Sandra Bullock’s latest character, “Calamity” Jane Bodine, is a ruthless political consultant given to rattling off guileful quotes from Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. She’s damn good at her job, tends to pull frat-boy pranks when on a bender and couldn’t care less if she doesn’t have a date lined up. In Hollywood shorthand, she’s as ornery as Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke and wilier than George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven. And if Jane Bodine sounds two steps beyond tomboy, that’s because she was a he in the original script for Bullock’s new film, Our Brand Is Crisis, in theaters Oct. 30. Inspired by pugnacious political hit man James Carville, the role called for a swaggering archetype–Clooney was once attached to the part–which is exactly why Bullock wanted it for herself.
For generations, top actresses fed up with playing the adoring wife or eye candy have bemoaned the relative dearth of meaty roles for women–the kind that bring Meryl Streep awards acclaim on an annual basis. Despite Bullock’s Best Actress Oscar for The Blind Side and a worldwide box-office take of nearly $5 billion, she struggled in recent years to find challenging scripts that didn’t ask her to don another spacesuit for a Gravity copycat or play another thorny-on-the-outside but goofy-on-the-inside singleton. Where were all the great roles? Apparently, they were sitting in Clooney’s slush pile. So she asked her agent to start sending her parts written for men.
“I thought of it a couple years ago before I did The Heat, when I was looking for comedies,” Bullock says on a recent morning at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, sipping tea with Our Brand Is Crisis producer Grant Heslov and director David Gordon Green. “I said, ‘I want to do what Jim Carrey’s doing.’ I was looking for something he didn’t want.”
Consider that sentence: despite being one of the most bankable actresses in the world, Bullock wanted to scoop up the crumbs from Carrey’s banquet table. Imagine the parts women merely nominated for Oscars must be offered.
It’s not just an issue of character depth; it’s one of sheer volume. Among last year’s 100 top-grossing films, 12 featured female protagonists. Of all the speaking characters, only 30% were women, according to research from Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University, who began issuing an annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report in 1998 to lay bare Hollywood’s gender gap.
Now 51, an age at which Hollywood generally starts relegating actresses to secondary roles such as high school principal, judge or grandmother, Bullock didn’t have much to lose by approaching producers with her flip-the-script scheme. “I figured, What are they going to say? No? I hear no a lot. I’m used to it.”
Bullock wasn’t the only one asking. On Nov. 20, Julia Roberts will star as a vengeful FBI agent in Secret in Their Eyes, based on an Argentine novel and subsequent film in which her character was named Ricardo. After shaving her head to portray a military commander in Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron is currently in talks to play an assassin in The Gray Man, a role previously offered to Brad Pitt. In 2010, Angelina Jolie took the title role in Salt after Tom Cruise dropped out.
Emily Blunt’s role as a federal agent fighting a Mexican drug cartel in Sicario is currently building Oscar buzz. But if it had been up to the producers who first considered Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, she never would have gotten a shot. “When Taylor was shopping the script around, he was approached by one financier who said, ‘It is a done deal if you just make her a guy. We will up your budget,'” Blunt says. “This is the sort of sad state of affairs when films are trying to get made with a female protagonist at the core. Taylor just kept walking out of the room, and walking out of the room, and thank God he did.”
This small but significant trickle of gender-blind casting comes at a cultural moment where women in a variety of industries are pushing for change, from salary equity to paid maternity leave to an end to “manterruptions” in meetings. On issues from pay negotiations to presence in boardrooms, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s demand that women “lean in” still reverberates. In politics, Hillary Clinton has simply stated that what America needs now is a woman in the White House.
If Hollywood isn’t swept up in this call for parity, then perhaps it will be compelled by the dollars-and-cents argument. An analysis of the top-grossing films of the past two decades showed that movies with two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man (known as the Bechdel Test) had smaller budgets but earned more money, dollar for dollar, than those that passed under such a relatively low bar. On television, series creators like Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) and Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange Is the New Black) have proved there’s a huge and loyal audience interested in women’s stories.
In the end, it may be pure embarrassment that promotes change. Jennifer Lawrence, the top-grossing actor of 2014, recently wrote an essay on the pay gap in Hollywood, confessing that she blamed herself for not being a tougher negotiator when hacked Sony emails revealed that she made less on American Hustle than her male co-stars, Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner–or, as she put it, “the lucky people with d-cks.” Since then, other actresses have come out protesting their comparatively small paychecks.
Bullock believes the Sony hack was a blessing in disguise. “Thank goodness Hollywood got a spanking,” she says. “It’s hard because why should I complain? Very few people get to do what we get to do. I know as a woman in the business, the likelihood of me still working at my age was almost impossible, and yet here I am.”
“Other women felt exactly the same way,” she adds. “And we felt shame because of it. Now something has shifted. All the women started bonding and going, ‘Wow, why don’t you get this? You did an amazing job. Why aren’t you getting part of the merchandising?’ We came together, shared this information and supported each other.”
Men, too, are pitching in. After Lawrence’s essay, Cooper promised that he would share what he’s making with female colleagues before they ink their own deals. Judd Apatow, who built his career on raunchy bro-coms, is now partnering with writers and performers like Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Lena Dunham (Girls) and Amy Schumer (Trainwreck). Mad Max director George Miller even ferreted a female lead into a dude-heavy franchise. Theron’s Furiosa frees a group of female sex slaves from their master, leaving behind a message written on the wall: “We are not things.” Furiosa then outshoots, outdrives and outtalks Tom Hardy’s grunting Max. Feminists went wild for the character–and so did the rest of the world, as Fury Road racked up $375 million in ticket sales.
Despite the success of films like Frozen and The Hunger Games, studios seem determined to lumber behind. “Those are called ‘the exceptions'” by studios, says Bullock. She suggests that lead roles for women used to be more common, especially in the days when studios signed multideal contracts with their stars and had to create vehicles to support them–think Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell skewering gold-digger stereotypes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Katharine Hepburn sparring with Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib.
But after the action-movie boom of the 1980s and the subsequent rise of superhero blockbusters, opportunities for women in Hollywood have become scarcer. Part of the problem is the gender gap behind the camera. The “Celluloid Ceiling” report found that when a film is written and directed by men, women hold a leading role only 4% of the time. But if just one woman works on the screenplay or behind the camera, that figure increases tenfold. To that end, this spring Streep funded a mentoring program for female screenwriters over the age of 40.
Geena Davis became a star, thanks to rare female-centric stories such as Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own. “I was getting all these incredible parts and averaged about a movie a year,” she says. “Then in my 40s I made one movie. The interesting and complicated parts suddenly disappeared as soon as I hit that birthday.” Since then, she’s become a gadfly about women’s roles in TV and film–reminding studio heads and networks that they’re missing huge opportunities.
Unlike most gadflies, though, Davis has hard data, reams of it, from academics at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism commissioned for her Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. For the past decade, she has presented those findings to studio heads and producers, urging them to make changes.
One of her studies looked at the employment rates of male and female characters in children’s films. If a character has a job, 80% of the time it’s a man. That might have made sense in the 1950s, but in the real world women make up half the workforce. Some filmmakers are open to Davis’ message, but she says top-down change takes time. In the meantime, she thinks the most realistic method for talented actresses who want characters with robust stories is to follow Bullock’s lead. “I’ve been advocating for this strategy for years,” says Davis, pointing out that only 11% of writers on top-grossing films are women. “Until more women are given opportunities to write scripts, this has to be the way it is.”
That leaves actors like Blunt to try to communicate the realities of being a woman to men writing her roles. “I always say to male writers, ‘Write me as a guy, and I’ll do the girl stuff. Write me as you would a guy–as complicated, as conflicted, as at fault,'” says Blunt. “Often a male writer writes female roles to protect a feminine ideal in some ways.”
For Our Brand Is Crisis, based on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name, producers Clooney and Heslov were willing to adapt the story of Carville’s cutthroat work on a Bolivian presidential campaign in order to incorporate Bullock. Not a lot of tinkering was necessary. “She was the right piece,” says Heslov. “Not that much changed in the rewrite.”
“The clothes, mostly,” jokes Bullock.
Director Gordon Green, whose films have varied from blockbuster comedies like Pineapple Express to intimate indies like George Washington, says he admires Bullock’s refusal to be limited by her résumé–or her gender. “You don’t find too many people in this industry willing to take risks, to step outside of their box.”
Bullock shakes off the compliment. “I’ve been told I put on blinders and just crash forward,” she says, “without considering the repercussions.”
As Lawrence joked in her essay, Hollywood stars negotiating for a few extra million dollars, a few more lines and a few fewer nude scenes might elicit eye rolls from most. But their success could determine whether popcorn-nibbling preteen girls will come to think of themselves as the apple of some man’s eye or as an FBI agent, an astronaut or a political consultant.
“This is bigger than Hollywood,” says Bullock. “It’s not just about the money and the roles. It’s how we’re perceived and talked about. Why are we considered not as worthy just because of our sex?” That’s precisely why she asked to turn James into Jane.
–With reporting by DANIEL D’ADDARIO
This appears in the November 02, 2015 issue of TIME.