Whether intentionally or not, actress Geena Davis has taken on many a female character with strong ideas and values. Her most iconic roles in recent years have included the vulnerable-turned-resolute Thelma Dickinson in Thelma & Louise, the independent, motherly figure Dottie Hinson in A League of Their Own, the first American woman to become the “Commander in Chief” and the role that won her an Academy Award, the complicated dog trainer Muriel Pritchett, a woman who isn’t shy when it comes to what she wears or getting what she wants, in The Accidental Tourist.

Yet, even with these film heroines already a part of cinema’s history, there is a gaping hole in the variety of female (and male) characters presented by the media. Enter the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a nonprofit organization aimed at bringing to life many of the real-life characters that are rarely portrayed on screen. On January 30, 2008 the Institute will participate in the University of Southern California’s four-day conference on gender in the media. Davis, along with Sony Entertainment co-chair Amy Pascal, philanthropist Wallis Annenberg and ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson, will speak of the gender imbalance so prevalent in media today, and children’s programming in particular. In the days leading up to the event, Davis took the time to answer a few of MM’s questions about her own role in the media.

Mallory Potosky (MM): From Thelma & Louise to A League of Their Own and “Commander in Chief,” you’ve taken on quite a few strong-willed, independent women over the course of your career. Is this something you look for in a role?

Geena Davis (GD): I didn’t ever try to find a pattern in my choices in the beginning, I just seemed to know what I liked. I thought it was just about wanting to be challenged or to do something unique. But as time went on, I realized that what I was looking for were female characters that take charge of their own fate, that—for good or ill—are determined to captain their own ship. (And I also played a pirate captain!) As I’ve said for a while now, I’d rather play baseball than cheer on someone else doing it.

MM: The impact of these roles remains especially important today with so many female celebrities in the media for their negative actions. Plus, we might now have an actual female contender to become the real Commander in Chief of the United States. How do you think Thelma, Dottie and President Allen add to cinema’s legacy of female characters?

GD: Well, let’s not get confused about role modeling. Those three characters of mine that you mentioned have been particularly appealing to women, but I am not trying to only play role models, by any means. I mean, Thelma & Louise really struck a chord with people, but when they take the law into their own hands, commit robbery, drive drunk and kill themselves… well, that’s not something to dream of copying. What resonated, I think, was their willingness to fight to the death for the right to choose their own destiny.

As for how any characters I’ve played add to cinema’s legacy, I’ll let people who write about that stuff decide.

MM: As part of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the “I Want to See Jane” campaign asks females to explain which female character meant the most to them growing up. How would answer that same question?

GD: Actually, it’s which character meant the most. And, bizarrely, I would have to say “The Rifleman.” Really! At least, that is the character I wanted to pretend to be when my friend Lucyann and I played. I would be Lucas McCain, and she would be my son, Mark. I can’t exactly remember what “playing” Rifleman entailed, but I know we constantly ran around her backyard pretending it was the Old West. And it never occurred to us that it was weird that there were no female characters we wanted to play. I grew up watching a lot of “The Rifleman” and “Bonanza” (no female characters, and both good examples of the “dead mother” syndrome so common in movies and TV), “Star Trek” (one female regular, but Lt. Ohura didn’t get to do much but have that thing stuck in her ear), “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Bewitched.” Now, the last two at least had female characters with cool superpowers… but it seemed like every episode was about them having to sit on their abilities so as not to piss off their men!

“The Rifleman” is part of why I want to dramatically affect the percentage of female characters in kids’ entertainment—so girls will have lots of choices for characters they like, and ALL kids can see that girls and boys, and men and women, share the space in the world. Pretty much equally, as it turns out.