By Natasha Stoynoff
April 30, 2007 12:00 PM

“When I was 8, I asked my mother if I was pretty,” Sigourney Weaver recalls. Her mom, British actress Elizabeth Inglis, replied, “No, dear. You’re just plain.” Weaver took the words to heart: “I thought, well, if my mother doesn’t think I’m pretty … no one else will.” By her teens, she was 5’11½” tall and possessed a tangle of auburn hair. “She felt a bit of a freak,” says her pal, playwright Christopher Durang.

It took four decades, three Oscar nominations (Best Actress for Aliens in 1987; Best Supporting Actress for Working Girl and Best Actress for Gorillas in the Mist in 1989) and a little therapy for Weaver to come around to a new way of thinking. “Giving praise just wasn’t the English way,” she says with a laugh. And of course, her mother was proved wrong: At 57 Weaver remains a startling beauty—but she’s not hung up on it. “When I first started out in show business, my face was a blank, like a scone with two raisins for eyes,” she says. “I like it much better now that it’s craggier.”

Living in Manhattan, blocks from where she grew up, with her husband, stage director Jim Simpson, 51, and their daughter Charlotte, 17, Weaver’s also excited about the movie roles that have come with maturity. This month she stars as an autistic adult in the drama Snow Cake and a shallow network exec in the comedy The TV Set. “When you’re a young girl, you play the girlfriend,” says Weaver. “By 40, you play real women who’ve become more who they are.”

The daughter of Inglis and former NBC president Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, Susan Alexandra Weaver had “a privileged childhood,” she says. At 14, she dubbed herself “Sigourney” after a character in The Great Gatsby, telling pals Susan “wasn’t interesting enough.” While at Stanford, she told her parents she wanted to act. “They thought I’d be eaten alive,” she says.

After Yale drama school, Weaver struggled to find her niche. At auditions “she was either too tall or too patrician,” recalls Durang. Then she landed the starmaking role of Ripley in the 1979 sci-fi horror blockbuster Alien. Still she never felt entirely comfortable in Hollywood. While performing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1983, she spotted Simpson. “He had a huge pile of books about Chekhov and I thought, he looks interesting!” The couple, who wed in 1984, prefer dining in—Weaver particularly likes her husband’s cioppino—or roughing it with their Italian greyhounds at their Adirondack cottage. “They are a sophisticated couple,” says pal Ivan Reitman, Weaver’s Ghostbusters director, “and just regular folks.” That extends to Weaver’s beauty regimen. “It’s not for me,” she says of plastic surgery. Instead, Weaver maintains her looks with occasional facials and doing weights. “It’s more interesting to learn how to get strong,” she says. “And be strong.”

Strong enough not to care that much about pretty. “What do I find beautiful? When a woman is comfortable in her skin—whatever age she is, whatever body type she is,” says Weaver. “My face is my canvas. And I think it’s much more interesting now than it ever was.”