By the time that actress Geena Davis filmed the 1991 movie Thelma & Louise, she was already known for her work in movies like Beetlejuice and Tootsie. She'd even won an Oscar, from her 1988 performance in The Accidental Tourist. Still, it was a game changer for her, thanks to her co-star.
"Getting to work with Susan Sarandon on Thelma & Louise, she had the most impact of any person in my life, because I'd never really spent time with a woman who moves through the world the way she does," Davis told Allison Kugel on the latest episode of the Allison Interviews podcast. "It sounds crazy to be 33 years old at the time and first experiencing a woman like that, but I really had previously never met a woman who didn't preface everything with, 'Well, I don't know what you will think and this is probably a stupid idea, but…' She just lived her life and said, 'This is what I think.'"
The way that people responded to Sarandon was just as eye-opening for Davis.
"[It was received by our director, Ridley Scott, and producers] as completely normal, which was also stunning to me. The way I was raised was to be extremely polite, to a fault. I up was sort of trained not to ask for things and not to be any trouble to anybody, but she obviously wasn't (laughs)," said Davis, who was raised in Massachusetts. "So she just said things the way she wanted to say them, like, 'Let's cut this line,' or 'Let's do it this way,' or 'This is what I would like to do.' There wasn't any reaction whatsoever from anybody of, like, 'Wow!,' partly because she didn't present herself as combative. She was always just like, 'This is what I want,' and 'This is what I think.'"
It was an experience that Davis wouldn't have had, had she not been persistent.
"I had read the script for Thelma & Louise after it had already been cast. I thought, 'Oh my God! This is the best script I've ever read. I wish I could be in it.' I ended up having a year-long pursuit for the role, because Ridley Scott was only the producer at that time, and different directors and different pairings of Thelmas and Louises were coming together and falling apart. For a year, my agent called at least once a week to say, 'Just so you know, Geena is still available. She's still interested.' Then when [Scott] decided he was going to direct it, he immediately said, 'Yes. OK sure, I'll meet with her,' and I convinced him somehow or another."
The production also cast an up and coming actor named Brad Pitt, whose credits up until then had been limited to a couple of episodes of Growing Pains and Another World, a few on Dallas and a handful of other shows and movies.
"They then cast Brad Pitt to be my sort of... love interest, and it wasn't actually because he was younger. They didn't purposely try to cast someone younger than me," Davis said. "He just gave the best audition and he was the best choice. But I thought that was pretty cool. He's only, like, seven years younger than me, but I thought that was quite cool that they did that."
Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004, noted that most often a younger woman is cast alongside an older — often much more than seven years older — leading man. It's something she's struggled with as an actress.
"It's very strange and so prevalent," the 65-year-old said about ageism in Hollywood. "A certain male actor that was making a movie said that I was too old to be his romantic interest, and I was 20 years younger than him. You know what it is? Women peak in their 20s and 30s, and men peak in their 40s and 50s, as far as actors go. So the male stars of the movies want to appear to be younger than they are, or they want to appeal to younger people, so they always want a co-star who is really young. That is why that happens and that is why women don't get cast very much after 40 and 50. It is because they are felt to be too old to be a romantic interest."
Despite bucking the entertainment industry's unofficial casting rules Thelma & Louise was, of course, a runaway success. It pushed past the $45-million mark at the box office — nearly three times its budget, according to Box Office Mojo — and garnered dozens of awards and nominations. Both Davis and Sarandon were nominated for Oscars. (They lost to Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs.)