Elizabeth is on the new cover of FLAUNT Magazine.
Elizabeth Banks takes a bite from a pulled-pork sandwich, dabs a starched white cloth napkin at a corner of her lipstick-pink mouth, swallows, and says, “I have no trouble ripping someone a new asshole if they’re not doing their job.”
This is not a dream. Not even the rare rain on this drab spring afternoon is a mirage. California is dried out and this drizzle is a mockery to its emptied reservoirs. Seated outside despite the damp, on a picnic-style bench, wearing bright white like a dare to the dark sauce that drips intermittently from the hot meat to her white plate, Banks laughs loudly. Then, she stabs her fork at a still-sizzling hoecake served tableside in a cast-iron skillet, the sound of its popping buttery bubbles a counterpoint to the drip, drip, dripping water from the awning above. In this troublesome tableau, her impossible elegance is nearly Biblical; a miracle, really. She is beautiful despite all of it.
“I don’t need to like everyone,” she continues, describing her work on Pitch Perfect 2, her first time directing a feature film. “I just need to respect them. Show up, do your job. I need you to work hard. I need you to do what you said you were going to do. Follow through. I need to be able to rely on you.”
By the time you read these words, her film will have opened strongly, dwarfing the box-office take of more than a handful of action films. An all-girl a cappella movie triumphing over such abundance of Hollywood testosterone is nearly as extraordinary as the director’s ability to navigate barbecued food in a small storm.
Most of the world knows her as Effie Trinket, the be-wigged and mostly pink District 12 escort from The Hunger Games films. But she’s often at her best when she is cast as the smart-ass, foul-mouthed sex symbol flitting through the films Wet Hot American Summer, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, or shows such as Scrubs and 30 Rock. As theAmerican Idol-styled television host Gail in the Pitch Perfect films, she delivers nearly all of the best lines in both movies and her appearance in XXL, the follow-up to Magic Mike, is scene stealing.
Netflix is banking on her memorable turn as the flirty Lindsay from Wet Hot, rolling out the eight-episode series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp this summer. Nearly 15 years old, the original film has lingered in the American imagination long enough to alert the streaming service’s researchers to green light a big-data predicted hit. Though how it will pull off a prequel when the cast is a decade-and-a-half older is a mystery even to Banks.
“It’s a prequel, but it’s 13 years later,” she says. “It’s absurd. The comedy of the whole series is completely absurd. You just have to accept that when you walk into it. Just like the first time, in the film, you had to accept that 30-year-olds were playing 16-year-olds. Now you have accept 44-year-olds are playing 16-year-olds.
“You have to have some of this,” she says, pointing to the steaming hoecake with the tines of her silver fork. “It’s apparently the most delicious thing you’ll ever eat.”
The low, continuous din of wet tires on wet pavement becomes so monotonous as to be unheard. When a black Prius pulls up to the curb, it slices through the damp hum like a tree felled and both of us look up like babies yanked from a bathtub.
The woman emerges from the car to address Banks, asking, “Do you want me to grab Max and come back?”
Elizabeth Banks is 41 years old and the mother of two boys with her husband and producing partner Max Handelman (presumably the “Max” that is to be “grabbed” as we finish talking). This is when the playfully combative banter begins, as Banks interrupts and deflects any idea that women in Hollywood are to disappear when they hit 40 and return only when they’re needed to play older parts in smaller films. As the Prius drives off and the thrum of the busy road settles back into its tuneless wet melody, Banks laughs off the idea that she’s some age-defying outlier.
“I am 41. That’s true,” she says, somewhat sarcastically, as if I’ve just alerted her to her own age. Halfway through the follow-up question, with its suggestion that the business of making movies is unkind to women of her particular vintage, she interrupts, loudly.
“Not for Sandra Bullock! Not for Meryl Streep! Not for Naomi Watts! I got plenty to do!”
“Not for Julia-Louis Dreyfus! Not for Tina Fey! Not for Amy Poehler!”
But, she must admit that if it’s not better for men, the roles they play certainly afford them the luxury of much younger female counterparts.
“Yeah, that’s true,” she concedes, calming a bit. “The men all get older and all the women stay the same age. My male peers in this business would rather be in a romantic relationship in a film with a 28-year-old. I’ll give you that. But it’s for the exact same reason I would prefer to be in a movie with Zac Efron!”
“Because they’re beautiful! They’re sexy! They keep you feeling young, fresh! I guess my point is that I understand the impulse. It’s a bummer, but I think it’s important to remember,” she trails off and thinks before continuing. “Look, where I grew up, everyone was working class. And by working class, that meant every mom worked as soon as their kids were in school. Right? So, my mom, when we were little, she worked in the library. You just did whatever you could do to watch your kids and work. I never knew a nanny. I never had a babysitter that wasn’t related to me. There was no outside help in my family. You just dealt. You just did it. Women want to work because what we realized is that when you take that time to go away for six years and get your kids into first grade, people don’t hire you. They fucking forget about you. It’s bad for you, if you actually want to work and make money. And men want us to make money because they like having boats. They like going on vacations. They like motorcycles. And they’re not getting them on their salary alone.”
She laughs at that last thought, adding, “Things are changing very slowly. But they are changing. Progress happens. People wear helmets now. And seat belts. They didn’t always do that.”
The food is cleared away, her sandwich only half-eaten is proclaimed a slight disappointment, and the conversation turns toward Love & Mercy. The film is based on two distinct periods in the life of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Paul Dano plays the iconic musician during the recording of the band’s seminal Pet Sounds in the 1960s. Opposite John Cusack, Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter, whom Wilson met in the 1980s and eventually married. The film cuts back and forth between both periods, showing the progression of Wilson’s mental illness, its misdiagnosis and his de facto enslavement and mental abuse at the hand of family-appointed therapist Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti.
“She’s a broad,” says Banks, smiling, when asked about first meeting Melinda Wilson before playing her in the film. “She’s a great broad. First of all, she’s fabulous looking. She is fierce. She’s just fierce, in every sense of the word; protective of her family; fearless. She loves Brian, loves their life together. She is dedicated to him. She hates Eugene Landy. She just hates that guy. You feel the fire in her and it’s been 25 years. And she’s still angry! I just love that; I love that she has so much drive in her. He’s the only [Wilson brother] left. None of them are left. She said, ‘It’s my job to make sure he’s as celebrated as possible during his lifetime. I don’t want him going to heaven not knowing how much people loved him.’”
As Melinda, Banks is nearly unrecognizable. That is to say, the Elizabeth Banks you think you know… disappears. You can hear it in her voice now, at this table, when she describes Melinda as fierce and as a friend. (“She just called me yesterday,” says Banks about their ongoing relationship.) In many ways, it’s the same ferocity that she admires in Melinda that Banks has displayed in fragments and outbursts during our brief meal together. Of course they still call each other, they’re two peas in a pod.
Here’s proof: When asked about ever being afraid, about directing for the first time, or taking on a dramatic role in Love & Mercy, Banks says, immediately, “Why? What is the point of being scared?” Later she’ll say about herself, “I’m not a needy person. If a regular, needy person is a five, I’m like a negative four. I don’t need shoulders to cry on. I have very few needs.” She talks about being bullied in middle school and how “fighting back changed the entire dynamic of my adolescence. I was bullied because I was tiny. I was skinny and I didn’t look like anyone else.” She grew up in Pittsfield, a town in Western Massachusetts, far from the cosmopolitan Boston metro area. “I let people bully me until I didn’t. All I did was push someone to the ground, but the adrenaline that I had—the act of doing it and standing up for myself and the pride that I felt afterward—it was so real and palpable, I was never messed with again.”
It is for these reasons she is so effective in Love & Mercy. She is drawing from a well that she’s been drawing from her entire life. Banks claims she doesn’t know why director Bill Pohlad picked her before he even settled on who would play the two versions of Brian. But it’s obvious sitting here across from her, what he saw. He saw this woman, the one eating pork and fried corn cakes and talking about how fear is a waste of time. The film works for numerous reasons, mostly for navigating itself around the pitfalls that doom most biopics based on extraordinarily famous musicians, but also because of her performance. It’s near perfect casting. And, if you ask her, it’s not at all that different from what she’s always done.
“I went to drama school. I’ve studied the classics. I have much more in common with my British peers, probably, than most of Hollywood,” she says, without sounding even an ounce boastful. “I believe in acting as a legitimate art form. There’s something about the nobility of doing it that I want to acknowledge. I treat it very professionally. I do this to have an impact on other people. That’s what I’m doing! And, by the way, I think it’s fine to just want to entertain people. That’s all Shakespeare wanted to do!”
She’s animated now, the fork is waving, and she’s locked eyes with her interlocutor who has made the suggestion that her role in Love & Mercy is so good, it might surprise her most ardent fans who rely on her for comic relief, or at least some bitter sarcasm. To her, it’s all coming from the same place.
“You have to have a certain point of view of the world in order to be funny,” she argues, as the black Prius approaches, turns, and slows to a stop at the curb nearest us. “It’s why there are naturally funny people and people who are not ever going to be funny. And it has to do with their point of view of the world. I don’t think that necessarily means they’re miserable and seeing the darkest shit.
“But people treat comedy like it’s some frilly, unsubstantial thing,” she continues, not acknowledging her ride has returned. “We’re bringing fucking joy! We’re spreading joy 24/7!”
She tosses her napkin to the table. She is laughing.
“Do you know how shitty life is? It’s fucking shitty!”
She’s standing now and she gestures toward the check. I hold up a hand, signifying that I’ve got it.
“So, it really bothers me that everyone’s like, ‘Well, you know, that’s just you [that you’re playing].’ No, actually, there is some skill behind what I’m doing.”
As she stutter-steps in her white high heels on the wet sidewalk to the waiting car, she turns and waves and says, “Oh, thanks for lunch!”
She smiles and slams the car door behind her. The Prius speeds off to wherever she’s needed next.