"It really is all about female leadership," says Elephant filmmaker Vanessa Berlowitz. "She was absolutely fascinated by that"

By Jason Sheeler
April 02, 2020 11:52 AM
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When Meghan Markle visited Botswana with Prince Harry in 2017, she was introduced to the unique matriarchal structure of elephant herds — a hierarchy that resonated for her.

Over dinner in Botswana, filmmakers Mark Linfield and Vanessa Berlowitz explained that females lead the herds and showed her portions of their in-progress Disneynature documentary, Elephant.

“She was absolutely intrigued by the elephants and transfixed, especially by the female empowerment side,” says Berlowitz. “How important the matriarchs are to the story; it really is all about female leadership. It’s a different form of power — it’s about consensual leadership. It’s also very inclusive, as well — very contemporary. She was absolutely fascinated by that.”

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in Botswana
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex/Instagram

After speaking to Meghan, the filmmakers had the idea for the duchess, whose last day as a senior royal was March 31, to narrate the documentary. But first, she had to audition. Sort of. “We actually tried her voice against the picture, right then,” says Linfield. He did a quick Google search and then set her voice against some early footage. “She had done United Nations women’s speeches, and they just worked great.”

Samir Hussein/WireImage

The film, which starts streaming April 3 on Disney+, follows a herd of pachyderms 1,000 miles back and forth across the Kalahari Desert as they search for water. The family, led by a matriarch named Gaia, start in Botswana, a country Meghan and Harry know well.

The couple traveled to the African country in 2017 to assist Dr. Mike Chase of Elephants Without Borders, getting up close to the majestic animals while aiding in the conversation effort. (Markle donated her fee for the film to the charity.) They later shared photos from the journey, where they helped protect 25 elephants by fitting them with satellite navigation collars, on their now-dark Sussex Royal Instagram.

Meghan recorded her narration last October at London’s famed Pinewood Studios. Harry joined her in the studio, while Archie stayed home.

“She had a small child,” says Berlowitz. “You could totally tell she was identifying with [elephants] Shani and Jojo, and keeping little ones in tow. She felt like a normal mom going through the normal trials and tribulations of bringing up a baby. Like one of us.”

“It was amazing having [Harry] there,” says Berlowitz. “He had a connection to Botswana, of course.” The Duke of Sussex had his own Hollywood moment on set. He provided a little direction, from, as he put it “the cheap seats.”

“Harry was correcting her pronunciation!” Linfield adds with a laugh.

Meghan also did her own improvising, adds filmmaker Roy Conli.

“She made it her own,” says Conli. “I always say, ‘If you feel something, do it, make it organic.’ She’s such a diligent professional and she wanted to get it right. It was a delight all the way around.”