“I’ve never been a big fan of the combination of the words: strong and woman. It implies that there’s some other kind. You just pursue strong characters. It’s like good dads. You never hear, ‘She’s such a good mom,’” Waterston, 37, tells Yahoo Style.
Onboard the ship Covenant, after everything that can go wrong does and her warnings go unheeded, Waterston’s Daniels, a terraformer (more on that later), emerges to take charge and bust heads amidst the grisly chaos. She’s both emotionally naked, grieving the death of her husband (James Franco) and a total bruiser when under attack — much like Ripley from the original Alien, a landmark film that turned Sigourney Weaver into an enduring movie icon and role model.
Waterston literally took a beating while filming Covenant, which in turn impacted how the actress looked during the shoot.
“On the first day of shooting the stuff in the tank top, I had bruises. At the end I had the tank top on and I’d been through so much violent stuff at that point, they thought I should have bruises on my arms. The art department had to then re-create the bruises once they started to heal. A lot of the bruises you see in the movie are my own,” she says.
Daniels starts out as a terraformer — basically, a space gardener whose job it is to make a distant planet habitable for humans. She’s no soldier, no brawny warrior who spends her weekends at the target range and then does burpees in her spare time.
And that was precisely the point.
Waterston calls the role “a heroine’s coming-of-age story. At the beginning she’s a member of the crew. She doesn’t discover her skills until she’s tested. “I didn’t want to look like a warrior at the beginning of the film,” she says. “I needed to get myself strong enough that I didn’t injure myself, but I didn’t want to be totally jacked. I didn’t want to push it so far that I looked like a superhero. That’s the trajectory.”
By the end, Waterston’s biceps are impressive and she’s ripped. What the performance didn’t entail was any kind of glam situation. But, laughs Waterston when asked whether going au naturel was refreshing, that didn’t make much of a difference when it came time to shoot Covenant.
“No matter how crappy you look in a movie — and I know it’s not what you’re implying — the women always have to get to set two hours before the men. I looked the same way I did when I came in!” she says.
Like Angelina Jolie’s role in Salt, and Jodie Foster’s in Flightplan, the role of Ripley in 1979’s Alien was originally written for a man. Ultimately, Weaver didn’t just own it, but became one of the most indelible and groundbreaking heroes in the annals of film.
Now, Daniels too is a person who connects with her inner renegade when her life depends on it, her gender being a nonissue.
“Ridley grew up with a really powerful, smart, capable mother, so he had evidence that they exist in the world, these strong women. That’s the way it’s presented. It’s a given. He’s not patting himself on the back about it,” she says. “To me it makes it feel more heroic.”
The same applies to Daniels. Waterston doesn’t want plaudits for leading her crew just because she’s a woman. “It doesn’t feel like an exception. It feels like a given,” she says.
In the film, the rule-abiding Daniels emerges from her shroud of grief as a gun-toting warrior, who at one point attacks an extraterrestrial with a pickaxe. It begs the question: How would Waterston handle a breakdown of everything she knows and loves?
“That’s what I’m most fascinated by. We all wonder what we would be in that moment. Everyone always hopes they’ll be the person who finds the superhuman strength and lifts the burning vehicle and saves the children. But you don’t know,” says Waterston. “I’m a mixed bag. I’ve exhibited calm in a crisis now and then and been a total lunatic at other times. I’m not sure what you would get.”
The takeaway for her: Fake it until you make it, at least when it comes to tapping into your inner fighter.
“You sometimes learn things from the characters you play. It’s a bonus. Getting to try on being assertive and confident and fearless in the face of danger makes you feel more confident and fearless in the face of danger and conflict,” she says. “If you feel it naturally, try it anyway. You may find it’s not such a reach to tap into those parts of yourself.”
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