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Sigourney Weaver's Stately Role In 'Political Animals'

The actress play smart, tough Secretary of State Elaine Barrish in the new USA Network miniseries Political Animals. It's another strong role for Weaver, who has starred in films like Alien, Ghostbusters and Gorillas in the Mist.


Other segments from the episode on July 19, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 19, 2012: Interview with Sigourney Weaver; Obituary for Celeste Holm.


July 19, 2012

Guests: Sigourney Weaver – Celeste Holm

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, actress Sigourney Weaver, has made a career of playing strong, accomplished women. Her latest role casts her as a player in national politics in the new USA Network series "Political Animals."

Weaver plays a former first lady whose husband, a charming Southern politician, was caught in sex scandals. After leaving the White House, Weaver's character runs unsuccessfully for president, divorces her husband and becomes secretary of state.

She has two sons. One becomes her chief of staff, and the other, who is gay, struggles with drug abuse. The series explores Weaver's character's family life, as well as her diplomatic efforts, her dealings with journalists and her political ambitions.

Sigourney Weaver has been nominated three times for Academy Awards. She played the character Ellen Ripley in four "Alien" movies. Among her many other films are "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Gorillas in the Mist," "The Ice Storm," "Ghostbusters" and "Avatar." She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

Let's start with a scene from the first episode of "Political Animals." Weaver's character, Elaine Hammond Barrish, has just conceded defeat in the presidential primary and is speaking with her husband, the former President Bud Hammond, played by Ciaran Hinds.


SIGOURNEY WEAVER: (As Elaine Barrish) I know, given your epic levels of narcissism, that it's impossible for you to happen this loss has nothing to do with you, but imagine for a moment that it doesn't. The country loves you, Bud. They will always love you. It's me they have mixed feelings about.

CIARAN HINDS: (As Bud Hammond) Now Sugar...

WEAVER: (As Elaine) Please don't me that crap about how the people would love me if they just knew me. It's been 20 years, OK. They know me. I hate campaigning. It's an Olympic sport in hypocrisy: fat smokers droning on and on about their (beep) medical coverage, smiling when babies with runny noses are shoved in my face. And most of all, I hate lying.

(As Elaine) I hate lying and telling people that things are going to get better when they never will. You believe the lie, and that is why you have won every election you've ever been in, and that's why Garcetti is going to win, too.

HINDS: (As Bud) (Beep).

WEAVER: (As Elaine) That man is going to be elected president, and if you don't get in line, you are going to be iced out.

HINDS: (As Bud) But I left office with an 84 percent approval rating, right. I am the most popular Democrat since Kennedy had his brains spattered across the Dallas concrete. Baby, I am the meat in the Big Mac of this party, the white creamy center of this Oreo freaking cookie, and that greasy Michael Corleone knockoff needs me to win this son of a bitch, plain and simple.

WEAVER: (As Elaine) You bastard. It's the hardest moment of my professional life, and you can't even pretend to make this easier for me?


Sigourney Weaver, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Have you ever worked in a political campaign, ever been drawn to that world at all?

WEAVER: I have. I worked on Capitol Hill when I was in college. I worked for a Republican congressman. I was in charge of his gun control correspondence. He sent out one letter to people who were vehemently for gun control and a very similar but significantly different letter to the people who were against it.

And that same summer, I was also campaigning for Nelson Rockefeller, for whom my father ran the campaigns. So I had one very political summer, and since then, you know, I consider my vote probably my most important possession as a woman and as a citizen.

So - but I'm not in politics. That summer made me a little cynical about the whole thing. But I am still a believer.

DAVIES: Yeah, it's interesting because a lot of people, young people who are exposed to politics in Washington, you know, just become addicted and want to make a life of it. You didn't.

WEAVER: No, I didn't, I didn't, but I actually was very interested in journalism at the time and am still somewhat surprised that I didn't end up in that.

DAVIES: Did you draw on Hillary Clinton or anybody else in preparing for this role?

WEAVER: You know, I think a large part of Greg Berlanti's thinking was that we've had three remarkable women who've been our secretaries of state in our last three administrations, but somehow we're not willing, as a country, to elect a woman president. And I think that this show partially investigates what that's about.

And so I was actually inspired by a lot of the men and women in my life who've to me been very inspiring, very - who have a real moral compass, who have the big picture in mind no matter what they're doing and a lot of them running nonprofits. So although I certainly admire Mrs. Clinton, I could not begin to draw on her except very superficially, because I don't know her, and I really don't know much about her.

So I think there are similarities in our facts, but the show is inspired by a lot of the families who have been in the White House and who want to get back in the White House, not just the Clintons but the Johnsons, the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, the Bushes. You know, it does something to a family to be in the White House, especially to the kids, and these people often want to get back in the White House, and that's we have these political dynasties who Greg feels are as close as America gets to having royalty.

DAVIES: I thought we would hear another clip from the series, and this is a moment when your character, Elaine Hammond, who is the secretary of state, is sitting down with this journalist whom she's had such a complex relationship with. A journalist played Carla Gugino has, kind of, wrote really tough things about her husband's affairs, the secretary of state's affairs when they were in the White House.

And now she is on a trip to try and free some Americans being held hostage in Iran. She got the trip because, in effect, she got personal information about your character's family life and leveraged that into this access. And they're sitting down to talk on the plane going over. Let's listen.


CARLA GUGINO: (As Susan Berg) Madam Secretary, I would never write anything that would interfere with whatever high-level talks are happening.

WEAVER: (As Elaine) You finally decided to acquire some journalistic ethics. How nice for you.

GUGINO: (As Susan) Still the same breakfast: steel-cut oats and blueberries. You wouldn't remember, but I was in your pool for two years during your ex-husband's first run for the presidency, before they put me on the D.C. desk.

WEAVER: (As Elaine) I remember. You were just out of school. You had a sister at Amherst, and your mother was a former physician.

GUGINO: (As Susan) Yes. Look, I know I wrote some tough things about you in the past...

WEAVER: (As Elaine) It may surprise you, Ms. Berg, but I've actually never read your columns. If I read half of what people wrote about me, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning. I did read your book, about the impending fourth wave of feminism. Not bad.

GUGINO: (As Susan) No one read my book.

WEAVER: (As Elaine) Well, maybe it was the title: "When Bitches Rule."

GUGINO: (As Susan) I was trying to reclaim the word.

WEAVER: (As Elaine) It might have impacted your sales. After all, never call a bitch a bitch. Us bitches hate that.

DAVIES: And that's our guest Sigourney Weaver with Carla Gugino in a scene from the first episode of the series "Political Animals," which is on the USA Network. You know, it's interesting to me, as I watch you doing this, there are - you handled yourself so well with this journalist. You remember details.

There are cases where you speak harshly and profanely to people as important as a vice president and a presidential chief of staff. And it struck me that, you know, a lot of the strong characters you have played in the past, like Ellen Ripley in the "Alien" movies and Dian Fossey in "Gorillas in the Mist" are people who rise to the occasion and find strength when they are challenged.

This is a woman who really is comfortable exercising power. It's kind of a different sort of thing, isn't it?

WEAVER: It's interesting. What I feel about Elaine is that she's much more in the mainstream than most women I've played. Most of the women I've played are sort of more on the edge. They're doing - you know, they're in space, or they're in the Virunga Mountains with the gorillas.

You know, there's something about them that's a bit off, whereas Elaine was sort of like a Girl Scout who grew up wanting to be president. And so I feel that she really does not worry about what people are going to think about her, and I feel like she's quite fearless about saying what she thinks, asking questions that other people would be afraid to ask because they might look stupid.

She's just sort of there. She's in her skin, and she's going to put it out there. And I feel lik I've never quite played a person like this.

DAVIES: You strike me as somebody who certainly feels comfortable saying what you think. I mean, do you wish you had this kind of - more this ability to kind of, I don't know, find the right words, be tough at the right moment?

WEAVER: Well, I'm sure we all wish that.


WEAVER: And certainly people on radio must wish that all the time: When will inspiration hit me?


DAVIES: Yeah, I try not to listen back to myself that often because so many of those moments occur.

WEAVER: I know. I hated listening to that first scene. I kept thinking: Gosh, take a bigger breath, stupid.

DAVIES: Really?

WEAVER: Oh yeah. You know, because I can hear my - you know, I really wanted to do that whole speech on one breath, but I caught up in the emotions of acting the part. Sometimes, you know, you're not as supported, and probably you wouldn't be in real life if you were upset.

DAVIES: I have to ask you: Were you ever at the White House? I read a story about you visiting the White House in the 1980s. True?

WEAVER: I did I visit the White House in 1984.

DAVIES: What do you remember about it?

WEAVER: The Reagan White House. Well, it was - you know, they did a beautiful job. It was a very glamorous Christmas evening with a lot of princes from Saudi Arabia, and I guess I was handpicked to sit next to this little 11-year-old Saudi prince who was in love with "Ghostbusters," probably Zuul.


WEAVER: And I took the opportunity to try to speak to the president about women's reproductive rights. And that conversation was curtailed very quickly by people who removed me from him and lifted me, as I recall, forcibly but gently, you know, in a polite kind of way, away from the receiving line.

And I just thought: Well, that's too bad because, you know, he's our president. He's my president. I may not have voted for him. But still, we have a right to have a dialogue about this. And so that was - you know, so on the one hand, I was very moved by being at the White House and meeting the president and the first lady and seeing the welcome they had, you know, put out. But at the same time, it was like kind of a farce, I thought.

DAVIES: This is hard to believe. I mean, Sigourney Weaver, I mean, you were a prominent actress at this point. You're speaking to the president, and someone bodily removes you?

WEAVER: Well, I was speaking to the president, but he wasn't speaking back. He was standing there looking at me, wondering - you know, and I think I just wanted to have a conversation with him. He had children of both sexes, and his wife, you know, there wasn't there - I wanted to have a frank conversation with him for about two minutes and have him say: You know, I am thinking about this, and I am aware of what you're talking about, and I do think that it's a difficult moral area for me and I'm still - nothing, nothing.

It was not allowed that I would have that conversation. Now heavens knows, you know, it could happen in a Democratic White House, too, but I doubt that it would have happened with the Clintons. I bet they would have just gone: Yeah, we want more of that. Let's mix it up.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Sigourney Weaver. She stars in the news series "Political Animals" on the USA Network. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actress Sigourney Weaver. She stars in the new series "Political Animals" on the USA Network. Well, I don't know if there's ever been a Sigourney Weaver interview that didn't mention Ellen Ripley of the "Alien" series. And this isn't going to be one of them. But I wanted to play a clip from the first one, "Alien." I guess, God, what were you, 29 years old when you did that role, something like that?

WEAVER: Twenty-eight.

DAVIES: Twenty-eight, OK, and this is a moment where you're the warrant officer on this spaceship that's landed on a planet, and a creature has attached itself to one of your crew members who is out on the planet. And he and other crew members are concerned. They want to get back in the spaceship. You control the hatch, and here's what happens.


TOM SKERRITT: (As Dallas) Hey Ripley.

WEAVER: (As Ripley) I'm right here.

SKERRITT: (As Dallas) We're clean. Let us in.

WEAVER: (As Ripley) What happened to Kane?

SKERRITT: (As Dallas) Something has attached itself to him. We have to get him to the infirmary right away.

WEAVER: (As Ripley) What kind of thing? I need a clear definition.

SKERRITT: (As Dallas) An organism. Open the hatch.

WEAVER: (As Ripley) Wait a minute. If we let it in, the ship could be infected. You know the quarantine procedure: 24 hours for decontamination.

SKERRITT: (As Dallas) He could die in 24 hours. Open the hatch.

WEAVER: (As Ripley) Listen to me. If we break quarantine, we could all day.

VERONICA CARTWRIGHT: (As Lambert) Look, could you open the damn hatch? We have to get him inside.

WEAVER: (As Ripley) No, I can't do that, and if you were in my position, you'd do the same.

SKERRITT: (As Dallas) Ripley, this is an order. Open that hatch right now. Do you hear me?

WEAVER: (As Ripley) Yes.

SKERRITT: (As Dallas) Ripley, this is an order. Do you hear me?

WEAVER: (As Ripley) Yes, I read you. The answer is negative.

DAVIES: And thank heavens the evil science officer did open the hatch. The monster got in, ate the crew, and your career really took off.

WEAVER: There you go.

DAVIES: That's of course our guest Sigourney Weaver playing Ellen Ripley in "Alien."

WEAVER: She's a tough cookie.

DAVIES: You know, I know that when you were on the show before, you talked about this, you had done a lot of acting in theater. You kind of weren't expecting to get this role, and Ridley Scott directed it. But it must have really changed your life.

WEAVER: Yeah, of course it did. You know, I was incredibly lucky because it was such an excellent film, and it was such a groundbreaking film in so many ways: the camerawork, you know, the idea that a young woman would end up being the survivor. It turned everything on its head.

And I think the film stands up well, and so I was incredibly fortunate. But it was not part of my career plan. I wanted to do, like, Shakespeare, and if I had to do a movie, you know, maybe a little Woody Allen movie but nothing more than that.


DAVIES: Well, and of course, you know, she - you reprised the role in, what, three subsequent films. And a lot of people look back on this as, you know, the first female action hero and think of you as a real feminist, you know, trailblazer. Do you see yourself that way?

WEAVER: I always think of Sheena Queen of the Jungle. Maybe people don't remember...

DAVIES: The role you really wanted?

WEAVER: Remember that, still waiting to be offered that remake. No, I mean, I feel like in literature, we've always had great women heroines, and, you know, I think having a girls school education, I always put myself in the shoes of any hero I was studying, you know, from Davey Crockett on, you know, sort of I didn't ever think that being a girl meant that I couldn't, you know, wear buckskins and shoot bows and arrows and things like that.

So I was kind of lucky that I was that weird and had that feeling because I think it helped me with Ripley.

DAVIES: Now in the second one of the series, "Aliens," which was directed by James Cameron and for which you got an Oscar nomination, there's this incredibly dramatic scene at the end, where you confront the alien, and you're wearing this sort of big power suit that allows you to operate these huge pinchers and appendages and battle the alien.

And what's interesting, this was before computer-generated graphics. This all had to be done at the time with real models. It's incredibly gripping. And I wondered: Was it scary at timeS?

WEAVER: Well, you know, I used to practice during the lunch hour, climbing into this contraption, and there was a giant man named John(ph), who actually was inside the power-loader. And he and I would practice walking and moving. You did really have to practice because didn't have CGI, and I think it looks better.

I did have help - John the secret behind me - but it's pretty much me calling the shots as Ripley, you know, in the fight.

DAVIES: Right, and the scene where the monster comes within inches of your face and is dripping acid from its jowls and these sharp teeth, was this at all terrifying? You know, I think of, Janet Leigh in "Psycho" and how she never took a standing shower again after she saw that film. Was this in any way real or scary at the time?

WEAVER: You know, I have to say that I was so - I can certainly understand about the shower. I think she gave us all that terror forever. But I think in this case, Ripley is so determined to save that little girl, Newt, that, you know, all I remember is just the kind of heat of the passion of getting rid of this other mother.

You know, I mean, it was really mother to mother. And I had killed all of her eggs, which was, I have to say, probably the most satisfying moment in that movie.

DAVIES: The alien's egg nest, yeah.

WEAVER: Yes, the alien's egg nest. You know, after I'd made a deal to protect them, kind of, even though we weren't speaking, we were kind of speaking. So yes, it was a big battle, you know, and I think James Cameron meant it to be the battle of the sort of titan mothers.

But I was not afraid. First of all, we weren't using real acid.


WEAVER: We were using K-Y jelly.


WEAVER: So I probably got whacked in the face with a few squirts of K-Y, but at that point, you know, I was so filthy, covered with muck in so many ways, and I'd been shooting this for so long. I was, you know, half-Ripley at that point, you know.

GROSS: Sigourney Weaver speaking to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Let's hear another scene from her new USA Network series "Political Animals." Her character, Secretary of State Elaine Barrish, has just finished arguing with the vice president over the phone. Her son, who is also her chief of staff, is concerned about the way she's acting. He's played by James Wolk.


JAMES WOLK: (As Douglas Hammond) What's going on?

WEAVER: (As Elaine) Nothing.

WOLK: (As Douglas) Really? Because in the last day, you defied the president, threatened your resignation, put your entire reputation on the line and offered dad the first spotlight in two years that didn't make him out to be an oversexed political has-been. So I'd appreciate the truth, mom, and I think I earned it, when I ask you what the hell is going on.

WEAVER: (As Elaine) I'm just sick of it all. That's what's going on. I am sick to death of the (beep) and the egos and of the men. I am sick of the men. Just one time, just once, I would like to accomplish something in this city without having to spend all of my energy navigating the shortsighted, selfish, self-involved and oh-so-fragile male egos that suck up all the oxygen in this town.

(As Elaine) It makes so sick, Douglas, so sick I could puke for days.

GROSS: Sigourney Weaver will be back with Dave Davies in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of Dave Davies' interview with actress Sigourney Weaver. She plays a first lady turned secretary of state in the new USA Network series "Political Animals."

WEAVER: Weaver is a three-time Oscar nominee. Her films include "Alien," "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Gorillas in the Mist," "The Ice Storm" and "Ghostbusters." She also starred in the James Cameron films "Aliens" and "Avatar."

DAVIES: Well, let's hear one clip from "Avatar." I mean you play Grace Augustine. She's a biologist and, you know, you're working on this planet where a big corporation wants to get the natives, the Na'vi out of the way so that they can harvest this precious oar. And this is sort of late in the struggle where you're arguing with one of the mining people, played by Giovanni Ribisi, and I think a military guy, played by Stephen Lang, and they essentially want to destroy the planet to get the oar. You're giving them a different perspective. Let's listen.


WEAVER: (As Grace) Parker, there's still time to salvage the situation. Parker...

STEPHEN LANG: (As Quaritch) Shut your pie hole.

WEAVER: (As Grace) Or what, Ranger Rick? You...

LANG: (As Quaritch) I can do that.

WEAVER: (As Grace) You need to muzzle your dog.

GIOVANNI RIBISI: (As Parker) Yeah, we just take this down a couple of notches, please?

SAM WORTHINGTON: (As Sully) You say you want to keep your people alive? You start by listening to her.

WEAVER: (As Grace) Those trees were sacred to the Omaticaya in a way you can't imagine.

RIBISI: (As Parker) Ah, you know what? You throw a stick in the air around here it's going to land on some sacred fern, for Christ's sake.

WEAVER: (As Grace) I'm not talking about some kind of pagan voodoo here - I'm talking about something real, something measurable in the biology of the forest.

RIBISI: (As Parker) Which is what exactly?

WEAVER: (As Grace) What we think we know - is that there's some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees. Like the synapses between neurons. And each tree has 10 to the fourth connections to the trees around it, and there are ten to the 12th trees on Pandora...

RIBISI: (As Parker) Which is a lot, I'm guessing.

WEAVER: (As Grace) It's more connections than the human brain. You get it? It's a network - a global network. And the Na'vi can access it - they can upload and download data - memories - at sites like the one you just destroyed.

DAVIES: That's our guest Sigourney Weaver. You know, this film is different because in addition to the character, the human character you play, you have an avatar, this what, nine foot tall representation of yourself that's blue and had a tail. And you do that part of the shoot with this performance capture technology where you wear what, like a black Lycra suit or something. You want to just talk a little bit about how that's different from the kind of acting that you normally do?

WEAVER: Well, I think that what would surprise most people is that in fact, the way Jim Cameron does performance capture - and he's the only one who calls it that - you have actors like myself in a kind of black, little cat suit with little ears and a tail in our case because we're doing "Avatar," we are in a big empty room that's filled with cameras and computers. And what Jim is doing is trying to capture, like quick fire, a great master where all the relationships are perfect. So in other words, it's like an early rehearsal of a play, where you don't have props and you don't have customs but it's all about the connections between people. Now he could come back in when none of the actors where there and do all the close-ups, two shots, three shots, everything had been absorbed about that first perfect master by the computers. So it actually revolutionized filmmaking, and it also revolutionized it in a very actor centric way. That's why he calls it performance capture. It's not about our voicing these big blue people. It's about taking the essence of what the actor is doing and translating that into, in this case, 3-D and computer graphic images of another race in space.

I just want actors listening to know that, because it's going to - actors are absolutely essential to this process. It's not like this stuff is going to replace us. It's sourced with the actor and the human heart.

DAVIES: I don't want to let you go without talking about some of the great roles you've had in comedies. And I thought we would listen to a clip from one perhaps not so well-known to people. This is "Heartbreakers" directed by David Mirkin, where you and Jennifer Love Hewitt play a mother-daughter con team, kind of like Steve Martin and Michael Cain in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." You essentially target rich old men, you get them to marry you and then find ways to get a quick divorce and separate them from their money. And in this scene, you're impersonating a wealthy Russian woman named Olga. And, of course, you're not really Russian but you happen to be in this Russian nightclub with your latest Mark who is Gene Hackman, who is very funny. And to your horror, you are called to the stage to sing a song in Russian. And so you do some quick thinking and improvise a famous Beatles number. Let's listen.


WEAVER: (As Ulga Yevanova) (Singing) Flew in from Miami Beach, B-O-A-C. Didn't get to bed last night. On the way the paper bag was on my knee. Man, I had a dreadful flight. I'm back in the USSR. You don't know how lucky you are boy. Back in the USSR.

(As Ulga Yevanova) (Singing) Been away so long I hardly knew the place. Gee, it's good to be back home.


DAVIES: And that is Sigourney Weaver in the film "Heartbreakers," singing "Back in the USSR." This must've been a really fun role.

WEAVER: This was fun. I consider this sort of the highlight of my career, actually this very moment...


WEAVER: be on stage with a red wig singing to Gene Hackman, who I revere and adored working with. And I did a lot of cabaret when I was first coming up and I just have never been so happy as playing this part. And actually, I went to Kyrgyzstan last year. No matter who I talked to, whether it was an intellectual or who knows what, this was their favorite movie...


WEAVER: ...for reasons I will never know, so.

DAVIES: You must've gotten something right.

WEAVER: I guess.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, of course, you also did "Galaxy Quest," which was very funny and "Ghostbusters," well, you know, you're working with Bill Murray. I mean you were the seductress Zuul and part of this whole supernatural thing to get the evil Gozer back to Earth. It must've been, could you keep a straight face working with Bill Murray?

WEAVER: He is so funny and such a dear and strange man. I felt very lucky because, you know, I was really too tall to be a normal kind of romantic comedy girlfriend. I could only have ended up in a movie like "Ghostbusters." You know, it took some imagination to cast me. And really, I wanted to be in it because I wanted to actually turn into the dog.


WEAVER: I was very disappointed when they replaced me with a special effect because I was all set, you know, being from the theater to actually become a dog, a terror dog.

DAVIES: So what took you into acting?

WEAVER: Well, when I was at college I was an English major and on the side I did a lot of very irreverent, crazy theater with a wonderful group called The Company. We had a kind of covered wagon. We used to do commedia dell'arte all over the San Francisco Bay area. We did "King Lear." We did "Hamlet." We did, you know, we were fearless and we had nothing to do with any drama department. And when it came time for me to leave college - which was a scary moment - I quickly applied to drama schools, kind of as a lark, and I got in. Now...

DAVIES: To Yale.

WEAVER: ...I actually did these - yeah. To all of them, actually. Then I had a miserable time at Yale where they really were discouraging.

DAVIES: Hmm. In what way?

WEAVER: They told me I had no talent and I'd never get anywhere. You know, I am not alone. So many art schools believe that they need to tear down young people. They consider it a sort of rite of passage to kind of roll - steamroll you and crush you into the dust. And so that's why helped found The Flea Theater here in New York where we have currently, we have 90 young actors, brilliant, wonderful young actors. Very diverse. We just got a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. But so actually, it's a good thing it happened to me that Yale was so mean, because now I've been part of something that's created an alternative to drama school, which, as was always the case in so many businesses, you come into the theater and you learn by doing and it's an intergenerational thing. And I work at The Flea and we all inspire each other.

DAVIES: Well, Sigourney Weaver, it's been great to have you back. Thank you so much.

WEAVER: Well, thank you. It's always a pleasure. I'm a huge fan of the show and of NPR in general.

GROSS: Sigourney Weaver, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Her new TV series, "Political Animals," is shown Sundays on the USA Network.

Coming up, we listened back to an interview with actress Celeste Holm. She died Sunday. She co-starred in "All About Eve," "High Society," and "Gentlemen's Agreement." This is FRESH AIR.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: Actress Celeste Holm died Sunday at the age of 95. She was best known for her sporting roles. Although she sometimes played a witty sophisticate, one of the roles she first became known for was in the original production of "Oklahoma," as Ado Annie. One of her most famous films is "All About Eve." It starred Bette Davis as an aging Broadway star whose devoted fan is actually trying to steal her role and her boyfriend. Holm played Davis' smart and loyal best friend who sees what's happening. In "High Society," Holm and Frank Sinatra played journalists covering a society wedding. She won an Oscar for her supporting role in "Gentlemen's Agreement," which starred Gregory Peck.

I spoke with Celeste Holm in 1990 when the Museum of Modern Art was beginning a retrospective of films from the 20th Century Fox studio, including five featuring Holm. Darryl Zanuck was the head of that studio when she was signed. I asked her what Zanuck was like.

CELESTE HOLM: Well, he was short and so he wanted to be tall, and he made very good pictures because of that. But a lot of good things have been done for the wrong reasons. Now every day at the studio...


HOLM: ...they had asked me to come in at 6:30. This is making a picture called "Three Little Girls in Blue." I was the one who read. And they said come in at 6:30. And so I sat there from 6:30 to 5:30, 7:30, something like that, and never worked. I found out later that was called breaking the New York actress's spirit. Now what a dumb thing to do. What they're buying is the New York actress' spirit. You get somebody that's limp or angry what do you got? Nothing.

GROSS: When you were signed, like what's the first thing that happens? Did they send you to publicity right away, so that...

HOLM: Yes.

GROSS: ...that they could get a press release out of you?

HOLM: They sent me to publicity. I met an absolute idiot and he asked me what I had done and where I came from and all this. So I told him. And I told him we had a farm in New Jersey and that my father had built a theater on it for us, a stage. So he wrote that Celeste Holm's father had a theater built on their estate. My lord, it was nothing like that at all. You know, they didn't know, they didn't understand at all. You tell them a fact and then they blew it up into whatever they thought was suitable, so they gave an impression which was totally false.

GROSS: When you were signed to 20th Century Fox how was it decided which movies you'd be in? Would you have to audition for a film? Did they just assign you to a film?

HOLM: Oh no, of course not. No. No. No. They just said this is your next picture.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: And then you'd read it. You'd say oh, this is so silly. And they'd say yeah, well, yes, but this is what we want you to do. So the first picture they talked me into it. They said oh, it will be wonderful. You'll be fine. And I was. I got very good notices, you know, Times said I was a wow and all that sort of thing. So then they were very anxious to put me in another thing. They put me in "Carnival in Costa Rica," which was silly.


HOLM: Dumb. They never took us to Costa Rica. We hadn't any idea what Costa Rica was like. The whole thing you found were processed shots with trees with coffee beans on them. So we had no sense of reality about any of it. Oh. But then came. "Gentlemen's Agreement" and I was rescued. And then, of course, I could never get back into a musical.


GROSS: So was there an understanding that if you objected, strenuously, to a movie that you were assigned to that you would be punished?

HOLM: Oh sure. We went on suspension. I was on suspension a lot.

GROSS: Oh really? Like for what?

HOLM: Oh yes.

GROSS: What would they put you on suspension for?

HOLM: For turning down a picture.

GROSS: And what did that mean when you were on suspension?

HOLM: You didn't get paid.


HOLM: And when "Gentlemen's Agreement" came along, they would let me have that picture unless I agree to - see I made the mistake of making very clear that I was dying to do it so then they made me sign a term contract.


GROSS: Let me ask you about one of the most celebrated movies that you've been in and that's "All About Eve." Did you realize by looking at the script what a terrific movie this is going to be?

HOLM: You bet. Sure. Oh, I knew that would be a wonderful picture.

GROSS: I'd like to play a short clip from a scene in "All About Eve." This is the kind of culmination of the scene that starts with Bette Davis saying, fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night.

HOLM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So the party is coming to a close.

HOLM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Bette Davis is really drunk and getting...

HOLM: Very drunk.

GROSS: ...getting very bitter because you could tell Eve is really out to get her roles and out to get her man.

HOLM: No, no. She doesn't know Eve is out to get her roles yet. She doesn't know. She wasn't understudy yet. She was just secretary. But she knew that she felt threatened in relation to her man.

GROSS: So the party is...

HOLM: At that point.

GROSS: The party's wrapping up. People are kind of getting ready to go home. Bette Davis is really drunk, and here's the scene.


HUGH MARLOWE: (as Lloyd) How about calling it a night?

BETTE DAVIS: (as Margo) And you pose as a playwright. A situation pregnant with possibilities, and all you can think of is everybody go to sleep.

MARLOWE: (as Lloyd) It's a good thought.

DAVIS: (as Margo) It won't play.

HOLM: (as Karen) As a non-professional, I think it's an excellent idea. Excuse me. Un-dramatic, perhaps, but practical.

DAVIS: (as Margo) Happy little housewife.

MARLOWE: (as Lloyd) Cut it out.

DAVIS: (as Margo) This is my house, not a theater. In my house, you're a guest, not a director.

HOLM: (as Karen) Then stop being a star, and stop treating your guests as your supporting cast.

MARLOWE: (as Lloyd) Now, let's not get into a big hassle.

HOLM: (as Karen) It's about time we did. It's about time Margo realized that's what attractive onstage need not necessarily be attractive off.

DAVIS: (as Margo) All right. I'm going to bed.

HOLM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did you have any conversations with Bette Davis like that off the set?


HOLM: No. We had no conversations at all.

GROSS: You weren't even on speaking terms?

HOLM: I had nothing to say to her.

GROSS: Why not? What was she like to work with?

HOLM: Excellent. She was fine to work with, but there was no small talk.

GROSS: You mean she allowed no small talk?

HOLM: Well, she had nothing to say to anybody, and so consequently, nobody had anything to say to her.

GROSS: Let me quote something that she said - and this is in the 1970s, when she got an AFI, an American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement award. And at the...

HOLM: Mm-hmm. I was there.

GROSS: OK. At the party after the banquet, she said Joseph Mankiewicz did give me a second career, but he was slightly in error describing the wonderful cast of "Eve." They were wonderful, but there was one bitch: Celeste Holm. Why do you think she said that about you?

HOLM: Because I had no patience with her. First day I walked onto the set, I said: Good morning. And she said: Oh, (beep) good manners.


HOLM: So I thought, well, this is a waste of time. So I had nothing to say to her. So then at one point she got - she suddenly lost her temper, and her mother was visiting the set, and she had never talked this way before. She did this in front of her mother. She used four letter words in combination I've never even heard a sailor use.

And I said: I'm going back to my trailer, and when Ms. Davis gets herself together, call me. And then when we were playing in the - in 21, we were all sitting there together. And so I came back from having talked to Eve in the ladies room.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: And Anne and I were very good friends. I mean, I loved everybody in the cast except Bette, because she wouldn't let you love her. So I - we were all sitting there, and I said: Did you know that the man who made the wonderful glass teapot, Pyrex, when he found out they were using it to make martinis, he stopped making them?

And Bette drank more than she should, I thought. And so she looked at me and she said: I don't know how I've lived this long without knowing that.


HOLM: So I don't know who was the bitch.

GROSS: Did this kind of tension between you two get translated into your acting?


GROSS: Into the scenes that you played together?

HOLM: I don't think it did. I thought we were both very good together. Everybody said you must be really very good friends. I said no, not really. By the way, I have never had any difficulty with any other actress...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: any other show, ever.

GROSS: Well, Marilyn Monroe had one of her first roles in "All About Eve." And...

HOLM: I got to be a very good friend of hers.

GROSS: What were your first impressions of her when she came onto the set?

HOLM: I thought she was a sweet, dumb little girl.

GROSS: Was that impression after you'd worked with her more?

HOLM: Yes, because she wasn't terribly good in that. She got awfully good after she worked with the Actors Studio and so forth. I thought she was absolutely marvelous in "Bus Stop." Marvelous.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now, you worked with Joseph Mankiewicz. You know, he wrote, directed "All About Eve." You'd work in other of his films, as well.

HOLM: "A Letter to Three Wives."

GROSS: Yeah. What kind of director...

HOLM: Wonderful man.

GROSS: Well, tell me...

HOLM: Wonderful.

GROSS: Tell me what his directing was like, especially when he was directing his own lines. And his writing was so good. There was so much clever dialogue.

HOLM: Very bright, yes. But it was more than dialogue. It was that the characters of the people were interesting.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: They were individuals. And that's what good writing is about. And nobody seems to know that now. Most writing is just somehow get it onto paper, and if all the lights are left on, well, let's print it. It's very sad. It's not good enough.

GROSS: So what was his way of directing you? Did he have...

HOLM: No, he didn't have any particular - he just saw to it that we didn't bump into each other or the furniture. Most of us were pretty good actors, you know, so he left us pretty much alone.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1990 interview with Celeste Holm. She died Sunday at the age of 95. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our 1990 interview with Celeste Holm. She died Sunday at the age of 95. She costarred in the original production of "Oklahoma!" and in the films "All About Eve," "High Society," "Come to the Stable" and "Gentleman's Agreement."

You were directed by Elia Kazan in "Gentleman's Agreement."

HOLM: Yes, indeed.

GROSS: What was he like as a director?

HOLM: He's a very interesting director. He's a secretive director. For instance, if he has a piece of direction for you, he'll whisper it in your ear so the other actors don't hear what it is. Then he whispers in their ears. And then you do the scene again, and you try to figure out what he said to them by what they do.


HOLM: And they try to figure out what he said to you. It's very interesting and very truthful, because all good actors have secrets. All interesting people have secrets, which is why you wanted to get to know them better.

GROSS: What's one of the secrets he whispered in your ear?

HOLM: You cannot stand that girl. I want to see it very quickly, and then cover it.

GROSS: And why wouldn't he have wanted the actress that you were...

HOLM: Oh, he didn't want...

GROSS: ...playing against to know that?

HOLM: ...her to hear that.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Why not?

HOLM: Well, because your relationship to somebody is your own relationship. He didn't want it to be an inimical one. He did not want a confrontational thing at all. He just wanted that subtle business, where one woman looks at another and doesn't much like her, you know.

GROSS: What was the reputation of the different studios among actors?

HOLM: Well, I found out later I probably would have done a great deal better at Metro. I always loved working at Metro. "High Society" we did at Metro.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: "Tender Trap" I did at Metro.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: And they were both delicious pictures, delightful - and a much more human studio. I don't think Zanuck liked actors. I know he didn't like women. He liked girls. They would say yes, whatever you say. But if you, you know, you said wait a minute, I'm not sure that's going to work, well, he didn't want to hear that.

GROSS: So in what way was MGM more human? I mean, you said you really liked them.

HOLM: Well, it was just more fun.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLM: They seemed to realize that humor - I've always had a sense of responsibility about keeping a set alive and happy, because that's what photographs. You know, we're the only industry - outside of musicians - whose work is referred to as playing, and it has to be playing. We have to really play together. And that's what the audience responds to.

If it's work, it's not - you don't want to watch. And that kind of pleasure, that kind of balloon, that kind of bubble in the air is what makes all good comedy. And it's what the audience really enjoys.

GROSS: Since we brought up "High Society," let me ask you about making that movie.

HOLM: Right.

GROSS: And as you pointed out, it's an MGM movie made in 1956. Now, you played opposite Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby in this.

HOLM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What was it like to work with Sinatra? You also worked with him in the "Tender Trap."

HOLM: Mm-hmm. Well, I've always gotten along well with children.


HOLM: And Frank's charm is that he's like a child. He wants everything his way, and he wants it now. And he sings beautifully. And as long as all of those things are functioning, why, he's just a pleasure.

GROSS: And if they're not?

HOLM: Hmm?

GROSS: And if they're not functioning?

HOLM: Well, then he sometimes walks off the set.

GROSS: Did that happen a lot during "High Society"?

HOLM: No. No. It happened once in "Tender Trap."

GROSS: What did he walk out over?

HOLM: Astonished us all, just astonished us. Couldn't believe it. You know, he'd just suddenly say, well, I don't want to shoot anymore today.


HOLM: Of course, he was also delicious in it. He was absolutely wonderful in it.

GROSS: Were you sorry when the film studios broke up?

HOLM: Yes. I was very dismayed and disheartened by that, because, you see, the most important thing about freedom is responsibility. If you don't have a sense of responsibility about what you do, it's not very good, as a rule. And the studios had all those theaters to fill, so they had a sense of responsibility to those theaters.

And the minute those theaters were gone, they didn't have that, and pictures were not as good after that. Then they no longer had all those people under talent - under contract, which they had to protect. You know, the industry was really very changed by that.

GROSS: Celeste Holm, recorded in 1990. She died Sunday at the age of 95. Here she is with Frank Sinatra from the soundtrack of "High Society."


FRANK SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) Who wants to be a millionaire?

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) I don't.

SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) Have flashy flunkeys everywhere?

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) I don't.

SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) Who wants the bother of a country estate?

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) A country estate is something I'd hate.

SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) Who wants to wallow in champagne?

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) I don't.

SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) Who wants a supersonic plane?

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) I don't.

SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) Who wants a private landing field?

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) I don't.

SINATRA: (as Mike) (Singing) And I don't.

HOLM: (as Liz) (Singing) Because all I want is you.

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website:

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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