The legendary primatologist discusses Brett Morgen's documentary and what gives her hope in the age of Trump

By Devan Coggan
October 23, 2017 at 12:24 PM EDT
Credit: Hugo van Lawick/National Geographic Creative/

Dr. Jane Goodall prefers to drink her coffee from a glass, not a paper cup. Sitting in the Soho House Hotel in New York City after a screening of her new documentary, Jane, she digs in her bag for sugar, before carefully pouring her coffee from cup to glass. She’s just walked offstage after a Q-and-A with the documentary’s director, Brett Morgen, and from here, it’s off to London, then Japan, then Argentina, then Mexico. She spends about 300 days a year on the road, speaking about her pioneering research in chimpanzee behavior or calling for action to combat climate change. When I ask her whether she drinks coffee to combat all the jet lag, she looks me square in the eyes and replies, “What’s jet lag? It doesn’t exist. You just have to look at the sun and say, ‘Oh, I see! It’s morning. Fine.’”

At 83, Goodall is a household name, not only as a pioneer for women in the sciences but as one of the most influential conservationists of all time. She’ll gladly talk about her work with anyone who asks, and she’s also happy to pose for pictures. (Rather than say cheese, she grins and says, “Chimpanzees!”) She’s still as dedicated and enthusiastic as she was when she first set out for Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania at age 26, with the goal of observing and interacting with chimpanzees in the wild.

It’s this period in Goodall’s life that is the center of Morgen’s gorgeous new documentary. In the early 1960s, she worked as the secretary to anthropologist Louis Leakey, who asked her to travel to Gombe to observe chimpanzee behavior. She didn’t have so much as an undergraduate degree, and to gain access to the park, she had to travel with a chaperone — so she brought along her mother for the first few weeks. After spending months quietly following and watching the chimps, she eventually began interacting with them, and soon, she witnessed one of the chimps making and using tools — the first proof that humans are not the only creatures to do so.

Her solitude was interrupted when National Geographic sent photographer Hugo van Lawick to Gombe to capture footage of the strange young British woman living with the apes. Morgen constructed his doc from more than 100 hours of van Lawick’s early footage, footage that was forgotten for decades until it was discovered in Nat Geo’s archives in 2014. Widely considered one of the best wildlife photographers of all time, Van Lawick followed Goodall as she climbed trees barefoot, washed her hair in streams, and befriended the chimps. The result is a stunningly cinematic and intimate documentary that serves as a testament to young Goodall’s curiosity and tenacity. The doc also chronicles Goodall and van Lawick’s romance, from the birth of their son in 1967 to their eventual divorce in 1974, but ultimately, Morgen says, it’s a “love story between a woman and her work.”

With the film now playing in theaters, EW sat down with Goodall herself to talk about reliving one of the most extraordinary chapters in her extraordinary life.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your life has been chronicled through books and film before. For you, what is it about this documentary that makes it so special?
JANE GOODALL: I think it’s because it takes me back. It immerses me in the best part of my life in a way that none of the other documentaries have. It’s just very real, and it hasn’t been censored.

What has it been like to revisit this footage and see Flo and David Greybeard and all the chimps you spent so much time with?
Just very moving. Very moving. I mean, they were so special, and they were so much a part of my life. Of course, now, we mustn’t touch the chimps, and we know we can give them disease, and it’s not scientific and all of the rest of it. But back then, there weren’t any rules. There was no knowledge. There was nobody doing it. George Schaller [studied] the gorillas, and that was about it.

Much of the film focuses on the fact that you went to Africa as a 26-year-old woman without an undergraduate degree or any ties to the existing scientific community. Did you have any anxiety about that?
No! Not at all. I never wanted to be a scientist. I was only going for Leakey. Leakey wanted me to learn about the chimps. I didn’t need science for that, and he deliberately picked me because he said, “I want somebody with a mind uncluttered.” He didn’t think much of the modern people studying behavior, mostly in zoos.

My favorite part of the documentary is how it captures your life as a young woman in your 20s, on those early trips into Africa. What was your mindset like on your first trip to Gombe?
Excitement! It was an amazing journey in an overloaded Land Rover. Getting there, and then having to go on the boat. And of course, Mum was with me. It was just very, very exciting. And a little daunting. As I went along the lake, I looked up at all these series of valleys and very dense forests. I remember thinking, “How am I going to find the chimps?”

Watching the film, I was struck by your patience in waiting for the chimps to acclimate to your presence. Were you ever frustrated?
Well, I’d studied animals all my life, and I knew you needed patience. I spent four hours in the hen house when I was 4 years old. So the problem for me was: Will I succeed before the money runs out? There was only money for six months. That was the problem. And that’s where Mum was so good, saying, “Well, you’re learning about the chimps’ feeding behavior and how they make nests at night.” All that sort of thing. But I knew that wasn’t enough. She was so good at boosting my morale. It was really sad: She left just before I saw David Greybeard using tools. And she would have been so excited. She was, but from a distance. So there was no one to share it with. You know, my cook Dominic, he was interested, but he didn’t understand the significance. So that was one thing I missed most when she left. There was nobody to share my excitement with who understood.

She seems like such an extraordinary woman.
She was!

In what ways did she impact your life and the path that you took?
I think mainly the impact was when I was growing up, she supported this crazy idea of going off to Africa and living with wild animals. Everybody else laughed. But she just said, “You’re going to have to work hard and take advantage of opportunity and don’t give up.” I don’t think she ever said it in that way, but that was the message. If I wanted to do that, then that was fine.

The whole family actually was very female-oriented. During the war, my mum, my sister and I went to live with her mother, and Mum had two sisters. It was a house of women. And they were all successful. My aunt was one of the first physiotherapists. All of the children in that whole big area came to her clinic, and the doctors deferred to her. My grandmother had been one of the very, very, very first women who went to learn physical training, and that was long before the time.

You’ve talked about how as a young woman setting out in this field, people commented on your gender. Did that affect how you approached your work in any way?
No. Absolutely not. I mean, I’ve always been me. That’s another thing: Mum supported us being who we were.

One of the things I loved in the film was how the press would comment on your looks, and you said, “Well, if it gets them to pay attention to my work…”
That’s right! As long as it doesn’t go too far. That’s the tough part. But you can’t help how you look, and I guess I was a bit flirtatious. But that was just having fun. You see how I am — just having fun.

So often when we talk about conservation or climate change, there’s a sense of despair or exhaustion, but you’re someone who’s spoken about having hope. What is it for you that gives you hope for the future?
I feel that there is hope, but. And the “but” is that we have to get together and do much more than we’re doing as individuals. One thing Trump’s done is he’s woken people up. That’s one really good thing he’s done. But as I’m traveling around, I’m meeting incredible people doing amazing restoration, and places that have been completely destroyed can be brought back to life. Animals on the brink of extinction can be given another chance.

It’s getting harder and harder with population growth. Then you’ve got extreme poverty. You’ve got corruption. There’s a lot to tackle, but we have this intellect. We are coming up with new ways all the time, ways to live in better harmony with nature. That’s why I work so much with youth because we have to get young people growing up to understand that we’ve got to change. We’ve got to alleviate poverty. We’ve got to reduce our standard of living, which is way over the top. And we’ve got to talk about family planning and size of families.

All these issues are interconnected.
They’re all connected. That’s why when people say, “Which one is the most important?” I say, “I can’t pick just one.” Because one without another two or three isn’t making sense. It’s all interrelated.

We’re on a planet with finite natural resources, and we’re already using them faster than nature can replenish. So we just have to have a new mindset. You know, we’re in a hundred countries now, and we’ve got kindergarten, university, everything in between. Even some old people! And all of them are choosing projects that they are passionate about to make the world better for people and animals and the environment. And we have to break down the barriers that we love to build between nations, cultures, and religions.