“This is my first film festival,” Geena Davis whispers, conspiratorial and winking, as she sits down on the cold plastic chair graciously provided by the Tribeca Film Festival organizers for our chat. We are in a room that feels like an afterthought—a gray-carpeted closet of space with chipped white walls, upstairs in a Union Square office building that has been converted into a de facto festival headquarters. I’ve been in rooms like this before—to make copies or coffee—but when Davis enters the room, it seems there has been some mistake. Six feet tall and barely clearing the doorframe in heels, Davis’ casual glamour is overwhelming—at 53, she still looks impeccable, lean, and polished, wearing a bright orchid shift, tiny diamonds, and her hair in long brunette waves. It suddenly feels like we should be at a flashbulb junket in Cannes, or backstage at the Oscars (where Davis has been before and won), rather than in a dingy back room without windows.
"I thought, this is a new era, and I won’t have to worry. It will all be fixed by the time I’m 40! And of course, it wasn’t. All of us female actors think we can just keep going and going. But it’s not always the case."
Davis is quick to recognize the disparity—it does not escape her notice that she has gone from being one of the country’s biggest movie stars and symbols of glamour to now promoting an independent film that has yet to find a distributor— and says in her signature rasp, “I know I’ve never done any independent film before…but there aren’t that many other scripts out there with great parts for women my age. It’s a true phenomenon that the parts dwindle as you get older. You wake up one day and you’re flabbergasted to find out…so, this has happened to me.”
It would be easy for Davis to come up with a clever excuse for not having worked in two years. After the demise of her ABC show Commander in Chief in 2006, Davis could claim to have focused on motherhood (she has five-year-old twin boys and a seven-year-old daughter), or her latest project, The Geena Davis Institute, devoted to issues of gender in children’s entertainment. (She’d like to see more girls in kids’ shows.) But instead, Davis is refreshingly honest; she simply hasn’t been offered the parts.
“I had all these iconic female roles!” she sighs— Thelma & Louise, The Accidental Tourist, and A League of Their Own come to mind. “But the Screen Actors Guild runs the numbers every year, and it’s true—after 40, the parts take a nosedive.”
“When I started out,” she continues,” It was right around the time when Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange and Sally Field—all these actresses getting older—were still having big movies every year. There was a Sophie’s Choice, a Norma Rae, etc. I thought, this is a new era, and I won’t have to worry. It will all be fixed by the time I’m 40! And of course, it wasn’t. All of us female actors think we can just keep going and going. But it’s not always the case.”
Despite all of her protestations, Davis is aging into her roles, though perhaps not with the same level of glamour she anticipated. Her latest effort, Tribeca’s Accidents Happen, is one of the most exciting roles of her career. In the film, a story about a dysfunctional family prone to calamitous accidents, Davis plays the foul-mouthed matriarch. “She has a very colorful way of speaking,” Davis laughs. “I think she has 40 or 50 ways of calling someone stupid. I’ve never heard anyone talk that way, especially to her children.” In Accidents Happen, audiences will get to see Davis at her most raw and caustic; she is unapologetically unlikable, and doesn’t bank on the same talents she could when she was younger (i.e. her gravelly tone and striking appearance).
Still, it is impossible to sit in a room with Davis and not feel the full force of her onetime superstardom—she is, after all, a Mensa member, an Oscar and Golden Globe winner, an Amazonian beauty, the miracle mother of twins at 48, an Olympic-level archer (really), and a feminist media activist. She worked with Brad Pitt in his first big role (“Brad was wonderful chapter in my life, he was so young and sweet and aw shucks”), and Madonna at the height of her pop stardom. That Davis can describe herself as “put out to pasture” makes little sense, and yet she speaks of her career with a wistfulness that shows she really believes it.
"People ask me all the time if we could do another Thelma & Louise, and I look at them like they are crazy. It wasn’t ambiguous—we were pancakes at the bottom of the Grand Canyon….very, very dead."
“I wish I could do every role I ever did over,” she says with a slight frown. “I have thought of a sequel to everything I’ve ever done. Except Thelma & Louise, that is. We are very, very dead. People ask me all the time if we could do another one, and I look at them like they are crazy. That wasn’t ambiguous—we were pancakes at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.”
“I hoped that Commander in Chief would last,” she says of her latest show, which ran for only one season (though it resulted in a Golden Globe). “I really thought that show would go for six years. Maybe it was because people claimed that it was a ploy by ABC to get Hillary elected, which is like…really? I thought ABC liked to make money, and that was sort of their goal in creative programming rather than some subversive message.”
“But at least it was fun,” she goes on. “I got to bring my kids to set every day and they got Goldfish crumbs in the Oval Office carpet.”
Davis suddenly looks tired, and admits that doing interviews isn’t as exciting as it used to be—“I used to just confuse reporters,” she says. “To amuse the crew guys that would have to be in those hot press trailers. Because everyone would ask the same things. Like with A League of Their Own, they would ask if I had ever played baseball before. So I would say, 'Sure, I was the ringer of my hometown Sparkettes,' to one guy. And to the next, 'Nope, never touched a ball in my life.' I’m sure all these little papers have printed contradictory things about me.”
But now, the media frenzy has died down, and Davis seems content to plug her small film in this small room, with no plan for her future. “I’m always interested in great parts, but I don’t know what I’ll be doing next,” she says. “But it is always fun to have a reason to get dressed up. I’m usually in sweatpants these days.”
As she gets up, towering over her three handlers, it is tough to imagine Davis ever wearing a pair of sweats. Even in her 50s, and even with her self-effacing monologue, no small back room can seem to contain her. You can take the parts away from an actress, but there are some things that can never be lost. Davis is as beautiful now as she ever was, and in her honesty about the trials of aging in the business, she's as much of a presence as any of the young people she claims are taking her roles. In other words, she seems to have a few more sequels in her still, long before she ends up as a pancake.
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.