Callie Khouri’s script for Thelma & Louise was knocking around Hollywood for a few years before Ridley Scott made the film, and dozens of A-list actresses were considered for the title roles. Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer were first attached, then Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. Nicole Kidman, Joan Cusack, Cher, Mia Farrow, Lily Tomlin, Glenn Close, Angelica Huston and Sigourney Weaver were all supposedly considered or clamoring for one of the roles.
Those two most officially attached pairings – Foster and Pfeiffer, Streep and Hawn – were between women very close in age, and that fits, as the original script had Thelma and Louise as friends since high school, former classmates of the same age. The high school references were abandoned when Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon were finally cast and filmed in the roles, because Sarandon is ten years older than Davis.
It's one of those happy circumstances, this casting that went against script intent. An older Louise works beautifully in a dynamic that is, at least, younger and older sister, and at most two versions of the same character, with only cynicism and experience separating them.
When we first meet Thelma, she's shy and nervous, timidly approaching her husband, hoping to ask for permission for a weekend fishing trip with her girlfriend. Meanwhile Louise is marching around the diner where she works, taking orders and smoking in the kitchen, sternly instructing Thelma on the phone to just get it over with already. She's terse and competent, the clear boss in this friendship. And to be honest, Thelma needs a boss. She's flighty and a bit thoughtless at first, so eager to get out from under her husband's oppressive rule that she doesn't think this new freedom through. Thelma submits easily to Louise's instinctual authority, and early in their road trip, she holds an unlit cigarette to her mouth and scowls at the mirror. Louise laughs and asks her what she's doing. "I'm Louise," Thelma says, her childish lilt dropping to Louise's no-nonsense mutter.
Louise is the first to be suspicious of Harlan, the smooth-talking cowboy at the bar. She doesn't trust him and doesn't want to spend the first pit-stop of their road trip suffering his flattery. Thelma likes him, and Thelma's sheltered enough to trust everybody. When Harlan takes a drunken Thelma to the parking lot and begins to rape her, it's Louise who shows up with Thelma's gun and takes care of Harlan. Louise, who won't talk about what happened to her in Texas, but who will not allow her beautiful, innocent young friend to suffer the same fate. Louise is horrified at the knowledge that she just killed a man and will probably be caught for it, but as Thelma cries uncontrollably next to her in the car, Louise comforts her brusquely. "Now is not the time to panic. If we panic now, we're done for. Nobody saw it. Nobody knows it was us. We're still okay. Now all we have to do is just figure out our next move."
Thelma trusts J.D., too, another smooth-talking cowboy who just wants a ride to his college in Oklahoma City. He's polite and not pushy, and though Louise immediately turns down J.D.'s request for a ride (as Thelma knew she would), Thelma makes pitiful puppy noises when they see him further down the road, and Louise gives a grudging smile and relents. J.D. and Thelma have a fun night together, but even when he tells her he's on parole for repeated armed robbery, Thelma (who "finally got laid properly," according to an approving Louise) leaves him in the hotel room with nearly seven thousand dollars just lying on the nightstand.
This is where Louise breaks, and Thelma takes her turn as the woman in charge. J.D. has stolen Louise's life savings, their only chance to make it to Mexico and flee the police in pursuit, and Louise slumps on the floor and begins to weep. Now it's Thelma's turn to offer businesslike comfort: "Come on. Stand up! Don't you worry about it. I'll take care of it. Just don't you worry about it. Get your stuff."
And she does take care of it - she takes a page out of J.D.'s book and knocks over a convenience store while Thelma sits dazedly in the car. Later, when a police officer pulls them over for speeding and brings a terrified Louise to his cruiser to check her license, Thelma takes charge again. She points a gun at the cop, calmly tells Louise to grab his gun and shoot the radio ("The police radio, Louise, Jesus!" she sighs when Louise shoots the car radio). She makes him climb in his trunk, locks it, throws his keys into the desert and gets behind the wheel of Louise's Thunderbird. "I know it's crazy, but I just feel like I got a knack for this shit."
And she does. Nervous, childlike, too-trusting Thelma turns into a stone-cold criminal mastermind the moment that Louise needs one. As the women drive through a long desert night, the Arizona caverns looming behind them, a beautiful sequence shows their alternating turns at the wheel, their faces blending - tired, but happy, and finally free - into one another, suddenly indistinguishable.
Sarandon and Davis look alike, more similar than any other combination of actresses considered for the roles of Louise Sawyer and Thelma Dickinson. They have the same sunset hair and apple cheeks, the same brown eyes, blunt chins and strong, slender noses that tip upward. These women are made more disparate at the beginning of Thelma & Louise by Davis' wide-eyed guilelessness and Sarandon's wary sophistication. But by the end, dust-covered and uncombed hair tearing through the wind, faces both free and knowing, they're a lot harder to tell apart.