Sigourney Weaver had to return to school before she could return to Pandora.
The three-time Oscar nominee plays Kiri, a 14-year-old Na’vi alien, in “Avatar: The Way of Water,” a sequel to James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi adventure. Kiri is the daughter of Weaver’s scientist character, Dr. Grace Augustine, who was killed in the first film. Kiri was adopted as a baby by Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaa) after Grace died.
To prepare for her role as a teen, Weaver observed a variety of adolescent behaviours in classes at New York’s famed LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts.
“I was just sitting on the side (of the classroom) listening to the pitch of the voices: everything from a childlike voice to an adult voice,” explains Weaver. She never took part in class exercises, however, because “I was just another actor” to the young acting students. They had their own responsibilities.”
When “Avatar 2” begins, Kiri is looking for answers about her father’s identity while also trying to figure out why she is different from other Na’vi children her age. Throughout the film, she learns to harness powers associated with the natural world and Eywa, the planet Pandora’s life force.
Cameron first approached Weaver, 73, about the new character in 2010. “I wanted to get the band back together,” says Cameron, who directed Weaver in “Aliens” in 1986.
They “discussed the idea of creating this girl who was more at home in the forest than she was with people, and who had a connection to plants and animals that she didn’t quite understand,” according to Weaver. “Even before (Cameron) wrote it, he said to me, ‘Nobody else knows this about you, but I know that you are 14 at heart, anyway. You’re so mature, and yet you’re always clowning around, so I’m confident you can do it.”
Weaver and the rest of the “Avatar 2” cast practised breath-holding for the film’s aquatic motion-capture sequences. She also learned underwater sign language and parkour with her younger co-stars for scenes of Na’vi teens running along tree boughs or racing to the tops of floating mountains.
“I was determined to accomplish everything they did. “I didn’t want anyone to say, ‘She’s an old lady,'” she explained. Weaver explains. “We all had to be very fit, and parkour is a great way to get there.”
Other cast members learned knife fighting and archery, but “Kiri is not a fighter,” Weaver says. “She’s a sweetheart. She is capable of rage and is sensitive to injustice and cruelty, but she does not use weapons. She possesses additional abilities.”
The chance to be a kid again, even if only onscreen, was liberating for Weaver. But, rather than defying Hollywood ageism, she sees the role as a “celebration” of what motion-capture technology has made possible.
“It frees the actor from certain long-standing conventions that you have to play your own age group,” Weaver says of animated films. “It just lets you play anything and flow into any form.”
Weaver has created iconic movie characters such as Ellen Ripley in the “Alien” franchise and Dana Barrett in the “Ghostbusters” films over the course of her five-decade career. Her longevity secret? She refuses to be pigeonholed.
“I realised early on that people didn’t know what to do with me, partly because of my height,” Weaver, who stands at about 6 feet tall, says. “After Ripley, I was sent (scripts for) 100 strong women and after ‘The Ice Storm,’ I was sent 100 neurotic women. I knew right away that it was up to me not to repeat myself: I wanted to do a comedy and then a drama; I wanted to play the queen and then the maid. So I did it just for myself. I wanted to be able to direct my own career, which I did.
“The range of what we do as older actors is extraordinary. So I hope Hollywood – whoever Hollywood is now – has gotten the message.”