By Piya Sinha-Roy
May 08, 2019 at 07:24 PM EDT

It’s been nearly three decades since Thelma & Louise stormed the box office with a tale of two best friends on the run, and Geena Davis still remembers the impact it had with a female fanbase that spurred her career choices going forward.

“I had an enormous epiphany after Thelma & Louise came out over 25 years ago because of the reaction of people,” Davis tells EW. “Women wanted to really talk to me very intensely about their reaction to it, who they saw it with, and how it changed their life.”

It’s no coincidence that Davis has carved a career playing strong, complex characters defying stereotypes — from the rogue Thelma in that 1991 movie to a fictional U.S. president on ABC’s Commander in Chief and Dr. Nicole Herman on Grey’s Anatomy —but behind the scenes, Davis has also been championing diverse storytelling and talent with her Bentonville Film Festival.

Kicking off its fifth year on Wednesday, Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas strives to showcase a truly diverse slate of films centered on women, filmmakers of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities. This year’s competition films include Emily Ting’s Go Back to China, Sara Zandieh’s Simple Wedding, Flavio Alves’ The Garden Left Behind, and documentaries such as Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story and Our Quinceañera. The festival will open with a screening of This Changes Everything, a documentary examining gender disparity in Hollywood on which Davis is an executive producer.

“This year, 81 percent of our directors are female, which is probably a high for any festival, and even though other festivals have added a special focus on women — which is fantastic — it’s our only focus here, amplifying diverse voices,” Davis says.

The five-day festival will host screenings, panels, and events celebrating diverse voices, including a night of Davis and her fellow female actors doing live-reads of all-male scenes from City Slickers, Monsters, Inc., Dumb & Dumber, The Avengers, and Jaws as a fun exercise “just to show who can play what part,” Davis explains.

Davis spoke to EW about her own experiences over the past three decades in the industry and the changes she is seeing in the era of the Time’s Up campaign shedding a spotlight on inequality in Hollywood.

Credit: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Bentonville Film Festival

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What have you been most proud of over the past five years of the Bentonville Film Festival?
GEENA DAVIS: One of things I’m most proud of is the reaction of filmmakers who bring their films here, because for us, it’s all about celebrating storytellers and every year, we hear from the directors that this is their favorite festival and that they can’t wait to come back and bring their next project. So that’s very gratifying, especially since we put such a focus on having diverse filmmakers show their films here, and that’s diverse with every possible diversity: gender identity, different abilities, and people of color and women.

How have you seen the industry change with regards to inclusion?
It’s quite a change in the last short while since the advent of #MeToo and Time’s Up; things are really different now in Hollywood and it’s extraordinary to see in this industry. For example, it’s now perfectly okay and absolutely appropriate for people to talk about salary disparity and sexual harassment and gender discrimination in our industry. My peers and I had felt for the longest time that you don’t talk about this stuff, people have to like you, you can’t complain ever about anything, god forbid if you complain about your salary. So it’s a new day, it’s really amazing, and it’s great to see so many of my peers being so outspoken about these issues, like Jessica Chastain, Natalie Portman, Reese Witherspoon.

What are some of your motivations when you’ve been picking projects in your own career, and have you been able to ask for what you’ve wanted?
I had an enormous epiphany after Thelma & Louise came out over 25 years ago, because of the reaction of people. I had been recognized here and there before that but this was completely different and women wanted to really talk to me very intensely about their reaction to it, who they saw it with, and how it changed their life. I had people even say “my friend and I acted out your trip” and I was like “which part, where we kill the guy or kill ourselves?!” But it really brought home to me in a very powerful way how few opportunities we give to women to come out of a movie theater feeling inspired and empowered by the female characters, so that changed everything for me about my choices in that I really wanted to think about what the reaction that the women in an audience was going to be, what would they think about my character, so that’s been a very important part of my choices since then and impacts me to this day. I’m very fussy about what I say yes to and I always joke that I can only be this fussy because I haven’t run out of money, I can afford to wait. So if you ever hear that I’m in a horrible movie, it’ll mean I’m broke!

You’re starring in the spy thriller Eve alongside Jessica Chastain. You mentioned Jessica earlier and Natalie Portman and other peers — have they come to you looking for advice on how to address these issues that they’re so vocal about, and what kinds of conversations have you had with your peers that make you excited about seeing change in this industry?
It’s been really gratifying to hang out with my friends and talk a lot about these issues and to work directly with Jessica, who I adore. I play her mother and I told her first thing, “You realize I’m profoundly too young to be your mother?” and she was like, “Oh, I know.” But what I hear from a lot of them is that they were very aware of the work that I was doing for onscreen portrayals and grateful for that — I don’t know if I should say that, somebody else should say that — but it’s great that they were aware and that we’re all moving forward in this. I’ve been really focused on onscreen depictions but every aspect of this industry needs attention and examination and change and I think we’re equipped to do it with all the diverse people we have working together. I feel like this is a turning point in our culture really, and I think it’s far from peaking yet. This is a very, very significant moment that’s going actually impact a lot of things.

Related content:

Thelma & Louise

  • Movie
  • R
  • 129 minutes
  • Ridley Scott