Scarred for life by The Exorcist

The movie Thelma And Louise made Geena Davis interested in how women are represented onscreen.
The movie Thelma And Louise made Geena Davis interested in how women are represented onscreen.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Geena Davis, who plays a hotel manager in the TV series remake of the 1973 horror film, was scared stiff watching the original movie

NEW YORK • By her own admission, actress Geena Davis is not the norm when it comes to gender disparity onscreen.

"I've been really lucky to play a lot of important roles in movies and I got to be really cool things," she said, ticking off a list that includes a pirate captain (Cutthroat Island, 1995), a baseball phenomenon (A League Of Their Own, 1992) and, perhaps the coolest of them all, a housewife on the lam in Thelma And Louise (1991).

Now she is Angela Rance, a Chicago hotel manager, wife and mother of two daughters, in Fox's The Exorcist, a retooling of the 1973 horror television series, which debuted last Friday. She turns to her priest (Alfonso Herrera) when something in her home seems amiss. By the time Tubular Bells plays, you can be sure some heads are going to spin.

It is the kind of tantalising role that Davis, 60, had spent the last decade searching for since the TV drama Commander In Chief, in which she played the first female president of the United States.

And she knows it is rare. In 2007, she founded the Geena Davis Institute On Gender In Media to study how girls and women are presented onscreen, which she discussed in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, daughter and twin sons.

The pilot is scary, but I hear the show gets even scarier.

We're blown away because every time we get the next script, we're like, "Oh my God, now what's happening?" It's going to get hella scary. (Laughs) There's evil afoot and the story grows to be far beyond what happens in our family.

Had you seen the original movie?

I was scarred for life when it came out. I already had enough problems with ghosts under the bed, ghosts in the closet and believing in every possible superstition. Seeing that added to the pile.

Why did you found your gender institute?

The impetus was my daughter. I was aware of the lack of great female characters in film because I was living it.

And when Thelma And Louise came out, the reaction was so overwhelming that it made me realise how few opportunities we have for women to feel like that coming out of a movie - to feel empowered and inspired by the female characters.

I had no clue that children's media in the 21st century would be wildly imbalanced.

And as a mother, I was horrified because what message is that sending to kids from the very beginning if the female characters are narrowly stereotyped or hypersexualised or not even there at all?

How do you make your point?

I go to meetings at the guilds and networks and studios and production companies and present the research in a private and collegial way. And the reaction is fantastic because they're shocked and horrified, and they want to make change.

You recently introduced a tool that can measure not only how much time women are onscreen, but also how much they speak. What have you learnt?

Women are not only fewer characters and have fewer lines, but they're onscreen less when they are speaking than men.

In other words, they were cutting to a male or something else when the females were talking - enough so that it was noteworthy.

Many women said Thelma And Louise changed their lives. What about yours?

It dramatically changed my life because that's what made me so interested in how women are represented onscreen and wanting to help change that. And this is my passion now.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2016, with the headline 'Scarred for life by The Exorcist'. Print Edition | Subscribe