working. If you look at Imaginary Heroes, for instance, I think all the small parts, even the parts of the people at the funeral, are so beautifully cast. I love being in these scenes where I get to watch everybody work.
Q: Do you think films can change people’s lives?
WEAVER: I think the business is at a crossroads. I think there certainly is a huge audience for summer blockbuster kinds of movies, but I’m always very suspicious of big budgets. As Dan Harris says, when he’s working on Imaginary Heroes and he’s working on Superman, he doesn’t approach the two genres differently, he approaches them in the same way. He thinks that even superheroes have to have complicated situations and character traits, and I think that that’s the key to making a good movie whether it’s big or small.
Q: In addition to Snowcake, what other projects do you have coming up?
WEAVER: I’m also making a movie about Truman Capote. I play a small part, Babe Paley, in Doug McGrath’s movie called Every Word is True, which is a great script. It’s fun, I like doing two very different things back to back.
Q: And Happily N’Ever After [an animated film] is also on the agenda?
WEAVER: I did that a long time ago. I have a great part in that, if it’s what I remember. I’d been offered a lot of mean parts in cartoons, so I was waiting for a funny part to come along. Frida is Cinderella’s stepmother, she gets power, she undoes all the laws of physics that govern happy endings, and all hell breaks loose and she has a great time; she’s no longer just a stepmother, she’s in control. It’s a very charming movie, very romantic — Freddie Prinze Jr. and his wife Sarah Michelle Gellar play the romantic leads, and I think George Carlin is in it as well. Of course you never get to meet these people, you just go to your studio and do your work. But I really enjoyed working on it, and I don’t know when it’s coming out, but hopefully at some point.
Q: Do you think Sandy from this movie, along with a few other portrayals last year, like Sissy Spacek in A Home at the End of the World, might be presenting a nexus for the pot-smoking mom? Did you worry about that at all?
WEAVER: No, I didn’t. I did sort of think that Sandy had to revert to what used to work for her. I was happy for her, that she could find some sort of escape. I think the whole thing about marijuana is so ridiculous anyway.
Q: Ridiculous in what way?
WEAVER: Well I mean the fact that now they’re coming down on medical marijuana. If anyone knows anyone who has had cancer and gone through chemotherapy, if it’s going to help them, what are they talking about? Where’s the compassion with all this Bible reading? Where’s the compassion? I just don’t get it. Mind your own business. If Republicans are for state’s rights, why are the Feds getting in everyone’s hair?
Q: What do you think your kids are going to think?
WEAVER: Well, my daughter wants to see this movie, she wants all her friends to see it — I think I might be asked a lot of questions.