The woman who brilliantly inhabits the Oval Office on Tuesday nights tells Oprah how an Oscar-winning Mensa member can still be a doormat, how she finally came into her own, and why she married a man 15 years younger.
The day I walk into the Oval Office—the one on the set of this season's hit Commander in Chief —I get a little chill. Before me sits Geena Davis, a woman who stands six feet tall and has enough presence to play America's first "Madam President." She's also a woman kind enough to lend me an outfit from her own closet. Only a half hour before our meeting and photo session, I discovered I'd left my garment bag on the plane.
The real Oval Office is four feet smaller than this one, but nearly everything else—the white marble mantel, the presidential seal in the ceiling, the timber desk—is a perfect replica. "Doesn't it feel good to be in your sweats now?" I say to Geena an hour later, as we settle in, a stage away from the set where our picture was taken. After seven hours of filming followed by our photo shoot, Geena scurried back to the dressing rooms with me so we could change into what I call after-school clothes—she even put on slippers.
I knew a few facts about Geena before we met: Born in Wareham, Massachusetts, almost 50 years ago; self-conscious in high school (how could you not be at six feet tall?); Mensa (high-IQ society) member; semifinalist for the women's Olympic archery team in 1999; Oscar winner, in 1988, for The Accidental Tourist ; and the actress who gave women the gift of Thelma (in 1991's Thelma & Louise ). I also knew she'd married her fourth husband, surgeon Reza Jarrahy, in 2001, and that they have a 3-year-old daughter and 19-month-old twin boys. But that Geena's a reformed please-a-holic? I wouldn't have guessed it. A woman on a mission to change children's television? Hallelujah. An actress with a part that opens up a space of possibility for the first female president of the United States? Even Geena Davis couldn't have predicted that one.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Geena Davis
Note: This interview appeared in the January 2006 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: Didn't you get excited the first time you walked onto the Oval Office set?
Geena: Definitely. I kept thinking, "This will happen to a woman one day." I hope it's soon.
Oprah: The polls say 79 percent of Americans are open to the idea of a female president. I don't think that's true—that's just what people think they should say. But I do believe your role will affect the perception of what a woman in this position could be. What do you think?
Geena: We know how powerful media images are. The show is entertainment—but seeing a woman in this role week after week makes people comfortable with the idea. That's when television is of its greatest service.
Oprah: In getting people to think differently.
Geena: This show gives us a picture of a real woman with a somewhat rounded life. Some people have asked, "Why do you have to include a family?" Well, every president during my lifetime has had children.
Oprah: And the First Lady is usually raising the family—which is what we see your character doing.
Geena: Right. It's an incredible luxury for an incredibly tiny percentage of the population to even be able to ask, "Should the woman work or stay home?" The majority of families need both incomes. So most women have to figure out how to do both: work and raise kids.
Oprah: What does it mean to you to have this hit show, having come from two [Sara and The Geena Davis Show] that failed?
Geena: The fact that they failed doesn't really register for me. I put something out there, and whatever happens, happens.
Oprah: But if you do one and it doesn't work and then you do another and it doesn't work, do you have anxiety...
Geena: I don't. I just dive in. I can't know what's going to succeed. There's no point in being cautious, because then you don't get a chance to do stuff you really want to do. I want to do parts that I feel strongly about and that I think I can do a good job with. All I can do is take responsibility for doing my best and making sensible choices. But I learned early on never to get invested in what will happen.
Oprah: Even after you won the Oscar for The Accidental Tourist?
Geena: Yes. The first time I got nominated, I won. That was the way to do it! I was like, "Wow, the Oscars are great. I love it." But I didn't feel any pressure after winning. I just thought, "Got that out of the way."
Oprah: Did you think someone else's name would be called that night?
Geena: Any of the other four. While I was getting ready for the Oscars—I think it was your show I was watching. I had gotten dressed, and I thought, "I'd better eat something before I go." So I sat down with my big dress on and a napkin tucked in and had a bowl of spaghetti. On the show, you were talking with Rex Reed and Siskel and Ebert about what would happen that night. When you got to the Best Supporting Actress category, the panel mentioned every contender except me. Michelle Pfeiffer for Dangerous Liaisons. Joan Cusack and Sigourney Weaver for Working Girl. Frances McDormand for Mississippi Burning. When my name didn't come up, you said, "What about Geena Davis?" One by one, they said, "No chance." Siskel said, "Her part's too big. She's in the wrong category." I'm sitting there...
Geena: Then I think it was Ebert who said, "She was miscast because she's too pretty—it was supposed to be an unattractive character." Then Rex Reed goes, "Pretty? Are you kidding? She has eyes like navel oranges! She's really unattractive. But still, she's not going to win." [Laughs.]
Oprah: You're kidding.
Geena: What does "eyes like navel oranges" even mean? I was like, "Whatever." I decided to relax about it. But I certainly wasn't thinking I might win.
Oprah: And then you did.
Geena: That night was the greatest fun.
Oprah: And yet it was really Thelma & Louise that became your tipping point in terms of buzz. That film was like a movement.
Geena: I read the script a year before I got cast. After reading it, I thought, "God, I have to be in this movie." When I told my agent, he said the role had already been taken. But then the movie went through several directors and many sets of women before the producer, Ridley Scott, decided to direct it himself. So my agent called Ridley—the guy he'd called weekly for a year—and asked, "Would you consider Geena for the part?" Ridley said, "Anyone with this much passion obviously deserves a meeting." So I met him at the Four Seasons for tea. I had notes and notes and notes on the script. I poured out my guts for two hours straight about why I should play Louise. He listened, then he said, "So in other words, you wouldn't play Thelma." I said, "You know what? It's so interesting you should say that"—and then I made up a whole spiel about Thelma. In my contract, I agreed to play either part, depending on who the other actor was. I'd never heard of such a thing. But just to have a part was unbelievable. Things like that have happened a few times in my life.
Oprah: You called it in. Nothing is happening out of order in life.
Oprah: So did you call in Commander in Chief?
Geena: Frankly, I was frustrated that there weren't more choices for me—that other people were deciding whether I would work or not. I love my family. I love spending time with my kids. But I don't want somebody else to decide that's what I have to do because there are so few good parts for women. We have incredible women actors in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and they just fall off the face of the earth. When I was starting out during the eighties, Meryl Streep had one insanely incredible movie right after another.
Oprah: A Time magazine cover hailed her as the star of the eighties.
Geena: And Jessica Lange had all these big movies. Sally Field and Glenn Close had incredible parts. Not only didn't that happen for the next wave of actresses, but it stopped happening for those women. I'm not desperate to work. I'd much rather stay home and goof around unless there's something worth going to work for. But it's frustrating not to have the choice.
Oprah: So this is how you pulled in Commander in Chief. A role had to be worth it.
Geena: I couldn't believe something this significant would come along. How could I go from feeling rage at the system to being able to use my talent and creativity in this amazing part?
Oprah: I think you should keep thinking about that. There's obviously something deep happening with you. You have to be on a certain frequency to call this in. Perhaps it's connected with your intention of wanting to do the work.
Geena: My playing this role is perfect. I'm not saying I'm the only one who can do it; I just mean it makes sense that I would have the part.
Oprah: I so get that. On the day the show was going to premiere, I was sitting in my makeup room when I looked up at my TV to see you talking to Charlie Gibson. The TV was on mute—and I still thought, "She is perfect for the part." I also thought, "Hillary Clinton is the luckiest woman in America because this is going to change the way people feel."
Geena: During my time of frustration, I'd gotten deeply interested in the images girls see on TV because I had a little daughter. All the characters are male. There are a few great exceptions, like on Dora the Explorer and Blue's Clues. But it's usually boys who get to go on all the biggest adventures and do all the fun things.
Oprah: We've got a generation of girls trying to be like Paris Hilton. I was sitting with some kids who were at my house one day, and I thought, "If you're a girl now and these images are presented to you about how you're supposed to be, I think you'd go insane trying to live up to them."
Geena: Absolutely. Even on children's shows, the female characters are highly sexualized. Like Jasmine in Aladdin—her waist is like an inch around. My daughter kept saying, "I want a bathing suit like Jasmine." But Jasmine doesn't swim. Then I finally figured it out: Jasmine's everyday clothes are so skimpy that they look like a bikini.
Oprah: We only had Barbie to contend with. Didn't you choose to play in Thelma & Louise because you liked the strong female characters?
Geena: Susan Sarandon and I thought it was this little movie about two women—but it turns out it struck a nerve. Women would come up to me and say, "That movie changed my life. My friend and I call each other Thelma and Louise now." It was eye—opening for me to realize the visceral impact a movie can have on people. There are so few images that make women come out of a theater feeling powerful. Men have that "yes!" feeling from a lot of movies. They also get it from watching sports. Part of our self—esteem comes from how we see ourselves reflected in the culture. And if you're marginalized or stereotyped, you think I'm not...
Oprah: Important. Don't you think it's interesting that we're so marginalized only one generation after the women's movement?
Geena: Absolutely. We were sold on the idea that it's negative and unattractive to want women's rights. We were also told we were done.
Oprah: One reason I don't watch much television is that most dramas feature a plotline in which a woman is being abused, raped, murdered, chased, violated. I don't like bringing that into my psyche or having that as the standard for what happens. But I know people watch shows like that all the time without recognizing how women are being dominated. How sad it is! That's why I thought it was interesting when I read people saying Thelma & Louise was anti—male when you can't watch a movie that's not anti—female.
Geena: Exactly. We kept saying, "There's a whole range of male characters," but finally the writer, Callie Khouri, said, "You know what? So what?"
Oprah: I like that. Let's talk about you starting to have babies at 46. How the heck did you do that?
Geena: It was pretty great. I'm thrilled.
Oprah: My friend Gayle jokes about putting pictures of you and Demi Moore on her wall—she says, "They're my heroes because they're with younger men. I believe, I believe, I believe!" Was marrying a man 15 years younger than you are a deliberate thing?
Geena: It absolutely wasn't. Reza and I just hit it off.
Oprah: Is it ever an issue now?
Geena: It doesn't enter our consciousness. I mean, we joke about it. But it rarely comes up.
Oprah: When you've been married four times, people start to raise their eyebrows.
Geena: I said to him, "How stupid are you? You're going to become someone's fourth husband." [Laughs.]
Oprah: I think the statistics show that the second marriage is more likely to fail than the first. But I'm thinking that by the time you're on the third or fourth, you ought to have some sense.
Geena: You tend to keep marrying the same person.
Oprah: So after three, you figure out how not to marry the same person?
Geena: Yes. This is completely different because I've changed. I never would have been attracted to Reza ten years earlier. Back then I felt the value I could bring to a relationship was in profoundly taking care of the other person. You know, I will invest everything in your life and in making you feel great. I was really sucked into that pattern of wanting to fix.
Oprah: How did you change that?
Geena: Reza doesn't need caretaking—and I finally figured out I don't want to give it. Getting to that point took years. I knew I wanted to have self—esteem, and I was going to get it somehow. But you cannot just decide you're going to have self—esteem. And winning an Oscar doesn't help.
Oprah: That's what people don't realize. If you don't have it, it doesn't matter how many square feet your house is. In some ways, having lots of stuff makes it worse.
Geena: Because you look at all you have and think, "It didn't work."
Oprah: The public assumes actors have self—esteem.
Geena: They're like, "My God, what else could they want?" I once read a quote—I think from Michelle Pfeiffer—where she said she thought that perhaps getting millions of people to approve of her would help.
Oprah: But it doesn't. What finally clicked for you?
Geena: There were a few steps along the way, but therapy was an important part of it. Taking a self—defense class was another part. The class motto was something like "Because I deserve it." Like most women, I would fight to the death for my kids, but I couldn't imagine being physically aggressive on my own behalf or protecting my space. The first day of class, we did an exercise where they stood us in a line and had a man approach us. "When you feel he's close enough, stop him," our instructor said. I let the man walk right into me! I was too polite. It was illuminating.
Oprah: So you had no personal boundaries?
Geena: Right. If somebody convinced me they needed attention or help or fixing, I did that.
Oprah: That means you were a people pleaser. You didn't know how to say no without feeling guilty.
Oprah: It means you were not a free woman. That's a hell unto itself.
Geena: It really is. You're just hacking off parts of yourself.
Oprah: Up until my 20s, that's the kind of woman I was. I'd pick the seeds out of a watermelon so my boyfriend wouldn't have to swallow one. I'd warm up the lotion so it wouldn't be too cold when I rubbed his feet. But I got cured.
Geena: Oh, see, I was stupider than you. I went for it every time. How did you realize you were worth more?
Oprah: It occurred to me one day after I'd been waiting on him, and he'd slammed the door on my hand. Growing up, I'd watched my cousin get knocked down the stairs by some guy. He broke both her legs—and she took him back. I always said, "I won't ever be that woman." But when this guy slammed the door on my hand, I thought, "I have become that woman." It was a jolt for me. I said, "This has got to end." So I called in a different intention. I called in moving to Chicago, which I did shortly after that. But I'm surprised that a woman like you could be a pleaser. You're six feet tall! You're in Mensa! You're an Academy Award—winning actress! You know what's fascinating? We can say to women all day long, "You deserve to make yourself a priority," and they look at you like you're speaking a foreign language.
Geena: Like, "How would I do that?"
Oprah: Because isn't my job, my role, my destiny to serve my family?
Geena: I just had a will to become myself. I've always had a picture in my head of who I think I really am, and I knew I wasn't that person yet. Since I was a kid, I'd think about becoming that person by the year 2000.
Oprah: Mine was 1984. Because of Orwell. Was there a moment when you realized that the negative tapes—the "I'm not good enough"—had stopped?
Geena: No. But somehow—through the therapy, through the self—defense class—it all came together in 1999.
Oprah: Before 2000.
Geena: That's the point. In 1999, I just knew I would never give up any part of myself again. New Year's Eve 2000 was extraordinary, because I thought, "I am the person I pictured."
Oprah: That's fantastic. I see women compromising—they're laughing at things that aren't funny, they're pretending to be someone they're not. It's less than the authentic life we were meant to have.
Geena: Exactly. We dribble ourselves away in the smallest ways. When I told my husband that I used to be a pleaser, he said, "You're nuts. You never could've been like that." He has only seen me deal directly with life. I'm still friendly and approachable, but if someone crosses the line, I tell them. And I don't stew over "What should I have said?" or practice what I'm going to say tomorrow.
Oprah: You hold your own space. What do you know for sure?
Geena: Well, I'll tell you my motto on this show: "If a person can do it, I can do it."
Oprah: You're approaching 50—and let me tell you, it's glorious, girl. Have you set another goal, like you did for 2000?
Geena: I haven't. Maybe I should think about it. I'm just so absorbed by women's issues. That's why I started a project called See Jane. The goal is to increase the percentage of female characters children see in the media.
Oprah: How are you raising your daughter so that she'll have the self—esteem you didn't have as a girl?
Geena: One incredibly important thing is having the parent model it. I don't censor everything my daughter sees; that princess stuff just comes like a fog under the door—you can't keep it out. But I can talk with her about what I like and don't like. I can watch television with her. I can let her know that I respect her as a person by the way I talk with her.
Oprah: It's always about validating. When Commander in Chief was called the number one new show of the season, did you absorb that?
Geena: Yes. I wasn't like, "Holy shit!" but I am pleased. I've been working too hard to think too much about it all.
Oprah: Don't you have to shoot for eight days to get one hour of programming?
Geena: Yes, but not eight days in a row. I'm not going to complain that it's a lot of work because I asked for it.
Oprah: Today you've given me two hours for this interview. What will you go home and do now?
Geena: Play with the kids and put them to bed.
Oprah: So many big—screen actresses would never take a role on TV.
Geena: I think that's changed a lot over the years. Some of the best writing around now is on TV. I would have done this part in dinner theater—I just like being president.
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, May 19, 2013
© 2012 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.