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Hollywood Master: Geena Davis

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Photo by Juan Tallo

Academy Award-winning actor, Olympic-level archer, social activist and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Geena Davis herself, stopped by SFTV for the fifth season of The Hollywood Masters.

The tour-de-force sat down with Stephen Galloway, executive features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, to talk about her many versatile roles from modern classics such as Thelma & Louise — which celebrates its 25th year anniversary this year — The Accidental Tourist and Beetlejuice, to her groundbreaking role as POTUS on Commander in Chief, and how women are portrayed (or not) in Hollywood.

Stay in the Moment

“You are almost an Olympic level archer,” Galloway posits at the beginning of the interview – an impressive fact, seemingly unrelated to Davis’s career. The statement elicits a coy grin from the actor.

Davis explains how her journey to the 1999 Olympic trials in archery was born out of her acting career. Being “all limbs,” Davis had convinced herself she was uncoordinated and unathletic growing up. But while training to play baseball for A League of Their Own, she discovered an “untapped athletic ability.” She continued playing physically demanding roles in films such as Cut Throat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight, until she felt compelled to see if she could master more than just the “movie version” of sports. When asked which skills in archery cross over to acting, Davis gave an almost poetic response:

“Ah, well being in the moment … You can’t try harder. If you try harder, you screw it up. So it’s a horrible and wonderful battle with yourself.”

And she almost never gets nervous. Seriously.

Davis tells the story of her very first day on a set, for none other than director Sydney Pollack in Tootsie, acting a scene opposite Dustin Hoffman in her underwear. Pollack pulled her aside and asked, “Why are you not nervous?”

“It’s not that I think I’m great, I just … that’s what I knew I wanted to do. Thank God it worked out.”

From Hoffman, Davis says she learned a great deal about acting, like how to watch dailies. He told her, “Let go of what you did. It does absolutely no good to worry about it.”

“The world is bereft of female presence”

When Davis had her daughter (who’s now 13), she started noticing there were far more male characters than female characters in all the children’s shows her daughter was watching.

“I just heard someone the other day call it either ‘Smurf-ing 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,” said Davis.

But she couldn’t find anyone else who noticed. Even in the industry. “Everybody said, ‘No, that problem doesn’t exist anymore. That’s been fixed,’” according to Davis. That was the impetus behind the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which has now sponsored the largest amount of research ever done on gender depictions in media over a 20-year span.

Davis says she doesn’t use the research from the institute to educate the public, she uses it specifically to bring to studio executives to affect change from the top.

“I just say whatever you are already making, you’re leaving out half of the population. Even in the crowd scenes. And people are absolutely shocked. They had no idea they were leaving out that many female characters. That the world is bereft of female presence.”

It’s working, too: 68 percent of studios reported that Davis’s presentation had changed two or more of their projects, and 41 percent reported it had changed four or more of their projects.

On Thelma & Louise and other roles

Davis received her second Oscar nomination for playing Thelma opposite Susan Sarandon in Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise in 1991. The audience’s response to her work was unlike anything she had ever experienced before.

“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 was then that Davis realized how few opportunities the mainstream media gives women to feel inspired by female characters. From that point on she’s kept her female audience in mind when choosing roles.

“We [Thelma and Louise] were in charge of our fate, which is I think why it spoke to people.”

It seems fitting, then, that Davis would eventually play a character with agency over the entire free world. Her groundbreaking role as President of the United States in the television series Commander in Chief earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in 2005.

“Are we going to see a woman president in the next 10 months?,” asked Galloway.

“It’s very possible. Very possible.”

Look out for more of Davis’s activism as co-founder and chair of the Bentonville Film Festival, as well as the Geena Davis Institute’s participation in an initiative with YouTube and United Nations to fund and promote content from female creators all over with world.

The Hollywood Masters interview series examines the careers of Oscar-winning filmmakers, major artists and successful executives, moderated by The Hollywood Reporters Stephen Galloway and presented by the LMU School of Film and Television.