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My Salinger Year a time of discovery for Sigourney Weaver

The iconic actress was happy to take direction from Quebec's Philippe Falardeau, and was also happy to wander Montreal’s streets.

Philippe Falardeau and Sigourney Weaver were at the Berlinale last February for the première of My Salinger Year. The film had the opening slot at the festival — an honour that turned out to be both a blessing and a curse, though Falardeau is philosophical about the experience.

For his 51st birthday, on Feb. 1, 2019, Quebec director Philippe Falardeau hopped a plane to New York for a lunch date with Sigourney Weaver.

“He flew in from Montreal, and we met at this place on the Upper East Side that has lovely things to eat and good coffee,” recounted the iconic actress, known for her roles in the franchises Alien, Ghostbusters and Avatar, among many other things.

In this case, the next potential thing was Falardeau’s eighth feature — his third in English — My Salinger Year, out March 5. Adapted by the director from Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir, the ’90s-set film tells the story of a young woman who lands a job as an assistant at one of New York’s oldest literary agencies, representing J.D. Salinger. Falardeau wanted Weaver to play the agency boss, Margaret.

“I didn’t know it was his birthday,” said the actress, reached at her New York home in October, a few days after her own 71st birthday. “He gave up his birthday to come meet me, and missed his plane back.”

In other words, the two hit it off.

“As soon as I sat down, it was so easy to talk to Philippe. We just got along so well. We were so busy talking, we forgot to order anything. I think he ordered coffee — I forgot to get water.”

Weaver was on board from the get-go, but realized over the course of their conversation that Falardeau hadn’t caught that part.

“I just took for granted that he knew I wanted to be in it,” she said. “I had to make it clear. … He didn’t have to convince me. I read the script and I just fell in love with it. I thought it was a classic coming-of-age film. I could relate to it as someone who used to be a writer when I was young, and as someone who loved books. I was a real bookworm.”

Weaver admits she’s more a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald than she is of Salinger. Born Susan Alexandra Weaver, she adopted the name Sigourney at age 14 from a minor character in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

“I was very committed to (Fitzgerald),” she said. “I would have arguments about who was better, Hemingway or Fitzgerald — so I certainly understood that passion for a writer and their specific style of writing as something that’s worth having a fist fight for.”

That partly explains how Weaver went from bookworm to swashbuckling, Alien-blasting actress. But back to her name, which provides another clue as to where she found the inner strength that came to define so many of the characters she has played. And which brings us to her height.

“I was 5-10 1/2 when I was 11,” said Weaver. “Imagine how awful it was to tower over everybody. I was very shy and self-conscious. I really didn’t like my name, Susan. It felt incredibly boring. People called me Sue; it felt like too small a word for my huge height. So I just adopted this name. I made my friends and parents call me Sigourney. I don’t know how I summoned the willpower to do this.”

That resolve has served her well over the years, and made her perfect for the role of Margaret in My Salinger Year. As the steely employer of wide-eyed Joanna (played by Margaret Qualley), she runs a tight ship, mingling subtle doses of humour with self-important gravitas.

It’s a delicate balance Weaver has long known how to strike — while channel flipping over the Christmas holidays, I came across the 1988 dramatic comedy Working Girl, in which Weaver portrays a similarly tough boss while providing key doses of comic relief.

She credits the influence of her TV executive father.

“Growing up in my family, comedy was the most important thing. My father was in the industry, and comedy was always very important in our household. I’ve always felt I was quite good at it.

“I would be sent these ultra-serious characters, and often felt I would only play them if I can show (the funny) side of them. I don’t think there’s any scene that can’t be better with a little human humour in it. Margaret is a master of irony and sarcasm. I think it’s part of what makes her … maybe not likable, but we like her.”

Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley in Philippe Falardeau’s My Salinger Year.
Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley in Philippe Falardeau’s My Salinger Year. Photo by micro_scope /Mongrel Media

For Weaver, there’s no disconnect between starring in a Hollywood blockbuster — she will reunite with filmmaker James Cameron for Avatar 2 and Avatar 3, due in 2022 and 2024, respectively — and an indie film like My Salinger Year.

“I don’t have much problem jumping back and forth,” she said. “It’s even more important, in a big film like Avatar, to make the character and each moment very specific, because there’s so much going on for the audience.

“This film feels like it’s in a continuum. The river stops in different towns. I always almost forget the thing I just did. I approach each new project as if it’s the first job I ever had. It’s only when I’m interviewed that I realize how fortunate I am to be able to tell all these stories.”

On the set of My Salinger Year, she welcomed Falardeau’s critical eye. The director didn’t hesitate to guide the performance of the veteran actress.

“When we shot the first scene, on the first day, he encouraged me not to be too accessible to Joanna,” Weaver recalled. “He said we had somewhere to go by the end, when Joanna comes to Margaret’s house.

“I appreciated Philippe’s direction. Alas, sometimes I’m not directed that much. People think I know what I’m doing, which is a mistake. Philippe helped me go further.”

For Falardeau, it was business as usual.

“I think in her last few experiences, she was left to her own devices,” he said. “People were afraid to direct her. I direct.”

When he can locate his talent, that is. During the month-long Montreal shoot, in the spring of 2019, Weaver sometimes disappeared when she wasn’t needed for certain scenes. Turns out she was wandering the city with her husband, Jim Simpson, who came up with her.

“I think Sigourney enjoyed herself very much here,” he said. “She walks a lot. She’s very funny, and very physical. She can’t sit in a trailer, so she walked Montreal from north to south, east to west. Sometimes we went to get her and she was gone. We had to send a PA (production assistant) looking for her in the streets.”

“I think in her last few experiences, she was left to her own devices,” Philippe Falardeau says of Sigourney Weaver. “People were afraid to direct her. I direct.”
“I think in her last few experiences, she was left to her own devices,” Philippe Falardeau says of Sigourney Weaver. “People were afraid to direct her. I direct.” Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette files

Weaver was again joined by her husband and their daughter, Charlotte, last February at the Berlin International Film Festival, where My Salinger Year was the opening film.

The honour turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. The intense spotlight increased scrutiny for the charming but low-key film, which received mixed reviews. Falardeau is philosophical about the experience.

“When you’re selected in an important festival, and offered the opening slot, you accept it, and you accept that it can be rough along the boards. But I’m happy with how everything turned out. The film was sold everywhere.”

The filmmaker is used to contending with great expectations. His 2011 breakthrough Monsieur Lazhar was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film. It came a year after the nomination of Incendies in the same category, which set Denis Villeneuve on a path that led to Blade Runner 2049 and the upcoming Dune remake.

The pressure to follow Monsieur Lazhar with another runaway hit was real, according to Falardeau. And while he has flirted with Hollywood since then — with his 2013 refugee drama The Good Lie, starring Reese Witherspoon, and the 2016 boxing dramedy Chuck, featuring Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss and Naomi Watts — he remains just under the radar of the mainstream. He has learned to be OK with that.

“I get in a very dark place if I start to measure my success,” Falardeau said. “I need to remind myself why I feel the urge to make films. If this is still fun, pleasant and useful, then I’ll keep doing it; but if it becomes an obligation, I’ll have to stop.

“Monsieur Lazhar set a standard that couldn’t be matched. … What I’m most proud of, and I have to remind myself of, is I don’t make the same film twice — formally or content-wise. I’ve had the extreme chance and pleasure to work with amazing actors over the past decade. If actors want to work with me, that’s what’s at the core of why I keep doing films — out of my love for actors.”

AT A GLANCE

My Salinger Year opens Friday, March 5 in cinemas and on demand.

tdunlevy@postmedia.com

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