Effie Trinket notwithstanding, Elizabeth Banks doesn’t always need to layer on the hair and makeup to disappear into a character.
After spending the past several years as something of a stealth weapon deployed by Hollywood across all genres, Banks has enjoyed a major star turn in 2012 with a trio of wildly disparate performance that have left no question about her expansive range: Bizarre, but compelling and moving? “The Hunger Games” – check. Flat-out funny? “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” – check. Struggling, stressed out and recognizably real? She’s got that down, too. In “People Like Us,” Banks plays Frankie, a single mom/cocktail waitress dealing with her smart but troubled son. Adding to her emotional load is news of the passing of her own absentee father, but she finds solace in the company of the new friend she doesn’t know is actually her brother (Chris Pine).
Reflecting for PopcornBiz on her succession of worlds-apart roles, Banks reveals how she fell in love with acting, literally keeping it real and making Effie Trinket something more than the sum of her cosmetics.
Were you looking for something that would test yourself as an actress, because you really get to play across the whole spectrum with this character?
Well, it's an amazing role. I'm always actively looking for great roles, that's for sure. This fit the bill a hundred fold. It was just a beautiful script, beautifully written. She's an amazing character. I felt very connected to her from the get-go. It's a real gift to an actor when you read something and you feel like you know what to do: you feel a connection, like you understand the character in the right way. I felt all of that with Frankie. But people ask me if this was some sort of conscious decision to do something different. I'm always just looking for great roles. I feel like I'm trying to bring real humanity to everything that I play, even if it's someone who's in a really funny movie and in a funny situation.
When did your passion for acting really ignite?
I always had a passion for it. I've been doing it since I was 12 years old. I did a middle school production of 'Jesus Christ Superstar' and played Pontius Pilate and I was bit way back then. I was in an amazing high school production of 'Man from La Mancha,' which I still think about. Then I went to drama school, but I never thought…I didn't know that it was a real job. People from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, do not move to Hollywood and become movie stars! I didn't have any reference point – unlike Chris Pine, who grew up here, whose father was an actor. He knew what the working life of an actor was. I had to go to drama school after college because I did not understand how to get an agent. I didn't understand the first step to doing this as a job. I literally didn't know how you made this a career. I had no idea. I know how to become a lawyer. I know how to become a doctor. I know how to become a firefighter. I did not know how to become an actor. So when people started paying me to do it, it was like, 'Oh, this is your job. This is how you make a living.' That's what convinced me, honestly. It was really those first paychecks. I thought, 'Oh, wow. I can do this. People will pay me to do something that I like doing, something that gives me self-worth.'
You drew on your experience as a waitress in real life for this role. How do you keep that authentic take on characters as fame encroaches on your artistry?
I think you have to go out and live a real life. The only advice – and I don't give a lot of advice, now or ever – but when younger actors ask me about doing this a long time and still doing it, like, 'How do you do that?' I think, especially for young actors, this is a very isolating world and you have to step out of it and you have to live a real life. You have to go see what's going on out there. You have to observe people. I have a very large family and I'm with them very often and they keep me very grounded, and they're all real people, working class people. They all have regular jobs and they're teachers, they’re selling insurance. They've got real jobs. That's what I bring to my work. Your life is what you bring to your work, and if you don't have a full and rich and interesting life, your work is not going to be as good.
Was there anything that director Alex Kurtzman shared with you from his real-life experience discovering his own sister that helped inform what you were doing in this character?
Well, he was very generous with his story and also he let me speak to his sister, which was really amazing. It was really interesting because they don't have the exact same take on what happened to them, so it was really great for me to get her perspective. He didn't have to set that up. He could've held onto that a little tighter and played it a little closer to the vest, but he didn't. He was very generous with his own story and the sort of larger questions that it brought up for him and why he and his sister now have a great relationship.
What's been eye-opening about moving into producing films with “Pitch Perfect”?
Producing is the hardest I've ever worked, maybe in my life. It's managing a lot of moving parts. When you're an actor you're only responsible for your role and as a producer you're responsible for the whole thing. It's been very, very gratifying. I love all the people that have worked on our film. We were just gearing up for 'Pitch Perfect,' which is a Universal movie that comes out October 5th. The trailer is out now. So, you can check it out, and there's a pitchperfectmovie.com page. So, if you want to hear what the movie is about you can check that out. It's very hard work.
Now that 'The Hunger Games' is out there, what burning questions do diehard fans come to you with the most?
It's all about taking photos. 'Can I have my picture with you,' is number one. It's funny, I still get a lot of…it's more of a conversation. I think that Effie really surprised people because she was more layered in the movie, I think, than people realized from just reading the book. That's really the main response that I've gotten, like, 'Ooh, I thought you were going to be meaner,' or 'I thought you were going to be funnier and then you did X, Y, Z instead.' If I had any element of surprise as the character in the movie, that's what's been the most fun in talking to people about her, how I changed their idea of who she was.
Have you encountered any fans that have recreated the look of your Effie?
I have seen a lot of pictures online, some great, great recreations on Facebook and people have Tweeted things to me. We had a contest on elizabethbanks.com where people sent us their Effie-inspired art, which was pretty incredible. Everyone has been very inspired by the movie, in general. It's been incredible.