In 1982, Geena Davis landed her first role in the comedy Tootsie, and throughout the decade, she made a name for herself in Hollywood. She took on supporting roles in films like the 1980s remake of The Fly and Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, and eventually, her acting chops would take her all the way to an Oscar win.
Her performance as Muriel in The Accidental Tourist earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and in 1991, she played the ditzy housewife Thelma opposite Susan Sarandon’s Louise in the iconic road trip film Thelma and Louise. In 1992, she followed it up with a role as Dottie Hinson in A League of Their Own, the comedic sports drama about the female professional baseball league that formed during World War II.
But her later films generally failed to achieve the same level of critical or commercial success, and today you’re more likely to catch Davis on a TV show than in a movie. Davis certainly hasn’t left Hollywood, but her priorities have shifted. Here’s what Geena Davis has been up to, and why she’s trying to change the film industry for the better.
Geena Davis runs her own research institute
Geena Davis has not retired from acting, but since 2004, she’s taken up another cause. She currently runs the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and she’s on a mission to create more roles for women in Hollywood.
"The reason I started this whole research institute is because I found out that people absolutely had no idea that kids’ media was so gender-biased. And before I watched it with my daughter, I was sure it was fine," Davis explained to Vogue. "I was appalled to learn the truth and I decided I was gonna bring it up in my daily life in Hollywood." While Davis was watching children’s shows with her daughter, she noticed that there were far more male characters than female characters, but when she brought it up at meetings, no one seemed to realize the extent of the problem.
Davis decided that analyzing the data was the answer, so she founded the Institute and spearheaded the largest research project concerning gender depictions in TV and movies ever conducted. The disappointing results confirmed her suspicions — women simply didn’t get enough representation. She’s been focused on changing this issue ever since.
Geena Davis spends lots of time consulting directors
Geen Davis is hard at work with the Institute, and she’s always trying to gather more data on gender disparities in the media. Plenty of people are interested in this issue, so why doesn’t Davis spend more time promoting her research? She says that she’s more effective at pushing for change behind the scenes. "We go meet with every studio, every guild, every network, every production company and share it with them, privately," Davis told Interview. "I don’t really bust anybody publicly. It’s much more efficient if I can impact the creators."
And in an interview with Glamour, Davis explained that her goals for the Institute don’t necessarily revolve around raising awareness of the issue with the public. "I give speeches and interviews, and we release data to the public," Davis said. "But the main goal is not to educate the populace." She feels that public pressure isn’t necessarily the key to making change in the entertainment industry — instead, she has to go directly to the people in charge who can make it happen.
Geena Davis founded a film festival
Besides meeting with directors and screenwriters to push for more female representation on screen, what else has Geena Davis been up to that occupies so much of her time? She’s also working on initiatives to encourage more diversity in Hollywood. And she’s taking things into her own hands.
In 2015, Davis co-founded the Bentonville Film Festival, a non-profit film festival that showcases movies directed by women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. The Bentonville Film Foundation, which hosts the festival, also provides ongoing, year-round support to filmmakers who are generally underrepresented in Hollywood. Davis wants to give opportunities to talented directors who might not get the attention they deserve in mainstream film circles.
"Oh, we want to change the world!" Davis told The Guardian. "Our goal is very simple: the storytellers and people on screen should reflect the population, which is half female and incredibly diverse. It’s not like: ‘Wow, what a far-fetched idea!’ It just makes total sense."
Geena Davis had three children
Geena Davis became a mother in her forties. In 2001, she married Reza Jarrahy, and the couple had their first child, a daughter named Alizeh, in 2002. In 2004, Davis gave birth to their twin sons, Kaiis and Kian. Eventually, Davis and Jarrahy separated, officially going their separate ways in 2018.
Davis says that she had always wanted to become a mother, but when she was younger, she felt like the timing just wasn’t right. Now, she sees the benefits of having children later in life, and she feels that she made the right decision.
"I always felt lucky that I had my kids late, because I just feel like I changed so much. I always knew I wanted kids, but what I was doing waiting that long, I don’t know," Davis told The Guardian. She continued, "But it’s been great. And twins are fun!" Today, Davis and her children live together in Los Angeles.
A series of film flops
A League of Their Own was a massive success, and Geena Davis credits the film for helping her claim the feminist label. But throughout the 1990s, Davis worked on a string of movies that couldn’t replicate the success of A League of Their Own. Later that year, Davis appeared in the movie Hero opposite Dustin Hoffman, which faltered despite the strength of the cast. In 1994, she starred in the drama Angie, a film that performed poorly at the box office and failed to garner a positive response from critics.
Next up was Speechless, a movie that starred Davis as a political speechwriter who falls in love with a speechwriter working for a rival campaign. The film was panned by critics, and her next role certainly didn’t help to revive her career, either. In 1995, Davis starred as Morgan Adams in Cutthroat Island, which critic Daniel Barnes summed up as "a chaotic jumble of bad action, juvenile comedy and chilly romance, all wrapped in a cheesecloth of limp, lifeless pirate cliches." Appearing in several films with mediocre reviews was definitely a setback for Davis.
Geena Davis was unsatisfied with her roles
Over the course of her career, Geena Davis has gotten pickier about the roles that she’s accepted, which she explained in a 2019 interview with Vogue. Before she commits to playing a particular character, she always asks herself what the women in the audience would think of that particular role. She wants to play characters who are genuinely interesting and complex rather than settling for parts that don’t speak to her — but unfortunately, she’s finding it difficult.
"I really want to get some good parts. Now I have so much experience, I probably could be better than ever. I just want them to come along every once in a while," Davis told Interview. "It’s okay if it takes two or three years for something really good to come along, but I don’t want to wait ten years for something great to come along. It’s maddening. It’s so frustrating. It’s completely embarrassing."
At this point, Davis doesn’t want to take a role just for the paycheck. But even if it means waiting a long time in between movies, she’s willing to stick to her principles.
Age discrimination in Hollywood
Geena Davis said that once she turned forty, she realized that she wasn’t being offered nearly as many roles as she was before. "I fell off the cliff. I really did," she told The Guardian. "In the early stages of my career, I was blithely going along thinking, ‘Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange and Sally Field, they’re all making these great female-centric movies. And I’m getting these great roles, really tippy-top roles, so things must be getting better for women.’ But suddenly, the great roles were incredibly scarce."
Age discrimination is an unfortunate reality in Hollywood. While some believe that there are more roles in movies for older actresses today than there used to be, Davis explained to AARP that this is a myth — despite the efforts of actresses like herself, the problem persists. Naturally, Davis is frustrated by this, but instead of simply retiring, she’s still moving forward and looking for the roles that she wants.
Geena Davis has passions outside of acting
In addition to acting, Geena Davis is also an athlete. After learning new sports on film sets, she decided that she wanted to train in archery. She was inspired by the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta.
"I thought ‘I want to take up a sport in the real-life way and not the movie version, because they can fake anything," she told People. "Like my character in A League of Their Own only hit home runs, so I would do a nice swing, but the props guys had a giant slingshot to send the ball over the fence with. So I thought, ‘I want to see if I can really learn something real.’"
Davis began working with a trainer and started practicing for five hours per day, six days a week — and she quickly found that she was exceptionally talented at the sport. In fact, she was so skilled that she made it to the semifinals for 2000 Olympics in Sydney. She placed 24th and just missed qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team.
Today, Davis no longer competes in archery, but she does still practice when she has the time. She also took up another sport — rowing!
Geena Davis’s TV shows were canceled
In recent years, Geena Davis has found that she has a better track record of landing fulfilling roles in TV shows than in films. From 2000 to 2001, she had her own series, The Geena Davis Show. Later, she starred as President Allen in the series Commander in Chief, and she also appeared on the first season of The Exorcist as Angela Rance. And in 2019, she played Sandy Devereaux St. Clair on the beloved Netflix series GLOW.
Davis says that she enjoys working in TV, but investing so much time and energy into shows that have been canceled is discouraging. These roles turned out to be short-lived. The Geena Davis Show and Commander in Chief only lasted one season apiece, and GLOW was canceled after three seasons — Davis’s final appearance on the show turned out to be the series finale. "I was so bummed when ABC’s Commander in Chief went off the air," Davis told AARP. "As President Allen, I had a very short administration." Unfortunately, she has struggled to find a long-running TV role.
Mediocre reviews for Ava
Geena Davis has consistently continued working, but her recent releases haven’t fared well. In 2020, Davis had a supporting role as Bobbie in the crime drama Ava. Ava, a skilled and lethal assassin who works for a black ops organization, is responsible for carrying out hits on high profile figures across the globe. But when one of her jobs takes a dangerous turn, suddenly the tables turn, and she’s forced to confront her mistakes and fight for her life.
The plot was standard action-movie fare, but neither critics nor audiences found it particularly compelling. In a review for Decider, critic John Serba remarked, "Ava is a violent, boilerplate Bourne-y thriller without a single original bone in its body. File under waste of talent." It certainly didn’t help that the movie was released in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — chances are, even fans of Davis did not know that it was coming out.
Geena Davis has been working as a producer
Geena Davis is always open to opportunities that allow her to work behind the scenes if it means creating an empowering movie or TV show. While she has not directed a movie, Davis has certainly diversified her career behind the scenes. From consulting with directors and encouraging them to include more female characters in their scripts to working as a producer on various projects, Davis has worn many hats.
In 2018, Davis served as an executive producer on the documentary This Changes Everything, which explores gender bias within Hollywood. Davis also appears in the film to share her own experiences as an actress and why she began researching and tackling the issue on her own. In addition, Davis produced the series Mission Unstoppable with Miranda Cosgrove from 2019 through 2021. In Mission Unstoppable, Cosgrove interviews women working on innovative endeavors in fields like science, technology, engineering, and math — so it’s easy to see why Davis wanted to get onboard with the show.
Time for Geena Davis’s comeback?
Geena Davis certainly hasn’t given up on finding interesting new roles and projects. In fact, she has an upcoming movie and TV series lined up. Davis is working on the comedic drama Cowgirl’s Last Ride, which tells the story of a woman who breaks out of a care facility to go back home. Along the way, her son tries to track her down, and in the midst of all of the chaos, the two must find a way to make peace. The film does not yet have an official release date.
In addition, Davis will be venturing into the world of reality TV with her own brand new series. She’s hard at work developing the reality show I Can By Friday, in which she’ll spend each episode learning difficult new skills and attempting challenging stunts. Judging by her success at mastering athletic talents on movie sets and becoming a legit archery champion, she probably won’t have much trouble! One thing is for sure: whether Davis is working her magic behind the camera or on screen, she’s determined to be a force for change in Hollywood for years to come.