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?

Photograph: Barry J Holmes

PF The bigger question is, how did we get away from three-dimensional female characters? I love movies of the 30s and 40s, where they were equals. Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell. I think it was the advent of the blockbuster, where they started realising 15-year-old boys are our target audience. Theyre the ones that come to see sci-fi, superheroes and all that. From the 70s, all movies started catering to what 15-year-old boys would react to and keeping out things that would make them go, Eww, gross! And that would be girls. If theres a girl, shes got to be super-hot, or else shes got be a drag and shes in your way. And then, obviously, theres guys behind the scenes who are writing this down and all of us arent exactly the most mature people in the world, to do what we do. I was a standup comic for years.

GD You were? I bet you were great.

PF Eh, I was OK. But one of the things that drove me out of standup was, the whole thing in comedy is to become a headliner, be out on the road making money in the different clubs. While you do that every week, youre living with two other comedians, the opener, the middle and the headliner. Usually, the clubs had a condo and they put you all in your own separate room in this big condo. So it was such a crapshoot, because some weeks youd be with these two guys it was hardly ever women and they were great, you had tons of fun. And the next week, youre with two guys who are just on the prowl, flirting aimlessly with waitresses, looking to bring women back. It was a nightmare.

But what you find out is, so many guys in comedy and guys in the arts, were the nerds who didnt get the girls. So either you come through happy to get success, because it means more people admire what you do and you can meet somebody nice. Or you can go at it with total revenge, like, they fucked me over, now Im going to fuck them over. I think a lot of guys have slightly arrested development. Thats why you see things like this stuff happening with Louis CK.

GD These poor women. People are being subjected to sexual predators against their will.

PF Women are going to have to be as vital as they are now, and more so, and they need men to back them up. I have friends who are much older Hollywood, in their 60s, 70s, even 80s, and their take on this tends to be, Oh, for Gods sake, you know what we put up with? This is ridiculous, grow up. I know, but thats not an excuse. Its fighting that mindset and also the [martyred male executive voice], Well, Jesus, I guess I cant do anything? Well, stop doing anything that you might be worried about.

My wife worked in the law profession and had experience of this, so its across the board. She gets very passionate about it. Its men, but women who enable this have to be held accountable, too. Ill be in meetings with executives, women in charge, who are sometimes the hardest ones to force into hiring other women. Theyre like, Weve just got to find the best person.

GD I saw a panel about getting more women on boards, and there were three men and one woman on the panel, and the three men said, Weve got to do this, its so important. When they got to her, she said, Im not so sure this is a magic answer to anything. Youd have to prove it to me.

PF I just did a panel for Variety magazine and one question was, How is Hollywood different from other industries? And the thing we always say is, Its not: all industries go through this. But I realised after that, the rest of the country sends their most attractive people here. People who are vulnerable and attractive, so you look to the people who then have that gatekeeper power. The Harvey [Weinstein] thing is so reprehensible to me, and all those other guys. You know exactly the power you hold over these really beautiful people when they come in and are completely inexperienced and ready for anything. Thats when youre a predator.

GD Theres a desperation to get parts, but nobody wants to have to do anything they dont want to do.

PF Especially being brought to hotel rooms by assistants or people who, you have to assume, know some kind of drill.

GD If its a woman whos an assistant and feels cowed and abused by her male boss, then she probably knows exactly whats going on, but feels powerless. Im waiting to hear from more of those people. But then theres another layer of men in that company who knew. The assistant has to see that he opens the door and hes in a bathrobe.

PF I wonder if its almost like desensitisation to violence, where you just go, Thats just what happens, this is just what Harvey does, these girls, they knew what they were getting into. Well, no, they didnt. They thought they were going to have a meeting, and this horrible thing happens.

GD I was once up for a part and the male star was also producing the movie. They were talking about meeting with him, or having an audition with him, and then we get the message, He wants to have dinner with you. I said, Is that the audition, or is it that he just wants to have dinner with me? My agent came back and said, He says its not just having dinner, but it is having dinner. Its not not a date. I didnt go, but I said, Im still happy to audition and then, as I was leaving the house for the audition, they called and its cancelled. The woman who got cast, he ended up dating.

PF That was the whole thing with [disgraced Fox News broadcaster] Bill OReilly:Lets go out to dinner, its all business and then, at the end, it turns into, Come back to my room

Photograph: Barry J Holmes

GD Itll have to be that agents cant do that any more. They would now have to say, No, Im not going to ask her about having dinner. She will meet you in your office.

PF Ill admit, I dont love auditioning as much as I like to meet somebody, to get to know their personality, and I would do that a lot. I would go, Hey, lets have a drinks meeting. And then it was really my wife who went, Stop doing that. They might not be comfortable doing that. Theyre going to meet you because they want the work, but dont put them in that position. And I was horrified because, to me, it was so innocent. It was drinks, its more casual, were not in an office where everybodys nervous. But then youre like, Oh, shit, it is kind of creepy or weird or can be misinterpreted, so I pulled the plug on that.

GD Quite a while ago, I had two directors who just made life a misery for everybody, and in both cases I was the female lead, but I didnt feel comfortable enough to stand up for myself. Whereas now, if that happened to me, I would say, No, this is not going to happen. Youre not going to be able to abuse everybody.

In one case, when I met with the director, he asked, had I heard of this new massage device called the Thumper. There were other people at the meeting! It was in a hotel suite. He was like, Do you want to try it? I said, Oh, no. But he was so insistent. If hed kept on, the next thing I would have had to do was [rage-filled scream], Im not fucking trying it! I realised later it was a test to see if I was pliable, and he actually told me, Because youve won an Oscar, I was worried youd think you were all that and give me trouble. He was a horrible bully to everyone on set, and guys like that surround themselves with people where they know theyre going to get away with it.

PF It has been part of the Hollywood lore for so long: Thats his process. The fish stinks from the head down, especially in movies, where the director sets the tone.

I feel like younger people coming in Everybody likes to make fun of the self-esteem theyre teaching in schools. I think theres a good side to that, which is, stick up for yourself, dont put up with that.

GD Youre working on something now.

PF I just finished my new movie. I watched the latest cut this morning. Its the first time I feel good about it. Its kind of a thriller. Its more of a mystery, cat-and-mouse, Hitchcock kind of thing. Its still fun, theres still a lot of laughs in it, but we take it seriously. Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively.

GD Wow. Everything you do is so good. Just keep doing it.

PF We have to work together. And we will.

GD I know! I cant wait.

PF Well have fun! Ive based my whole career on wanting people to have fun.

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