Growing up in Wareham, Geena Davis was “so trained to be insanely polite that I learned to have no needs at all,” the Oscar-winning actress writes in her new memoir, “Dying of Politeness.”
She shares an anecdote early in the book from when she was 8. Her 99-year-old great-uncle Jack was veering in and out of the oncoming lane while driving.
“Still, not a peep from my parents. At the very last instant, with mere seconds before impact, [my great-aunt] Marion gently said, ‘A little to the right, Jack,’” Davis writes.
Her parents, native Vermonters long “dressed like it was the 1940s,” she writes. On the set of “A League of Their Own,” they were confused for extras.
Hardy yankees, the Davis family lived like “Little House on the Prairie” without the prairie, Davis writes, “heating the house with a wood stove, kerosene lanterns always at the ready, and taking baths on Saturday nights… Mom grew all of our food…in a one-acre garden.”
Davis was “the weird tall kid.” At Wareham High, she was accepted, but was never “After School Popular, where you would hang out with other kids.”
Since age 3, she had one goal: to become an actor. She majored in theater at Boston University, but left before graduation. (She told interviewers for years that she had graduated in case her parents read the articles.)
Through acting, the polite New Englander broke bad.
“I kicked ass onscreen way before I did so in real life,” she writes. “The roles I’ve played have … helped transform me, slowly, in fits and starts, into someone of power.”
She spoke to the Globe by phone from New York.
Q. “Thelma and Louise” was a turning point.
A. I got to work with Susan Sarandon and spend time with a woman who was self-possessed, who moved through the world being able to easily and calmly say what she thinks, and be authentic. I’d lived by always thinking later of what I could’ve said, or wished I’d said [laughs].
Q. Your brother once worked at the Ocean Spray bottling plant. Did you have any local jobs?
A. I worked at [now defunct] Grant’s Department Store in Wareham in the credit department, because I was kind of good at math. After I filled out the application, they said I was the only one who’d ever known what a “gross” was [laughs].
Q. You also delivered a local newspaper. You had an eerie story about that route.
A. Right, when I was 10. My style of delivery was I knocked on the door and handed the paper to them rather than leaving it. There was this nice old man on the route. He started giving me Ding Dongs and Hostess cupcakes. And then he started wanting to hug me and things progressed from there. I didn’t understand what he was doing, I didn’t know what it meant to him or what it was supposed to mean to me. I would just keep eating the treat. I was curious, and asked my mom, she flew through the roof and then stormed up the street to confront him
Q. I laughed when you mentioned you idolized your Aunt Gloria from Framingham, “which was almost a city.”
A. [laughs] I thought she was so sophisticated.
Q. [laughs] So you’d wanted to be an actor since you were 3 years old.
A. Yeah, I have no idea what I saw or how I knew people could get that job at 3. It’s not like my parents talked it up to me — they were the furthest thing from showbiz you could possibly get. Somehow I latched onto the idea.
Q. You went on to study at BU. How did you like it?
A. I loved BU. All of my lifelong friends are from BU. We’re still very close. I learned a lot. The only thing I didn’t learn was that if you want to be in movies, you should go to LA [not New York]. “Now, it’s a very robust program, but then it was all about getting into theater.”
Q. You worked on losing your Cape Cod accent there.
A. My speech professor, around sophomore year, said, “You realize you’re going to have to lose that accent.” And I literally said, “What accent?” [laughs] And then I realized — I mean, once I lost it and visited my folks, I was like: “Wait a minute — you’ve always talked like this? I sounded like that?”
Q. Your parents never knew that you didn’t graduate?
A. As far as I know, they did not know. I did get an honorary doctorate from BU much later and they came up for that. Henry Kissinger was getting one at the same time. My dad was a big fan; they were staunch Republicans. So we took a picture together. And Kissinger said to me “Don’t let your Hollywood friends see this picture.” [laughs]
Q. I love the nonplussed reaction from Wareham when you came back for the parade after “The Accidental Tourist.”
A. Yeah, I think it was ‘89 they had the 250th anniversary of Wareham. I was named parade marshal — I had to do it, my parents were so proud. They were in the convertible with me and dressed in period costumes. My dad grew out mutton-chops for a year.
Q. That’s amazing.
A. The parade started way out of the center of the town. So for long stretches of it, we were just driving down a road. We might pass a house with the owners sitting in lawn chairs; we’re slowly creeping by: “Hey, Geena. Welcome home. Nice to see ya.”
Q. You write about a weird interaction with Bill Murray. [Davis writes about a meeting in a hotel suite with a few people. “Bill Murray came up to me excitedly and said, “Have you ever tried the Thumper?” … on the bed was a largish contraption with big handles on it. When Murray said I had to try it I assumed he was joking……Pretty quickly, it was clear that this was a non-negotiable thing… he wouldn’t relent. I ended up sort of perching across the corner of the bed while Murray placed the thing on my back for a total of about two seconds… [Then we] went on with the meeting…
A. I didn’t know what to make of it. What on earth does trying on a massager have to do with auditioning for a part? It was just very strange and uncomfortable. I only found out later that he basically wanted to know that he could make me do whatever he wanted to make me do. If I let him massage my back, if I let him force me to lay down on the bed, that would prove to him that I would do whatever he wanted me to. So awful.
Q. What sparked the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media?
A. It was actually my toddler daughter. I knew well the gender disparity, the sexism in Hollywood, but it wasn’t until I started watching entertainment made for the littlest kids that I realized: Wait a minute, it’s the 21st century and we’re still showing kids that boys and girls are unequal; that boys do all the important things. This is a terrible message.
I started a research institute because I found the creators weren’t aware of the gender imbalance. In fact, they were proud of the fact that there was no gender discrimination. I thought if I could come up with the data and prove it’s imbalanced, it might have an impact. It turned out to be true. They were horrified when it was in black-and-white. We’ve made a lot of progress since then.
Q. What are some of your goals?
A. The first goal was to focus on what kids see first. Nobody wants a society filled with gender-bias —but if we’re giving it to them in the beginning, it’s hard to get rid of. If you see girls doing interesting and important things — if boys see girls doing interesting and important things — it all becomes normalized, and perfectly normal to see a woman president or surgeon.
Q. You talk about roles drying up for women in Hollywood after a certain age.
A. When I started out, I’d heard the concept that women don’t work as much after 40. I thought, “That won’t be true by the time I get to 40.” So for that to actually happen was stunning. The second there was a “4″ in front of my age, that happened. There are exceptions, but my institute found that only 5 percent of characters in films are women 50-or-over. Shocking numbers.
Q. I thought it was interesting how interviewers were scared to print the word “feminist.”
A. Yeah, in the early ‘90s it was considered shocking to say you were a feminist. People would say, “Well, I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equal rights.” Well, that’s a feminist. But to just calmly say, “Yeah, sure. I’m a feminist,” people were shocked. [Journalists would] say, “I just want to check — it’s OK if I say in this article, you’re a feminist?” As if I’d said I’m a cannibal.
Interview was edited and condensed.