'Aliens' star Jenette Goldstein on how James Cameron gave her permission not to be 'pretty'
On April 26th, 20th Century Fox and Alamo Drafthouse will screen Alien and Aliens in theaters across the country (buy tickets here), and in advance of that date -- recently dubbed "Alien Day" by the powers-that-be -- I hopped on the phone with Aliens star Jenette Goldstein, who played hardened marine Private Jenette Vasquez in James Cameron's explosive 1986 sequel. Thanks to Cameron's script and direction, the character challenged every long-held notion of what a woman could be in an action film; Vasquez was brawny, deep-voiced and completely unapologetic about her unconventional manner and appearance. In that vein, Goldstein -- who in conversation is distinctly unlike the tough-talking soldier she played -- offered one particularly apropos anecdote from the film's extensive production period.
"I had psoriasis, and I had this big outbreak on my knee that looked like I had fallen off a motorcycle," she told me. "Like, red on my legs. And the first scene [where] we wake up [on the Sulaco] I'm wearing shorts. And I said, 'Ooh, my legs are a mess!' And [Cameron] said, 'Who cares? You're a marine...I don't care.'"
Goldstein won the role of Vasquez against all odds. During the time of her audition, the American-born thesp was an unknown 25-year-old actress working in various London stage productions, and her relative inexperience not only led her to show up at the audition in full hair and makeup -- she thought the script was about human "aliens," i.e. immigrants, as opposed to slimy extraterrestrial ones -- but resulted in a protracted battle between Cameron and the studio, who wanted a more seasoned film actor for the role.
"It took him two weeks to convince Fox, to go back and say, 'No no, this is who I want,'" said Goldstein. "They said, 'No, she's never done a film.' [He said,] 'Yes, I know, yes, I know, I know, I don't care.' You know, he's pretty fearless."
Because she arrived on set with zero on-camera experience, Goldstein described the production period as akin to "film school during filming," a trial by fire that forced her to learn the ropes as she went (with a little help from her co-stars). "It was pretty nerve-wracking," she said. "But you know...you just use it. You're definitely tense. You just use it for the character. It was not so easy for Vasquez at that moment either, so...you use what you have, so to me it was just feeling like I've never done this before, and I had this big responsibility."
Ultimately the gamble paid off; thanks to Goldstein's committed performance, Vasquez is today upheld by many as something of a landmark portrayal in action cinema -- a woman protagonist who's not only "strong" but lacks the more traditionally "feminine" physical attributes of a character like Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley or Milla Jovovich's Alice in the Resident Evil franchise.
"I liked the fact that she just happened to be a woman," said Goldstein of the character. "And I think that's...it didn't matter what gender you were. I certainly thought it was great that -- you know, this was the '80s, where I didn't have to be -- Jim said, 'you don't have to be likable. I don't want likability...You just be the person, and who cares if someone -- that's not the point, if someone likes [her].' And I thought that was really groundbreaking that it was a movie and the director was like, 'You know what, I don't care. Just be the person.'"
Speaking of Cameron, the blockbuster filmmaker is famous for being a legendary taskmaster on set, though unlike some who have worked for him -- The Abyss stars Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio were notably not fans of his on-set style -- Goldstein is admiring of his methods.
"He has incredibly high standards, they're exacting, he knows everyone's job, he expects 100 percent of everyone, and he's incredibly loyal and sweet and kind to you...God help you if you're lazy or incompetent, and I think that's where the stories come from obviously," said Goldstein, who went on to have small roles in Cameron's Terminator 2 and Titanic. "But everybody who knows him who has worked for him film after film, crew after crew -- you know, he doesn't have the Hollywood graces of oiling the machine and having false friends...[I have] nothing but good to say about him."
Though Goldstein was lucky to score early roles in genre vehicles that went against the Hollywood grain (her second role was as a murderous vampire in Kathryn Bigelow's cult film Near Dark, notable for being a rare woman-directed action film), she's as cognizant as any actress of the pervasive sexism that continues to plague the industry. Particularly with the benefit of hindsight, she understands just how unusual Cameron's attitudes were and in many ways still are when it comes to representing women onscreen.
"It's a rare person that is able to have either that kind of power or those kind of balls, cojonoes, you know, to go against the tide when everybody [says]...'she's not pretty enough,'" said Goldstein. "You know, 'she's a surgeon but she's still gotta be pretty.' [Laughs] 'Oh no, nobody will come!'...[That kind of attitude is] not gonna end, let me tell you. It's not like that's going away."