WEAVER SHOWS ANOTHER SIDE OF AUTISM ACTRESS FINDS NEW CHALLENGES IN 'SNOW CAKE' ROLE.
On their first and only previous experience working together, Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver found themselves wearing heavy makeup (him), a curve-hugging space-traveling uniform (her) and comically sending up all things "Trek"-ish
Their time together on "Galaxy Quest" eight years ago apparently made enough of an impression for Rickman to recommend Weaver for a very different role opposite him in the Canadian drama "Snow Cake."
A well-traveled film-festival favorite in 2006, "Snow Cake" finds an emotionally closed-off Brit named Alex Hughes (played by Rickman) picking up a hitchhiker named Vivienne Freeman (Emily Hampshire) in Ontario. After the girl dies in a car accident in which Alex was driving, he travels to the little town of Wawa to get in touch with the girl's mother, Linda (Weaver), who happens to be an adult autistic.
"I thought Alan must be crazy to think I could do something like this," says Weaver, who earned a Canadian Genie nomination for the performance. "That's a big jump to make from 'Galaxy Quest.' But he certainly knew I would work hard."
Indeed she did. To prepare herself for the role of Linda, Weaver spent nearly a year researching autistic behavior, including spending a few days living with Roz Blackburn, a British woman with autism who frequently consults and lectures on the neurological disorder.
As it happens, time and circumstance were on the filmmakers' side. Funding holdups and weather delays gave the thrice Oscar-nominated Weaver sufficient time to study, rehearse and get in touch with a part of herself that, she contends, most adults set aside.
"I learned to play in a way that I had never played since I was a little kid," says the actress, 57. "That's why I think it's so important to appreciate what people on the autism spectrum can do. I am awestruck at their capacity to do the things they love to do and play intensively for hours at a time."
Like Linda in the film, Blackburn had a particular fondness for the trampoline, which she passed on to Weaver. "You couldn't keep Sigourney off it," says director Marc Evans.
"The more people I met, the more responsibility I felt to be accurate both in the script and in the behavior," says Weaver. "I also sensed a great desire in the people I met for there to be more out there about the condition. So many people have seen 'Rain Man,' and it's a great movie, but that's not the only story of an older person on the spectrum."
"Snow Cake's" screenwriter, Angela Pell, is the mother of an autistic child, but as both Weaver and Evans point out, the film is not about autism specifically. It's more interested in small personal awakenings than any revelations.
Alex sparks a relationship with one of Linda's neighbors (Carrie-Ann Moss) and stays in Wawa to help Linda with arrangements for her daughter's funeral, even though the character -- who is largely incapable of grief -- is more about having someone take out the garbage than about the loss of her daughter.
"It's an interesting story about three people who really don't want to connect with anyone, but they end up connecting with each other," says Weaver. "The community kind of gets to know Linda, and Linda gets to know the community, so it's a step forward."
Evans maintains that Weaver's job was especially difficult because Linda has no character arc. The character doesn't grow, change or learn anything, leaving the actress without the usual "bag of tricks" to draw upon.
"It's quite a tricky area because an actor immediately gets accused of being showy or of trying to make an award-winning performance. It's very unfair," says Evans. "It was much more positive for Sigourney to be able to deal with the character than to be too obsessed with the condition itself."
A look at Weaver's career quickly shows why Rickman's faith in her range was hardly misplaced. Since her blink-and-you'll-miss it debut in "Annie Hall" 30 years ago, the Yale Drama School-trained Weaver has amassed an impressive assortment of vamps, villains, housewives, naturalists and everyday folks both comic and dramatic.
In "Aliens," the second of her four turns as slimy creature-busting Ellen Ripley, Weaver earned the first of her three Oscar nominations. She picked up two more in 1988: for playing Dian Fossey in "Gorillas in the Mist," and a corporate shark looking to sabotage Melanie Griffith in "Working Girl."
Weaver went from "Snow Cake" to a comic turn as a monstrous network administrator in Jake Kasdan's recently released "The TV Set," and is currently preparing to play a society matron looking to account for some inheritance in A.R. Gurney's play "Crazy Mary" at Playwrights Horizons. She'll go back to science-fiction territory, reteaming with "Aliens" director James Cameron for his 2009 film "Avatar."
She has played an agoraphobic in "Copycat," and a torture victim in "Death and the Maiden." But Weaver figures it will be a while before she finds a character who gets under her skin in quite the same way Linda Freeman has.
"I have to say that Linda was a lot more fun than those two women," she says. "I had a great time, and, as challenging as it was, after the movie finished, I started to lose some of the ways I looked at things that made me quite sad."
Evan Henerson, (818) 713-3651
"I learned to play in a way that I had never played since I was a little kid," says Sigourney Weaver of her preparation for the role of an autistic adult. "That's why I think it's so important to appreciate what people on the autism spectrum can do."