Geena Davis is an Academy Award-winning actor and advocate, best known for her trailblazing roles in Thelma & Louise, A League of Their Own, and Commander in Chief, in which she plays the first female President of the United States. Today, Geena has taken on a different type of role in Hollywood. In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a research-based organization that has worked collaboratively with the entertainment industry to dramatically increase the presence of women and other underrepresented groups on screen.
Listen to the latest episode of All Inclusive as Geena and Jay discuss her groundbreaking career, fighting for gender equality in Hollywood, ageism, mental health, and more.
Geena Davis is an Academy Award-winning actor and advocate, best known for her trailblazing roles in Thelma & Louise, A League of Their Own, and more.
Speaker 1: All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman: Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and this is All Inclusive, a podcast focused on inclusion, innovation and social justice.
Geena Davis is an Academy Award-winning actor and activist, who’s best [00:00:30] known for her groundbreaking roles in the 1990s films, Thelma and Louise, and A League of Their Own. For the next three decades, she would go on to further establish herself as a feminist icon playing the first female president of the United States in ABC’s hit show, Commander in Chief, and nearly making it to the Olympics at 41 years old as an archer.
Today, Geena Davis has taken on a different type of role fighting for gender [00:01:00] equality and representation in Hollywood. In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. For the past 17 years, the Institute has worked collaboratively with the entertainment industry to dramatically increase the presence of female characters and other underrepresented groups in media. Geena, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to All Inclusive.
Geena Davis: Thank You, Jay. I’m happy to be here.
Jay Ruderman: Geena, you’ve been such a successful actress. At which point [00:01:30] in your career did you realize that there was a problem in gender equity in the business?
Geena Davis: I think it was when Thelma and Louise came out. I mean, look, I knew that there were fewer parts for women than men, just in general. I mean, it’s so obvious. I knew that, but when it became clear that it was a big problem was the reaction that women had to Thelma and Louise when they ran into me and it was different than anything before. [00:02:00] Somebody might say, “Hey, I liked Beetlejuice,” or whatever, but now if it was from Thelma and Louise, they recognized me, they were like, “Oh my God, I have to tell you what this movie meant to me. This is how it changed my life. How many times I saw it. My friend and I acted out your trip.” And I was always like, “Hmm, which part?”
But it made me realize that we give women so few opportunities to come out of a movie having identified with a female character and feeling inspired [00:02:30] by a female character. That’s when I decided that I was going to keep that in mind for every decision I made about what roles to play, like what are the women in the audience going to think about this character?
Jay Ruderman: You landed, early in your career, two very iconic roles where the women were out there out front, both in Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own. How were you able to land those roles so early in your career?
Geena Davis: I know. For a [00:03:00] little while I thought I was hogging all the good parts. Thelma and Louise, I waged a year-long campaign to get in that movie. By the time I read the script, it had already been cast. Well, I had my manager. He was just going to produce it at that time. Called Ridley Scott’s office once a week to say, “Geena’s still interested, Geena’s still interested if anything happens and,” blah, blah, blah. There were three sets of Thelma and Louise before it was Susan and I. All these different iterations over the course of a year and then finally Ridley decided, “You know what? I’m [00:03:30] just going to direct this myself.” And because I’ve been so persistent, I guess, he took a meeting with me and I convinced him at that meeting.
I was actually lobbying for the part of Louise. And when he said, “You mean you wouldn’t play Thelma?” I immediately switched to Thelma and started pitching why I absolutely had to be Thelma.
Jay Ruderman: Obviously these roles transform the way people see women in film. What did Thelma and Louise [00:04:00] and A League Of Their Own teach you about the impact these kinds of roles can have on women in society? And how did it shape your identity as a woman in the business?
Geena Davis: I’ll tell you what, the biggest impact on my life was Susan Sarandon, working with her. Because, unbelievably, I had never met a woman who was like her. And what I mean is, she spoke what she thought and she didn’t put… I don’t know if you think this is a stupid idea. [00:04:30] And that was my life, trying to be as inoffensive and nice as possible. And it was like every day was a lesson from her about how to operate in the world.
I mean, everybody loved her. Everybody respected her utterly, but she didn’t feel compelled to not state her opinion. I know it might sound strange, but I’d never seen that before. And it truly changed my life.
Jay Ruderman: Well, the chemistry you have with Susan [00:05:00] Sarandon is amazing and one of the many reasons it’s a classic. But you’ve also acted next to other greats, like Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, and Bill Hurt in The Accidental Tourist.
Geena Davis: Yes.
Jay Ruderman: What do you take away from these experiences and do you keep in touch with any of them?
Geena Davis: Right. Let’s see. Oh, and include Jeff Goldblum in that, because he was brilliant in The Fly.
Jay Ruderman: Of course.
Geena Davis: Yeah. So, I’m not really in touch with, like in close friendship with [00:05:30] any of my past actor friends, women, or men, but we had incredibly friendly relationships and they were fantastic. I mean, each of those people you mentioned were unbelievably supportive and generous and just a pleasure to work with.
Jay Ruderman: I’m glad you were surrounded by so many supportive relationships, especially so early in your career, which leads me to the next question. What was it like to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress [00:06:00] so early on?
Geena Davis: That was crazy. I mean, I couldn’t believe it, that I got nominated and then to win and I’ll tell you what my reaction was. I was like, “Well, got that out of the way.”
Jay Ruderman: It was a great accomplishment.
Geena Davis: Doesn’t really matter what else happens because I did get that out of the way.
Jay Ruderman: Let’s go back to before you won the Academy Award. Who were the female role models you looked up to?
Geena Davis: I think my aunt, my aunt Gloria was [00:06:30] my biggest role model. I mean, my folks, all of my family on both sides were from Vermont and very unexposed to show business. And I mean, I think my parents would’ve been Amish if they’d heard of it. But my Aunt Gloria was completely different. She had a career, she was divorced. She drank, she smoked cigarettes. I was just in awe of her. She clothed and all that. And she [00:07:00] took me to my first play. And she’d say things like, “When you grow up, we should go scuba diving off the coast of Portugal.” And I was like, “What planet is this person from?” But that had a huge impact on me. When I pictured myself as an adult I always pictured her.
Jay Ruderman: So it sounds like you were always attracted to strong women.
Geena Davis: Yes, absolutely.
Jay Ruderman: Did you always know? I mean, you and I both grew up in Massachusetts and I know you went to Boston University. Did you always know that you wanted [00:07:30] to be an actress?
Geena Davis: I did. In fact, I don’t remember this, but my parents told me that when I was three, I announced that I wanted to be in movies. I don’t know what I saw that even made me think that was a profession, but it never wavered. And when it came time to go to college, I wanted to major in acting. And I asked my music teacher in high school, “Where do people go if they want to be an actor?” And he very confidently said, “Oh, [00:08:00] Boston University,” so that’s where I went.
Jay Ruderman: Well, your music teacher was right. Boston University is a great place to go to study the arts. Okay. So now I want to talk about authenticity because you wrote in an op-ed that when you see someone like yourself on-screen doing interesting and important things, you get the message. If someone like me, I must matter. And Octavia Spencer did a PSA for us on disability in film and television and one of the lines [00:08:30] that she said is that when she was growing up, seeing the Jeffersons, it was the first time she’d seen someone like her on TV and it had such an emotional impact on her. So can you talk a little bit about what you wrote and why you think authentic representation matters?
Geena Davis: Well, it absolutely does. And I mean, so many celebrities… I’ve read articles or heard them speak about that very thing that they saw someone like them [00:09:00] on screen and it made them realize, “Oh, wait a minute. I can do that too.” My Institute actually has done research on the impact of professions on people. And we studied [inaudible 00:09:12] to study specifically the impact of the Dana Scully character. And so we did, and we found out that I think it was 58% of women in STEM careers cited specifically her as [00:09:30] the reason that they went into that field. And that’s one word on one show… You can find that everywhere. It’s really incredible. That’s why our motto is, “If they can see it, they can be it.” I fully a hundred percent believe if it happens on screen, it can happen in real life.
Jay Ruderman: That’s amazing and shows the impact and power of representation on screen. You’ve also spoken out about age and you’ve been quoted [00:10:00] as saying when you turned 40, that up until that point, you were making a movie a year and then the roles stopped coming.
Geena Davis: Yeah.
Jay Ruderman: Why do you think that was?
Geena Davis: Well before I was even in the business, I had heard that women after 40 in Hollywood have real trouble getting jobs. And when I was starting out, that was a phase when Meryl Streep and Glen Close and Jessica Lang and Sally Field were all getting nominated for Oscars [00:10:30] every year, these big starring women movies and I thought, “Well, they’re going to fix it. It’s not going to happen to them when they turn 40.” Or then I started thinking, “Well, it’s not going to happen to me. I’m getting all these incredible roles. So I’ll be an exception if it’s still the rule.” And then I profoundly was not the exception and they didn’t fix it. It’s still a huge problem.
Jay Ruderman: I find that to be really disturbing [00:11:00] on one hand, but surprising because I believe that people want to see authenticity in film. If someone has a disability, they want to see someone with a disability. If there is an older character, they want to see an older person. Why does Hollywood skew towards younger people all the time, especially with roles for women?
Geena Davis: I think that happened when the era of the blockbusters came along and Hollywood realized that they should cater [00:11:30] to the teenage boy segment of the public. And so that’s what they started doing. It became very focused on younger males as the audience. And there was also this belief, which is still held by many, many people in the industry that women will watch anything, but men won’t watch women. So you have to make everything about men because otherwise men won’t watch it. And it’s been proven over and over again in [00:12:00] recent history that men will go in droves to movies starring women, if it’s a great character. So I think that’s what really narrowed the window.
Jay Ruderman: And what about from men? I mean, we still see Clint Eastwood making movies and other actors who are older. So is it different for men than for women?
Geena Davis: It is slightly different. So the population of characters that are over 50 in films is 20%. [00:12:30] Only a quarter of that is women over 50. Now you’re not even talking about 70 and 80-year-olds. We’re just talking about over 50. So that I believe comes out to 5% of the characters on screen are female.
Jay Ruderman: We need to change that.
Geena Davis: Yeah.
Jay Ruderman: One step you took towards changing that in 2004, you founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. What was the impetus for starting that? And what is the mission of the Institute?
Geena Davis: Right. [00:13:00] So it was one very specific thing that happened. I had my kids later in life, in my forties and when my daughter was about two, I decided to start showing her little kids stuff, preschool shows and whatever, and G-rated videos and things. And the first thing we sat down to watch in about five minutes, I think, because I had this heightened spidey sense about how women are portrayed on screen, I noticed immediately that [00:13:30] there were far more male characters than female characters and something aimed at three-year-olds and I couldn’t believe it. And then I started noticing it everywhere, in the movies that we were watching and I didn’t intend to start an Institute right then, but I was alarmed because the immediate thing I thought was, “We’re training kids from minute one to have gender bias by showing these wildly unbalanced worlds to them.”
So I started just asking people I had meetings [00:14:00] within the industry, if they noticed, “Have you ever noticed how few female characters there are in movies for kids?” And every single… I’m talking about dozens and dozens of people, every single person said, “Oh, no, no, no, that’s not true anymore. That’s been fixed.” And they would often say, “We fixed it, my company, my studio,” whatever. So then I thought, “Okay, it seems impossible that no one notices,” even people making these things don’t notice what I think I see. So what I’m going to do is get the numbers [00:14:30] and then go directly to the creators and share it with them and see if once they know, if that will make a difference. That was my plan.
Jay Ruderman: And you’ve had success because you’re showing them statistics. So you’re showing them the numbers. And how are people in the studios reacting when faced with numbers?
Geena Davis: Right. So I didn’t know how they were going to react. And the first meeting we took was with Disney and we weren’t singling Disney out. Every studio [00:15:00] was doing exactly the same and I went to Disney. They were very kind and gathered a whole lot of people. And once they heard the research, their jaws were on the ground. They were stunned. The head of casting for the studio said, “Every movie we make my staff and I go through and see which characters could become black or which could become Hispanic or Asian or whatever. And we never once have thought, ‘Could any of these characters become female?'” [00:15:30] And it was like that all around the table. And I have to say, Disney has responded the strongest to all of this. We are very, very embedded in Disney, but that first meeting, it’s been the same at every meeting that we’ve taken when people hear it for the first time, they are stunned.
And so I think I stumbled on the magic key to changing what happens on children’s onscreen TV [00:16:00] and movies, which is, people who make these entertainments love kids, they want to do right by kids. And so when they hear that they’re not, they want to change and do better. And so pretty much universally people have responded and are changing.
Jay Ruderman: What were some of the statistics that you uncovered that surprised you the most?
Geena Davis: Well, when we first started out with the first study we did showed that only 11% of lead characters in [00:16:30] kids movie and TV were female, only 11%. And our most recent study showed that we have achieved parody in both TV and movies, as far as genders of characters. So that’s been pretty great.
Jay Ruderman: So, 17 years later you’ve changed the industry and you’re going to affect the lives of children as they grow up from here on out. So that must feel pretty gratifying.
Geena Davis: I’m very happy that we reached two [00:17:00] of our goals, which is, the main characters, but as you well know, there’s so many other segments of the population who are not represented on screen. And we are working on all of those. I think we’re the only media research company that focuses on six characteristics, gender, gender, identity, age, race, and ethnicity, ability and body type. So yeah, we’re really trying [00:17:30] to change all of that. We’ve made some progress. People of color are now 38% of the characters in movies and they’re 40% of the population. So, we’re getting pretty close, but there’re certain segments of that that are not represented well. I mean, you know all this.
Jay Ruderman: Yes I do. And we’re working on it too for more authentic disability representation. I recently saw a documentary that you were involved in called, [00:18:00] This Changes Everything, which is amazing and I would recommend everyone watch it. And I wanted to use that documentary to talk to you about your activism. Do you feel it more effective to be an activist inside the room in the studios or an activist on the outside, speaking to the media and drawing attention to what’s missing in the industry?
Geena Davis: Well, I think there’re powerful rules for both inside and outside. It can [00:18:30] be very effective. We have exclusively been in the room because I felt like I’m in the industry, I have access to all of these people, why not go directly to the creators and get them to change what they’re creating rather than educating the populace? I mean, the populist will benefit if we can make changes by impacting the creators. So we have exclusively done that. There’s no shaming and blaming. We’d never put down movies or companies [00:19:00] or anything. It’s only about encouraging them and working very collegially with them.
Jay Ruderman: So there’s a couple quotes I wanted to give you from towards the end of the documentary. One, an executive in the industry says, “It can only be done if the CEO is totally bought into it.” And Meryl Streep goes on to say, “Progress will only happen when men take a stand. It’s the chivalry of the 21st [00:19:30] century.” What do you think of that?
Geena Davis: Well, I do believe that the person at the top sets the tone. Bob [Agawy 00:19:38] was very outspoken about women and did a lot for women. It’s the environment of a production company or a studio or whatever, network, TV show, if the person at the top cares about it. And as was implied in those quotes, men are often the person at the top of these pyramids. [00:20:00] And so they need to become aware of it and look, like I found, most people are not aware of this stuff. They just simply are not aware of it. They’re shocked to find out because now we do analyses on how we’ve done over the past five years and we can do that and they’re stunned because they think they’re doing well. And then they’re not.
Jay Ruderman: But there was the example of the executive at FX where he was shown that 89% of their [00:20:30] directors were men. And they flipped that around. So 49% a few years later were men and FX did it. It’s usually men are in these roles. Does it take someone to say, “Oh, I realize the mistake that we’ve made and I’m going to make sure that change happens.” And what happens if someone at the top just says, “All right, I hear what you’re saying, but it’s going to take us a long time,” change doesn’t happen. What do you do at that point?
Geena Davis: Yeah, absolutely. [00:21:00] That’s the big question, but yes, it like John Landgraf, if the person at the top decides we’re going change, look how fast he did that. It was incredible because the talented female directors are out there. People are just used to hiring their white friends, male friends. So the change can be dramatic and happen instantly. That’s what I say is that there’s one area of inequality in our society that can be changed absolutely overnight. [00:21:30] And it’s in media. The very next movie somebody makes or show or whatever can be completely different. So well, you have to just keep working on people who are resistant to embracing change. And that’s where activists and people from the outside protesting and demanding that these people do better is very effective because the fact is that as far as female directors go, which are still in [00:22:00] the single digits in films, everybody knows and has known for decades, the percentage.
So me or anybody going to the studio and saying, “Do you realize that you only have 7% female directors?” is pointless. We already know that, therefore, it has to be some other motivation. And I think that’s where activists could really come in.
Jay Ruderman: So it’s a combination of you working inside the room because of the great statistics that you have to present and [00:22:30] your connections in the industry and people outside the room saying, “Hey, we want to see more authentic representation. We want more female directors, more female lead roles and you think it’s a combination of both.
Geena Davis: I really do. And I think it’s the difference between conscious bias and unconscious bias. I found in the case of on screen representation is very often unconscious bias, that if I see a movie [00:23:00] that’s really imbalanced, I always feel like, “Oh, if I could have only talked to them first they would’ve instantly changed this.” But I believe that behind the camera is conscious bias, I have to say, because they’re aware of the statistics and they do nothing, except some people do. Disney, now they may have reached 50% female directors. They’re very close to it, at least. Yeah.
Jay Ruderman: So you see some change happening there, but not enough?
Geena Davis: No.
Jay Ruderman: Not [00:23:30] happening fast enough?
Geena Davis: No, no, not enough. It’s fantastic if Disney does it and FX does it, but everybody else needs to do it.
Jay Ruderman: Let’s go back and talk about, have things improved for actresses past the age of 40?
Geena Davis: No, they have not. It has not improved according to our statistics. I mean, the number I quoted to you 5% is for over 50, but 40… We should do one for specifically over 40, because that was the benchmark [00:24:00] of when the change happens. And it certainly proved to be the case in my career.
Jay Ruderman: How does that change? Because if you look at society, I mean, obviously, you’re like everyone else living in society, walking around, there’s people of all different ages, body shapes, races, nationalities, abilities, how does it change? How do you change an industry that’s used to showing things one way that’s not based on reality and get them to change? I mean, you did it for children’s [00:24:30] programming in film and television. How do we take it to the next step?
Geena Davis: Frankly, I think the more we can change what’s on screen, the more it will happen in real life. And like I said, that really applies to occupations as well. And the more we can normalize seeing women in positions of authority and power and competence, it will change society. And the more we see people with different abilities on screen, the [00:25:00] more we’ll realize, “Oh, they’re part of society, normal, whatever, absolutely same as you.” If on screen reflected the population, which shouldn’t be an extraordinary request, right, just reflect the population as it is, if we did that, it would be such a dramatic change in our culture.
Jay Ruderman: Right. We’ve talked a lot about female directors, actors. What about the other people who are part of the industry, people behind the scenes, [00:25:30] the writers, the show runners, everyone that it takes to make a film happen, do you see any change in those roles?
Geena Davis: Right. Well, one glaring example is female cinematographers. It’s like 2% or something. It’s ridiculous. But as far as female writers, producers and show runners, TV is doing a much better job than film. And also specifically streaming companies are doing better than [00:26:00] broadcast networks. So there are pockets of actually very, very positive and encouraging change.
Jay Ruderman: And do you feel that’s because TV happens so much faster and streaming puts out so much more content and films take longer to produce? Is that why we’re seeing more content out there in these mediums?
Geena Davis: I think so. I think that’s part of the reason why, but it’s often perplexing to me because if you have a studio that also has a TV [00:26:30] division and the TV numbers are far different than the film numbers, it’s like, “How is that happening?” And that’s because somebody at the top is not saying all of us have to do the same. So I find that weird that nobody thinks of that.
Jay Ruderman: And you’ve done obviously, been very successful in film, but also in television. Do you have a preference of where you like to act?
Geena Davis: No, I love both. I really love both. Before I got cast in Commander in Chief, [00:27:00] I had very actively told my agents, I’d never want to do an hour long TV show because everybody says it’s the worst lifestyle in Hollywood. And then I was offered that part. And I was like, “When do I start?” Because what could be more iconic than the first female president, but I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I love TV. I really, really want to do another series. There’s definitely more opportunities, especially for older female actors [00:27:30] in television. We see lots of shows headed by people over 50 or over 40.
Jay Ruderman: I think I remember reading you being disappointed that some television can be very successful, but can be canceled and it’s gone unlike a film, which is once it’s done, it’s out there. Can you talk about that?
Geena Davis: Oh, I have to say the biggest disappointment of my life was Commander in Chief being canceled because it was the number one new show, [00:28:00] all this acclaim, fabulous reviews. And just from internal politics, it wasn’t to do with anything but internal politics. It ended up getting canceled and I grieved that for years. I just couldn’t give up. I tried getting somebody else to do it, switch it over to another network or something. But yeah, it’s tough. I mean, I shouldn’t feel like that because if I did a movie, it would be over and done. And I shouldn’t expect to keep playing that character. [00:28:30] But something about the nature of TV makes you value it based on how long it goes on.
Jay Ruderman: Well, if streaming was around then maybe it would’ve been saved. I want to talk a little bit about independent film and you co-founded the Bentonville Film Festival. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of independent filmmaking and why is this festival different than others that are out there?
Geena Davis: Well, this festival was founded on the idea of projects that reflect the population, [00:29:00] gender balanced, and in all the different categories. That’s our only focus. A lot of film festivals have added a division or a part of the program or whatever, or really upped their percentage of films directed by women or people of color and all that. But that’s all we do. You have to meet our criteria to be in the festival. And a lot of those films that are direct by underrepresented communities are [00:29:30] independent movies, but our aim actually is to make it mainstream across everything that a focus on diversity and inclusion should be part of mainstream entertainments as well. And so we’re showing these movies as examples of great films that show the quality you can get if you have these criteria.
Jay Ruderman: So is Hollywood paying attention to these independent film festivals [00:30:00] and underrepresented communities having larger roles in independent film?
Geena Davis: I think every major studio has a presence at our film festival. And I mean, it’s a small festival still. It’s just still only six years old. But I feel like we are having an impact. We have very close relationship with all the major studios and between my Institute and the film festival, I feel like they really are getting the message [00:30:30] and hopefully acting on it.
Jay Ruderman: That’s awesome. Next year is going to mark the 30th anniversary of A League of Their Own and it was one of the most successful films about sports that was ever made. Why do you think three decades later sports films are dominated by men?
Geena Davis: And also this year is the 30th anniversary of Thelma and Louise. I did those two movies back to back. I couldn’t believe it.
Jay Ruderman: Wow. That was quite a year.
Geena Davis: Yeah. So what [00:31:00] happened with both of those was the press predicted… That’s why the documentaries called This Changes Everything predicted that first Thelma and Louise would change everything. Now we’re going to see so many more movies with women in the leads and blah, blah, blah. And then when A League of Their Own came out, all the press was about now we’re going to see so many. Now that it’s been proven beyond a doubt that a female sports movie can be a giant blockbuster, we’re going to see so many more and crickets. [00:31:30] There weren’t more. I think the next female sports movie to come out was Bend It Like Beckham ,10 years later, which wasn’t even an American production, but it didn’t happen.
And then maybe five or seven or whatever years later, a movie comes out with an all female cast or something. “Oh, okay. This one is now changing everything.” And it doesn’t. And I remember when Hunger [00:32:00] Games came out, everybody said, “This changed everything.” Now there’s a teenage star and then all that, but it doesn’t happen. And I think it’s just entrenched beliefs. I think there’s an entrenched belief that in general men don’t like movies starring women. So we just don’t want to take a risk. It could fail. And it’s not the case. I think it was maybe [00:32:30] 2018, movies starring women made more money at the box office than movies starring men and movies with a mixed cast of men and women in color are the most successful movies. But people don’t bother believing that. They just keep doing what they think is right, because it was put in their heads.
Jay Ruderman: In A League of Their Own, you acted next to some great actors like Rosie O’Donnell, Tom Hanks, Madonna. What are some of your favorite memories of making that movie?
Geena Davis: [00:33:00] Gosh, well, one of the best was, I mean, Tom is the greatest human being on earth. I love him and we all did, but one of the best things was having all those women. We had a female director and having all those women and bonding and everything, but I’ll tell you something interesting. When reporters would come to the set to interview me, every single one asked, “So is there a lot of cat fighting with [inaudible 00:33:27] all you women?” [inaudible 00:33:29] No. [00:33:30] It was just interesting that all they could think of to ask about having a female cast was, “Do we cat fight with each other?”
Jay Ruderman: Wow. It’s ridiculous that in a movie all about powerful women, a reporter would ask about cat fights. In Thelma and Louise you also said it’s the 30th anniversary. I think that was Brad Pitt’s first major role.
Geena Davis: Yeah.
Jay Ruderman: What was it like working with him at such a young age?
Geena Davis: He was so incredible. I was there for his audition and he just nailed it. And [00:34:00] so, I mean, Susan and I, everybody knew this guy is really going to be a huge star because, so charismatic and talented, it just had that it factor, and he was so sweet and shy and aw, shucks. He’s from the south and we just loved him.
Jay Ruderman: That’s great. I know you talked about the reaction that you got after playing Thelma, after playing Dottie in A League of Their Own. What type of reaction did you get from young girls and women?
Geena Davis: It’s [00:34:30] virtually the same now as when the movie came out, the number of people who recognize me from that movie and the vast majority, I would say of people who stopped me want to say, “I play sports because of that movie.” So I think it had an incredible impact and not just baseball. I mean, any sport, soccer, whatever they took it up because they saw a movie about women playing sports. So it’s been profound in my life and I love having teenaged [00:35:00] girls recognize me. [inaudible 00:35:03]
Jay Ruderman: So speaking of sports, I was impressed to learn that you almost went to the Olympics at age 41 for archery. How did you decide to take up archery at that age? And how did you become one of the best in the country?
Geena Davis: Well, it’s a little strange the story, but I had to learn sports for a bunch of different movies. Baseball was the first one, but then I had to learn horseback riding and ice skating and all this different stuff. And [00:35:30] I was good at all of them. And invariably, the coaches would say, “You have some real talent,” and somebody who said that was the person training me in pistol shooting. He said, “You could compete in this if you really took it up.” I thought, “Wow, compete in a sport? Oh my God.” And then I saw the Atlanta Olympics on TV and it was heavy coverage of the American men’s archery team. And I got a really good look at that and [00:36:00] I thought, “Wow, that is so beautiful and dramatic and it’s kind of a weapon. I wonder if I’d be good at that?”
But I was 41 and I found the best coach I could find and who actually taught Olympians. He says, I asked him at the first lesson, “How old is too old to be in the Olympics in archery?” And I said, “I’m sure that’s not true.” It had to be at least a second lesson, but see, I always take everything too far. [00:36:30] So anyway, I did. I took it way too far, became obsessed, practicing hours and hours a day and two and a half years later, I was a semi-finalist in the Olympic trials, not a finalist and not on the team, but a semi-finalist.
Jay Ruderman: That’s amazing. It shows you how hard you work at whatever craft you’re involved in.
Geena Davis: Exactly.
Jay Ruderman: And it’s funny because I know you’ve talked about growing up in Wareham, Massachusetts and being very tall but not playing basketball.
Geena Davis: Right. Right.
Jay Ruderman: [00:37:00] So I guess at an early age, you were not into athletics?
Geena Davis: No, no. I was much too shy and self conscious. I didn’t want people to look at me because I was so tall and just not confident in my physical abilities. And so even though they desperately wanted me on the basketball team, I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t bear having people watch me if I failed.
Jay Ruderman: Wow. That’s quite a statement and then someone who later became [00:37:30] a world famous actress.
Geena Davis: Right.
Jay Ruderman: And has everyone in the world watching her.
Geena Davis: Yeah, exactly. How does it happen? And a lot of actors are actually shy in real life and it’s like, how does that happen? But I think it’s because you get to be somebody else. I think I wanted to break out and be somebody else.
Jay Ruderman: So Geena, I want to talk to you a little bit about mental health because there’s been a lot of sports figures, actors, celebrities, who’ve been outspoken about mental health. And I think [00:38:00] that there’s, in my view, something about fame that puts a lot of pressure. Women in Hollywood are constantly being criticized for their looks, their opinions, their personal lives. How do you deal with it? And how do you prioritize and protect your mental health?
Geena Davis: I’ve made a habit of believing the good press and totally discarding the bad press. I somehow have created the ability to do that. So I read reviews or whatever. [00:38:30] I’m not worried about it because I know that I’ll just [inaudible 00:38:33] what do they know? But it is hard on you and it’s very stressful. I have pretty severe bouts of depression at various times, either from getting canceled on TV or not working or not getting parts. So it’s challenging. It’s challenging. And I have ADD which is challenging in a whole different way. It’s tough. It’s tough. That’s part of what I loved about archery is points. [00:39:00] It’s not anybody’s opinion about you. It doesn’t matter how you look, what you wear or anything. You either hit the bullseye or you don’t. And this was a whole new chapter in my life where things could be measured. I think I must love statistics and numbers or something because your success can be measured in numbers.
Jay Ruderman: My son has ADD and sometimes people with ADD will describe it as a superpower that it allows them to focus so intensely in what they’re doing and to be so successful. [00:39:30] I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that, but, or experience that.
Geena Davis: Yeah. Oh, I believe it. Yeah. I think that is a characteristic of us. It’s so hard to focus, but then when something makes the gears connect, you are obsessed with it and you could really do it. It’s like my therapist described it as like lions lay around 90% of the time, just sleep in line down and then something goes and they go, “What’s that?” [inaudible 00:40:00] They are a hundred [00:40:00] percent focused and I think that’s what it’s like.
Jay Ruderman: I like that metaphor. And it’s a good way of looking at things. Geena, you’re so smart and talented. Do you have any plans to write or direct in the future?
Geena Davis: No, I don’t want to direct. I’ve decided that I don’t want that job. It’s just too big of a job. I like my job and writing, I wish… I can’t tell you how much I wish I could write things for myself, write Rocky, like Sylvester Stallone did for himself, [00:40:30] but I can’t. I can’t focus on it enough to be able to actually complete a script. It’s just not the type of… Sitting down for a little bit of time every day or whatever. I can’t do that. I don’t seem to be able to do it.
Jay Ruderman: So what about acting? What’s in your future? I mean, I know you’re still acting and still getting parts. What do you see coming down the road?
Geena Davis: Yeah. I mean, I’m an actor. That’s what I love and what I want to do. And that’s [00:41:00] my jam and I’m attached right now. Obviously COVID put a big dent in everything. I’m attached to incredible scripts for… There would be independent movies, but there’s all that business about financing and a lot of different moving parts. But I hope that both of those can go someday because as we know, the chances of a really great part like I’ve played in the past, coming along is slim. They get Meryl Streep.
Jay Ruderman: [00:41:30] Well, I’m sure you have many, many, many fans and I’d love to see you back on the screen again in many different things.
Geena Davis: Thank you.
Jay Ruderman: Who do you see as the next generation of Hollywood leaders who are following in your footsteps?
Geena Davis: Gosh, there’s so many. Reese Witherspoon and Natalie Portman and Jennifer Lawrence, Mindy Kaling, there’s Jessica Chastain. These are [00:42:00] powerful and empowered women and really making strides and producing things for themselves and really getting a big foothold in Hollywood. So I think there’s any number of young actresses who are really… Shaline Woodley has also talked to me and they’re very passionate about women in Hollywood.
Jay Ruderman: And do they reach out to you for advice?
Geena Davis: I haven’t had any of them reach out to me for advice, but I have had many of [00:42:30] them, most of them say that they love what I’m doing and they’re grateful.
Jay Ruderman: That’s excellent.
Geena Davis: Which is nice.
Jay Ruderman: I saw an interview where you said on your tombstone you wanted to say, “I wish I’d spent more time at work.”
Geena Davis: Right.
Jay Ruderman: Most people would say, “I wish I had worked less,” but you want to spend even more time working. What do you want your legacy to be in the industry?
Geena Davis: There’s a country song that says, “Have you ever seen a headstone with the words, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at work?'” And I was like, “Well, I’ll do it then if [00:43:00] you haven’t seen it, I’ll do it.” I wish that I had been able to work more, but legacy, I don’t know. I don’t even really care so much that people know that I’m doing this stuff with media and onscreen. As long as we just to get the job done, that’s all I care about as far as that goes. But I don’t know. I guess I just would like people to think, “Wow, she was in some great movies,” and not just ones that happened 30 years ago.
Jay Ruderman: [00:43:30] Well, you have been, and I’m sure you’ll be in other things that will be great. And you’ve had a tremendous impact on the industry and not only changed the industry, but I’m sure it changed our country and the world because of your activism, so.
Geena Davis: Wow.
Jay Ruderman: I’m so honored that you spent some time with me and I wish you all the best going forward.
Geena Davis: Thank you, Jay. And I’m a big fan of all that you do as well. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you so much.
Speaker 1: [00:44:00] All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify and [inaudible 00:44:17]. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to Rudermanfoundation.org/AllInclusive. Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet @JRuderman.