Geena Davis is a towering figure in Hollywood.
She has portrayed plenty of iconic characters over the years, from housewife-turned-outlaw Thelma in the feminist classic Thelma & Louise to her Oscar-winning turn as a quirky dog trainer in The Accidental Tourist.
And she has long advocated for inclusion and equal representation of women in the entertainment industry — including by founding the nonprofit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which won the prestigious Governors Award at last month's Emmys.
Even so, she has struggled at times with self-doubt and insecurity. That was especially true early in her career, when Davis — who studied theater at Boston University but always knew she wanted to be on screen — was discovered by a modeling agency while working as a live retail mannequin.
"I was somebody who couldn't stand for people to look at me, or if they were staring at me I'd say ... 'What, are they judging me or something?' But then I pick the goal of having as many people as possible look at me ... up to and including my underwear," she says. "So I don't know. The only thing I can conclude is that maybe I was attracted to the ability to be somebody else."
Modeling helped Davis book her first acting gig, a part in the Academy Award-winning 1982 film Tootsie, which in turn opened many other doors. Davis says each of her films has taught her something — and she's no longer bogged down by that self-critical voice in her head.
Davis reflects on her career, relationships, activism and overall "journey to badassery" in a new memoir called Dying of Politeness. In a conversation with Morning Edition's Rachel Martin about the book, she looks back on some of her favorite roles and how they shaped her.
Tootsie introduced Davis to the industry and the world
Modeling may not have landed Davis on the front page of many magazines — she says her only cover was New Jersey Monthly — but it did get her a part in Tootsie.
Davis played a soap opera actress alongside Dustin Hoffman's character, a starving actor who takes on a new feminine identity in order to get work.
She explains that the casting director had contacted modeling agencies to find someone to play her character, since there would be a few underwear scenes. Her agency, Zoli, told her to wear a swimsuit under her clothes in case the reading went well. Davis didn't think anything of it when no one asked to see her in a bathing suit; after all, it was her first-ever audition.
It turned out the film's director, Sydney Pollack, had in fact taken a liking to her tape — but by that point, she was in Paris for runway shows and unable to pop back over in a bathing suit. So they agreed she could submit photos instead.
"As it happened, I had been in a Victoria's Secret catalog, and so they were able to send over beautifully lit, perfectly windblown [photos]," she laughs. "I ended up getting the part without them seeing me in person in a bathing suit."
Working on Tootsie taught Davis a lot about the craft, as well as the logistics of moviemaking. For example, she recalls that she incorrectly assumed that everyone in the cast needed to be on set every day, so would arrive every morning and spend hours just watching other peoples' scenes.
"Nobody told me, 'I'm sure you must know this, but you only come on the days you're working,' " she says. "So I guess they assumed that I was, you know, there to absorb all this knowledge and whatever. And I loved sitting there and absorbing knowledge. But I had no clue."
Hoffman offered her advice — including a warning not to sleep with co-stars — and acting tips, as Davis recalls in the book. In particular, she says he helped teach her to quiet the voice in her head that was always telling her she should have done better. Despite her relatively small part, he took her to "the dailies" to watch what she had filmed the day before.
Davis says that exercise helped her realize that she had done her best that day, and refocus her energy on what to do differently next time.
Thelma & Louise was a lesson in empowerment
Thelma & Louise — with its groundbreaking feminist plot and feisty female leads — has made its mark on many viewers since its release in 1991. Davis says being in the movie left a lasting impact on her, too.
The movie was cast a couple of times before Davis signed on, and she recalls spending a year or two lobbying intensely for the chance to audition (including working on it with her acting coach even when there weren't any open roles). She knew she really wanted a part — and specifically, the part of Louise.
When she finally got the chance to meet with director Ridley Scott, Davis says she poured her heart out about why she absolutely had to be Louise. After listening intently, he asked her: In other words, you wouldn't play Thelma?
"And I'm like, 'Oh, my God. I just talked myself out of this movie because I asked for the wrong part,' " Davis remembers. "So then I said, 'You know what? As I've been talking about this, I realize I actually should play Thelma.' And then I just made s***t up about why I absolutely had to be Thelma."
And she has no regrets — Davis says from the moment she met Susan Sarandon it was clear Sarandon was destined to be Louise. Davis was happy to play Thelma and says the experience of making the film was "just as fantastic" as she had imagined.
She says that experience stayed with her, and that Sarandon "had the largest impact on my life of anyone that I've known."
"Watching the way Susan walked through the world, how she said what she thinks without any qualifiers in front of it," she adds. "Everything I said started with, 'This is probably a bad idea ... You're going to hate it. Probably. But what would you think? Possibly?' And she never did that. And somehow I'd never been exposed extensively to a woman who moves through the world like that. And it was like a lesson every day in how to speak up for yourself."
A League of Their Own showed Davis her skills as an athlete
A League of Their Own is a sports movie, so it's not completely surprising that Davis would come away with a newfound athletic skill. But the movie — about baseball — led her to get really into ... archery.
Davis credits the movie with helping her discover herself as an athlete in general. She had always been shy and assumed that her height would make her uncoordinated rather than an asset (even when her school basketball team begged her to join).
But she said taking up baseball for the film, and hearing the coaches' positive feedback, changed her perspective on herself. Davis has learned some other sports and skills for movies over the years, from horseback riding and ice skating to pistol shooting and sword fighting.
While she picked them up relatively easily, she saw them as "the movie version of these skills" and wondered if she could really compete at something in real life. Watching the Olympics on TV one year, she was taken in by the beauty and drama of archery and wondered if she could do it too.
Davis says at some point, she realized that sports are the exact opposite of her day job — totally subjective, based on box office numbers and other peoples' opinions. Archery, by contrast, is based on points: "Did you hit the bull's eye or not?"
"I only realized well into it that that was one of the things that was incredibly appealing to me," Davis adds. "You get satisfaction from how well you did instantly, without anybody else's opinion having to come into it."
This interview was produced by Kaity Kline and edited by Reena Advani.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For an Oscar-winning actor, Geena Davis has suffered from a lot of self-doubt over the years. It's a theme in her new memoir, which is titled "Dying Of Politeness." One of Davis' first jobs was in retail. And she soon got noticed after modeling in a shop window. A casting director saw her photos in a sales catalog. And all of a sudden, she was in a movie with Dustin Hoffman, the 1982 hit comedy "Tootsie."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOOTSIE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) One more thing, Ms. Michaels. I forgot to give you these.
DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Dorothy) Thank you. Oh, are these for today?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes.
GEENA DAVIS: (As April) Oh, they always throw stuff at you the last minute. You could lose your mind around here.
HOFFMAN: (As Dorothy) Oh, goodness.
DAVIS: (As April) What's wrong?
HOFFMAN: (As Dorothy) I have to kiss Dr. Brewster.
DAVIS: (As April) Oh, yeah. He kisses all the women on the show. We call him the tongue.
For that role, the casting director decided to contact model agencies and see if they had any models who could act. And then I got to go to the audition. And they said, wear a bathing suit under your clothes in case you read well. They want to see you in a bathing suit. OK, so I did. And I read, and it's just with an assistant casting person in an office videoing. And then she doesn't say, can I see you in the bathing suit? So I put it completely out of my mind. Of course, my first audition - nothing's going to happen from this. So - but then, it turned out Sydney Pollack, the director, saw my tape and said, hey, I like her. Where's her bathing suit? Oh, we forgot. Well, get her back. We can't. She's in Paris. Well, do they have any photos of her in a bathing suit? And as it happened, I had been in a Victoria's Secret catalog. And so they were able to send over beautifully lit, perfectly - the wind blowing. And I ended up getting the part without them seeing me in person in a bathing suit (laughter).
MARTIN: "Tootsie" was nominated for 10 Academy Awards.
MARTIN: This was in 1983. Obviously, just being part of that cast opened doors for you. But you write a lot in the book about this self-criticism that you've done ever since you were a kid. You were insecure about your height, about your looks. Acting is sort of the wrong line of work for a person with those characteristics, no?
DAVIS: Well, right?
DAVIS: I'm somebody who couldn't stand for people to look at me. Or if they were staring at me, I'd say, oh, what? Are they judging me or something? But then I pick the goal of having as many people as possible look at me. So (laughter) I don't know.
MARTIN: And your underwear (laughter)...
DAVIS: And also including - up to and including my underwear. So I don't know. The only thing I can conclude is that maybe I was attracted to the ability to be somebody else.
MARTIN: "Thelma & Louise" came out in 1991. You were originally attached to the film as Louise, which I didn't know.
DAVIS: No. Actually, the movie was cast, like, two or three times before I ever got cast. It took me a year to - intensely following it and lobbying to have a chance to audition. And I thought that I should play Louise. So finally, Ridley Scott - he was going to produce it, but now he decided to direct it himself. I met with him. And I poured out my heart about why I absolutely must be in this movie and play Louise. And then he finally said, so in other words, you wouldn't play Thelma? And I'm like, oh, my God. I just talked myself out of this movie because I...
DAVIS: ...Asked for the wrong part. So then I said, you know what? As I've been talking about this, I realize I actually should play Thelma. And then I just made [expletive] up about why I absolutely had to be Thelma.
DAVIS: When he hired Susan Sarandon to play Louise - as soon as I met her, I was like, oh, my God. What was I thinking, that I could play Louise? What? (Laughter) I was so happy I was Thelma.
MARTIN: I mean, that movie - words fail, really, to express what that meant to so many women and young women, to see these female characters central to this story.
DAVIS: Well, the whole experience had a huge impact on me. I think Susan Sarandon had the largest impact on my life of anyone that I've known. And it was just fantastic because I assumed that it was going to be, making that movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THELMA & LOUISE")
SUSAN SARANDON: (As Louise) No. Thelma, we don't need the lantern. The place has electricity.
DAVIS: (As Thelma) Oh, OK. No, I want to take it anyway just in case.
SARANDON: (As Louise) In case of what?
DAVIS: (As Thelma) In case there's some escaped psycho killer on the loose who cuts the electricity off and tries to come in and kill us.
Watching the way Susan walked through the world, how she said what she thinks without any qualifiers in front of it, you know - like, everything I said started with, this is probably a bad idea. I know. No, you're going to hate it, probably, but what would you think - possibly? And, you know - and she never did that. And somehow, I'd never been exposed extensively to a woman who moves through the world like that. And it was like a lesson every day in how to speak up for yourself.
MARTIN: You credit doing "A League Of Their Own" with really discovering yourself as an athlete.
DAVIS: Yes, absolutely, because I had been very unathletic growing up and in my life. I didn't know how to play any sport. And then taking a baseball and doing rather well at it and the coaches talking about how well I was doing and all that made me realize - wait a minute, maybe I am athletic. And so it really changed my perspective on myself.
MARTIN: And you are an archer, Geena Davis. You are really, really good at archery.
DAVIS: (Laughter) Yes. Yes. Well, I took it up because - it seems so random, but I had to learn some other sports and skills for other movies. And I kind of was good at all of them. And then I thought, well, this is the movie version of these skills. And I want to take up something in real life. And then I saw archery on TV during the Olympics. And I thought, wow, that is so beautiful and dramatic. And I wonder if I'd be good at that.
MARTIN: What does it give you that's different than being an actor in the public eye?
DAVIS: Well, I realized it's the exact opposite, in a way, to my day job, which is totally subjective. It's all judged on other people's opinions and how the box office is and all that kind of thing. And that archery and sports is based on how you actually did, you know? Did you hit the bull's-eye or not? And so I only realized, you know, well into it that that was one of the things that was incredibly appealing to me, was that you could get satisfaction from how well you did instantly without anybody else's opinion having to come into it.
MARTIN: Geena Davis. Her new memoir is called "Dying Of Politeness." It was such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.
DAVIS: Thank you. It was really fun. Thanks.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.