The actor and the director discuss Hollywood, harassment and gender bias
Geena Davis enters the boardroom of Paul Feigs Burbank-based production office with a sense of purpose and a handful of wet paper towels. She wipes down the glass table around which she and Feig are soon to commune, refusing all offers of help until the surface is acceptably shiny.
For the past decade, Davis has been applying similar rigour to cleaning Hollywood of gender bias, with her non-profit organisation the Geena Davis Institute On Gender In Media. The Oscar-winning star of The Accidental Tourist, Thelma & Louise and Tootsie still acts most recently in Marjorie Prime, with John Hamm but for the most part has been on a mission to make studios and networks aware of their portrayal of women in scripts and on screen, even down to the gender make-up of background extras.
Feigs filmography, meanwhile, is testament to his devotion to telling predominantly female-themed stories, particularly the strength of female friendships. The director of Bridesmaids, Spy, The Heat and the polarising 2016 Ghostbusters remake greets Davis with an effusive, Im FaceTiming my wife by accident! Say hello to her! Davis waves hello to Feigs spouse, Laurie, who then demands he shut off the iPhone.
Unlike most in the directing fraternity, who are proud to slouch around in the uniform of baseball cap and T-shirt, Feig is dapper. Even when emerging from a day in the editing suite, assembling his latest film A Simple Favour, Feig is resplendent in an immaculately pressed purple-checked houndstooth suit with matching pocket square.
Mid-afternoon on a Monday in late November, with Los Angeles enjoying a temperature of 25C, Davis and Feig gathered at the shiny boardroom table to discuss their shared interest in making Hollywood a more gender-aware town. Inevitably, talk also turned to the subject of sexual harassment. But, before that, there was the matter of Feigs continued commitment to sartorial elegance in every situation.
Geena Davis You look fabulous. You always do. I love that about you.
Paul Feig I do it as a show of respect for the people I work with. I had a producer once who was very upset with me for dressing up. He was like, Youre just trying to take the spotlight away from the actors youre working with. When I showed up for the first camera test, he was really mad. Then all the actors got to the set and said, We love that you dress up. It was never an issue again.
GD Dressing up used to be more of a thing. My dad wore a suit always. Now you think, why bother?
PF I love those pictures of people flying in the 40s and 50s, dressed up with ties everywhere. But now, when I do it, its the most suspicious thing you can do at an airport. I get pulled over so many times out of the security line and taken to the area where they do the extra search, because nobody dresses up to fly any more. So, for some reason, they think Im up to no good. Its what I call the tyranny of the casual in our country these days. If you dont go in sweatpants, theres something terribly wrong with you. But I will always do it.
GD We first met at a panel together. Was it about women in Hollywood?
PF Right. Id been a huge admirer of yours, first as an actor and with the foundation and all the work youve been doing, because its obviously an important subject matter to me. But to have the resources you had and access to information I didnt even know about
GD This started for me looking at kids TV and movies, and what I found was that it was universally completely unconscious. Nobody had any idea until they saw the numbers that they were doing this, and they were horrified. Why would we put things out that said boys are more important than girls? But they didnt know they were doing it. I have an easy haul in that category, but it seems like its not going to be the same magic bullet in other aspects.
PF Were just trying to change the default settings in the business from, Oh were going to hire so and so to, Actually, could a woman do this? Could someone diverse do that?
GD Thats exactly what Im trying to do. Before you do anything, just go through it and say, Who can become female here? I get the feeling that characters are written female when they have to be, and all the other characters are male, and it doesnt occur to somebody that the lawyer, the best friend, the landlord, whoever, can be female. I also have figures that can now explain why older female actors are not getting as much work. Because theyre not having sex with somebody! Think of all the incredible female actors hello! [points to self] who could be having fabulous parts if people just realised.
PF Ive noticed over the years, whenever anyone comes in to pitch us something, its always, Its about a guy. My first thing is always, Could it be a woman? Im more interested in telling those stories, anyway, but also, why is it important its a guy? Hollywoods a liberal town. Theyre definitely not behind the scenes going, Were not going to hire these women, thatll show them. Its just this default; they dont think beyond what they normally do. Plus, theres old prejudices you read about, like men can handle being directors more than women can. Thats what kept the pool of male directors so huge, because once they get to do it, then theyre verified by the studio as being legit.
GD Everybody knows there are far fewer female directors. They might not know its only 4%. Some people say film school is where this bias starts. Professors have bias and theyre less encouraging to the women students.
PF All the work youre doing, and were trying to do, is all about flipping that switch.
GD We did a big study on occupations of female characters, which was fascinating, and the most interesting thing was, when youre looking at professions and leadership positions, however abysmal the numbers are in real life, its much worse on screen. In fiction, where you make it up, its worse than real life.
PF That mantra that you have, if you can see it, you can be it, thats like the golden rule. The thing that makes me the happiest about Ghostbusters is that so many women wrote me and said, If I had this movie when I was in college, I would have been an engineer or a scientist by now and it just guts me to hear that. You did that study about forensics, right?
GD We didnt coin the term, but its called the CSI effect. When women saw so many forensic scientists on TV, they said, I want to be that, and now something like 75% of people going into that field are female, just because they saw it on TV.
PF How great would that be, if it could be all these other professions, too?
GD Im sure that Hidden Figures had a big impact.
PF Weird sidenote, Im a big Lego fanatic
GD Oh God, me, too!
PF Now theyve done the second kit of famous women scientists, thats just the greatest thing, where kids can see it and it can seem attainable.
GD Did you ever see that advert for Lego in the 70s with the little red-haired girl saying, I can build that? How did we get away from that?