Here is my one-on-one interview with Geena Davis for The Long Kiss Goodnight, from 1996.
Following a mixed reception to their first film together, Cutthroat Island, Geena Davis and husband/director Renny Harlin have teamed up again, this time with an undeniably winning movie. The Long Kiss Goodnight is a taut, richly-layered and grueling action thriller and the perfect way to kick start the New Year. The incisive script, by Shane Black (best known for Lethal Weapon), is pure, heart-racing thriller material, full of genuine menace and staggeringly dangerous situations. Black presents the opportunity of catharsis for viewers who like to watch invented characters stand up to violence and face it head-on.
Geena Davis stars as Samantha Caine, a contented suburban Mom with a loving family who is plagued by a black void of amnesia that obliterates her past. One Christmas Samantha crawls away from a near fatal car accident that awakens some horrifying fragments of her repressed memories. Struggling to slot back into her cosy life, she is stunned when, without thinking, she expertly kills a man who attacks her family. Realising that deep within her is a repellent capacity for extreme violence, and that enemies from her past life are endangering her family, Samantha decides she’d better get out of sleepy suburbia and find out exactly who she was before she lost her memory. She employs a crooked cop turned seedy private investigator, Mitch (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and pretty soon both are embroiled in a government conspiracy. Her former self, a crack government assassin named Charly, comes back to the fore of her consciousness, first as a destructive force bent on annihilating the wimpy, vulnerable personality that has emerged since the lights went out. Later Charly simply takes charge for reasons of self-preservation. Eventually Sam/Charly must reconcile the two sides to her personality and survive the onslaught before she can return to her newer life and family – if at all.
Geena Davis is naturally stunning. She is so at ease with her “exactly six feet tall,” beautifully proportioned body that it’s actually a pleasure to follow her as she strides confidently and elegantly into her Santa Monica office. She is wearing a much-loved black tee shirt and immaculate black suede jeans. On her feet are black, flat, little-girl sandals offset by white socks. Her blonde bob is lank and dark at the roots and looks as if she has been too busy all day to comb it. But she’s still stunning.
Her office is full of oversized furniture in fun colours. Geena sits in an olive green armchair with jester-like extensions that looks as if belongs in cartoonist Leunig’s world of Mr Curly. I decline the proffered yellow, daisy-shaped “tuffet” and opt for the scarlet couch opposite the silver screen’s newest action star.
After studying acting at college, aged 22, Davis thought she’d try her hand at modelling thinking it was a good way to break into the movie industry. She soon realised that was an incredibly difficult career to launch and claims she never became successful, “I was never on the cover of anything, except New Jersey monthly,” but earned a living for a few years.
Then came the transition to acting. When she was in New York and modeling full time, a casting agent scouting for Tootsie called modeling agencies because one small part called for the character to be in her underwear. They thought, If we can find a model who could act and who looked great in her underwear then we’re all set.’ Davis isn’t sure but she thinks it was her first movie audition. “They told me it was with Dustin Hoffman so I thought, Oh, I’m SURE I’ll get that, yeah.’ So I was very relaxed and they thought I was great.”
Acting in movies was her childhood ambition. “I’m definitely highly driven, about everything. If I decide on something I really like to make it happen. My mother’s favourite expression when I was growing up was, Well, there’s no point telling you not to do it because you’ll do it anyway.’ I was very wilful and stubborn and determined about things and I’m sure that’s bled over in my career.”
She agrees you have to be tough to get anywhere in this industry. “You have to have tenacity, to believe that everybody is gonna be wrong, that you’re gonna be the one that gets singled out. They all want to tell you in the beginning that the chances are few of becoming successful in this business, It’s tough, it happens for so few people’. We all must be insane to pursue this career anyway, to think, Yeah, sure, but I’M gonna be the one that gets to work after all.’ I’m just lucky that it worked out that way.”
Of course, talent has something to do with it. In just over ten years Davis has played in about fifteen films and has managed to demonstrate an extraordinary range. She played a romantic role opposite Goldblum, during their marriage, in Cronenberg’s grisly remake of a classic horror flick The Fly (1986). She received an Academy Award in 1988 for her performance as a kooky, eccentric dog trainer in The Accidental Tourist. She played a daffy, sexy manicurist opposite Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans in the musical comedy Earth Girls Are Easy (1989). Davis received acclaim as Thelma, an oppressed housewife who, with co-star Susan Sarandon, finds liberation and infamy as outlaws on the run in Thelma and Louise (1991). In subsequent films, including Accidental Hero, A League of Their Own and Angie, Davis has always played interesting women who take charge of their own destinies.
In terms of your ambitions, where are you now? Are you perfectly happy or do you have a lot of goals that you still want to realise?
“I’m quite happy. This really is very much what I’ve pictured and to me it’s been incredibly satisfying and I’ve got to play some really unique and challenging parts and to do some things that women don’t ordinarily get to do in movies and have those kinds of options and choices. I get to move around from different genres and I haven’t been pigeonholed so I’m very happy about how it’s all gone. I feel that my options are still open.”
In terms of roles for women do you feel enough interesting scripts come you way?
“No! No I don’t. It’s not news; nobody feels that way. I’m sure Tom Hanks would say the same because there just aren’t enough great scripts being written so we’re all frustrated as far as trying to find good parts. But especially for women, it’s no secret that there are not enough great parts for women, at least in Hollywood. The kinds of parts for women, unless it’s some independent movie like Portrait of a Lady, something that is off the beaten path, then you can find some interesting stuff. But in mainstream Hollywood movies it’s very rare to find a complex, interesting female character. It doesn’t matter the size of the part. Even the supporting parts need to be rich and well-rounded and colorful. They’re mostly just window dressing or — strippers!” (laughs)
Why do you think that is, is it a lack of understanding of the complexities of women or do you think there are not enough female writers?
“Errrr – I wish I could answer that and solve it. I’m doing my best to do what I can to address that situation. I try to be selective and take the time to pick interesting and complex parts for myself that women can enjoy watching. It’s tough. It’s probably part of the same reason that there hasn’t been a woman President, or that there are not that many women who are heads of big corporations. There is always progress being made. Now there are some women who have decision making powers in the studios but it’s a slow slog.”
Do you chart you career?
“In a generic sense I just look for the next great part. Whatever I read that makes me say, Wow – I gotta be this person, I gotta do this,’ that usually makes the decision for me. But I do like to skip around and do all kinds of things. I like to keep trying to surprise not only myself but the audience. Mostly I just look for characters that are in charge of their own fate. That get to make some of the decisions in the movie. People always say, You only like to play strong characters,’ but it’s not really that. I like to play characters that aren’t victims, or just waiting to be rescued or waiting to have decisions made for them about their lives. They get to be involved actively in their own fate and that’s what I look for – it’s just more interesting to play somebody like that.”
Do you also feel a responsibility in the roles that you take, do you feel you are a role model for young women and for your fans?
“Well, the responsibility I take on, voluntarily, it to not play victims or parts that women might be embarrassed watching the movie or uninvolved in my character’s fate because it’s not interesting enough. I know that women are going to go to movies, as well as men, and there are just not enough colourful characters for women to see. If you say role model then it seems like I want to play heroic characters. It’s not that. I like to play flawed characters – I just don’t want to play anything that would denigrate women. There is enough to be embarrassed about – I don’t need to contribute to it.”
There are a few strong women’s films that have come out quite recently, First Wives Club, The Associate, and your film – what do you think of those films? Do you think they present a positive image and provide good writing for women?
“Yeah, absolutely. They’re all great. Especially the massive success of First Wives Club, that’s really cool. Just on a completely selfish level I am thrilled that Susan Sarandon and these women of that slightly older generation are paving the way and proving that you can have box office muscle even when you’re fifty. That’s heartening. It all makes a step towards progress. I just wish we could get some momentum going. I’ve felt ever since Thelma and Louise or League of Their Own that, Yeah, let’s go! Let’s have lots more movies like this.'”
I asked the same question of Shirley MacLaine and she commented, I don’t think The Long Kiss Goodnight was positive. It troubled me because here was a woman who was being as violent as the men.’ How do you take that kind of criticism?
“I just trust in the positive reaction that I’ve seen to this movie, and I’ve now travelled the world with it. I’ve seen it with audiences and talked to people. Thelma and Louise had a big reaction, there was a huge thing at the time, that, Oh my god, these women had guns and they actually killed a guy!’ and there were television debates and newspaper editorials about was this a good thing or a bad thing? I was part of that phenomenon, I was on the inside and I got to examine it and that movie made me realize – you can talk about it all you want but watch it with an audience and talk to women who have seen this movie and they go, YES!’ They feel so adrenalized and so powerful after seeing some women kick some ass and take control of their own fate. That’s why I absolutely knew I had to do The Long Kiss Goodnight and that’s the reaction that I wanted and that I value now. That women go, Yeah – fucking right!’ That’s great. “Women don’t get to have that experience in the movies. But hey, people go to action movies for a reason; they want to feel adrenalized and they want to identify with the hero and if only guys get to do that then it’s crazy. The Long Kiss Goodnight doesn’t create any new level of violence at all. I am so bored with the criticism that women aren’t supposed to do it.”
Davis seems to be more discerning than most actors when it comes to choosing a script. She maintains that first of all, it has to be a great and satisfying story. “I can’t just look at my character, but it has to be a good one. Then it depends on the team, who’s gonna be in it, who’s gonna direct it. It’s gotta be a good package because it’s all about collaboration. You have to really trust the people that you are working with. This movie was so challenging in every possible way. I knew it was going to be really fun and really hard. It had all these stunts and I knew I was going to be called upon to do most of them myself and learn all these skills and really try to authentically look as lethal as the character is instead of girly and stupid.”
Davis trained extensively to become accomplished in all the skills her character would possess, particularly a competence with handling all kinds of weapons. Aside from that, Davis says the part itself was massively challenging. “This was an opportunity to play one of the most multifaceted characters I have discovered in a long time. I have an almost ludicrous arc, to go all the way from a homely Mom baking cookies to a super-assassin so to try to make sense of that was really a lot to try to pull off.”
As an actress, how do you juggle these two identities and reveal them at the right moments to the audience?
“It’s kind of a goofball premise, that the character has amnesia so it’s fun to try and take it seriously and make it work. I first tried to figure out who Charly is; why is she so tough and lethal and how and why did she become so hard? From research that I did and from thinking about the character, I decided that in order to be this person and have this occupation she’d cut off all the vulnerable parts and of herself because that’s the way for the bad guys to get to you. She’d so divorced these soft sides of herself that the mothering, nurturing instincts had no way to live – she’d amputated half of her personality that she needed to get shot in the head and this other side of her fought to come out. You have to allow all the sides of yourself to have a voice. It was gonna happen one way or the other, that this other side was going to assert itself. When she got amnesia, that’s when the person she never got to be could exist. The script is actually very well constructed, so that’s why when Charly comes back she hates Samantha and that’s why she tries to slash her throat through the mirror. By creating a family, she’s let herself get vulnerable and she’s put her life and family at grave risk. These two personalities are at war and she had to find a way to be both.”
It’s a knotty character problem for even the most accomplished actors; when is one side of the character in charge, when are they fighting, when are they working together? How do they feel about each other at every moment in the script and when do they finally blend together? All these things inform her character’s journey, even as she is dodging bullets and evading villains.
When Shane Black’s uncommissioned script went up for auction, it invoked some passionate bidding from the major studios and finally sold to New Line Cinema for a (rumoured) record fee of US$4 million. Once Renny Harlin and Geena Davis came on board, did the script go through any further developments?
“Nothing so major, a lot of it was condensing and streamlining it and clarifying the logic. He has and unbelievably fertile imagination – there were even more action scenes, sequences and stunts. It was mostly just like you see it.”
Renny Harlin’s epic vision is evident in all his action extravaganzas, from Die Hard II to Cliffhanger and beyond. It’s tempting to think these days his vision is shared with Davis and that they put their heads together and cook up these awesome stunts. Davis says she gets to put her two cents in but maintains the stunts in The Long Kiss Goodnight were all written by Shane Black and present in the script from the beginning.
“The amazing thing about Renny, that Shane always says, is that it’s very easy to write and then Niagra Falls blows up…’ but how do you film it? How do you make it happen? Renny can always find a way. We would sit around and discuss what parts can I actually accomplish myself. Sometimes I’d be surprised on the set by what Renny had decided I was going to do. Like the scene after the car accident when I break the deer’s neck. When we got to the location, Renny decided to put the deer on the other side of the creek and I was to walk barefoot through the creek and the snow. But we discussed whether or not my stunt double should do it, and even then if she should be wearing boots because it was so freezing. I was putting on makeup in the trailer and they told me, Well, bad news – Renny just took off his shoes and walked through he creek and he says it’s fine, your feet freeze immediately so you don’t feel it. So you can do it.’
But he did it once – Geena did it many times. All night I was back and forth through that stream. It was tough.’ So is doing your own stunts. “It was terrifying and fun at the same time. Renny makes sure to have the best safety experts on hand. Nothing is life-risking. But it’s terrifying to face your fears. You’re gonna jump on this moving tanker or you’re gonna fall out of this three-storey window or you are going to fly up on these Christmas lights. And I did that stuff. It was really cool.”
Of all the action directors, Harlin is the one who really puts his actors to extremes, making them do as many of their own stunts as humanly possible and using digital effects to erase all signs of safety wires during post production. Perhaps Harlin and Jackie Chan are meant for each other.
Also on the receiving end of much of the danger is Samuel L. Jackson. In his role as Mitch, a down-and-out detective, Jackson brings plenty of his trademark attitude’ to what is essentially a role as Charly’s sidekick. Curiously there is no inkling of any of the usual love interest between the two characters.
“It wasn’t written that way and we all felt it was perfect. When it’s a man and a woman you often expect that they will fight but at the end they will get together. I thought it was so fresh that we create something more valuable, which is a true partnership and that we trust each other by the end but in a different more interesting way.”
When I ask if interracial love scenes between the two would be box-office poison to North American audiences, Davis assures me that the character wasn’t necessarily written for a black actor and that they didn’t change anything in casting Jackson. It was just a matter of choosing which actor was best for the part.
In many ways Geena Davis is the perfect action hero; she is less phony and pumped up than Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme. She is convincing in her resilience and determination and real in her vulnerability. Here at last is a film that tests and proves her acting mettle and her stunt work proficiency.