Sigourney Weaver on revisiting Dian Fossey for 'Secrets in the Mist': 'Her life is so timely for us to look at now'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Two years ago, Sigourney Weaver seemed poised to revisit her most iconic big-screen character, experienced extraterrestrial warrior Ellen Ripley, in a fifth Alien film helmed by District 9‘s Neill Blomkamp. To the disappointment of many, those plans were scuttled in part thanks to Ridley Scott’s ongoing prequel series that began with 2012’s Prometheus and continued in this summer’s box-office disappointment Alien: Covenant. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment recently, Weaver confirmed that we won’t be seeing Ripley onscreen again any time soon. “Neill wrote a wonderful script that was a sequel to Jim Cameron’s Aliens, and I think Ridley Scott wasn’t very enthusiastic about us starting that part of the franchise up because he had these prequels he wanted to do. So Neill and I have moved on to doing something else together,” she said.

Ripley may be in an extended hypersleep, but Weaver is revisiting another one of her best-known characters, after a fashion, in the new documentary series Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist. Premiering Dec. 6 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic, the three-part series explores the life — and tragic death — of the celebrated primatologist, who the actress memorably portrayed in the 1988 drama Gorillas in the Mist. Weaver provides narration for Secrets in the Mist, speaking words previously written by Fossey that are interspersed with archival footage and new interviews with former colleagues. “I feel very blessed that I’ve been able to be part of Dian’s legacy over these last 30 years,” she told us. “Her life is so timely for us to look at now; she’s an amazing woman scientist who went to this part of Africa all by herself in the ’60s without any formal training and pioneered work that’s still successful. We need conservationists in the field and all kinds of other women scientists.” Watch a clip from Secrets in the Mist above.

Sigourney Weaver during a voice-over session for Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist. (Photo: National Geographic/Steve Schofield)

During her time in Africa, first in the Congo and later Rwanda, Fossey’s mission was twofold: studying the gorilla populations up close and personal and preventing the efforts of poachers to capture wild primates for zoos or as trophies. The latter issue has been back in the news recently due to reports that the Trump administration was considering repealing a ban on the import of elephant trophies to the U.S. (For now, the ban remains in place.)

Thanks in large part to the scientist’s efforts, Weaver says that trophy hunting isn’t currently an issue confronting the gorilla population in Rwanda, where the Fossey-founded Karisoke Research Center continues to operate. (The actress serves as honorary chair on the board of directors of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.) “I would think at this point in history, there is not a discussion about whose side we should be on: big game hunters getting trophies or the species that are endangered,” Weaver said. “Thankfully, gorilla trophies are not our problem. Our problem is that the gorillas are in a very limited amount of land; I know the Rwandan government is considering expanding the park for the first time, which would be a great thing. Right now, we have gorillas and people living in such close proximity, and it’s hard on both communities.”

Sadly, Fossey’s anti-poaching efforts may have contributed to her still-unsolved 1985 murder. The circumstances of her violent end are explored in the documentary, a tacit recognition that it’s part of the story that fascinates audiences. Asked whether she’s afraid that Fossey’s death will overshadow her life’s achievements, Weaver suggests that she lives on in the gorilla population she loved and defended. “The murder is a terrible end to her story, and I don’t think we’ll ever know the answer, but I don’t spend a lot of time concentrating on that because her work has continued,” she said. “These families of gorillas that have continued to thrive are her legacy.”

Dian Fossey holds a mountain gorilla that she nursed back to health. (Photo: Robert I.M. Campbell)

For her part, Weaver sees the legacy of Gorillas in the Mist reflected in her own daughter, Charlotte Simpson, who was born two years after the film’s release. “I think she’s the direct result of my spending so much time with those gorilla children,” the actress said, recalling the moments before and during production when she would spend time among her primate co-stars when the cameras weren’t rolling. “I think people imagine that the gorillas will be fierce, but the biggest surprise is that when you are in their midst, they are so like you. One day, this little gorilla, Josie, came and leaned against my arm and looked up at me, and I felt this incredible peace and joy that comes from acceptance by another species. By the end, they were so used to having me there, I would basically be covered with babies who were jumping up and down on me, urinating on me and pulling my hair! I thought, This is the happiest I’ve ever been — this is what it must be like to be a mother.”

Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist premieres Dec. 6 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic.

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