Without a doubt, Elizabeth Banks is one of my favorite people to interview, and a big reason for that is that she's also one of my absolute favorite actors working today. She handles comedy and drama with equal ease and conviction; she's a smart, funny, beautiful, talented woman who--when the mood strikes her--can swear like a sailor or be the epitome of poise and manners. But mostly she just seems like a cool person to hang out with.
I caught up with her in Chicago a couple weeks ago when she was in town for a political event and decided to do a couple of interviews for her latest film PEOPLE LIKE US, written and directed by Alex Kurtzman, in which Banks plays Frankie, a struggling single mom, whose unknowingly shares a father with Chris Pine's Sam. Sam with the legitimate son, while Frankie was the big secret in their father's life, and neither knows the other exists until dad dies and leaves money with Sam to deliver to Frankie. Instead, Sam tries to get to know Frankie and her son, while struggling with his own feelings on the new sibling. It's an intriguing story that Banks goes a long way toward helping legitimize in terms of the emotional content.
In recent years, Banks has made better quite a few films and TV shows, including her show-stopping appearances on "30 Rock," as well as movies such as MAN ON A LEDGE, WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING, ROLE MODELS, W., OUR IDIOT BROTHER, and perhaps the highest-profile work of her career, as Effie Trinket in THE HUNGER GAMES. Before the year is out, expect to see her in the long-delayed THE DETAILS, opposite Toby Maguire (set for release in September), and PITCH PERFECT, starring Anna Kendrick (coming out in October). And of course, she's she'll be shooting THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE in a few months and is slated to be a part of Charlie Kaufman's latest work FRANK OR FRANCIS, with Jack Black, Steve Carell, and Nicolas Cage, as well as playing the lead in WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH MARGIE?, written by Alan Ball.
Just days before our interview, Banks won an MTV Movie Award for Best On-Screen Transformation (for THE HUNGER GAMES) and was promptly molested by three members of the MAGIC MIKE cast--Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, and Joe Manganiello. And it is with that incident that we begin. Please enjoy the great Elizabeth Banks…
Elizabeth Banks: Hi!
Capone: Hello. I’m Steve.
EB: Steve, I know we have met before. You look very familiar.
Capone: I think the first time was at Comic-Con a few years ago.
EB: Yeah, backstage at Comic-Con, I remember. It was either going on or coming off the stage.
Capone: It was right after the ZACK AND MIRI panel.
EB: I was going to say I knew exactly what movie it was.
Capone: I feel like I should congratulate you on your MTV Award.
EB: Thank you!
Capone: Which I finally got around to watching the show.
EB: It was so fun. Yeah, I had a lot of fun at that.
Capone: Were you actually in the front row?
EB: I was, yes. I was in the front row the whole time.
Capone: And your win was actually memorable.
EB: Yeah, Tina Fey once said to me “If you are a funny person, you need to use every public opportunity to remind people that you are funny.” I knew they were presenting, and by the way I thought Johnny Depp was going to win.
Capone: So you really don’t know who is going to win when you get there?
EB: You don’t. I thought [THE HUNGER GAMES] was going to win Best Movie and we didn’t. I was hoping. I knew the fans were voting and that they were behind me, and I was in the front row, which is usually an indication. So I hoped that I was going to win, but they threw me off, man. They came out to present and then they played the Def Leppard song ["Pour Some Sugar on Me"], which is one of my favorite songs, and the minute the music came up, and they didn’t announce a winner, I thought “Oh Johnny Depp won, and they're bringing him back out.” So it was…
Capone: Are you kind of proud of that particular award, which I think is a new category.
EB: It was a new category, yeah.
Capone: I wasn’t quite sure I understood what it was until I started seeing the nominees.
Capone: But are you particularly proud of that? Because you really did go out on a limb by becoming almost unrecognizable to play that part.
EB: Yeah, I mean it was so much fun to watch myself disappear everyday and watch Effie appear in the mirror.
Capone: Did looking in the mirror and seeing that face do a lot of the job for you?
EB: Yeah, it really does. I mean you really feel it too. Once everything is on, and you’re in those clothes and you have to walk a certain way and you can’t sit right and you’ve got your shoes on, and it’s so uncomfortable and you’re so hot and bothered and everything. It was great, very method acting.
Capone: I will admit that when I first saw the trailers for The HUNGER GAMES, I thought for sure I was going to hate your character. I thought “She’s playing it over the top,” and when I watched the movie--I had not read the books, so I didn’t know anything about any of the characters going in--I realized your character is the is one of the saddest almost. She's the head of this horrible little district and she knows it.
EB: She's tragic. She hates her job.
Capone: She's a walking facade, and all of that makeup is a big mask for her. I actually was like “Oh my god, she's so great.” Just seeing it in little chunks didn’t do it justice, but seeing it played out was perfect.
EB: Thank you. I really appreciate that. It was very hard to do.
Capone: I think the last time we talk for THE NEXT THREE DAYS, I said to you I always like when you throw in the dramas, because I think you’re just as good at that as you are at being funny, and Frankie is kind of a mess. What was it when you first read Alex’s script that you looked at and said, “Okay, I can work with this. I can build on her.”
EB: I had total recognition of her; I believed her. It’s really hard for me to read a script and actually believe in someone and I believed in her. I was a struggling actress; she's a struggling single mom. My sister was a single mom for a long time, and I know that feeling of feeling of having the weight of the world on your shoulders and you have to do it by yourself. I recognize that in myself. "I’m just going to do it all on my own." And being open to help is really… I think a lot of people have a hard time being like “Excuse me, I need help. I actually can’t do this by myself.”
Capone: Yeah, they don’t want to feel like a charity case.
EB: That's right. It’s really hard for people to admit. I loved that part of her. In other words, she is a super-layered, very relatable, struggling single mom. A lot of people can relate to that. Then I also saw the fact that she was a recovering alcoholic and that she was 12 stepping. I then could buy everything else, it’s like “Okay, she wants to be a better person. She wants her life to go in a positive direction. She wants to create a safe haven for her son.” And those are all things you can really play. It's also really hard to find scripts where there’s actually something to do the whole movie, which is great.
And then I was really struck by the fact that this is a movie ultimately about loss; they're grieving the whole time. At the top of the movie, our father dies, and we are mourning the whole movie. I think you forget, and it gets lost in the weeds of the rest of the movie, but we are basically spending the whole movie mourning the death of our father, and it’s not just that he is gone, it’s the lost opportunities, right? Like I’m never going to get my chance, even if all I want to do it just yell at him until I’m blue in the face, I wont ever get to do that. I never get to meet him again. I don’t get to have that moment that I needed--my closure. At the end of the day, we all want to believe that our daddy loved us [laughs], and I think the catharsis at the end of this movie is so strong for people. For me, I cry at the end of the movie every time. I cried when I read the script. You know, it’s definitely like “Oh shit, the dad loved them. He did the best he knew how.”
Capone: I don’t think Alex oversimplifies it at all, but a lot of what Frankie goes through goes back to that abandonment issue, and you're right, they are both grieving, but it’s all the more tragic that they're grieving separately.
EB: That's right! They could be doing it together. It’s super tragic and it’s why when they actually come together and have their realization at the end of the movie, it’s so powerful.
Capone: I don’t think there’s really any doubt how it’s going to turn out between them once the truth is reveled.
EB: That’s right. They're going to be friends. They're going to be in each other’s lives. You're rooting for them as an audience. If we didn’t do that, I think it would be a massive disappointment. But I do think like how he ties it together on that playground is really beautiful. I don’t think you’re expecting that. I don’t think you’re expecting that the dad is not a villain, and that’s what happens at the end of the movie, his "villainy" is explained.
Capone Yeah. How do you prepare for something like Frankie? You mentioned the thing about your sister, but I’m guessing she didn’t go quite through what Frankie is going through. Between the bad choices with men and the kid who is blowing up pools, how do you kind of get yourself there?
EB: The research that I did, first of all someone was asking me about like how Frankie dresses. I was a cocktail waitress and a bartender when I struggling…
Capone: She does have her style.
EB: I call it “dressing for tips.” That’s it! That’s all she is doing, you know? [Laughs] There’s a lot of dressing for tips. Frankie is an operator. She knows how to get what she needs to get, but she has a lot of walls up, and I think the jewelry and the boots and everything, those are all representative of her wall. She is not like a warm, fuzzy “Let’s hang out and drink coffee” person. She doesn’t fucking have time for that shit, and I really related to that sense of “I don’t have time for this shit.” Life is hard, I need to put one foot in front of the other. “All I need to do is create a safe haven for my kid; I’ve got to do that whatever way I can. This is the skill set I was fucking given, so this is what I’m going to do.” The tragedy of her is that she had to put her own dreams, her own thing, to the side, and it was really important to me--I told this to Alex--to mention my mother, because I wanted it to be clear that Frankie didn’t do it by herself, that someone helped raise her kid, that no one does it by themselves. That to me is also one of the big themes of the movie.
Capone: Had that not been in the script originally?
EB: I think it was, but I just remember saying, “Don’t cut that. Just make sure this stays in the movie.” Whatever little thing, like when I say, “My mom died, my sweet mom,” and we improved around that a little bit, because I really did want to have a true feeling about my mom, and that wasn’t’ in the script. She’s been through a lot, and a lot of people have and she's still a survivor and that’s what I related it to. Surviving, man. I can relate to that. [laughs]
Capone: You and Chris are in the unenviable position of being these two attractive people that are never going to end up together, and that’s the way we as an audience are wired to watch movies, but your character doesn’t know that for a lot of the story. Were you concerned about that balance?
EB: We joked about it every day. There are a lot of takes of us where we would finish a take and then we would fake like we were going to make out, just to piss off Alex. We made a lot of fun of it. "Hey, it's an incest movie!"
Look, what I took to heart, because of course she is opening herself up to someone. I think she’s obviously been very disappointed by people. It starts with her dad, it's engrained in herself. She's disappointed with herself, and I think she is not a very open person. So I think that in terms of her life with men, she gets fucked every once in a while when she needs, but other than that… She doesn’t have boyfriends, there are no boyfriends. The good thing about when she meets him is I really think she’s not interested. She’s like “Well I’m not going to fuck this guy. That’s not going to happen.”
Capone She can see right through him too.
EB: “Something is up with this dude, I don’t know what it is,” and the fact that he surprises her and is caring and is like not typical, I think she then slowly gets more open and frankly the timing worked out, because I feel like just at the moment when Frankie decides that she could open herself up, that she could believe in this guy as someone to help her and take care of her, he reveals his big secret. So I never felt like she wanted to get in the back of the car and make out with him. I felt like it could get there if he never said anything.
Capone: Maybe there was like a twinge of regret when he revealed who he was?
EB: [thinks about it] No, I don’t think there was any regret. But her anger of like, “I started to dream about someone like you, whether it was you or not.” What he did for Frankie is he opened her back up to the possibility of letting a guy in who is going to be loving and caring.
Capone: There’s nothing worse than giving someone hope.
EB: That’s what she’s the most angry about. “You gave me hope, whether it was you or someone else. You just made me see a life for myself and believe in something that I had let go of, that I had forgotten.”
Capone: A few of the actors in this movie are people that Alex has worked with before, how did you first connect with him on this movie?
EB: Just in reading the script. I read the script. I loved the character. I went to his office. It is really very how Hollywood works, and Jody Lambert, the co-writer, was there that day, and we had a long conversation and talked through some scenes and we read a little bit together. You can ask Alex, but I felt like Frankie when I read it. I was like “I know exactly what to do with this character,” and it’s a real gift for an actor when you get that. So it was just kismet. I just knew that this was for me.
Capone: Other than to talk about this movie, why are you in town?
EB: I’m doing an Obama event tomorrow.
Capone: Is that a fundraiser?
EB: It’s not a fundraiser, it’s like a Women’s Voices event. They have a special council for women, and the Obama campaign really wants to highlight why he's a better candidate for ladies and why he represents working moms better than Mitt Romney.
Capone: I meant to mention at the beginning that the last time we talked, you mentioned how you were slightly bummed that they were rebooting SPIDER-MAN, because you had spent all of that time…
EB: Yeah, and I had read a draft where Betty Brant was a big part of it.
Capone: You said that, but I've seen the new one already, and she’s not even in it. So that’s good.
EB: It’s pre-Daily Bugle, right?
EB: By the way, Godspeed. Those young kids are great.
Capone: I follow you on Twitter, and I know you're a big "Mad Men" fan. What did you think of the finale?
EB: I loved the "Beauty and the Beast" theme, and I hope the beast is back, that’s what I’ll say.
Capone: So the ending…
EB: The ending I was like, “Yes, bring back the beast!” I felt like Don got a little boring this year. Don in love is not that interesting.
Capone: There’s been a lot of talk recently about David Wain concocting a WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER sequel, have you in principle agreed to be a part of it?
EB: I have had conversations with them about like what it is, and it’s real, it exists.
Capone: Yeah, I know they are writing it.
EB: They are writing it. I have no idea if it will come together. Who knows? I can say that I don’t know if it can be replicated. We just had a fucking party when we made that movie; it was a daily party, and this movie is also about a big party, the prequel. [Laughs] Because all the best drama, when you’re in high school, happens at the parties, and they will certainly put their stamp on it, and there’s room for a lot of great new characters, which will be really interesting. But who knows?
Capone: I do know people who have read THE HUNGER GAMES and I know the direction your character goes. In CATCHING FIRE, she gets a little proud and full of herself.
EB: Well she has winners, too.
Capone: That’s what I mean, because of that.
EB: She has winners, but you know the great thing about Effie is that Effie is no fool. She really understands that her fate is tied to Katniss and Peeta’s fate. And I think she thinks is an injustice when they get called back into the games, because she was riding high on their success, and I also think that she's very aware of Katniss’s effect on the world around her and I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how that plays out for Effie, and Effie’s approval or disapproval of where that’s going.
Capone: Do you know when you go back to start shooting?
EB: The fall. I don’t know the exact dates yet, be we are shooting it in the fall, by all accounts.
Capone: And I’ve got to ask you about FRANK OR FRANCIS, because I’ve read the script…
EB: Oh my god, you did?
Capone: Some version of it.
EB: Holy shit.
Capone: And I’ve talked to Jack Black a little bit about it. Can you say what you are doing in that at all?
EB: I honestly don’t know where that film is at. We were supposed to make it sooner, but it’s been pushed. I think they're waiting for everybody’s lives to come back together. You read the script--it’s bananas. I think they've got to find the right money and the right combination of people at all of that stuff. I don’t really know anything about it. All I know is I want to work with Charlie Kaufman.
Capone: And you have to sing, probably.
EB: You know my character doesn’t really sing in the movie. She’s one of the few characters that has very little singing.
Capone: Is that disappointing?
EB: It’s terrifying to sing. No, I actually would love to do it. I mean they pre-record everything, so I’d be fine. I’d be in the studio and would be lip-syncing on the day. I can make a movie like that, and I’d have Steve Carell to boost me up.
Capone: I’ve got to ask you about this thing you did with the Farrelly Brothera, because I probably ask you about it every time we talk.
EB: I know. It’s coming out though.
Capone: I saw a January date on it. Is that what you have heard?
EB: I heard sooner than that.
Capone: Oh really?
EB: But maybe January. I heard sooner than that, but I don’t know. I know nothing.
Capone: I’m kind of dying to see it.
EB: I just finalized my cut for mine.
Capone The one you directed?
EB: Yeah. I am in one as well. James Gunn, the guy who directed SLITHER, I enlisted him to direct me in one of them.
Capone: I did see the PSA you directed for the American Heart Association? That was really wild.
EB: Thank you.
Capone: I was just watching it last night while doing research and I’m like “That’s so strange. That’s so scary.”
EB: It’s all real, I know. It’s crazy. I actually was just told that we literally helped save someone’s life. This woman watched it, and a week later she had those symptoms and immediately called 9-1-1- and was like, “I didn’t know what was going on. I would not have known what was going on with me if I had not watched your video.”
Capone: I don’t even know how new it is; I just happened to stumble upon it.
EB: It came out in February of this year.
Capone: And it seems like THE DETAILS are coming out in September.
EB: Is it?
Capone: I read September.
EB: God, I hope not. I mean, Jesus, aren’t you sick of me?
Capone: No, not really.
EB: That would be great. I made that movie so long ago and I love Tobey [Maguire]. Laura Linney does an amazing job in the movie. I would love for people to finally see it. Yeah, it’s a cool little movie. It’s a really wild ride.