Geena Davis exudes a distinctive mixture of power, intelligence, screwball humor, and vulnerability as an actress, often playing formidable characters who’re stuck in their own heads. In Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, Davis gives one of the finest performances of her career as Tess, a depressed married woman who’s always felt eclipsed in life by her mother and deceased brother, wrongly suspecting that the former never loved her. The film hinges on a heartbreaking denial of catharsis, as Tess nearly faces her greatest fears only to retreat into the abyss of her longing and feelings of inferiority. In a performance of majestic emotional lucidity, Davis captures the insidious fashions in which depressives gradually run themselves down; resisting melodrama, she renders the minute nuances of despair.
Speaking on the phone with Davis this week, we discussed the liberations of shooting a complex film quickly, certain parallels that may exist between Marjorie Prime and The Fly, as well as her continuing activism as founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media.
When I spoke with Michael Almereyda a few weeks ago, he mentioned the remarkable speed of Marjorie Prime‘s shoot. Was there much time to rehearse the film?
We did a bit. A little bit, but it was very compacted. I think we worked like 13 days or something. It was pretty incredible. We were doing 10- and 12-page scenes in one day, but it was fun and we felt that we were all in this together, shooting in that one house and location, mostly.
Did you have the luxury of shooting the script in sequential order?
No, not exactly. I’ve never really cared that much about that. I think we’re all used to it, you have to know where you will be in the scene that took place before. For example, on Accidental Tourist, I shot the last scene—the last instant of the movie—first. Scenes tend to only be two or three pages in general and you don’t do that much in one day in a studio movie. But it’s kind of wonderful to do deep, meaty, long scenes in a film.
Sometimes, you hear, at least in my circles, that dialogue is at odds with some sort of “pure cinema,” but I love it when directors have the confidence to film people talking, pointedly embracing the theatrical aspect of movies.
You can tell stories on film in lots of different ways, which is fabulous and fascinating. Silences are beautiful, spare dialogue can be very beautiful, but also rich language can be beautiful and deep exploration of emotion can be extremely moving. Particularly in a medium like film, because you can read emotion so much better on film than on stage. I just love film. I’ve always wanted to be in movies. I’ve never done a play except during college.
When you speak of “reading emotion,” I think of that moment near the end of Marjorie Prime, when you’re sitting with Tim Robbins at the dining room table. It’s clear that your character wishes to tell her husband that she feels her mother never loved her. It’s such a lovely couple’s moment, the way you allow your character to trail off, with Robbins picking up the conversation.
I agree. I’m so glad you noticed that. I loved that her sentence didn’t finish.
She’s trying to say something that’s too painful to verbalize.
Watching Marjorie Prime, I thought of The Fly. Both are intensely claustrophobic chamber dramas. As an actress, were there any similarities in the working conditions, or is this a crazy comparison?
I don’t think it’s crazy at all. It hadn’t occurred to me, but now that you say it, I totally agree. The Fly was also a very interior chamber project. It was very emotional and moving to us, telling that story. I remember one very interesting thing that happened. There was a scene we shot, where I’m talking to Jeff Goldblum’s character. He’s getting pretty far gone, and it’s so painful and disturbing to see him—and yet I know he’s still in there somewhere. Anyway, his ear falls off, and he’s so horrified that I can’t help but hug him. To us, this was a deeply moving scene, and when I went to see the movie opening night in Times Square, I stood in the back to see how people reacted. And, when I hugged him, because I hugged him on the side of the face where the ear fell off, you couldn’t hear the next two scenes for the audience’s laughter. Totally not something we anticipated. [laughs]
Well, it’s such an intense film. Sometimes, I don’t think you know whether you’re supposed to laugh or cry.
Yeah, I love that movie. We took it seriously.
It’s a legitimate tragedy.
Right. It’s about how you deal with someone disappearing right in front of your eyes.
And this is where The Fly and Marjorie Prime echo one another a bit. They’re obviously very different films, but both are about people who seem to not know how much they matter to each other.
When I spoke with Michael, he made reference to you and Tim knowing each other for a long time. You certainly feel like a couple in Marjorie Prime.
I felt that we started from a strong place, yes, having known each other for many, many years, 25 years or something. I definitely felt we had something that would help us out, for sure.
The big emotional beats throughout the film, such as that scene at the dinner table, were these discussed at length before shooting? Or were they found more intuitively?
I think it’s something that we’re finding. Much of it is in the writing, of course, but you’re still finding out how scenes will actually work, playing off each other as you’re shooting it. I’m not a huge fan of rehearsing, because I feel that you aren’t going to rehearse enough to impact how a scene really works, but you’re going to wear out the surprise and spontaneity if you’re not careful. I don’t mind a fast schedule where you don’t overthink it beforehand.
Did you guys shoot a lot of takes?
We had to move very fast, being such an independent movie without a big budget. I’m somebody who likes to do a lot of takes and I never felt shortchanged. If I needed another one, we always did it. Sometimes it helps if it’s a long, long scene, and everyone’s sitting in the same places, because you don’t have to change the cameras and the angles and all that stuff.
I’m fascinated by the logistics of artistic creativity, particularly the relationship between intuition and conscious control.
I think of myself as a pretty creative person. I’ve always liked creative writing in school and art, but it’s always helped if there was a topic in mind, or if there was a goal to it. I feel that restrictions kind of help, like “Within this, I can be as creative as I want to be.” I like tasks. [laughs] How can I creatively accomplish this task?
I was recently reading up on the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and was struck by that observation of gender inequality even in crowd scenes in films. Such a subtle observation.
Thank you. My work is primarily focused on TV and movies made for kids, and it’s been not only about quality but quantity. I don’t take these meetings with studios to tell people “Do more movies starring a female character.” Really, my message is “That’s great when you do that, but, whatever you’re making, it needs to be populated with half female characters. The world that you create needs to have a female presence.” I had a meeting with an animation studio, and the head of the studio was sitting at a big table with almost all men as I started talking about a lack of female characters in crowd scenes. And the head of the studio asked, “Is that true? Guys, can we just not do that?”
I was once on a panel about unconscious gender bias with Shonda Rhimes that Google hosted, and we heard each other speak. I had been talking about gender representation in respect to extras, and she said, “I wonder how we’re doing with extras?” And, you know, nobody does diversity better than Shonda. She’s the best. I did Grey’s Anatomy and every other director’s a female of color. It’s incredible. But, sure enough, she went back and looked at her shows and found that they were skewed toward males in their crowd scenes and extras and she changed all that. So I feel like I thought of something that Shonda Rhimes didn’t think of. Now I can feel good about myself. [laughs]