A Conversation with Geena Davis at SFF

By Megan McDonald April 19, 2011

Geena Davis

Some stars at the Sarasota Film Festival give their fans a quick wave on the red carpet,  make a few remarks at an awards ceremony, and then retreat to the green room or the VIP Lounge.

But that sure wasn’t the case with actress Geena Davis, who charmed audiences at a Friday luncheon and at an hour-long conversation series program on Saturday. She also met with students at Booker Middle School to explore how young people are influenced by the images they see on screen. That’s a big concern to Davis, who established the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media to combat stereotypical portrayals of girls and women in movies and television.

She spoke with passion and eloquence about that issue during the conversation at the Sarasota High School auditorium, noting that in children’s programming, male roles outnumber female roles by a 3:1 ratio. “And the leading occupation for females is being a member of royalty,” she said, smiling. “Not a very practical pursuit.”

It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since Davis and her co-star, Susan Sarandon, earned Oscar nominations for the ground-breaking Thelma and Louise, one of the first films to feature strong, confident women in lead roles. 

Jodie Foster won the Oscar that year for Silence of the Lambs, but Davis said that was probably the best outcome, “because it would have been hard if one of us had won and the other hadn’t.”

Davis lobbied for years to be in the film, because “it was the best script I had ever read.” She kept trying as the project went from director to director, and several actresses were hired and then dropped out.  Finally, Ridley Scott offered her the role of Thelma, a passive housewife married to a controlling husband. She was surprised, because she had seen herself as the assertive waitress, Louise.  But she quickly realized what a rich role Thelma was, because the character’s personality changed so dramatically through the course of the film.

Davis grinned sheepishly as she talked about her audition with Brad Pitt, who had the career-making role of a bad-boy drifter who hooks up with Thelma.  “I auditioned with the five finalists, and during the reading with him, I kept staring at him rather than reading my lines,” she said, recreating her look of awe. “I figured I’d ruined the audition for him.”

When she heard Scott and his colleagues making favorable comments about some of the other actors, Davis made a pitch for Pitt.  “I said, ‘Hey, what about the blond guy?’” Davis recalled.

The statuesque Davis is six feet tall, but she said her height hasn’t been a detriment in her career, since “I’ve worked with some pretty tall actors.”

But in an early appearance on TV’s Fantasy Island, she starred opposite the much shorter Alejandro Rey. “We had to film the scenes on a big slope,” she said, laughing. “I was on the downhill side, and he was uphill.”

Interviewed at the conversation by USA Today film writer Susan Wloszczyna, Davis said she told family members when she was 3 that she wanted to be an actress. “I asked Santa Claus for sunglasses, and I’d watch TV wearing them,” she said. Soon she was acting out her favorite shows with playmates. Even then, she went for non-traditional roles, pretending to be the title character in the western The Rifleman.

After graduating from Boston University,  Davis turned to modeling because “I thought if I became a model then they would just offer me acting parts, because it was so easy to be a supermodel,” she quipped.  “I had one cover, New Jersey Monthly, but my face was covered by a hat.”

But the modeling did lead to the role in her first film, Tootsie,  because director Sidney Pollack evidently saw some photos she did for a Victoria’s Secret catalog.

Davis was modest about her athletic ability in the comedy about female baseball stars, A League of Their Own, saying the results were “baseball-ish.” But she said that for inspiration, she modeled herself after Gary Cooper in the Lou Gehrig film Pride of the Yankees.

She is still  proud of her 2005 series Commander in Chief, in which she played the first female president of the United States. Though she won a Golden Globe Award for best actress in a drama series, ABC pulled it off the schedule temporarily when American Idol started. It never found its footing again and was ultimately cancelled.

One audience member jokingly told Davis that the show was probably pulled because of pressure from the White House, “because you were a better president than [George] Bush was.” She told the questioner she has no plans to run for office, “but feel free to write my name in.”

It’s no surprise to learn that the quick-witted, articulate Davis is a Mensa member. She said she’s never been to meetings of the high-I.Q. group, “even though they have all kinds of events. There are even groups for Mensa members who like miniatures.”

And she’s resisted suggestions that she appear on the celebrity edition of Jeopardy!  “People think I’m smart,” she explained. “Why would I want to blow it?”

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