The Defenders: Sigourney weaves a modern woman of action
It is testament perhaps to the enduring power of cinema, and of one film in particular – 1979's Alien, directed by Ridley Scott – that when actress Sigourney Weaver walks into the room she brings with her a certain sensibility.
Weaver's on-screen alter-ego Ellen Ripley was Hollywood's first modern female action hero, and that performance has become a touchstone for many actresses since, most recently Gal Gadot, whose screen reboot of Wonder Woman broke box-office records.
"I feel that I created Ripley at a time when women were moving into all these fields which were traditionally male, including the armed services, and all kinds of other industrial jobs," Weaver now says. "And I feel that it was a time of great feminist passion.
"Nowadays, they've really started in earnest to create ... dynamic, real, compelling women heroes who are real women, not just sexy little creatures, but real women with real courage and drive and commitment. It's way overdue, unfortunately it's not happening as much on Capitol Hill."
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In fact, Weaver has to her credit a suite of action women of all textures: The Year of Living Dangerously's Jilly Bryant, Working Girl's Katharine Parker and Avatar's Dr Grace Augustine among them. To that list she now adds Alexandra Reid in The Defenders.
Reid is the leading finger of "The Hand", and serves as the principal villain in the series, which knots together four preceding Netflix series featuring Marvel characters: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist.
The Defenders stars Charlie Cox as Daredevil, Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones, Mike Colter as Luke Cage and Finn Jones as Iron Fist, as well as an assortment of characters from the four preceding programmes, including Trish Walker and Malcolm Ducasse, from Jessica Jones, played by Australian actors Rachael Taylor and Eka Darville respectively.
Critically, Weaver does not consider Alexandra Reid a villain. She is rather, Weaver says, an antagonist.
"I don't approach anything in this genre any differently to how I approach other work," she says. "I'm an actor from the theatre and I've done mostly straight stuff for a long time, so I just approach anything in this genre in exactly the same way.
"It's my job to create a compelling, believable character as an opposition to these four wonderful actors and in partnership with this amazing lady," she adds, referring to Elodie Young, who plays Reid's protege, the supervillain Elektra. "I think we all just went for it, in terms of who we are."
She was persuaded to the role for a number of reasons, but among them she says was watching Vincent D'Onofrio's work in Daredevil; in that series D'Onofrio plays businessman Wilson Fisk, ostensibly a villain but something far more complex in story terms.
"He is not on the same side as Daredevil, but he's a very compelling character with a real history and reality to him," Weaver says. "I felt they wanted to create the same idea with Alexandra."
She was also drawn to the complex relationship between Alexandra and Elektra, who is being shaped into a weapon to use against the heroes. "I think [that relationship] surprises Alexandra," Weaver says. "It's really not something she can control. And she likes that and hates that at the same time. I feel like that was a big part of it."
The role really serves as an exploration of power, from the subtle, which we see as Alexandra exudes an almost unspoken control over everything, and everyone who surrounds her, to the more overt, in which Weaver is able to almost revisit the action-woman template she helped to craft three decades ago.
"She has a lot of confidence and a lot of assurance and I based it on people I've met in New York who were in business and who are so powerful they don't put a lot of effort into lording it over you," she says.
"You know ... nothing is that important to them except their own goals and priorities," she adds. "And so they are very offhand, in a way, about their power. They wear it quite lightly even though it's deep and dense."
As for Alexandra Reid, "action woman", Weaver says the physical side of the role was "just the right amount".
"I feel like she has those skills but she's at the point in her life where she'd rather talk," Weaver says. " She has people to do that for her, so she battles people in a different way, using her wits, using her charm and her intuition."
But, she adds, she was "game" to take on the action scenes. "I certainly was totally game to do whatever and I do have a red belt in karate," she says, laughing.
"But they don't ... that's not really what they do. And I think they had a different idea of Alexandra. But I do get in there when I have to because sometimes they're all over me."
The character is, she notes, based on real New York businesswomen and businessmen. "What we thought would be an actual person in New York, a New Yorker with a great deal of wealth and experience, and a patron of the arts," Weaver says.
In that sense, perhaps she owes more, in the lineage of Weaver's own work, to Working Girl's Katharine Parker than to the iconic, alien-fighting Ellen Ripley?
"That's interesting, I think that's very astute," she says. "I didn't think about Katherine Parker because of course I always think of that as a comedy but it's true that my role models for this were men in business."
Weaver describes them as "men who are great patrons of the arts but all their money comes from burning fossil fuels or some awful other [business] ... you know, and they think they're terrific", she adds.
"They just love what they're doing and they want to keep on doing it," she says. "I think there are a lot of real people like that, at least in our country right now, who are jumping up and down and wringing their hands with glee at all the money they're gonna make under Trump."
The Defenders is now streaming on Netflix.
- Sydney Morning Herald