An actor, writer, fashion model and an athlete. Is it easy juggling so many different hats?
I broke into acting as a model in New York. I was never anything like a "supermodel", but I made a living at it for a couple years. I used to be very unathletic. I was always so gangly and self-conscious about my height. I had convinced myself I was uncoordinated. And as a result, I didn't want to try stuff. I didn't want anybody to look at me trying stuff. But then came A League of Their Own. I learned to play baseball and I was like, "Hey wait a second, I'm kind of good at this." After that, I learned a bunch of athletic skills for movies. The shooting coach for Long Kiss Goodnight told me I had a freaky natural ability at pistol shooting. He said I could probably compete if I wanted to. And I was like, that is so awesome. But do I really want it to be pistols? You can't exactly practice at home. Right around then, the Olympics were on television and they had all this coverage of this kid who won at archery. I was thinking, archery is beautiful and dramatic and maybe if I was good at shooting, I could be good at that, too. My assistant found me the Olympic coach — like I said, I take everything too far — and I started training with him. I became obsessed. I practiced around four hours a day. Another thing I realised I loved about sports and competition was that it was about points. It was measurable. It wasn't just somebody's opinion. I'd lived so long being judged by other people's opinions. It felt freeing to leave all that behind. With archery, you either hit the bull's-eye or you don't.
Have you seen an increase in the female to male ratio in American TV/Film since you took up the cause.
There always comes a point where they're trying to spot a trend, which would be great. It keeps happening, and we keep falling for this notion that now there's Bridesmaids, now there's Hunger Games...It hasn't started a trend. The year that Mamma Mia! and Sex and the City were both gigantic hits internationally [the media were saying] "Now, beyond a doubt, we've proven giant summer blockbusters with women will change [the industry]…" Nothing changed. In fact, the ratio of male to female characters has been exactly the same since 1946. So all the times that the press has announced that now things are better, or now things are changing, they haven't.
And it happened to me twice. That's how I became aware of the phenomenon. After Thelma & Louise, which was pretty significant, people were saying "This changes everything! There's going to be so many female buddy movies!" and nothing changed. And then the next movie I did was A League of Their Own, which was a huge hit and all the talk was, "Well now, beyond a doubt, women's sports movies, we're going to see a wave of them because this was so successful". It took 10 years until Bend It Like Beckham came out. So, there was no trend whatsoever.
Have you ever had an instance in the film world when you were subject to sexism yourself?
I've definitely seen sexism on the set, though not that much directed at me. The only thing that comes to mind is an occasion when a director commented on how much he enjoyed hugging me each morning because: "It's the only chance I get to feel you up." I said, "OK, that made me uncomfortable"… And he would not stop defending himself, saying: "But I am a feminist, I am such a feminist, and you know that." I said: "Nevertheless, I didn't like it, that's all. Just deal with it."
Not just actors, how far do you think women directors have come?
It would be great to live in a world where we could just hire the best person for the job, but we have to keep in mind the tremendous amount of unconscious bias against women. Because if women and men were truly equally talented and equally hired based on their talent and ability, we would have half of both. Women are equally talented as far as being a director is concerned and that's not happening. Whether it's our research or someone else's, the number of female directors has never been in the double digits. It has always ranged between 2 and 7% depending on the year. Even if people say, "I'm just hiring the best person for the job", they keep hiring male directors.
How much of 'Thelma' does Geena Davis identify with?
"There's still so much affection for the movie and we love it. Having been in some roles that really resonated with women, I became hyper-aware of how women are represented in Hollywood. The big takeaway I got from Thelma & Louise was the reaction of women who had seen the movie being so profound, so different. It was overwhelming and it made me realise how few opportunities we give women to feel excited and empowered by female characters, to come out of a movie pumped.
And what was it like playing a female President in Commander in Chief?
It's probably the most fun I've had since Thelma and Louise. Playing the character Mackenzie Allen really called on me to find the very confident, self-assured, straightforward parts of myself which weren't my dominant characteristics. It made perfect sense to me that I would play this part. I have always been interested in roles that are going to be challenging for me but also, characters that other women can identify with. When I was doing the show, every interviewer would eventually ask, do you think we'll ever see a female president in our lifetime? And, I'd say, what century do you live in? Yes, we not only need the first one, we need to have it as likely that it will be a women. We can't wait around anymore for this to happen.
Finally, are there any projects we should be looking forward to?
For my Institute, I'm thrilled that we're partnered with FICCI FLO on our first global symposium in India. We have a lot of new researching coming out in 2016. I'm very excited about the second year of our Bentonville Film Festival. And, I just finished shooting the film version of Margery Prime with Jon Hamm, Tim Robbins and Lois Smith.
A condensed version of this interview appears in the print version of the magazine.