Everything I do, I want to take it to the farthest possible degree. I can’t just do something the plain way. I don’t cook a bowl of pasta; it has to be puff pastry swans. geena davis
When it was released in 1991, Ridley Scott’s road movie Thelma & Louise was the kind of Hollywood anomaly that made it an instant classic. By simply depicting fully fleshed-out female characters as the outlaws on the lam, it was transgressive in its feminism. Geena Davis’s role as Thelma, an Arkansas housewife and foil to Susan Sarandon‘s tough-talking waitress, Louise, cemented her reputation for taking on fiery and tenacious parts that resonated with women, and nabbed her an Oscar nomination. The Massachusetts native broke into Hollywood in the ’80s and starred in a wide range of films that span from Cronenberg derangement (The Fly, 1986) and Tim Burton camp (Beetlejuice, 1988) to a highly acclaimed romance (The Accidental Tourist, 1988, for which she won an Oscar) and period Americana (A League of Their Own, 1992). But, for Davis-who also fittingly starred in the 2005-06 series Commander in Chief as the first female president and will appear in a new series based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 horror novel, The Exorcist, for Fox this year-stardom comes with a second act.
Twenty-five years after Thelma and Louise roared off in their 1966 Ford Thunderbird, the conversation around women’s agency in Hollywood hasn’t changed much. Davis, 60, is doing her part to change that. In 2004 she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, an organization devoted to culling statistics on gender imbalance in children’s media and sharing it with the entertainment industry. Her work to confront sexism in Hollywood doesn’t end there: Last year she co-founded the Bentonville Film Festival. Taking place for the second year in early May in Bentonville, Arkansas, the festival supports women’s and diverse voices in media, giving all prize winners opportunities to distribute and release their work.
Another actress who isn’t keeping quiet about the current climate in Hollywood is Emma Watson. The U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador, advocate for its HeForShe gender equality program, and self-professed Davis fan called her up to hear all about it.
GEENA DAVIS: I can’t believe we’re talking.
EMMA WATSON: I can’t believe it either, because I have wanted to speak to you for so long. I am constantly citing research from your institute. I’m obviously a huge fan of your work, and I’ve seen your movies, but for me, this has just made you extra cool. How did you first decide to set up the Geena Davis Institute and to start doing this research?
DAVIS: It was more than ten years ago now. My daughter was a toddler. I had no idea there was anything wrong with kids’ media. [laughs] I figured, some of it’s educational, researched … Obviously, we all know the huge problem there is with entertainment in general leaving out women. Especially as actors, we know there are fewer great parts for women. But I started watching little preschool shows with her or G-rated videos or whatever; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, that there seemed to be far more male characters than female characters in what we make for little kids. It was just a shock.
WATSON: I didn’t realize that I wasn’t moving in a gender-equal world—I had a sense of it, but I didn’t start to really see evidence of it, I think, until I hit puberty. Media even before that age is already creating all these biases.
DAVIS: And it’s like, is this not the 21st century? I mean, really? But that isn’t what made me do the research. I just started asking my friends if they had noticed. None of them—feminists, mothers, daughters—noticed until I pointed it out. Then I decided to bring it up within the industry. I knew a lot of people, so I’d say, “Have you ever noticed how few female characters there are in kids movies?” when I met a director, a producer, whatever. And they said, “Oh, but that’s not true anymore.” Then they would name a movie with one female character as the proof that things had changed. [Watson laughs] My point was the world is missing female characters. A lot of times there is one female character, maybe even a cool one, maybe even an important one. But where are all the rest? So that’s when I thought, “I want to get the research, because I’d like to know if I’m right.” It wasn’t so I could go educate the public, really. It was so I could go back to the people in the industry and present it to them and say, “See, it really is still a problem.” You know, I take everything too far. [laughs] We sponsored the largest amount of research ever done on gender depictions in TV and movies. Then we go meet with every studio, every guild, every network, every production company and share it with them, privately. I don’t really bust anybody publicly. It’s much more efficient if I can impact the creators. So that’s what we do. It’s had a great impact.
WATSON: That’s very smart. I agree with you in the sense that I think until you really start looking at it, if you’ve been sold the line that gender equality is something that is solved, and that we now live in an equal world and this has all been tackled, you’re not looking for it in the same way. You’re not really aware, you’re not looking at it consciously. I would say there have been different stages of my feminist awakening. The more layers you peel back and the more things you’re made aware of, you’re like, “Oh my God.”
DAVIS: I don’t know about you, but when I started out, maybe because I did Thelma & Louise early on—but people were always asking, “Are things better for women now?” I would say, “Yeah, I think so. It seems like it.” Then a few years in, I started saying, “I think so. I’m getting a lot of good parts, but I don’t know.” Then eventually, I was like, “Google it. I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem great.” [laughs] Now I know exactly what the numbers are, and it’s horrifying.
WATSON: I think that why the research and the data are so important is because you become so used to seeing the world one way that you don’t even notice anymore. It has this invisibility.
DAVIS: That’s the really frustrating thing, but also the fixable thing. My theory why no one notices is that that’s the ratio thing they grew up with. It’s just been that way forever, so they don’t see it.
WATSON: Well, it’s funny when I look at my life; my primary school was two-thirds male to one-third female. [laughs] So I started my life that way. I have two brothers. And when I did Harry Potter, the ratio was more often than not, at the very least, one-third female, two-thirds male. But when I looked at your research and see things like 21 percent of filmmakers are women, only 31 percent of speaking roles in popular films are female—you start seeing it everywhere. It’s so much bigger. So you’ve uncovered this groundbreaking data and research. Now that you can see the Hollywood community digesting this information, what are your hopes for progress? Do you have hopes in terms of how quickly things might start to change?
DAVIS: I do. First of all, I realized that in all the sectors of society where there’s a huge gender disparity, the one place that can be fixed overnight is onscreen. You think about getting half of Congress, or the presidency … It’s going to take a while no matter how hard we work on it. But half of the board members and half of the CEOs can be women in the next movie somebody makes; it can be absolutely half. The whole point of why I’m doing this is to show all kids, boys and girls, that women take up half the space and do half of the interesting things in the world and have half of the dreams and ambitions. Our slogan is, “If they see it, they can be it.” So if we show fictional characters doing cool stuff, then girls will want to be it in real life. This is really funny, but we did a study of the occupations of female characters on TV, and there are so many female forensic scientists on TV because of all the CSI shows and Bones and whatever. I don’t have to lobby anybody to add more female forensic scientists as role models. There’s plenty. [laughs] In real life, the people going into that field now are something like two-thirds women.
WATSON: Hindsight is obviously a very great thing, but I’m always convinced that the reason that I didn’t take as many politics or history classes is because I just didn’t see any women. I didn’t think when I was 13, 14 that that had anything to do with me. I just didn’t see women in my textbooks. I didn’t see many female politicians on TV. I didn’t see women in history textbooks, so I did geography, and art and English literature. But I know I must have been affected by not seeing women represented.
DAVIS: Then you’ll love this story. I met the former president of Iceland once. I think she was president for, like, 16 years or something. She said she used to get letters from little boys saying, “Madam President, do you think it will ever be possible for a boy to be president?” Just like we assume that girls can’t be politicians, they were assuming boys can’t. That’s what they thought. It’s so crazy.
WATSON: Who have been your feminist role models? Who provided inspiration for you as a young woman?
DAVIS: I was really lucky that I had an aunt who was very inspiring to me. She was different than anybody in my family on either side. My parents are both from Vermont, very old-fashioned New England. We heated our house with wood my father chopped. My mom grew all of our food. We were very underexposed to everything. But I had this aunt who had a career and traveled. She’d say things like, “When you go to college, I think we should go scuba diving in the summer. The scuba diving in Portugal is fabulous.” And I’d be like, “Portugal! Holy cats!” [both laugh] She took me to my first play, too, which was dinner theater. I don’t know if they have that in England, [laughs] but you eat a dinner while you watch a play. And she ordered a glass of wine. I was like, “Oh my God. This is, like, the most sophisticated thing I have ever done.” I was 16 or something. She broadened my understanding of what women could be like and do and that there’s a big world out there. So she had a huge impact on me.
WATSON: Looking back, was there a moment for you when you maybe didn’t see something or you didn’t look into something because you didn’t see yourself represented?
DAVIS: An eye-opening moment in my life, a very defining moment, was the first time I met Susan Sarandon [before shooting Thelma & Louise]. We were going to meet, just Ridley [Scott] and Susan and I, to go through the script and see if we had any thoughts or ideas. I was reading the script, and in the most girly way possible, meaning that if it was a line that could change or something different I’d like to see, I would think about each one and say, “Well, this one can wait till the set because I don’t want to bring up too many things.”
WATSON: Ugh. [laughs]
DAVIS: “This one, I bet I can make him think it’s his idea.” Then, “This one, say it as a joke that might actually find a grain of truth.” The most wimpy, girly, manipulative techniques I came up with … So I meet Susan, and she was amazing. We sit down to go through the script. I swear, I think it was page one—she says, “So my first line, I don’t think we need that line. Or we could put it on page two. Cut this …” And I was just like … My jaw was to the ground. Because she was just saying what she thought! [laughs] She was saying her opinion. Even though I was 34 or 35 or something. I was like, “People can do that? Women can actually just say what they think?” It was an extraordinary experience to do that movie with her because every day was a lesson in how to just be yourself.
WATSON: I bet that’s the biggest compliment that she could get. That’s so lovely.
DAVIS: I drive her nuts. I’m always talking about her being my hero. [laughs] I’m sure she’s probably sick of it.
WATSON: It’s so cool, though. I completely agree with you. I’ve had so many moments where seeing other women be fully and truly and authentically themselves, and express that, has given me permission. Once you see it happening, you’re like, “Oh, I have permission to do that, too.” What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given to you? It can still be from Susan Sarandon if you want it to be.
DAVIS: So, anyway, it turns out that it is from Susan Sarandon. When I got pregnant, I told her. She said, “All right. I’m gonna tell you the thing to do when you’re giving birth: Push like you’re trying to win a prize, like you want to be the best patient he’s ever had. He’s going to give you a prize for winning that.” So I did. And I swear to God, he said, “You are probably the best pusher I’ve had as a patient.” [both laugh]
WATSON: That is hilarious! What is it about that piece of advice that made the difference?
DAVIS: I’m very competitive, I think. I could just picture that as a goal. It was like a stage direction or something: “She’s doing this as though she was to win a prize.” I kind of like that. Everything I do, I want to take it to the farthest possible degree. I can’t just do something the plain way. I don’t cook a bowl of pasta; it has to be puff pastry swans.
WATSON: I think that’s a great piece of advice. I’m going to be the most competitive birth-giver ever. What would you like to do in the future? Do you have anything that you dream about?
DAVIS: One thing is a fairly simple and straightforward thing. I don’t long to direct. I really want to get some good parts. [laughs] Now I have so much experience, I probably could be better than ever. I just want them to come along every once in a while. It’s okay if it takes two or three years for something really good to come along, but I don’t want to wait ten years for something great to come along. It’s maddening. It’s so frustrating. It’s completely embarrassing. But when I started watching Breaking Bad, I binge-watched it. I thought it was so good that I started to cry. It’s the only time in my life I’ve been completely jealous, the only time. I was like, [imitates crying] “I want to do what Bryan Cranston gets to do. I want a part like that.” [both laugh] Isn’t that pathetic?
WATSON: No, that’s amazing! It’s totally fair enough and valid and right. If I were in the director’s chair, I would cast you in something awesome every six months if I had the choice.
DAVIS: Actually, I’m doing a pilot right now for a TV show of The Exorcist.
WATSON: [gasps] Aye-yai-yai!
DAVIS: I know. That’s what people always say. They go, “Whoa.”
WATSON: My knowledge of horror films is pathetic because I can’t really watch them. I just find them absolutely terrifying. I’m such a wuss. But I know that The Exorcist  is one of the best and most famous of them.
DAVIS: It’s not the same plot as the movie. It exists in the same world, but it’s a different family and a different time. I’m the mother of two daughters, one of whom is going to get possessed. It’s really spooky and great. I’m shooting it right now. That’s why I’m in Chicago. I wanted to tell you about the other direction that this trying-to-get-more-female-characters thing has taken, which is that I launched my own film festival last year.
WATSON: Oh, yes, Bentonville!
DAVIS: So, you know, people think of me in the same breath as Robert Redford and Robert De Niro. [Watson laughs]
WATSON: Tell me about it.
DAVIS: The film festival is in a town in Arkansas, a quintessentially American town with a little town square. It’s to champion women and diversity in all media, so TV, movies, eventually, digital, whatever you get into. That’s the goal. We’re using the same philosophy as my institute, which is to make it research-based and really try to work directly with filmmakers and content creators and move the needle. It’s the only film festival in the world where the prizes are guaranteed distribution. It’s unheard of, you know. So if you win one of the categories, your film is going to be in theaters, on TV, digital, and on DVD. That will happen in May. You’re probably too busy to come!
WATSON: I would love to come. Can I ask you about quotes?
DAVIS: I wish I knew who said it, but my favorite quote is, “If a person can do it, I can do it.” Originally, when I read it, it was, “If a man can do it, I can do it.” I said it to somebody at a press conference. A female reporter said, “Have you always felt this competitive with men? That you want to do whatever men can do?” [laughs] And I was like, “Is that what everybody else thinks that’s what I meant?” So I say, “If a person can do it, I can do it.” I believe it.
EMMA WATSON IS A BRITISH ACTRESS AND U.N. WOMEN GOODWILL AMBASSADOR. UPCOMING, SHE WILL BE SEEN IN THE CIRCLE AND BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.