The “Special Skills” section of Geena Davis’s résumé would be a doozy. Aside from being an Oscar-winning movie star, she speaks Swedish, which she picked up during a high-school exchange program. As a young woman, she once posed as a mannequin in a store window and learned that she had a talent for staying motionless. She has an idiosyncratic interior-design flair. (A house that she shared with her second husband, Jeff Goldblum, had a “Weddingland” bathroom, complete with fake flowers, cake toppers, and a picket fence. She later filled a guest bathroom with fifty working cuckoo clocks.) She’s an elaborate pumpkin carver. Oh, and she’s a world-class archer who was a semifinalist for the Olympic trials in 1999.
Then, there’s her second career as what she calls a “middle-aged data geek.” In the early two-thousands, sidelined from Hollywood in her forties, she began wondering why the kids’ shows that she watched with her two-year-old daughter had so few female characters. Instead of taking her observations to the press, she sponsored an extensive research project that grew into the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, an organization that uses statistics to advocate for greater onscreen diversity and gender parity, and for which Davis has collected an honorary Oscar and, last month, an honorary Emmy.
In short, if your perception of Geena Davis boils down to “Beetlejuice” and “Thelma & Louise” and “A League of Their Own,” you’ve been missing a much quirkier, more eclectic, more persistent person. And yet, to hear Davis tell it, she’s spent a lifetime trying to build up inner conviction. “I kicked ass onscreen way before I did so in real life,” she writes in her new memoir, “Dying of Politeness.” “The roles I’ve played have taken me down paths I never could have imagined when I dreamed of becoming an actor. They have helped transform me, slowly, in fits and starts, into someone of power.”
Recently, Davis, sixty-six, spoke to me from her home in Los Angeles about her “journey to badassery,” her iconic roles of the eighties and nineties, and the Hollywood double standard that she is battling with numbers. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Your memoir is called “Dying of Politeness.” How did you learn politeness, and why is it so deadly?
I learned politeness from minute one. That was my family: my parents were very old-fashioned New Englanders, both from Vermont. It wasn’t so much being kind. It was not making anyone go out of their way for you. Never ask for anything, never need anything. But, on the other side, offer everything. Like, my dad fixed everybody’s plumbing or their furnace or their car or whatever.
When did you realize that there was a downside to politeness?
It was painful sometimes to say, “No.” If we went to visit friends’ houses and they offered me candy, I had to say no. My best friend’s mom was an incredible cook, and she made this chicken with garlic—it was incredible—and I’d be smelling that and go, “Oh, it’s time for me to go home for dinner.” And she’d say, “Geena, do you want to stay?” “No, thank you.” And then she’d call my mom and just say, “Lucille, Geena’s staying for dinner.” She would rescue me from my own politeness.
You’ve always been very tall. How did that compound your self-effacement growing up?
I was tall from a baby. I was always the tallest kid in class, male or female, right up until senior year. And I found it very stressful to stand out so much, because the last thing I wanted to do was stand out. It’s not like kids teased me—I just felt it. I didn’t fit in. But everybody has their thing in high school, their personal torture.
I’ve heard this from other tall people: you want to take up less space. Which is oxymoronic, because a lot of people think of tall people as naturally confident.
Well, my mom knew from early on that I was going to be extremely tall, and she was on me from the beginning to not slouch my shoulders. Before I even would have thought of slouching my shoulders, she was, like, “You have to stand up straight.” And so I would find ways to curve my hips out, which would maybe make me a little shorter, or perch on things. But I really wanted to be small.
In your later life, you’ve become a significant critic of gender representation in media, which we’ll get to later. But I’m curious about the pop culture that you grew up with. What kinds of things stuck with you as you figured out what it meant to be a woman in the world?
We watched “Bonanza” and “The Big Valley,” and my favorite show was “The Rifleman.” That’s what my friend Lucyann and I played after school. We would go in her back yard and pretend to be characters from “The Rifleman.” Because I was taller, I was the father, Lucas, and she would be my son, Mark. We just loved playing these tough guys. There were female characters then—there was “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie” and all that—but we never wanted to pretend to be them. I was also kind of obsessed with Ginger on “Gilligan’s Island.” Maybe that’s where I got some of my ideas about what a movie star would be like.
You write that you had a sort of Ginger–Mary Ann dichotomy going on as a child, because you “mixed serious self-effacement with strange explosions of attention-grabbing behavior.”
Exactly. If I thought I wasn’t being paid attention to, I could be very extroverted, like on my paper route. There was a section of it where there weren’t houses on either side, and when I hit that patch I would start to sing at the top of my lungs. And then the people in the next section would come out of their houses and peek down the hill and say, “What is taking so long? My papers should be here by now!”—and see me down there just bellowing songs. It was very embarrassing when I knew they knew.
As a teen-ager, you spent a year on an exchange program in Sweden, which is definitely not something I knew about you. Have you retained your Swedish?
For some reason, it went in my hard drive, and I can still carry on a conversation in Swedish. I mean, I forgot a lot of words that I haven’t heard lately. Hugh Laurie wrote a book that—I’m not sure what it’s called in English. Can you hang on one second? I have it right here. [She leaves and returns with a book.] It’s called “Skottpengar.”
You’re reading the Swedish translation of Hugh Laurie’s book?
Yeah, because he knew I could speak Swedish, so he got me this copy. It helps me remember stuff.
Can you tell me something in Swedish?
Here, I’ll read you a phrase. “Föreställ er att man är tvungen att bryta armen på någon.” That says, “Understand, people sometimes need to break an arm here and there.” [The actual translation, from “The Gun Seller,” by Hugh Laurie, is, “Imagine that you have to break someone’s arm.”]
Do they have good curse words in Swedish?
Oh, yeah. I know them all. This is common: jävlar!
“Damn” or “hell.” I think it means “devils” if you translate it. That’s what you yell if you smash your thumb or something.