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These are the life lessons Geena Davis learned from 3 of her most famous movies

Geena Davis attends the Emmy Awards in Sept. 2022. This month, she spoke with NPR's <em>Morning Edition</em> about her movie career and upcoming memoir.
Robyn Beck
AFP via Getty Images
Geena Davis attends the Emmy Awards in Sept. 2022. This month, she spoke with NPR's Morning Edition about her movie career and upcoming memoir.

Updated October 6, 2022 at 12:19 PM ET

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.

Dustin Hoffman (L) and Geena Davis (R) pictured in the 1982 film <em>Tootsie</em>, her first onscreen role.
/ Alamy Stock Photo
Alamy Stock Photo
Dustin Hoffman (L) and Geena Davis (R) pictured in the 1982 film Tootsie, her first onscreen role.

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.

Geena Davis (R) and Susan Sarandon (L) pictured in a scene from <em>Thelma & Louise </em>in 1991.
/ Alamy Stock Photo
Alamy Stock Photo
Geena Davis (R) and Susan Sarandon (L) pictured in a scene from Thelma & Louise in 1991.

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."

Tom Hanks and Geena Davis in 1992's <em>A League of Their Own</em>.
/ Alamy Stock Photo
Alamy Stock Photo
Tom Hanks and Geena Davis in 1992's A League of Their Own.

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.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.