Upon hearing the name Sigourney Weaver, there are likely a few characters that come to mind: one is Ripley, the iconic hero from the Alien movie franchise; another is Dana Barrett, the gifted cellist who became possessed by Zuul and briefly dabbled as a minion of Gozer in Ghostbusters; and a third is Weaver’s most recent pop culture character, that of Dr. Grace Augustine in James Cameron’s Avatar. That latter character skews closest to Weaver’s secret science nerd side, that of an outspoken advocate for environmental conservation.
Perhaps that doesn’t come as a surprise to fans of Weaver, who also remember her Oscar-nominated performance as the late primatologist Dian Fossey in 1988’s Gorillas in the Mist. That biopic, which landed five total Oscar nominations, told the true story of Fossey’s study of mountain gorillas in Rwanda, a career that would help to save the species from extinction but ultimately cost Fossey her life. During the shoot, Weaver herself landed in a dangerous situation when she “tried to befriend a female gorilla, only to be threatened by a 400-pound male. The actress assumed a submissive position, and the male gorilla passed her by.” That gorilla, one of the animals studied by Fossey who had named him Pablo, ended up with a role in the movie.
Speaking with The New York Times in 1988 in regard to the film, Weaver said, ”I think that finding the gorillas so soon and being so happy with them so quickly was Dian’s gift to me. A female came over and put her arm against mine. My going out with the gorillas was the touchstone for everything I’ve done since in the movie. This was my preparation. I’ve been with them so much that they forgot I was a stranger.”
In a 1989 interview with the Stanford Daily, the student newspaper from Weaver’s alma mater, she listed Gorillas in the Mist as one of her two favorite films she’d made to date, and suggested that the influence of two of her mentors from her college years still had a strong presence. Weaver revealed that, as a student, she looked “up to both Jane Goodall, one of the first zoologists to study wild gorillas, and Margaret Mead, a pioneering anthropologist, after she heard them speak in Dinkelspiel Auditorium.”
In 2006, Weaver returned to Rwanda for the BBC documentary Gorillas Revisited with Sigourney Weaver to pay respects to Fossey’s legacy, and to check up on the country’s gorilla and human populations; the latter had fared worse due to the 1994 genocide.
But Weaver didn’t let her onscreen performances alone speak for her commitment to conservation. In the same year as the follow-up documentary, Weaver also joined a coalition that represented 60 conservation organizations in order to address the United Nations about controversial bottom trawling in deep-sea fisheries, which scientists see as a destructive practice that threatens the world’s rarest, most sensitive ocean habitats. Here’s what Weaver had to say:
“The oceans that millions of people around the world depend on for sustenance and livelihood are being plundered while the world sits by and watches. Some of the oldest ecosystems on Earth are being destroyed. Most people think somebody somewhere is looking out for the deep oceans, but they aren’t. These deep sea trawlers are operating beyond the reach of the law. It’s up to all of us to change that.”
Weaver continues to serve as honorary chair of the Fossey Fund, working alongside the organization’s dedicated staff. During the fund’s 2014 annual benefit luncheon, Weaver shared her memories of Maggie, one of the original gorillas studied by Fossey who has been leading Bwenge’s group since the dominant silverback’s unexpected death. So as Weaver helps to carry on Fossey’s legacy, hopefully her conservation efforts and continuing film presence will influence a new generation of Secret Science Nerds to do the same.
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Featured Image: Universal Pictures
Image: 20th Century Fox