Geena Davis on Hollywood Sexism and Wanting to Be in ‘Wonder Woman 2’

Geena Davis
Matt Baron/REX/Shutterstock

Oscar winner Geena Davis has spent more than a decade pushing Hollywood to create meatier roles for women.

Through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a non-profit research organization, she’s been urging film and television executives to have as many girls as boys in children’s entertainment. The actress thinks the industry is turning a corner, and she believes that hits like “Wonder Woman” are changing things for the better across the media business.

Of course Davis, whose credits include “Thelma & Louise” and “A League of Their Own,” still has a day job. She’s back on screen this weekend in “Marjorie Prime,” as a woman who tries to comfort her ailing mother (Lois Smith) by enlisting a holographic projection of her late husband (Jon Hamm) to keep her company. The film asks big questions about memory and technology, and it’s earning Davis some of the strongest reviews of her career. She spoke with Variety about artificial intelligence, action films, and why she hopes there’s a part for her in “Wonder Woman 2.”

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What attracted you to the film?

I was very taken with the story and the premise and the concept. Memory is something I think about a lot and care about. My mother and my grandmother had Alzheimer’s. It was such an artful way to approach the topic of what we remember and how we remember it. I loved that it took place in the future, but one that wasn’t that different from what we experience now. In fact, you could watch the movie for some little time before you realized it was even taking place in the future.

There’s a theory in the movie that when we remember things we’re remembering a copy of a copy. Does that bother you?

It’s depressing. I don’t like to believe that. It’s really colored everything I think about memory, to my great regret. I’ve known so many instances of me and people I know remembering things so differently, there has to be something to it.

Where do you come down on the prospect of having holographic versions of dead family members?

It seems likely that we could have something like this in the future, and I think that I might be interested in it. I sort of wish I could have one of my dad, who I miss terribly. I’d know it wasn’t him, but it would be nice. I suppose there was more video of him that I could watch. It would have to be an excellent copy. I don’t know that you could just teach it to be like the person just by telling it facts. It would have to see and hear the person. You’d have to show it video and audio of the person.

I guess movies are already doing this. Take “Rogue One,” where Peter Cushing was brought back to life through the magic of CGI. 

That was uncanny. I was like how is that guy still alive. It was fascinating.

Would you mind if they brought you back to life for a movie?

If you’re dead, you don’t know what’s happening, but I wish they’d consult me about it before anybody did that with me.

Your non-profit work has been focused on increasing the representation of women in film and television. Are things getting better?

We have not been able to measure an increase yet, but I can tell you that I feel like things are changing. I focus on movies and TV that are made for kids 11 years old and under. There was a very powerful feeling in the entertainment industry that there was not gender bias in kids products. But I noticed when I had a daughter that there seemed to be far fewer female characters than male characters in what we’re showing kids. But I couldn’t find anybody in the industry who noticed what I noticed.

I have managed to land on a very effective technique for creating change in this specific area. The average person in Hollywood, when asked if this was still a gender problem, they would say “yes, yes, obviously,” but that was not the case with creators of children’s content. When I bring them the numbers they’re horrified. Their jaws are on the ground. They immediately want to create change. I’ve found a problem that was utterly unnoticed and is easily fixed. In five or 10 years we’ll see a dramatic increase in onscreen female characters in kids entertainment. I can’t vouch for anything else.

Why do you think it’s important to create more gender equity in children’s entertainment?

I feel we’re training kids to have unconscious gender bias from the beginning by showing these profoundly unequal worlds where females make up a small part of the population. We’re showing kids that girls are less important and less valuable because there are so few of them in children’s entertainment. How are we ever going to get half of Congress to be women or half of our presidential candidates to be women if we don’t change that?

Will those improvements translate to movies made for adults and teenagers?

It certainly should be the case that movies with a female character should be made more and more. Enough with the proof that it works. We’ve had “Star Wars” with a female lead. There’s been hit after hit. Disney has proved without a shadow of a doubt that movies with a female lead work. Our research shows that in films in 2014 and 15 with a female lead character had 16% more profit at the box office.

Why aren’t there more female directors working in Hollywood?

Behind the camera we are trying to work on that, but that’s not as easily solved. There’s not anybody who doesn’t know that female directors are profoundly lacking. Everybody knows that. I think that’s a case of conscious bias rather than unconscious bias.

You made a number of action movies like “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Cutthroat Island” where you were doing all these crazy stunts. Do you feel like those films helped inspire recent movies like “Atomic Blonde” and “Wonder Woman”?

I would never claim credit for those movies. Certainly “Wonder Woman” needed to be made, and I’m so beyond thrilled with how it came out. I met Patty Jenkins and I told her, “I’m sure you’re going to make a sequel and if you need anybody Amazonian, there’s always me. I’m available.”

I loved it, and I want to do more of those films. My dream goal would be to have a streaming show where I could be a badass.

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  1. “Meatier” roles for women…appears to be a generational thing. A very long list of such roles are notable in decades past. Admittedly, it’s still “a man’s world” in the American film industry, but stellar female roles often occur through any given era.

    There will (probably) never be what one would call “equality” as far as leading roles are concerned, but certainly female actors have had their shot with memorable–even Oscar-worthy–performances.

    • Paula Stiles says:

      Well, *that’s* a depressing and condescending view of a very artificial situation. There’s absolutely nothing stopping Hollywood from achieving gender parity aside from institutionalized sexism. And that’s already changing. Hollywood’s only a century old. It doesn’t *have* to be anything just because that’s the way things have been for a little over a hundred years.

      As for your comment that “stellar” roles exist for women in any generation, sure, but the availability of those roles is nothing even close to the 51% of the population that women represent and have always represented. Not only does that have an impact on how women are raised and treated in our society, as well as opportunities for them in the industry (as Davis herself states), but it costs the industry money for the simple reason that Hollywood product fails to attract as many women in the audience as it could. In a time when Hollywood is struggling to find new audience and keep what it’s got in the face of a whole lot of other media competition, the industry can’t afford any longer to ignore half the population and what they want aside from the odd sop thrown to them and a few insular genre niches.

  2. Rex the Wonder Dog says:

    Isn’t having a holographic versions of dead family members just copying what the Superman movies and the Supergirl TV show have done already?

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