Twenty-Five Years After 'Thelma & Louise,' Geena Davis Says She Wanted Susan Sarandon's Role
The actress also lamented how little progress Hollywood has made in finding roles for women during THR's interview series 'The Hollywood Masters.'
It’s been 25 years since Thelma & Louise, the landmark feminist film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as two friends who go on the run.
But Davis says the film might have been very different if she had been given the role she first wanted: That of Louise, the waitress who pulls out a gun and kills a would-be rapist.
“I’d been following this [project] for a year,” she recalled, before her agents contacted Scott to ask for a meeting. “He said, ‘Yes, sure, you could come in.’ And I'd met with my acting coach. And we had decided that I should play Louise. And I wanted this so bad, and I’m just pitching my heart out, and I brought all my notes and everything about why I absolutely have to be Louise. And he finally says, ‘So, in other words, you wouldn’t play Thelma?’ And there was only a very slight pause, actually, before I said: ‘You know what's so weird is, I’ve been listening to myself as I’m talking and I’m not convinced anymore. Actually, I think I should play Thelma.’ ”
Davis was signed to play one or the other of the leads, with the final decision dependent on who would play opposite her. When Scott chose Sarandon as Louise, she accepted the role of Thelma.
“The first time I meet [Sarandon], it was just Ridley and she and I,” Davis noted. “We were going to get together and go through the script. And pretty much the second I met her, I was like: ‘What was I thinking? How could I possibly play Louise? She’s just fabulous.’ We hung out all the time together during the shooting. Because it was mostly just us. And a lot of times you can’t go all the way back to your trailer, because you’re out in the middle of the desert or something. So we’re just hanging around in the car, talking. We spent a lot of time together.”
Davis spoke Feb. 10 at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV, where she took part in THR’s ongoing interview series, The Hollywood Masters.
The founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the Bentonville Film Festival, she lamented how little progress Hollywood has made in finding roles for women.
When she speaks to studio and network executives, she said, “[They’re] stunned. They [had] no idea they were leaving out that many female characters, that the world is bereft of female presence. If I was going in, saying, ‘You’re making less movies with a female star,’ they’d say, ‘We know that very well, and you know, we’re worried about doing anything different, because women will watch movies about men, but men don’t want to watch movies about women.’ Whatever. So I don’t say that at all. I just say, ‘Whatever you are already making, you’re leaving out half of the population.’”
Asked her thoughts on the recent controversy about the motion picture Academy and its lack of diversity, particularly as it relates to women, she said: “It’s great that more and more people are talking about it. Because it’s something that people just go along with. My whole theory about why I couldn’t find any creators who realized they were leaving out female characters is because they were raised on the same ratio. I just heard someone the other day call it either ‘smurfing’ a movie, which is when there’s one female character, or ‘minioning’ a movie, which is when there’s no female characters. Because there aren’t any female minions. The ratio of male to female characters in movies has been exactly the same since 1946. So if you’ve ever had people say, you know, ‘It’s better now, it’s all changed, it’s all different,’ it’s not, it hasn’t. Not yet.”
A full transcript follows.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I want to ask you about something that most people don't know. You’re almost an Olympic-level archer. What drew you to archery?
GEENA DAVIS: It just kind of happened. I had to learn baseball for A League of Their Own, a movie I had. And I was very, very un-athletic. My thing in high school was being the tallest kid in class. Always. I was always the tallest kid in class.
GALLOWAY: I had that problem, too.
DAVIS: I was all limbs and I was very convinced that I must be uncoordinated, so I didn't want to try any sports. And the girls’ basketball team was constantly like, “Please, please just come play.” And I said, “I don't know how.” And they said, “Well, just stand there. You’re the tallest girl anybody knows.” Then I get cast playing the best baseball player anybody's ever seen. I don’t know how to play any sport, including baseball, but I trained really hard. They had these great coaches, and they started saying, “Wow, you have some like really untapped athletic ability.” So I was like, “Oh my God, I have untapped athletic ability.” That was fabulous. And then I did other movies where I had to learn something physical, like for Cutthroat Island and Long Kiss Goodnight I had to learn Tae Kwon Do and sword-fighting and ice-skating and horseback-riding and all kind of stuff. And I was good at picking up all of it, at least the movie version of the sports. As good as I got playing baseball, ultimately for the close-ups the crew didn't want us to hit hardballs toward them.
GALLOWAY: Just in case.
DAVIS: Wimpy. Yeah. And so they had these balls that looked absolutely real but they were filled with cotton puffs. So we would wind up to take a mighty swing and it would go, “Puff.” [LAUGHTER.] And then they'd cut to a ball [MAKES NOISES], you know.
GALLOWAY: So archery?
DAVIS: I wanted to take up a sport the real way and see if I actually had athletic ability. And then I happened to see it was during the Atlanta Olympics. And there was a lot of coverage of archery because the U.S. men’s team won all the medals. And I thought, “Wow, that’s beautiful. And it's so dramatic, a beautiful sport. And I wonder if I would be good at it?” I was 41 [years old] and then two and a half years later, I was a semi-finalist at the Olympic trials. So I take everything much too far, to extremes, basically.
GALLOWAY: Wow. Do you?
DAVIS: Oh God, yes. Everything. My kids’ birthday cakes.
GALLOWAY: In acting too?
DAVIS: Well, I always want a challenge. My whole career has been based on trying to avoid female characters that don’t get to do anything. And it’s really hard to avoid those. Because so many female characters are the girlfriend of the person having the adventure. I want to play baseball, I don't want to be the girlfriend of the one [who plays]. I just passed on some a script that I was sent, because I said, “I haven't yet played the person staying home, the one that says, ‘Good luck, honey,’ or whatever.” And so that's what I look for. Therefore, by virtue of that exclusion, I'm always trying to find roles that are challenging.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever pushed yourself too far or too hard?
DAVIS: I don't think so. No, I don't know that I believe in that. I do tend to get obsessed about stuff. I sort of relate to Leo, you know, with The Revenant. [LAUGHTER.]
GALLOWAY: We have a cut-open horse waiting for you to get into before you leave.
DAVIS: I've done some stuff like he did for Long Kiss Goodnight. We shot in Toronto in January, mostly at night. And my character was too cool to zip her coat. I was constantly arguing that, “No, I think at this point she would feel like …” and “No, she's too cool to bother zipping her coat.” So I had a little tank top on under this leather jacket in 40 below. They were heating up the gun before they handed it to me.
GALLOWAY: We’re going to show that clip. Well, one of the gun clips. That must have been a fun role to play.
DAVIS: Super fun. Super fun.
GALLOWAY: What skills do you need in archery that you also need in acting?
DAVIS: Being in the moment. Because the main thing about archery is a battle with yourself. You can ruin it all. Once you have learned the technique, the point is to recreate the perfect technique over and over and over. So why can't you do that? Because everything about you gets in the way. You say, “Oh, I need a 10 to win. So I'm going to try harder.” You can’t try harder. If you try harder, you screw it up. So it’s a horrible and wonderful battle with yourself, to stay calm, stay in the moment. My coach said, “Stay here, not at the target. Don’t be down there.” It’s why they call it the Zen art.
GALLOWAY: How do you get to that point? As an actress, how do you get to stay in the moment?
DAVIS: I studied acting in college at Boston University. And then after that I studied some more in New York City. And then I was going to audition for Accidental Tourist, and I was so worried about the audition that I found an acting coach, Roy London, who was a very famous acting coach, to work on the audition with me, because I was terrified. And there was this theory that I’d heard all along from everyone about using the way you already feel. Instead of trying to manufacture feelings, use the way you already feel. Or at least add that in. Right? So I was behind, I was waiting, I had to do a screen test with Bill Hurt and I was like, I would have died if I didn’t get that part. So they’re getting ready and I'm supposed to be crying. It's a very, very, very emotional scene. So I'm back there, killing cats, you know …
GALLOWAY: Killing Geena and Eartha.
DAVIS: All my pets, you know — “Oh God, no! They're still dead” — and getting ready and I’m really in a good place. And the A.D. comes back and says, “Geena, I’m so sorry, a light broke. It's going to be another 10 minutes. And my life is ruined. My life just got ruined. I can't believe this. I'm never going to be able to get to that place again. This is the worst day in the world. I was so upset. I'm upset. [LAUGHTER.] I mean, it sounds really stupid, but it was a giant revelation: I could use how I already feel. You know, I can tap into what I already feel. So now I'm thrilled. This is fabulous. I could turn it on at any moment, because I hate that I have to do this screen test. I hate that I’m probably not going to get the part. You know, there's so many things I can call on. So they're just about ready again and the hair lady's touching up my hair and pokes the end of the comb in my eye. And I'm, “F—, what did you — Never mind. That's fine.’ It sounds so simplistic and corny, but it really helps. So if I ever panic, like I'm not going to be able to do this scene, I know that I can.
GALLOWAY: Are you confident in your skills as an actress?
DAVIS: Yeah. Yeah. [LAUGHTER.]
GALLOWAY: Since when?
DAVIS: Why are you laughing? 'Cause I go, “Yeah?”
GALLOWAY: We end up doing things that we feel some confidence in. Don't we? And it doesn't mean that you can't do better or you don't make mistakes at times.
DAVIS: Absolutely. The second I finish shooting something, I know I could have done it better if we started right then. The next day, I know I could have done better if we did it over again. But you can't, unless you're in a play. You can't. On film, you can't do it over again. And you do have to stop shooting at a certain point. Ridiculously — fortunately —my first job was with Dustin Hoffman. I had a little part in this movie called Tootsie. And he taught me how to watch dailies. That it was very important. You could learn what you'd thought was coming across, did it or didn't it? And that kind of stuff. He would say, “You just have to let go of what you did. It does absolutely no good to worry about it. And just know that you'll do better tomorrow and the next time and whatever.” And so I do have a very chill — I can watch all my movies. A lot of people don't like to watch their work. I watch everything. All the time.
GALLOWAY: I don't even like to watch these interviews.
DAVIS: I feel like I'm talking too much, but that's kind of the point, right? “She went on and on. I went to this thing with her and she went on and on.” I told my parents when I was three that I wanted to be in movies. I don't know what I saw at three years old that would make me decide that's a job and I want to have that job. But I was very confident, very sure that's what I wanted to do. I didn't do anything about it. I didn't prove it to myself or anything. I just knew. And then when it came time for college, I told my parents I was going to major in acting. And they were so removed from anything to do with show business — my dad built our house and my mom grew our food.
GALLOWAY: Your father was an engineer?
DAVIS: He was an engineer and he could do anything. And I think my parents would have been Amish if they had heard of it. “Oh, that's what we are. We're Amish people.” So they were unfazed. I said, “I'm going to study acting.” So I do. And then I go to New York. Things happen. But ultimately I get the first thing I ever even audition for —Tootsie. And then the neighbors are all like, “Oh my God.” I'm visiting home one time, visiting my folks, and I hear the neighbor and my mom talking. And the neighbor says, “We can't believe it. She's in a movie.” And my Mom said, “Well she studied acting in college.”
GALLOWAY: You worked as a model out of college.
DAVIS: Right. I'm sorry, it took me that long to answer about being confident. God help us. So the first day on the set, I have never been on a set. Didn't know anything about it. Are they’re going to yell at me ’cause I don't know how to do it or where to stand or whatever. But it was fine. We were shooting a scene in my underwear with Dustin Hoffman. And after a couple of rehearsals and a couple of takes, Sydney Pollack says, “Come here. Why are you not nervous?” And I [say], “Do you think it would be better if I was nervous?” And he says, “No, it's just I can't understand it — how you would be first time on a set, you're acting, when he flubs his line you make up a new line. It's very interesting.” It's not that I think I'm great; that's what I knew I wanted to do. Thank God it worked out.
GALLOWAY: When have you been nervous about a role?
DAVIS: I almost never get nervous. I have ice water in my veins. I literally do. When I hosted Saturday Night Live one time and I didn't love the way it operates — because everybody's hung-over on Monday, nobody's interested in, “Oh well, what do we? What are you going to write? Well, we'll figure it out.” Then the second day, nobody's got any ideas. And I'm visiting the writers room: “What's going on?” And the third day, Wednesday I'm like, “Guys, what's happening?” And so somebody said, “You know who does well here? People like William Shatner. They just read the cards.”
GALLOWAY: Oh wow. [LAUGHTER.]
DAVIS: You know, we worked at it and rehearsed it. Then finally somebody said, “Geena, you don't know how this works. When on Saturday Night, when you're standing behind that door and they say, ‘Live from New York, it's Saturday Night,’ it's all going to happen. It's going to kick in and you are just going to know how this works.” And so I'm standing back there and he goes, “Live from New York,” and I'm like, “Yeah, I'm not feeling it. Could have rehearsed more, I think.” The only time I got the absolute most insanely nervous in my life was at the Olympic trials, because archery is a horrible spectator sport. Nobody goes and watches an archery tournament. Because the targets are three-quarters of a football field away. Who can tell who's winning? You can't even see your own target from where you are.
GALLOWAY: How far away is the target?
DAVIS: It's 70 meters. So about three-quarters of a football field.
GALLOWAY: And can you hit the bull's-eye from there?
GALLOWAY: I saw this thing on YouTube with you and this incredible-looking bow that looked sort something from Predator.
DAVIS: Yes. Spaceship. Right.
GALLOWAY: You came 24th, right, out of 300?
GALLOWAY: What number would you have had to be to make the Olympics?
DAVIS: Oh, in the top four. But what happened was, nobody had ever known that I was competing. I was going all over the country. I was going to the National Tournament, all different states, everywhere. And nobody ever cared or noticed. And archers are very chill. They weren't calling People magazine or anything. But when I qualified to go to the Olympic trials, people found out about it. Suddenly there were 50 news crews at the trials. And there was quite a number of people, not 300. It had already been narrowed down to 30 or something. But all 50 news crews were behind me. And all these famous archers, former Olympians or whatever, they're all behind me. And every single thing I did, like take out an arrow [MAKES CAMERA SHUTTER NOISES] —
GALLOWAY: Oh my God.
DAVIS: Put it on the bow. [MAKES CAMERA SHUTTER NOISES.] And then, the worst part, I let it go and — oh my God, I should have practiced with a lot of people watching me, because it was horrible. It was so hard.
GALLOWAY: Who taught you the most about acting?
DAVIS: My acting coach, Roy London. I was going to say, of people that I worked with, Dustin for sure.
GALLOWAY: Were you aware at that time how badly he and Sydney Pollack were getting on?
DAVIS: You know, not really. I was so thrilled to be in the movie, and so inexperienced. I worked 10 days. But I didn't know that you were only supposed to come on the days you're working.
GALLOWAY: Oh. [LAUGHTER.]
DAVIS: And nobody told me. “You know, you don't have to come if you're not in what we're shooting today.” So every morning at six o’clock I showed up. And if you're a certain ranking on the call sheet, you get a chair with your name on it. But if not, you don't. And I was below that. But my character in the movie had a chair. So I would go find that chair. And it said “April Page” on it, and I'd put it right next to Sydney Pollack and sit there all day — like wow, isn't this great? And I could tell that he was very stressed all the time.
GALLOWAY: After that you briefly did Buffalo Bill on television, which I've never seen, but I've always heard is wonderful.
DAVIS: Yeah, thank you.
GALLOWAY: And then you did another extraordinary film and I want to show a clip from this. Because this is not a film anyone expected to be a classic, but it is, and it's remarkably haunting. So we're going to watch a scene from David Cronenberg's The Fly.
DAVIS: Wow, he was good in this.
GALLOWAY: You both were. Were you married at that point?
DAVIS: Not yet.
GALLOWAY: Is it harder or easier to act with somebody that you know very well personally? This is Jeff Goldblum as The Fly.
DAVIS: We were married after that. I don't know. I mean, I only have that one. I would never have married any of my other co-stars. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: After that?
DAVIS: After that or before that. But in that particular case, it was great. Because we were both really obsessed with the script and making sure that it was very operatic. And it's really a powerful love story in the middle of all that goop. David Cronenberg, we just, the three of us really worked very well together.
GALLOWAY: How did that part come about?
DAVIS: Jeff was cast. And they were looking for the girl and I hadn't done that much by then. And I said, “Mention me,” you know. And they thought about it and they were a little worried — the producer especially, I think, was worried: what if we break up in the middle of it or something like that? But then they couldn't resist. And it all worked out, thankfully.
GALLOWAY: How do you prepare for a scene like this, which is very emotional? I assume you're going to have to do many takes.
DAVIS: I don't know how to explain it. My scripts are always filled with notes. I like to just analyze everything from the point of view of the whole picture, of the movie, my whole picture. And then how each scene informs it, and where do I take two steps forward and one step back? And that kind of thing. And have it all planned out. I'm sure I'm not unique. Obviously, movies don't almost ever shoot in sequence. Accidental Tourist, I shot the last scene as my first scene, which was a little hard. But hopefully you've figured out what you will have been through. It's just a matter of knowing what happened before and what comes next and how it fits in, I guess.
GALLOWAY: Did you continue to work with your acting coach through all those films?
DAVIS: Yes, up through Angie [in 1994]. And unfortunately, he passed away. But I did Thelma and Louise with him. And A League of Their Own and those movies.
GALLOWAY: What about Cronenberg? He seems very mild-mannered.
DAVIS: He is, he is.
GALLOWAY: And then suddenly you get this.
DAVIS: I know. He is so interesting, because you assume he's going to be some crazy guy who's obsessed with violence and viscera. But he looks like your dentist or something, just very —
GALLOWAY: — very academic, yes.
DAVIS: Very academic. Mild-mannered. Like a therapist or somebody who's very sweet, but obviously brilliantly talented.
GALLOWAY: Did he bring you in on the editing at all? When was the first time you saw the film?
DAVIS: I don't know. You know, that was —
GALLOWAY: There was a scene that was cut that has become kind of legendary where a baboon is merged with a cat.
DAVIS: That didn't make it in the movie. Right.
GALLOWAY: And apparently in the previews, people were running out and throwing up. Did you ever see that?
DAVIS: I probably did. I thought you meant when the baboon turns inside out was gross. Oh, one funny thing was: there's a scene where we're talking and, before this, his ear falls off. He's still sort of human-looking and his ear falls off. And he's so horrified. His life is passing before his eyes. And this could be the end. And so I hug him. Despite how repulsive it is, I hug him. So Jeff and I were at the opening night in a theater in Times Square — huge theaters, with very noisy crowds. A lot of people were saying: “Don't go there! He's a fly!” and stuff. But when that scene played, and I reached in and I just hug him, I happen to have chosen to hug him on the side where the ear fell off.
And you couldn't hear a word of the next three scenes, 'cause people were just like, “Oh my God!” It was funny.
GALLOWAY: You did Beetlejuice, which has become a real classic. There has been talk about doing a sequel.
DAVIS: I've heard. Yes.
GALLOWAY: Has that progressed at all?
DAVIS: Well, nobody's talked to me. I have a feeling I will not be in it. Because ghosts don't age, at least according to our made-up theories about ghosts.
GALLOWAY: Did you read books about ghosts before you did the film?
DAVIS: No. But I met with Tim Burton. And I said, “I get this movie. I just totally I get the whole thing.” He said later in interviews that he hired me because I said I understood it and he felt like he didn't. [LAUGHS.] It's a good, little tip, you might want to —
GALLOWAY: What did you tell him that you understood about it?
DAVIS: Just that I got the tone that he was trying to do.
GALLOWAY: It’s such a unique tone. Did you have to tailor your acting to that?
DAVIS: Sure. There's a scene where we're in a waiting room of the undead, and there's a guy with a shrunken head next to me, and I'm supposed to notice. And Tim said, “Make it just be like you're on a subway, and there's somebody a little distasteful sitting next to you. But it's not huge. You're not going to move your chair.” Everything was like that. We were supposed to be very matter-of-fact about stuff. Then I also later did Stuart Little, where there's an imaginary mouse and it was kind of the same deal, where this is not that remarkable. The director said, “We're going to believe in Stuart, to the extent that you and Hugh Laurie believe in Stuart.”
GALLOWAY: There's a huge Stuart Little fan base here. When I was talking to some of the students about which clips should I show, everyone said Stuart Little. I guess, the films you grow up with are the ones that haunt you.
GALLOWAY: Which films that you grew up with really marked you?
DAVIS: I don't know. We never went to movies that much in my family. The only movies I saw till I was 17 were made by Disney. My parents had this thing. Disney was like, you know, “Ford is a good car. Disney makes good movies that are good for kids and safe.” And so we only went to movies if it was Disney.
GALLOWAY: You didn't watch television reruns?
DAVIS: I watched a lot of series. I didn't watch a lot of movies on TV. But I watched Gilligan's Island and Star Trek and all that stuff. Yeah.
GALLOWAY: Theater. Have you gone back for theater?
DAVIS: No. You know, I really only did theater in school in college. I did summer stock a couple of times in the summer, and plays that the school put on. But I knew I wanted to be in movies. I knew I did. It's not that I didn't like theater, but it just was not…
GALLOWAY: Do you go to the theater?
DAVIS: Yes. But I'm not in New York that much and I don't go when I'm out here, really. I love theater. Just, it never spoke to me. But the funny thing is, B.U. has a great program now for trying to help students get cast, and they have showcases and all kinds of great support systems. There wasn't anything like that at the time. In fact, they pretty much told us it's hopeless.
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow.
DAVIS: This is really embarrassing: the first class when I went there was an orientation. There were about a hundred incoming freshmen, and the professor's talking and says, “I have to tell you, you've chosen an incredibly difficult profession. Unfortunately, maybe only about one percent of you will ever earn your living as an actor.” And I swear to God that I thought, “These poor kids!” So I knew that I was going to do it and that I wanted to be in movies. But nobody ever said, “Well if you want to be in movies, you should go to L.A.” Everybody else was going to New York. So I went to New York with them. And then I was like, “How am I supposed to get a movie?”
GALLOWAY: You won an Oscar at 32. Did you hear from your professor then?
GALLOWAY: I want to talk about that movie you mentioned, The Accidental Tourist, which still remains a very powerful film. This is The Accidental Tourist with William Hurt and directed by Lawrence Kasdan.
GALLOWAY: Do you enjoy seeing it again?
DAVIS: See, I like to watch my movies. Oh gee…
GALLOWAY: That's very healthy.
DAVIS: I don't know. I guess.
GALLOWAY: You’ve said that, earlier in your life, you had issues with self-esteem and your body, but now you seem very full of joie de vivre. Has there been a change?
DAVIS: Well, I think I always had joie de vivre. But I had pretty bad self-esteem growing up and much of my adult life. I once read a quote that I think was Michelle Pfeiffer in an article, who said that she thought people went into acting because maybe if you could convince millions of people to like you, you will finally like yourself, approve of yourself. I don't know if that may have been a part of it. But yeah, oh yeah, I had very, very bad self-esteem — that I was a fake, everybody was going to find out, that I didn't deserve to have success, just about my looks and really, really bad self-esteem. When I was a model, actually, for a little while, my friend that I worked with a lot, she had horrible self-esteem too. We decided that the exact moment when we actually thought we were attractive, we wouldn't be anymore. We would just, like, miss it.
GALLOWAY: Why do so many girls, especially in their late teens, have self-esteem issues?
DAVIS: Well, you know, that's a giant problem. But it's partly because our culture so hyper-sexualizes females that if you don't measure up to whatever we’re forced to think is the standard, then you feel inadequate. I've made a whole life study of all this stuff and it's partly that we don't fully realize it, but women are in many ways second-class citizens in the United States in 2016, because of the way that we're portrayed in popular culture.
GALLOWAY: Is that changing?
DAVIS: It hasn't yet. But I'm very, very optimistic, because here's my theory. What happened to me was, first I did Thelma & Louise, and the reaction to that movie from people that recognized me was so different from anything that had happened before. Because suddenly it wasn't just, “Oh hey, I saw you in Beetlejuice,” or whatever. It was like, “Oh my God, you have no idea, that movie, how many times I saw it and what I thought about it, and my friend and I acted out your trip.” It just was so powerful. It really showed me how few opportunities we give women to feel like that about the female characters in a movie — to feel excited and inspired by the female characters. And we kill ourselves in the end. Oh — I gave away the ending!
GALLOWAY: They've all seen it.
DAVIS: So that really stuck with me. And ever since then, I started making choices with the women in the audience in mind. What are they going to think about my character? Could I ever find other parts that are like that? Not that I want to play role model, you know, an upstanding, virtuous role model, because, think about it, those were the worst role models there could be. But we were in charge of our fate, which is why it spoke to people. Then I was lucky enough to be in some movies where I had powerful characters or I got to be the president on TV for a little while. Very short administration. [LAUGHTER.]
GALLOWAY: But you won the Golden Globe Award.
DAVIS: I did.
GALLOWAY: Right. How lovely.
DAVIS: That was fun. That was fun.
GALLOWAY: When you won the Oscar, you didn't expect to win it. That day you were watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on television, basically trashing you before you went to the Academy Awards.
DAVIS: Right. I was already all dressed. You have to start putting on makeup at like 9 a.m. I had the gown on, the makeup and everything. And I thought, well let me have a snack before I go. And I had a plate of spaghetti with a big napkin. And I'm watching Oprah and she had five film critics on — Siskel and Ebert and some different people. Anyway, they were just talking about the supporting actress category when I turned on. “This one has this much chance,” and stuff. And I was the last one, and they all said, “Zero chance. Absolutely not. There's no way.” And I was just like, “I guess I'll still go.” It was so deflating, in a way. It was like, “Wow, well, that's OK. At least I got nominated. I'm all dressed up and so —”
GALLOWAY: What's the experience like of going as a nominee?
DAVIS: Fun. I saw Larry Kasdan after and he said, “Well, you had the right idea, getting nominated and then winning. That's a good idea.” And I was like, “Yeah, I know.” What a great way to go.
GALLOWAY: Did you prepare a speech?
DAVIS: I had thought of the names that I should mention if, you know, by chance...
GALLOWAY: Did you remember them all?
GALLOWAY: Oh that's good.
GALLOWAY: And what did you do afterwards?
DAVIS: Went to every party, because when you get the thing, you can get in. And I'm so not a party person. I'm so not social and don’t go to parties, but I was like, “I gotta go.”
GALLOWAY: So I have to ask you the question you've been asked a thousand times: where is your Oscar now?
DAVIS: It's just on the shelf. It's on the mantle. My sons last summer, they won a trophy from their surfing camp and they came home and went right over to the shelf and put it up next to my Oscar. That's where we put our trophies, you know.
GALLOWAY: Did you know you were going to do Thelma & Louise at that point?
GALLOWAY: You had read the script a year before you did the film. Ridley Scott wasn't planning to direct it then. You were pushing, you were pushing. Finally, he agreed to meet with you. And you tried to convince him to give you the other role. Tell me about lunch with Ridley.
DAVIS: He at first was just producing it. And there were actually a few sets of Thelma & Louise’s before it ended up being Susan [Sarandon] and I. Because he went through a few different directors and then decided, “I'm just going to direct this myself.” And so I'd been following this for a year and he said, “Yes, sure, you could come in.” And I'd met with my acting coach. And we had decided that I should play Louise. That this would be a fantastic turning point. That I'd play the more mature part, and whatever. And I wanted this so bad, and I'm just pitching my heart out and I brought all my notes and everything about why I absolutely have to be Louise. And he finally says, “So, in other words, you wouldn’t play Thelma?” And there was only a very slight pause, actually, before I said, “You know what's so weird is, I've been listening to myself as I'm talking and I'm not convinced any more. Actually, I think I should play Thelma.” [LAUGHTER.]
GALLOWAY: Was this the truth or did you just flip on a dime?
DAVIS: No, I just completely made it up and then I just made shit up about why I should be Thelma. And I signed a contract that I would play either part. I don't know that that's ever happened.
GALLOWAY: Was Susan Sarandon already cast?
GALLOWAY: Did they do screen tests with both of you or …?
DAVIS: I got offered another movie and they had to, but they weren't sure which part to cast me in. They said, “It depends who the other person is.” Then they finally said, “All right, we'll offer you [a contract] if you'll agree to play either part.” And then they said, “Susan's going to play Louise.” And I said, “Oh that's great. That's fine. I'm sure I could have played it, but that's fine.” And then I meet her. The first time I meet her, it was just Ridley and she and I. We were going to get together and go through the script. And pretty much the second I met her, I was like, “What was I thinking? How could I possibly play Louise? She's just fabulous.”
GALLOWAY: How do you work with somebody like Susan Sarandon when it's such an intimate combination of two people? Do you hang out together beforehand?
DAVIS: We hung out all the time together during the shooting. Because it was mostly just us. And a lot of times you can't go all the way back to your trailer, because you're out in the middle of the desert or something. So we're just hanging around in the car, talking. We spent a lot of time together. But no, we never worked on the script together like Jeff and I did, or planned scenes.
GALLOWAY: Did you rehearse a lot?
GALLOWAY: Do you like to rehearse?
DAVIS: No. It just wears it out. You know, it's a different kind of medium. It's not like a play, which of course I would want to rehearse a lot. I think if you're doing a play, you're rehearsing enough that you get to a point where it's freeing again. But in a movie, if you rehearse too much, now you've just shown everybody what you're going to do. And any element of surprise or impulsiveness is taken away. So, I would like to not rehearse.
GALLOWAY: Do you ever do something that really surprises your co-star? Dustin Hoffman, when they were making Kramer vs. Kramer, did a scene with Meryl Streep where they're having dinner and he throws a glass against the wall and breaks it. And apparently she didn't know this was coming. Is that right or wrong?
DAVIS: Absolutely right. Do anything.
DAVIS: All that matters is what gets on camera. If someone's off-camera, I'm all for it. I've changed lines. I've asked other people to change lines. I mean, I'm kind of presumptuous, but I was making a movie in Australia called Accidents Happen with a young cast, and just for expediency's sake and everything, and because I had their permissions, I would change lines all the time to elicit a response. In fact, there was one scene where there were two little kids in the back seat and I'm supposed to turn around and yell at them and they get terrified. Because I'm a scary lady or something. They were having a really hard time, because they know me, it's funny, and they're kind of [messing around] a little. So the director said, “Can you do something about this?” in my ear thing, and I just turned around and let them have it. I was like, "Do you think this is a joke? What are you doing? Do you see this man holding this camera? Do you think that's funny? That weighs 300 pounds and you're laughing about it. You think this is a joke?" And they were like "Oh!" And I'm like, "Roll the camera, roll the camera."
DAVIS: I'll do whatever it takes.
GALLOWAY: Thelma and Louise is such an extraordinary film, with two amazing performances. I had trouble choosing among the many scenes. So I'm going to show one clip of the very big scene, which is pretty traumatic to watch.
DAVIS: Great. I think I know.
GALLOWAY: If you don't, something's wrong.
GALLOWAY: What ran through your mind watching that?
DAVIS: Wow. Well, you know, that was a hard scene. It was a hard scene. We had to redo parts of it. The attack part of it. I don't know why. Something about his close-up, Ridley wanted to redo. So that wasn't any fun to do it over again.
GALLOWAY: What were you thinking when you were watching it?
DAVIS: I don't know. You know, it takes you right back there to when we were doing it.
GALLOWAY: Was it a hard scene to shoot?
DAVIS: Yeah. Yeah. It was. But I'm not somebody who takes stuff home with them, that if I shoot a scene like that and I'm personally impacted for days or something. I mean it certainly is affecting and everything, but it doesn't penetrate to some deeper layer. I'm in it when I'm in it, and then...
GALLOWAY: Did they shoot it with multiple cameras or just one?
DAVIS: Oh that's a good question. I'm going to guess multiple, because he almost always was using multiple cameras. Ridley does this great thing where he shoots your close-ups at the same time. Nobody does that, because of lighting. It's too hard, but there's so many scenes where he's using the same take of Susan and I, which is great, it makes it fantastic.
GALLOWAY: How much did that change from the original script? It's so beautifully written, and Callie Khouri won the Oscar for it.
DAVIS: Yes, yes. Not that much changed.
GALLOWAY: The ending changed though, didn't it?
DAVIS: No. That was the real ending, and I think just the other day, I happened to see Ridley and he was talking to somebody about that. Maybe somebody from the studio said, “Are you sure you don't want to shoot a different ending?” And Ridley said no. There was never any ending where we don't drive off the cliff. There were different [ways of] editing it, like one where we start to go off the cliff and it cuts to scenes of us still alive, back when we were alive, to take the edge off.
GALLOWAY: It was such an unusual film for him to direct, what once would have been called a film for a “women's director.” Was he nervous at all?
DAVIS: Ridley's not nervous. No, no, no! No Ridley's very, very confident, very creative, and loves movies. And loved this script. I think it was just that he didn't immediately want to do it himself. It was a low-budget movie. He's used to doing great big things. It was something like an $18 million budget, and he was going to have someone else do it. But it's so great that he did decide to do it, because he gave it the epic sweep that it has. It could have seemed like a much smaller movie, but [not] with his cinematic abilities and incredible attention to the characters. He's fantastic with characters and working with actors.
GALLOWAY: In what way?
DAVIS: Really knows what he wants, and at the same time he's incredibly collaborative and freewheeling. The thing I noticed, have learned the most about directors, is: when they're very confident in themselves, they're open to creativity from other people. If they're scared or nervous, then they shut off and nobody's ideas [count]. “Don't tell me your ideas, just do it the way I want you to do it.” And it's not the best. So, maybe like Sydney Pollack, he knows exactly what he's doing, but the guy delivering the hot dogs says, “Can I say it this way?” and he says “Yeah, sure, whatever.”
GALLOWAY: One interesting thing about doing these interviews is you really see the range of work of a great actress or creative person. And I want to take a look at a clip from a film you did that's very different from people's idea of the star Geena Davis. So let's take a look at a clip from The Long Kiss Goodnight, with the great Sam Jackson.
GALLOWAY: Were you one of the producers on that film?
GALLOWAY: You had a production company at one point. Did you like the process of producing, and how did that interface with your acting?
DAVIS: I do like the process of producing. Later in my career, like when I had the TV show, I was a producer and I've been on a few things. I just love all the details about movies, and it's fun to be involved in everything. I just love it. It's just a little added fun thing to be consulted about stuff.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever wanted to direct?
DAVIS: No, I don't want to. It's too much. I don't want to do all that stuff. It's too long and too much work.
GALLOWAY: How did you do this film? Because you do go from one persona to a very different one. Did you try to shoot that in some kind of chronological order?
DAVIS: No, that was all out of order, too. I look completely different in the other part of the movie. But we shot it all out of order. Besides Thelma & Louise, that has the biggest arc of anything that I played. I get to go from a very mousy housewife to someone who kills everybody. I kill everybody in the movie. Except Sam Jackson. But it was fun.
GALLOWAY: It's interesting that this is a role in which a woman is empowered, or discovers she has that power. But it's also one where violence is a solution. How do you feel about that? I'm very troubled about the amount of violence on the screen. Are you?
DAVIS: Well, it would be a little disingenuous to say I'm against violence in movies because I participated in it, and I love action movies.
GALLOWAY: You go and talk to studio heads, network chiefs. You have really astonishing statistics about women in front of the camera. The one that I heard you talking about which amazed me was that even in the crowd scenes, that there's still a disparity of gender.
DAVIS: What happened is, when my daughter — she's 13 now, but when she was a toddler, I started watching with her little kids’ shows. Like pre-school shows and G-rated videos and things. And I think, because I had some roles that resonated with women, I immediately noticed that there were far more male characters than female characters in what we're showing little kids in the 21st century, which was stunning to me. But I couldn't find anybody else who noticed. None of my friends. I'd say, “Did you notice that movie had one female character in the entire thing?” And they hadn't noticed. And I found people in my industry hadn't noticed either. I started just asking around, because I know everybody, and everybody said, “No, that problem doesn't exist anymore. That's been fixed.” So that's how it was all started. I have now sponsored the largest amount of research ever done on gender depictions in media covering a 21-year span, and when I decided I wanted the research it was specifically so I could go directly to the creators, not educate the public, and get them to rise up and demand more female characters. I call up a studio and say, “Can I come over? I have some research.”
GALLOWAY: Does everybody say yes?
DAVIS: To me coming over? Oh yeah. Not because it's [me]. They just do, you know? They put together a giant room full of people, too. When we went to Pixar the first time, they had 200 people in an auditorium. I didn't really know much about what I was going to talk about, but [there was the same] reaction. Every single place is exactly the same — which is, they're stunned. They had no idea they were leaving out that many female characters, that the world is bereft of female presence. If I was going in, saying you're making less movies with a female star, they'd say “We know that very well, and you know, we're worried about doing anything different because women will watch movies about men, but men don't want to watch movies about women.” Whatever. So I don't say that at all. I just say, “Whatever you are already making, you're leaving out half of the population.” Even in the crowd scenes, as you said. And people are absolutely shocked. And we're making a big difference. There's so many movies and TV that have come out that we know we impacted. And we did a survey of everybody who heard our presentation and 68 percent said it had changed two or more of their projects. And 41 percent said it had changed four or more of their projects, so we feel like we're going to move the needle within maybe five years.
GALLOWAY: In all that research that you did, what statistic surprised you the most?
DAVIS: One was how much hyper-sexuality there is in even what is made for the littlest kids. Like in G-rated animated movies, the female characters wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as in R-rated movies, the female characters. This research was all done at Annenberg School of Communication. Stacy Smith.
GALLOWAY: I guess you're a member of the Academy? Have you taken part in any conversations about diversity?
DAVIS: No, I haven't. It's interesting that this year, so many more people are speaking up about this. About diversity and women in film, and equal pay and all of that. Patricia Arquette kind of started that with her Oscar speech. And it's great. It's great that more and more people are talking about it. Because it's something that people just go along with. My whole theory about why I couldn't find any creators who realized they were leaving out female characters, is because they were raised on the same ratio. I just heard someone the other day call it either “smurfing a movie,” which is when there's one female character or “minioning a movie” which is when there's no female characters.
GALLOWAY: Oh my goodness.
DAVIS: Because there aren't any female minions. The ratio of male to female characters in movies has been exactly the same since 1946. So if you've ever had people say, you know, "It's better now, it's all changed, it's all different," it's not, it hasn't. Not yet.
GALLOWAY: The roles maybe have changed somewhat. I couldn't imagine back then somebody playing the President of the United States, which you did. I want to talk about that show a bit. Let's take a look at a clip from the TV series that Geena did. Commander in Chief.
DAVIS: Oh cool.
GALLOWAY: You enjoyed playing that role? What was unexpected? Did you do some research into the presidency?
DAVIS: Yeah, I did, I did. It was great, it was really fun. I really wanted to have two terms.
GALLOWAY: Why do you think it didn't last longer?
DAVIS: Oh it was internal politics, unfortunately. Because people really liked it. It started off well.
GALLOWAY: When you're playing a leading role in a one-hour drama series, how different is that from a film?
DAVIS: It's so hard, it's so hard. I had told my agents that I never wanted to do an hour-long TV show. I said, “I'm not that stupid.” Because it's the worst lifestyle in Hollywood. Because it's like a movie that never ends. You just keep making it, and especially if you're the character who's in every scene. But then they called and said, “I know we're not supposed to even tell you, but you've been offered to play the President.” And I said, "OK. Say yes." And they were like, "Do you want to read it maybe?" And I was like, "No, I just want to be the president."
GALLOWAY: Are we going to see a woman president in the next 10 months?
DAVIS: It's very possible. Very possible.
GALLOWAY: Possible or probable?
GALLOWAY: What's your take?
DAVIS: You know, I'm not a philosopher queen. I think it's very, very probable.
GALLOWAY: Good. Student questions.
QUESTION: Thank you both for this interview. Could you talk about your role as TV reporter Gail Gayley in the movie Hero? And how you perceive journalism to have evolved since 1992 to correlate with film and television as media?
GALLOWAY: Great question.
DAVIS: Right, great question.
GALLOWAY: Stephen Frears was the director.
DAVIS: Stephen Frears was the director, probably not a lot of you saw it. And it was the second time I worked with Dustin. It was exactly 10 years later. Oh, harking back to your question about doing things off-screen: I had this monologue toward the end of the movie where there's this mystery and I'm trying to figure it out. And it's a long speech. And he starts talking in between my sentences to help me with the speech. So I'd say something to him. And he'd say, "I don't believe that." And that makes me say, “and if you don't believe that you know, you're...”.
GALLOWAY: That sounds great.
DAVIS: It was so great, and Stephen Frears almost had a heart attack over it. He was like, "Oh, he's got to stop! He's got to stop! I can't take it, I'm so stressed about it. What if he talks over you?" And Dustin's like, “I'm not talking over her.”
GALLOWAY: I wonder if that comes from the fact that the British directors who’ve made in Hollywood tend to come either from theater and the BBC, or from commercials. The ones who came from the BBC and the theater, the writing was sacrosanct. You didn't change a word.
DAVIS: That could be. I've said nothing about media. That was a plot that was about fudging the truth and trying to sensationalize things. It was maybe a little ahead of its time. I mean, that's so much what we're worried about now.
GALLOWAY: What do you watch on television? What media do you consume?
DAVIS: I watch very little television, actually. There's so many shows I want to watch and then I know I'll get hooked and I have to binge-watch the entire thing.
DAVIS: I read the L.A. Times, and I go to Huff Post every day. I love Huff Post.
QUESTION: My question is what traits in female characters do you feel we’re not seeing enough of in today's movies?
DAVIS: Right. For a long time, way back in the ’30s and ’40s, there were fabulous female roles. Bette Davis and all those people had incredible, great roles. After World War II, something happened where it was not only “get out of the factories,” but “get out of the movies.” That's when women's roles started to really [change].
GALLOWAY: Why is that?
DAVIS: I think it was just a cultural shift. When the men came back, we wanted to see men doing things. But there were so many women who had worked throughout the war in every possible job. They were told, “Now leave, so the men can come in” and there was this whole feminizing of women: You have to be very, very retiring and submissive and whatever. Anyway, it happened in the movies too, but there's been this move toward strong female characters. And any movie you see, if Tom Cruise is in an action movie or whatever it is, The Avengers, there's going to be a kick-ass female character. Usually one. And there's a term for this, but I don't know what it is. But someone's coined a term where there's one female character who's incredibly tough and strong and just as good as the guys at whatever it is they’re doing, and usually wearing black, skin-tight clothes, and [she] has no personality whatsoever, and is not funny. You know, the guys are cracking wise or whatever. And here's these strong female characters, hope you like them, but they're devoid of personality.
GALLOWAY: But are the men not also devoid of personality in those films? The craft of writing is not as character-driven as it was.
DAVIS: I don't know about that. I don't think male characters are as one-dimensional as female characters. If you think about The Avengers or something, the guys have really interesting and complicated relationships. There's all this friction between them, they're all funny, each in their unique way.
QUESTION: Geena, do you believe reform is needed in the MPAA and in our rating system to bring female-driven films to audiences?
DAVIS: What would that look like though? What would it be that the MPAA could do? I think there needs to be more. People have to notice. There has to be somebody pointing out, and I would love to see critics — especially of kids’ entertainment — start to say, if a movie comes out with one female character and it’s made for kids, “Hey, this movie came out but it only has one female character and she doesn't even get to blah, blah, blah." So that we all start noticing and paying attention, and demanding more. And then the studios will be embarrassed to release a movie with very few female characters.
GALLOWAY: Embarrassment goes a long way. When the anti-smoking movement started taking ads out and naming studio chiefs, the smoking largely disappeared.
QUESTION: I was wondering when you were filming A League of Their Own with a big female cast and female director with Penny Marshall, was there anything particularly unique you experienced on that set? And have you experienced that in any other working environments?
DAVIS: The thing that stuck out the most to me was the reaction of the press. We had a lot of interviewers come to the set and visit us and interview us. And one thing — this is in ’92, I want to say — one thing I noticed that every interviewer asked was, "So, it's a lot of women on the set. Is there a lot of cat fighting?"
GALLOWAY: Oh gosh.
DAVIS: And I was like, “Shut up. What are you talking about?” They were dying for it to be that "Ooh, women don't get along." And it was so the furthest from the truth. We were really a team, you know, we loved each other, we had a great, great time all being together. And the other thing was, interviewers would invariably say, "So do you think this movie has a feminist message?" And I said, “Yeah.” “You do? It does?” “Yeah, sure. It's about women being good at baseball, also.” And they were so horrified. Almost everyone would say, “Can I say that you're a feminist? Can I write it in the piece?” Like, “Don't you want to rethink using that word?” It was so crazy.
GALLOWAY: There was an extraordinary backlash against feminism.
DAVIS: Which still goes on.
GALLOWAY: Even with Thelma & Louise, there were all sorts of articles written about it being anti-man.
QUESTION: I was wondering as an actor: what is your experience with working with practical effects in Beetlejuice, compared to CGI in Stuart Little?
DAVIS: It was very interesting. Tim Burton wanted to do everything on the set, not use CGI stuff. And it was fun, it was very homey. Kind of like there's a scene in a mirror where I'm not in the mirror, so they just had an empty hole and I had this little wooden horse and they had a stick and another wooden horse. But from a certain angle, you couldn't see the stick. You just saw the two. So the horse is moving, but I'm not moving. It was fun. With the giant sandworm that was fake, that was fun. And then Stuart Little was funny because there's nothing there. They can't put anything there because they would have to erase it to put the mouse in, so there's nothing there. Or sometimes they'd just say, “That's where Stuart is.” “Is that his head or his feet?” “Just look right at that spot.” And so we're doing these scenes like, "Oh, Stuart!" You know, so emotional. The crew must think we're insane. We're taking this so seriously.
GALLOWAY: What about the voice part?
DAVIS: They had an actor on the set who read all of his lines, and we just had to learn not to look at him, but he acted out the entire part.