It’s almost impossible to mold an icon, but that’s exactly what Jenette Goldstein did in Aliens. Her Private Vasquez is one of the most memorable aspects of James Cameron’s milestone sequel, perfectly realized down to her stop ‘em in their tracks replies to bullshit questions (“Ever been mistaken for a man?”). With one role, Goldstein delivered an action-movie all-timer, and was instantly added to the regular rotation of Cameron players, appearing in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Titanic. On top of that, she reteamed with Aliens co-stars Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton for Kathryn Bigelow’s seminal bloodsucker Western, Near Dark.
I was lucky enough to get to speak with Ms. Goldstein regarding Drafthouse’s upcoming LV-426 / Alien Day. What followed was a super fun conversation about one of the great sci-fi monster mashes of all time.
BMD: April 26th is all about celebrating the legacy of the first two Alien pictures – what does the legacy of Aliens mean to you personally?
JG: It really proves that great writing, strong characters, laughs and action are what last – it’s really a testament to James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd that Aliens has held up so well.
BMD: The last time I got to watch the movie was on a 70mm print at the Alamo Ritz and it was really one of the greatest cinema-going experiences of my life. The one thing that occurred to me is that it’s a big action movie that came out at a time when these brawny, muscled Schwarzenegger types were rising in popularity. Did you ever envision Vasquez as being a woman’s answer to that?
JG: My concept of how I understood Vasquez was three dimensional. I wanted to create a real human being. In the script, she was recently released from juvenile prison while serving a life sentence for murder, as was Drake (Mark Rolston). There was no way out for them. They were lifers. I didn’t want Vasquez to be a cartoon and I talked to Jim about this. All I saw at the time in other movies was faux bravery. Why she did these things was because she had nothing to lose. That’s why, when she realizes that she’s going to die, it’s her choice at the end. So I focused on what was important to her as a person in this situation – because there is no such thing as a superhero.
BMD: Don’t tell modern audiences that. They might not show up.
JG: The fact that Aliens takes place in space is irrelevant. This was a war movie, in the most classic sense. This was a film about the working class grunts, and I wanted this woman to represent the future. As we know, women are now in the infantry, and the representation proved to be rather groundbreaking.
BMD: You bring up Vasquez’s sacrifice, which is interesting. Because without her death, the final segment of Ripley’s character arc can’t exist. Was that also one of the beats you were drawn to?
JG: It’s a really amazing arc that Vasquez goes through, and it stays so consistent. She was a gang member before juvenile prison. In these gangs, they’re even referred to as “soldiers”. And once she was tasked with a mission, she was going to see it through to the bitter end. [Laughs] You know I wish I could’ve made it to another sequel, but I always seem to die in the end no matter what movie I’m in.
But there’s a respect she earns for Ripley that she wouldn’t otherwise have, and also for her commander – Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope).
BMD: And that’s one of the best moments in the entire movie! “You were always an asshole, Gorman!” But it’s also – to your point – incredibly touching and human even in that intense moment.
JG: [Laughs] Well thanks.
BMD: You’ve had a really great working relationship with James Cameron. What kept you coming back and working with him time and again?
JG: Well, Aliens was my first movie. I was trained as a stage actress. Movies just sort of happened because he took a chance on me, stood behind me and gave me this great opportunity. He’s a really, really loyal guy and he calls when he needs me. If I’m right for the role, we do it. If not – we don’t. He’s so honest and hardworking and loves his tech. But he also casts actors and then steps back and says “I trust you”.
BMD: It’s gotta be pretty cool to be on the King of the World’s speed dial.
JG: Can’t complain. He’s been so good to me.
BMD: Now you watch the behind the scenes documentaries about Aliens and it's always been described as something of a difficult shoot. What are some of your most distinct memories about working on the picture?
JG: We were on a set the whole time, so it wasn’t that difficult. Those stories seem overblown by this point. But we were in England and they don’t heat the sets very well, and I was dealing with explosions. I had nothing to compare it to at the time, but all of the conditions and hard work filtered into the character and the situation. It was hard being Vasquez on that planet! Probably the hardest thing was lugging around that smart gun, it was so heavy.
BMD: Yeah, that thing’s gigantic.
JG: You know, the most difficult moment was being in that tube at the end. All of the pallets came out and smacked me in the face and I had to try not to wince. I had to act like getting hit in the face didn’t hurt.
BMD: You can’t break Vasquez’s appearance of constant toughness.
JG: Right. Jim would tell me “hey I can’t use that take because you’re just going ‘ow, ow, ow, ow, ow’.”
BMD: What makes the movie really work is that the bond and comradery the Marines share feels so real. How do you think that was achieved on set? How did that unit come alive?
JG: We had the luxury of being given two weeks before principal photography, where we got to hang out and train and master the weaponry we were working with. We were working with a member of the Armed Forces in Britain who was overseeing it all. Most of the cast was from England, and those who were from Hollywood – Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen – we’d take them out and show them around and became really close friends. To this day, I’m still really close with a bunch of the cast. Mark Ralston and Ricco Ross – I see their families all the time.
BMD: Obviously, this is jumping off a bit from Aliens – though it is somewhat connected via cast and relationships. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask one question about a movie that’s very dear to my heart. Can you relay any memories about working on the greatest vampire film of all time: Near Dark?
JG: Kathryn Bigelow was really good friends with James, as this was before they had gotten married. He was able to get her in touch with Bill and Lance and me. He thought it’d be perfect as we already had this bond. But all three of us had separately accepted roles without talking to each other. We had even been going out with each other socially, because it was kind of embarrassing to try and describe the script. “Oh…it’s kind of about these vampires, and it’s sort of a Western, too…it’s really good!” So none of us mentioned it until one day when – and I can’t remember who said it first—but one of us was like “I’m doing this movie called Near Dark” and we couldn’t believe we were all in it together.
BMD: That’s crazy. Now – if you were introducing any of these screenings to a Drafthouse audience, what would you want to say to them?
JG: Just thank you for supporting this and other great films. I have nothing but gratitude for those who keep coming out to shows like this.
You can still purchase tickets for one of the LV-426 / AlienDay celebrations being held at Drafthouses across the country here.