In new memoir, Geena Davis reflects on the roles that shaped her Geena Davis' new memoir, Dying of Politeness, looks back on her life and career. In a conversation with NPR's Morning Edition, she reflects on some of those iconic roles and how they shaped her.

These are the life lessons Geena Davis learned from 3 of her most famous movies

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


For an Oscar-winning actor, Geena Davis has suffered from a lot of self-doubt over the years. It's a theme in her new memoir, which is titled "Dying Of Politeness." One of Davis' first jobs was in retail. And she soon got noticed after modeling in a shop window. A casting director saw her photos in a sales catalog. And all of a sudden, she was in a movie with Dustin Hoffman, the 1982 hit comedy "Tootsie."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) One more thing, Ms. Michaels. I forgot to give you these.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Dorothy) Thank you. Oh, are these for today?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes.

GEENA DAVIS: (As April) Oh, they always throw stuff at you the last minute. You could lose your mind around here.

HOFFMAN: (As Dorothy) Oh, goodness.

DAVIS: (As April) What's wrong?

HOFFMAN: (As Dorothy) I have to kiss Dr. Brewster.

DAVIS: (As April) Oh, yeah. He kisses all the women on the show. We call him the tongue.

For that role, the casting director decided to contact model agencies and see if they had any models who could act. And then I got to go to the audition. And they said, wear a bathing suit under your clothes in case you read well. They want to see you in a bathing suit. OK, so I did. And I read, and it's just with an assistant casting person in an office videoing. And then she doesn't say, can I see you in the bathing suit? So I put it completely out of my mind. Of course, my first audition - nothing's going to happen from this. So - but then, it turned out Sydney Pollack, the director, saw my tape and said, hey, I like her. Where's her bathing suit? Oh, we forgot. Well, get her back. We can't. She's in Paris. Well, do they have any photos of her in a bathing suit? And as it happened, I had been in a Victoria's Secret catalog. And so they were able to send over beautifully lit, perfectly - the wind blowing. And I ended up getting the part without them seeing me in person in a bathing suit (laughter).

MARTIN: "Tootsie" was nominated for 10 Academy Awards.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: This was in 1983. Obviously, just being part of that cast opened doors for you. But you write a lot in the book about this self-criticism that you've done ever since you were a kid. You were insecure about your height, about your looks. Acting is sort of the wrong line of work for a person with those characteristics, no?

DAVIS: Well, right?


DAVIS: I'm somebody who couldn't stand for people to look at me. Or if they were staring at me, I'd say, oh, what? Are they judging me or something? But then I pick the goal of having as many people as possible look at me. So (laughter) I don't know.

MARTIN: And your underwear (laughter)...

DAVIS: And also including - up to and including my underwear. So I don't know. The only thing I can conclude is that maybe I was attracted to the ability to be somebody else.

MARTIN: "Thelma & Louise" came out in 1991. You were originally attached to the film as Louise, which I didn't know.

DAVIS: No. Actually, the movie was cast, like, two or three times before I ever got cast. It took me a year to - intensely following it and lobbying to have a chance to audition. And I thought that I should play Louise. So finally, Ridley Scott - he was going to produce it, but now he decided to direct it himself. I met with him. And I poured out my heart about why I absolutely must be in this movie and play Louise. And then he finally said, so in other words, you wouldn't play Thelma? And I'm like, oh, my God. I just talked myself out of this movie because I...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DAVIS: ...Asked for the wrong part. So then I said, you know what? As I've been talking about this, I realize I actually should play Thelma. And then I just made [expletive] up about why I absolutely had to be Thelma.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DAVIS: When he hired Susan Sarandon to play Louise - as soon as I met her, I was like, oh, my God. What was I thinking, that I could play Louise? What? (Laughter) I was so happy I was Thelma.

MARTIN: I mean, that movie - words fail, really, to express what that meant to so many women and young women, to see these female characters central to this story.

DAVIS: Well, the whole experience had a huge impact on me. I think Susan Sarandon had the largest impact on my life of anyone that I've known. And it was just fantastic because I assumed that it was going to be, making that movie.


SUSAN SARANDON: (As Louise) No. Thelma, we don't need the lantern. The place has electricity.

DAVIS: (As Thelma) Oh, OK. No, I want to take it anyway just in case.

SARANDON: (As Louise) In case of what?

DAVIS: (As Thelma) In case there's some escaped psycho killer on the loose who cuts the electricity off and tries to come in and kill us.

Watching the way Susan walked through the world, how she said what she thinks without any qualifiers in front of it, you know - like, everything I said started with, this is probably a bad idea. I know. No, you're going to hate it, probably, but what would you think - possibly? And, you know - and she never did that. And somehow, I'd never been exposed extensively to a woman who moves through the world like that. And it was like a lesson every day in how to speak up for yourself.

MARTIN: You credit doing "A League Of Their Own" with really discovering yourself as an athlete.

DAVIS: Yes, absolutely, because I had been very unathletic growing up and in my life. I didn't know how to play any sport. And then taking a baseball and doing rather well at it and the coaches talking about how well I was doing and all that made me realize - wait a minute, maybe I am athletic. And so it really changed my perspective on myself.

MARTIN: And you are an archer, Geena Davis. You are really, really good at archery.

DAVIS: (Laughter) Yes. Yes. Well, I took it up because - it seems so random, but I had to learn some other sports and skills for other movies. And I kind of was good at all of them. And then I thought, well, this is the movie version of these skills. And I want to take up something in real life. And then I saw archery on TV during the Olympics. And I thought, wow, that is so beautiful and dramatic. And I wonder if I'd be good at that.

MARTIN: What does it give you that's different than being an actor in the public eye?

DAVIS: Well, I realized it's the exact opposite, in a way, to my day job, which is totally subjective. It's all judged on other people's opinions and how the box office is and all that kind of thing. And that archery and sports is based on how you actually did, you know? Did you hit the bull's-eye or not? And so I only realized, you know, well into it that that was one of the things that was incredibly appealing to me, was that you could get satisfaction from how well you did instantly without anybody else's opinion having to come into it.

MARTIN: Geena Davis. Her new memoir is called "Dying Of Politeness." It was such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.

DAVIS: Thank you. It was really fun. Thanks.


Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.