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An unexpected life in sci-fi: An interview with Sigourney Weaver

A movie has a way of sitting up straight whenever Sigourney Weaver is in it. Whether the part is small or large, she reliably jolts any film alive with her intelligence and commanding presence. She usually means business.

That, of course, has been apparent since her breakthrough role as Ellen Ripley in “Alien.” But it’s no less true of Weaver at 67. She has an almost queen-like status on today’s movie landscape, particularly in science-fiction.

She has defined one mega franchise (“Alien,” with one more on the way) and been the MVP of another (“Avatar,” with four sequels coming). Just her voice is enough to lend sci-fi credibility, whether as the ship’s voice in “WALL-E” or as the all-powerful Director in “The Cabin in the Woods.”

Weaver has been particularly ubiquitous in 2016, gracing the year’s top box-office hit, “Finding Dory,” with its best gag (her aquatic center greeting), and popping in to reprise her original role in the contentious “Ghostbusters” reboot. She was even glimpsed in Ron Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” as a young, rabid Beatlemaniac.

But she ends the year with “A Monster Calls,” a smaller film that uses fantasy to plumb deeper emotional depths. Directed by J.A. Bayona (who’s helming the next “Jurassic Park” film), the adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel is about a boy coping with his mother’s terminal illness. Aside from approaching grief with uncommon seriousness, the film flips some genre tropes, including Weaver’s grandmother character.

The actress (who hasn’t lost a bit of her glamour) recently reflected on “A Monster Calls,” her re-entry to Pandora and her legacy of strong female protagonists.

AP: Your father, Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver was president of NBC and created the “Tonight Show.” Was it like you grew up in show business?

Weaver: At the time, I thought everyone’s father ran a network. I thought everyone got to go on the set of “Peter Pan” and meet Mary Martin. I always used to think I was going to go to school and then come home and be a different girl and go to a different house. It took me a while to realize I was stuck with me. Maybe that’s the early awareness of an actor that we’re all changeable. I remember thinking, “Gosh, I’m so amazed I’m in this body for so long.”

AP: You have such an impact on a film, regardless of how large your part is.

Weaver: I really love being part of a good story. I don’t need to be the center of the story. That’s why I really loved “A Monster Calls” because the grandmother was unlike anyone I’ve played before _ not completely unlike my mother, who was British. It’s a movie I hope families go to together.

AP: Was your small role in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” your first film?

Weaver: Woody offered me a bigger part but I turned it down because I was in a play. I played a multiple schizophrenic who kept a hedgehog in her vagina and I wasn’t going to give that part up.

AP: “Alien” was quite a follow-up.

Weaver: It didn’t feel like a big movie to me. It felt like a very small, dark, strange movie and I could relate to that because I was used to doing very strange things off-Broadway. I thought: This is fine. This is like a workshop movie.

AP: Ripley was one of the first strong female protagonists in an action film. Is that a legacy you’re proud of?

Weaver: I am. I’ve since read other scripts and I go, “Well that’s kind of an interesting part but I’d rather play this guy.” Because I always feel still, like in our world, there’s a lot of testosterone in some of these movies where really legitimately a woman would be involved.

AP: Do you think that’s changing?

Weaver: I think by the time your daughters are in the world, everything will be different.

AP: What did you think of the backlash to Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters”?

Weaver: I was very surprised by it. I enjoyed the movie. I love all those women. I think Feig is brilliant. I do think it has something to do with the misogyny Trump has unearthed. I thought it was very charming. Does it also make you remember how much you loved the first one? I think so, but not to the extent that I’m going to boycott it. We’re sitting at the table. You’ve got to make room for us. We’re not going to go away.

AP: Ang Lee’s “Ice Storm” must be a film you’re particularly proud of.

Weaver: I was discussing a character I might play with someone and they said, “This woman’s cold.” I said I find that a nonsensical adjective for a woman. I’m sure you could describe Janey in “Ice Storm” as cold but she wasn’t cold. She was so disconnected from her life and bored by it.

AP: You’re soon to head into one mammoth “Avatar” production.

Weaver: The scripts for “Avatar” are absolutely incredible. I have committed to a very interesting movie about a woman (“Second Saturn”) that I hope to do in May. It’s like: This is my wonderful meal before I go into Pandora.



Review: ‘Ghostbusters’ a feminist milestone

The easy, electric chemistry of the four leads in Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” acts like a firewall against the supernatural and the adolescent, alike, in this spirited reboot of the 1984 original.

Ghouls and anonymous Internet commentators — who flocked to their thumbs-down buttons ahead of the film’s release — share plenty of characteristics. Each is likely to drool and quickly disappear when you turn on the lights.

Feig’s “Ghostbusters” ain’t afraid of either.

Why should he be, anyway?

In his corner he has the best comic actor of the decade, Melissa McCarthy, the klutzy wit of Kristen Wiig, “Saturday Night Live” standout Kate McKinnon and the big-screen breakthrough of Leslie Jones, the film’s secret weapon.

This “Ghostbusters” makes some winks to the uproar that preceded the gender-swapping film, but it mostly steers straight ahead, too busy being funny to worry much about misogynist detractors.

It does, however, pay a lot — too much — attention to placating “Ghostbusters” fans with the familiar showdowns and iconography of the original two films.

I was proudly raised on Bill Murray comedies, but the preciousness many have over a “Ghostbusters” remake is nevertheless mystifying. This isn’t “Stripes” we’re talking about here. It’s not even “Meatballs.” Ivan Reitman’s “Ghostbusters” —equal parts spectacle and deadpan, inspired by “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” — was good, all right, but it wasn’t some sanctified ground never to be trod on again. It already spawned a mediocre sequel, after all.

Here, the iconic ambulance has been traded for a borrowed hearse and cameos from original stars (excepting Harold Ramis, who died in 2014) have been awkwardly forced in. The team, once assembled, is astonished at the sky-high rent required for the original’s firehouse and instead relocates to a Chinatown office above a takeout joint. (The film’s New York overall is refreshingly authentic.)

After an early ghost sighting (featuring an excellent Zach Woods) and the familiar synths of Ray Parker Jr.’s theme, screenwriters Feig and Katie Dippold bring the foursome together.

Wiig is a physics professor trying to make tenure at Columbia but she’s disgraced by her latent belief in the paranormal. Her old friend, Abby (McCarthy, reliably solid if somewhat restrained), has stayed on the case, though, with her eccentric gizmo-making sidekick, Jillian (McKinnon). The bug-eyed, fizzy-haired McKinnon is like a blow torch of steampunk fire to the movie.

Jones, who plays a subway worker, might have been expected to be the broadest performer of the bunch, given the knockout punch of her “SNL” appearances, but her character is impressively grounded. She’s the best of the quartet, though Feig doesn’t give her enough to do later in the film.

Murray, Ramis, et al excelled at finding laughs when nothing was happening, without seeming to be trying at all. Feig’s film never has that anything-can-happen feeling, and it suffers for it. I wish he had let his talented cast truly loose.

Big-budget special effects are the enemy of comedy: they suck the air out.

In a sense, this “Ghostbusters,” which swells to a bloated CGI finale in Times Square, has overpowered one Hollywood specter — sexism — only to be stifled by another: the all-powerful force of franchise-making.

Still, the freewheeling and funny solidarity of the four leads win out in the end, even if Feig shows more timidity than he did in “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat” or “Spy.” Chris Hemsworth, playing a ditzy secretary, is one of the most clever stereotype reversals: He’s the office eye candy.

It feels a little like this “Ghostbusters” was a cultural test that we (not the movie) have already failed. Feig’s film may be a feminist milestone: a big ol’ popcorn movie taken over by women (something that should have happened long ago and engendered far less vitriol). But it’s also simply a breezy good time, one that just happens to culminate with four very funny ladies shooting a monster in the balls.

Underdogs strive to survive an unoriginal summer film season

Hollywood’s summer film slate, which kicks off with the fittingly combative Captain America: Civil War, will be a season of struggle: for box office dollars, for originality and for opportunity.

More than ever, the big tent of summer moviegoing is held up by a forest of tentpoles stretching from May to August. The swelling size of the summer movie has turned the season into a game of survival. Testosterone often dominates in front of and (especially) behind the camera, and few non-sequel, non-reboot films dare to compete.

images - wigout - 051916 - JasonBourneBox office and stress levels run high in equal measure.

“It’s a different landscape than 2002 when the first Bourne movie came out,” says Matt Damon, who returns to the franchise in Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne (July 29). “It’s like a high-stakes poker game that I don’t want to be in. The swings are just so brutal. Ben (Affleck) just opened Batman v Superman a few weeks ago. Everyone around him and in his life was nervous about it. You feel less a sense of exultation when they do well and more a sense of relief because the bets are so big now.”

This season is particularly risk-adverse. Out of the 33 films coming from the major studios, only 12 aren’t a sequel, reboot or based on an already popular property, such as a video game or best-seller. Take comedy and horror out of the equation and you’re left with just a handful of originals. One of them is Jodie Foster’s Money Monster (May 13), a thriller about a brash financial news pundit taken hostage on the air, starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts.

images - wigout - 051916 - MoneyMonsterFoster’s film is doubly rare. She’s one of only two female filmmakers helming major studio releases this summer. Though equality remains a year-round issue for the movie business, the constricted summer months can reveal Hollywood at its most retrograde.

“It’s interesting to me that the studio system still sees women as a risk,” says Foster, who wonders if women ultimately even want to inherit some of the kinds of films that dominate the summer. “There are movies that are part of the system we may not be that interested in embracing. I think that more women in the film business will look slightly different than it’s looked in the past for men.”

Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot (July 15) was met by a backlash from some corners of the Internet that took offense to a new, female-led version starring four of the funniest comedic performers around: Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. With that lineup, Feig relishes heading into “the big guns of summer.”

images - wigout - 051916 - Ghostbusters“To put out a movie like this in the heart of tentpole season when it’s all these big movies out there, I find it very exciting because a lot of these movies are very male-driven, even though they have some great female characters in them,” Feig says. “But to have this be about four incredibly funny people who just happen to be women, I think that’s really exciting.”

This summer includes a number of anticipated sequels (Finding Dory, Star Trek Beyond, Alice Through the Looking Glass), the expected superhero films (Civil War, Suicide Squad, X-Men: Apocalypse) and some less likely resurrections (The Legend of Tarzan, Ben-Hur, Independence Day: Resurgence).

Recent history is clear: These will be among the summer’s biggest hits. Last summer (the second biggest ever with nearly $4.5 billion in box office), seven of the top 10 movies were remakes, sequels or came from a comic book. Ditto for four of the top five movies so far in 2016.

images - wigout - 051916 - PopstarAndy Samberg and his Lonely Island trio will be among the few to brave the sequel-strewn seas with something fresh: their celebrity flame-out parody Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (June 3). Does he take any pride in being one of the few to push an original movie into summer?

“Um, yeah, we’ll find out,” says Samberg, laughing. “It’s heavy duty. We were looking at the schedule and we were like: ‘Holy crap. There’s stuff that’s coming out the week before and the week during us and the week after us, and they’re all really big movies.’ (Producer Judd Apatow) and the studio felt really strongly about summer and that we had something we could put there.”

One of the fathers of the summer movie season, Steven Spielberg, will also be in the mix with The BFG (July 1), his Roald Dahl adaptation that re-teams the director with Mark Rylance. The recent Oscar-winner plays the titular giant in a motion capture performance.

images - wigout - 051916 - BFG“The exciting thing about The BFG is the combination of Roald Dahl, who’s just a superb storyteller, with Steven and (late screenwriter) Melissa Mathison,” says Rylance. “It took five years to get made because of course initially many studios said: ‘Giants eating kids? I don’t think so!’ That edge of Roald Dahl, that frightening edge, I hope is still in there. There’s a kind of marvelous, frightening aspect to the fantasy as there is in the Tolkien books or the Grimm fairy tales that children can handle.”

Family audiences will be especially sought after by the likes of The Secret Life of Pets, Ice Age: Collision Course and the remake of Pete’s Dragon. One much smaller film, Life, Animated (July 8), will hope to sway moviegoers from the blockbusters while simultaneously reminding them of the power of movies.

The documentary, directed by Roger Ross Williams, is about an autistic young man, Owen Suskind, who found language through his love of Disney animated classics.

“It’s rare that you create a film like this that generations can enjoy together,” says Williams. “In the summer this is an alternative where families can go together and see it and hopefully be inspired and uplifted.”

To be uplifted rather than pummeled at summer movie theaters would indeed be an almost radical change of pace.

‘Ghost Hunters’ will haunt Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater

When Steve Gonsalves first saw Ghostbusters, the 1984 Bill Murray comedy about four hapless souls who chase paranormal specters and save New York City from the powers of darkness and a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, his life’s course became clear.

“I needed to be one of those guys!” Gonsalves says.

Last year Gonsalves celebrated the 10th anniversary of Ghost Hunters, Syfy’s wildly popular reality TV show in which he, lead investigator Jason Hawes and a full team of enthusiasts explore, document and try to explain paranormal activity in homes, hotels and other locations across the United States.

The full team has yet to visit in Wisconsin, but Gonsalves and Hawes will haunt Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater on Jan. 23 with “Ghost Hunters LIVE,” an evening of inside glimpses and video outtakes of their collective paranormal experiences — which Gonsalves says are as funny as they are frightening.

Gonsalves says he’s never met a ghost he didn’t like. In fact, he says, he’s never met a ghost at all.

“People think ghosts are people who lived on Earth and passed away, but I’ve never seen one ever,” says Gonsalves, who handles technology and data analysis for the Ghost Hunters team. “I trust Jason with my life and if he comes to me and says, ‘I just saw this head come out at me,’ I do think he saw it. But I don’t believe in anything until I see myself.”

What Gonsalves has experienced are unexpected lights, noises both vague and thunderous, unexplained smells and even physical contact, all of which fuel his fascination with an otherworldly realm.

“I’ve seen spontaneous fires ignite for no reason, have been touched and pushed, and have seen things that can’t be explained,” Gonsalves says. “I do believe in the paranormal and that’s what keeps me looking.”

One particular experience stands out in Gonsalves’ mind. It happened when the Ghost Hunters were investigating the remnants of Alcatraz, the former prison on an island in San Francisco Bay. The prison closed in 1963 and is now a tourist attraction managed by the National Park Service. 

One of the former prison cells and an adjoining corridor emitted a strong soapy odor that the crew could not explain. They dismissed it, only to discover later that it was the key to an apparition.

“The head tour guide told us that the cell belonged to an inmate — and he may have been the Birdman of Alcatraz, but I’m not sure — who was only allowed out of his cell to take a shower,” Gonsalves says. “He bathed many times a week for 10 years, moving from his cell to showers down that same corridor. Can we consider those smells as a sign that his energy was still hanging around?”

Gonsalves’ career path to Ghost Hunters included stints as an EMT, police officer, jewelry maker, drummer and even a Pizza Hut manager. But he also studied the paranormal wherever he could, including work with renowned parapsychologist William G. Roll. Gonsalves learned that sightings and other paranormal experiences are all about the energy that “haunts” the room.

“If you’re using the technological devices you need to know how energy works,” Gonsalves says. “Everything is covered with static electricity. When it moves it becomes electromagnetic and gauges we use read what’s left of the energy.”

That energy could be recent, or it could be years old, Gonsalves says. Reading the energy that is left behind by human activity may be the equivalent of “seeing a ghost,” and residue from the past activity — human and otherwise — can contribute to paranormal presences, he says. “Not many investigators know what to look for and how to interpret it,” Gonsalves adds.

Gonsalves’ interest in the science of paranormal studies dates back to age 20, when he formed a New England paranormal group. He met Hawes, head of what is now the Atlantic Paranormal Society, and eventually the pair joined forces.  They worked together for about eight years before being approached to film Ghost Hunters, and they and their team, a mix of police officers, professors and former plumbers, are among the few people worldwide making a living exploring paranormal activity.

For Gonsalves, the drama of his job comes in the history behind the sightings, as well as their ability to help the families of the alleged specters come to terms with deceased family members still lurking about. Video footage of a ghost haunting a zoo in Alexandria, Louisiana, for example, was clearly identified as “Les,” the former zoo proprietor, by his surviving family members, who wept in relief because they had then come to terms with his death.

Not all the video crew members believe in the paranormal, but Gonsalves says none of them are ever afraid when they are on- site investigating supposed apparitions.

“It’s very much like police work,” the ghost hunter says. “When you see that apparition moving down a dark hallway, you don’t fear it, you chase it.”

But then that’s easy for a group of modern-day Ghostbusters to say.


“Ghost Hunters LIVE” appears at 8 p.m. on Jan. 23 at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St. Tickets are $30, $100 for meet-and-greet seats. Call 414-286-3205 or visit pabsttheater.org for more information.