From Mannequin To Actor: Geena Davis' 'Ridiculous, Ridiculous' Break

Oct 19, 2014
Originally published on August 2, 2015 11:41 pm

As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis has played unforgettable roles in movies like Beetlejuice, Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own, and she's been an outspoken advocate for female representation in cinema and TV.

But long before her acting debut, Davis had a surprising job at an Ann Taylor clothing store. She wasn't just selling the merchandise; she was displaying the clothes alongside the mannequins.

'An Uncanny Ability To Be Still'

"One time there was a window display where the mannequins were sitting at a table eating plastic food," Davis tells NPR. "There was one empty chair, and I kept looking at the window."

She asked her co-workers if she should go sit in the empty chair. They advised against it.

But Davis sat in the chair anyway.

"Somebody saw me do that, and then he stopped to see what was now going to happen. But I just froze," Davis says. "I didn't know, but I had an uncanny ability to be still."

Eventually, a crowd gathered on the sidewalk outside the window display. She could hear the comments from the onlookers, who couldn't tell if she was real or fake.

"When I felt like their attention was drifting, I would move kind of like a robot," she says. "But then somebody said, 'Well, that's not an electric mannequin because it's not plugged in.' "

So the next time she sat in a window display, she put a tiny wire down her leg.

"Because it was really subtle, it really worked," she says.

The store eventually hired her to be in the window on the weekends.

"Yes," she says. "I was a live mannequin."

Casting Call

After her career as a mannequin, Davis signed with a modeling agency.

"At that time, the big models like Christie Brinkley and Lauren Hutton were getting parts in movies. I thought, 'Oh, well, all I have to do is become a successful model and then maybe I'll get hired for movies,' " she says, laughing at her idea that becoming a supermodel would be a breeze.

Meanwhile, the 1982 film Tootsie, starring Dustin Hoffman, was going to shoot in New York.

"There was a part as Dustin's dressing roommate for someone that's going to be in their underwear a lot of times," she says. "So the casting director thought, 'Let's call model agencies and see if they have any models who can act.' "

Sure enough, Davis was called in for her very first movie audition.

"They said, 'Wear a bathing suit under your clothes because if you read well, they're going to want to see you in a bathing suit to see how you would look in your underwear,' " she says.

But during the audition, they never asked to see her bathing suit, and Davis assumed she didn't get the part.

"I put it completely out of my mind," she says.

'Perfectly Lit, Airbrushed, Wind-Blowing-In-Your-Hair Photos'

Little did she know, director Sydney Pollack had reviewed her audition tape.

Since they forgot to get a picture of Davis in her bathing suit, Pollack asked if she could come back and take a photo. But Davis had since moved on from her audition and was on the other side of the world modeling at runway shows in Paris.

"My good fortune at that moment was that I had been in the Victoria's Secret catalog," Davis says. "So they sent over the catalog with these perfectly lit, airbrushed, wind-blowing-in-your-hair photos."

That's what did it. Davis got the part as April.

"My big break was getting cast in Tootsie as my very first acting job and as a result of my very first audition," Davis says. "That's a ridiculous, ridiculous break to get. But that is exactly what happened."

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ARUN RATH: Time now for the latest installment of our series My Big Break about career triumphs big and small. You know Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis from movies like "Beetlejuice," "Thelma and Louise" and "A League Of Their Own." Long before her acting debut, Davis had a job at an Ann Taylor clothing store. She wasn't just selling the merchandise, she was displaying the clothes alongside the mannequins.

GEENA DAVIS: One time there was a window display where the mannequins were sitting at a table eating plastic food, you know. And there was one empty chair and I kept looking at the window. And I can finally said to my friends dare me to go in the window? And they were like no you can't do that.

But I did. I went and jumped in the window and sat down in the chair. And somebody saw me do that. And then he stopped to see what was now going to happen. But I just froze.

I didn't know that I had an uncanny ability to be still. (Laughter) So eventually a big crowd gathered.

When I felt that their attention was drifting, I would move kind of like a robot. But then somebody said, well, that's not an electric mannequin because it's not plugged in. I could hear all their comments, of course.

And after that, I put a tiny little wire down my leg. And because it was really subtle, it really worked. People were like it is a robot. After that, they hired me to be in the window on the weekends. Yes, I was a live mannequin. (Laughter).

(MUSIC)

DAVIS: I managed to sign with a modeling agency. Because at that time, the big models like Christie Brinkley and Lauren Hutton were getting parts in movies. And I thought, oh well, all I have to do is become a successful model and then maybe I'll, you know, get hired for movies, because it's so much easier to become a supermodel than an actor, right? (Laughter).

(MUSIC)

DAVIS: So "Tootsie" - the movie "Tootsie" was going to shoot in New York. And there was a part as Dustin's dressing roommate for someone that was going to be in their underwear a lot of times. So the casting director thought, let's call model agencies and see if they have any models who can act.

And my agent called me and said they're looking for an actor. We told them we got one.

And so they sent me to audition. And I did. And they said wear a bathing suit under your clothes because if you read well, they're going to want to see you in a bathing suit to see how you would look like in your underwear. So I did. And they didn't ask. And I was like oh, forget that. Because what are the odds that my first audition for a movie, you know, I'm going to get the part with Dustin Hoffman. So I put it completely out of my mind.

(MUSIC)

DAVIS: And I went off to Paris for the first time to do the runway shows - the collections. And meanwhile, Sydney Pollack saw my audition tape and said hey, I kind of like her. Where's her bathing suit? They said oh, we didn't ask. We forgot. And he said well, get her back. Uh-oh, she's in Paris. She can't come back. Well, do we have any pictures of her in bathing suits.

My good fortune at that moment was that I had been in Victoria Secret catalog. So they sent over the catalog, you know, with these perfectly-lit, airbrushed, the wind blowing in your hair photos. So I got the part.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOOTSIE")

DAVIS: (As April Page) Things have been so much better since you came to Southwest General. We're all so grateful to you for your help and advice.

DAVIS: My big break was getting cast in "Tootsie" as my very first acting job and as a result of my very first audition. That's a ridiculous, ridiculous break to get. But that is exactly what happened.

(MUSIC)

RATH: Actress Geena Davis. You don't have to be a window mannequin to have a big break. Tell us your story. Send us an email at mybigbreak@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.