On an unseasonably cold spring afternoon in Los Angeles, Sigourney Weaver, formidable and urbane, seems impervious to the elements. She'd be right at home in a piece by Noel Coward or A.R. Gurney. The three-time Oscar nominee is now getting award buzz for her first TV-movie role, as Mary Griffith in Lifetime's "Prayers for Bobby." The film tells the true story of Griffith's earnest attempts to save her gay son's soul by religious means, his eventual suicide and her conversion to gay-rights activism.
Why did you decide to make this, your first television movie?
I found it very upsetting. But I was delighted it was on television because people would see it. I had just been in maybe three really good independent films that weren't well distributed, so I don't care how the audience finds it, as long as they find it. I was thrilled there was a built-in audience for something so important, a story you couldn't dismiss. Because the truth is, Mary Griffith loves her family. She loved Bobby. But even when she felt compassion for him, she convinced herself that was from Satan. Frankly, I didn't know how I'd go about playing someone who had such a different viewpoint, and that's why I wanted to meet her. And because she's really no longer that Mary, it was very easy to sit down with her and have a frank discussion.
When they sent me the script, they said this is a book kids give their parents when they want to start that dialogue. Maybe if it's in movie form, it's easier. They can always trick them: "Sigourney Weaver's in this. I don't know that she has a flamethrower . . ."
How would you describe Mary?
First of all, she's a very beautiful woman. She must be in her 70s now. She has beautiful brown-yellow eyes. She's very quiet and very still. Her shoulders are a little bit up. She holds herself pretty tightly. But within all that, she's very gentle, funny, she'll crack a joke. I didn't expect that. She wasn't really anything like the beginning of the movie. That's the part that made me wonder, how can I do this? I guess the most important thing was that her love and her family's love for Bobby were so sincere -- their commitment to having this story told, which was not always flattering to her, to "break that chain of ignorance," in Mary's words, so other families don't make the same mistakes she did.
Were there keys that helped you find her as a character?
Mary was very frank about her childhood and how frightened a person she was as she grew up. She'd never been to a museum until after she was married. When I heard that . . . I'm reading this thing and I'm thinking, "What terrible backwater is this happening in?" [laughs] When I saw it was just outside of San Francisco, where shortly before that I'd been prancing around Fillmore West as a college student, I could not believe someone so different from me, that we'd been half an hour apart. And that's our country.
I didn't realize until Prop. 8 [the November ballot measure that reinstated a ban on same-sex marriage] that California still has the same roots of whatever happened to Mary, alive and well. I don't think they're seeing it on a personal level. It's an idea of homosexuality that is promulgated by these gross books like that hideous one in the movie -- "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)" [by Dr. David Reuben]. I think they could easily have a co-worker who's gay and say, "I don't mean him; I mean those bad homosexuals, over there!" So we haven't connected all the dots. I hope this movie helps to do that.
What have people said to you after seeing the film?
I have people coming up to me all the time on the street and saying, "My daughter's gay; thank you for this." People send me e-mails like, "My mother was going to take away my cellphone (and this and that) because I told her I was gay. She saw the movie and now she says she loves me." It's a very powerful response. I get a lot of questions from people saying, when is it going to go to Ireland, to India. . . . That gives me hope, that it's such a powerful story, being the truth, that it will transcend these other cultures and get Mary's message across.