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“You’re given certain gifts, I think, when you’re born, and you can choose to work on them and improve them, or not bother,” says Dr. Jane Goodall, arguably the world’s most famous living scientist, as we sit down at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s “Awards Chatter” podcast and discuss her remarkable career studying and crusading to save chimpanzees. “I was given one gift of a very healthy body — I’m strong, tough; and the other was communication — that’s writing and speaking.” The 84-year-old continues, “I know I’m meant to be doing what I’m doing. It sounds a bit ‘mushy’ to say ‘a mission,’ but I feel I have a mission.”
Goodall’s work is receiving a burst of attention and appreciation at the moment thanks to Brett Morgen‘s Jane, a documentary made with recently rediscovered National Geographic footage of her early days at work in Gombe, the Tanzanian jungle from which she began conducting chimp research 58 years ago. The production, which had its world broadcast premiere on Nat Geo back in March, is now nominated for seven Emmys — more than any other doc this year — including exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking. Jane is only the latest of dozens of films that have been made about Goodall’s life over more than a half-century, but she acknowledges that it is different from the rest. “It’s the only documentary that’s been made — and many have — that actually took me right, right back. I was in that 26-year-old skin. And I think it’s partly because it’s my own narration, taken from the narration I did of one of my books, so it’s my voice talking about what I felt. And the way that Brett and his team edited it — it’s very special.”
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LISTEN: Hear the entire interview below [starting at 20:16], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Rebecca Ford, THR‘s awards editor, and Rebecca Sun, a senior reporter at THR, about the upcoming all-Asian film Crazy Rich Asians.
Click here to access all of our past episodes, including conversations with Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Lorne Michaels, Gal Gadot, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, Jennifer Lawrence, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Jerry Seinfeld, Barbra Streisand, Aaron Sorkin, Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Kate Winslet, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Aziz Ansari, Natalie Portman, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, Warren Beatty, Elisabeth Moss, Justin Timberlake, Reese Witherspoon, Tyler Perry, Judi Dench, Tom Hanks, Emilia Clarke, Jimmy Kimmel, Jane Fonda, Bill Maher, Claire Foy, Michael Moore, Amy Schumer, RuPaul, Jennifer Lopez, Robert De Niro, Margot Robbie, Ryan Murphy, Emma Stone, Ricky Gervais, Kris Jenner, J.J. Abrams, Rachel Brosnahan and Jimmy Fallon.
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Goodall was born in London in 1934 to an engineer father and a housewife mother. She was raised during World War II, and her love of animals was apparent from the very beginning. Her father gave her a stuffed chimpanzee toy when she was one and a half (“I took him everywhere”), and, in a “seminal moment” at age four, she spent an afternoon studying hens laying eggs, which she recalls as “the making of a little scientist.” But it was something else that truly set her on her career path, she says: “I wanted to go and live in Africa, and live with wild animals, and write books about them because of [the books] Doctor Dolittle and Tarzan.” In those days, however, women didn’t lead such lives, she notes, and she wasn’t even permitted to go to university. Instead, she became a secretary, and it was only because a school friend had moved to Kenya and invited her to visit that she traveled to Africa in the first place, in 1957, at age 23.
While in Kenya, Goodall heard about Dr. Louis Leakey, a world-renowned paleoanthropologist and archaeologist best known for tracing mankind’s roots to Africa, as opposed to Asia, and cold-called him, hoping to learn more about African animals. After their initial meeting, Leakey invited her to become his secretary and she accepted. He encouraged her passion and promised to try to raise money to send her into the wild to conduct independent research. It soon became clear that Leakey’s interest in her was not just professional. “I wouldn’t call him aggressive,” she says hesitantly. “Can I say ‘captivated’? It was nothing explicit, but a feeling that, ‘Leakey would really like to’ — oh, let’s be explicit — ‘take me to bed, and I don’t want to do that.’ It bothered me that, ‘Perhaps if I say no, I’ll be denied this opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do.'” She says she did not reciprocate his interest and emphasizes, “He was never, never, ever aggressive about it.” (Leakey later helped to spark the careers of two other female primate researchers, Dian Fossey, who worked with gorillas in Rwanda, and Birute Galdikas, who worked with orangutans in Borneo.)
Three years later, Leakey did raise the funds for Goodall to study chimps for six months, and so in July 1960, at the age of 26, accompanied by her mother and a cook, she headed off to Tanzania. “It’s a little nuts” that a young woman with no real experience in the wild was dispatched there, she acknowledges in hindsight, but she toughed it out, and by October, a community of chimps had grown comfortable enough around her to allow her to observe them up close. It was then that she made what quickly became regarded as landmark discoveries — most notably, that chimps, like humans, construct and use tools, and also are not, as had been widely believed, vegetarians. She telegrammed Leakey this news and he famously telegrammed in response: “Now we must redefine man, redefine tools or accept chimpanzees as humans.”
“I knew that what I was seeing was going to make a big impact, and it did,” Goodall says. Because of her findings, and perhaps also because she was photogenic (“I was fortunately born not particularly ugly,” she says), National Geographic expressed an interest in funding her research beyond the initial six months, provided that it could send a filmmaker to Gombe to document her work. This was how she first met Hugo van Lawick, who would become her first husband, and who lovingly shot the footage that now appears in Jane. The resulting media coverage made Goodall famous and in demand as a public speaker. It also led to greater scrutiny of her work; Leakey urged her to pause her field research and get a PhD so that other scientists would respect her, as opposed to ridiculing her for referencing animals’ genders, personalities, minds and feelings. She ultimately became only the eighth person ever to get a PhD at Cambridge without first getting a BA or a BSc.
In 1986, at 52, Goodall published her scientific study The Chimpanzees of Gombe, completed her Cambridge PhD and decided, after attending a troubling conference, to shift her focus away from research and toward activism. Of her fame, she says, “It took me a while to realize, ‘OK, well this has happened. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t want it. I hid away from it. But OK, it’s happened. It must be for a reason.’ And by this time, it was becoming clear that chimps were in danger, that forests were disappearing and that this notoriety, or whatever you want to call it, I must use it.’ It’s there for a reason.” As a result, she began traveling extensively to spread her message and raise money via the Jane Goodall Institute, which had actually been around since 1977, and specifically Roots and Shoots, which she created in 1991 and now exists in more than 100 countries.
She also began interacting with Hollywood celebrities, such as Michael Jackson, who kept a chimp named “Bubbles” at his Neverland Ranch. She recalls, “I spent a whole day at Neverland — before the little boy mess — and I said, ‘Michael, if you do a song it will make so much difference.’ So he said, ‘Give me tapes [of chimps]. I want to be angry, I want to cry.’ So he did that — he wrote ‘Heal the World’ for animals — but then his people persuaded him, ‘No, no, Michael, you must do this for children.'” Indeed, the original liner notes credit Goodall as the song’s inspiration. She continues, “I think the Hollywood celebrities now, like Leonardo DiCaprio and various others, they’re certainly helping, because we need these issues to be brought out to the general public. I’ve got a certain general public, but some of these big stars have a much broader reach. And we need to get the sports stars involved, as well.” DiCaprio is making a live action film about her life.
One of Goodall’s greatest concerns these days is climate change, which is already impacting chimps’ lives. President Barack Obama‘s administration was an ally in her efforts, but President Donald Trump‘s has been anything but — it recently moved to drastically cut funding to USAid, which supports the Jane Goodall Institute. There have been reports that Goodall compared Trump to a chimp, which she emphatically denies. “I never compared him with a chimp,” she says. “It would be kind of insulting…I mean, it would be insulting to the chimp.” Even as she gets older, she remains fully committed to her mission. “At age 84, I’m still traveling 300 days a year around the world because — why do I do it? I only do it because it’s making a difference,” she says. She realizes that such a life is not for everyone, but still believes that everyone, in their own way, can make a difference: “Every single day that you live, you make some impact on this planet. And if you think about the consequences of the small choices you make — what do you buy, what do you eat, what do you wear, where did it come from, how was it made, is it cheap because of child slave labor or these terrible factory farms — if you think about those consequences and make ethical choices, it may seem nothing, small. But think of a thousand, a million and then a billion people all around the world making ethical choices.”
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