She’s played an amateur porn actress and a president’s wife,
produces movies with her (fellow alum) husband,
and is now poised to direct her own first film.
Elizabeth Banks C’96 is working almost as hard
as she did at Penn.
By Caroline Tiger

 

 

Jan|Feb 2010 contents
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FEATURE:
How to Succeed in Business by Really, Really Trying
By Caroline Tiger
Illustration by Josh Cochran

 

  The year is 1993. The setting is a double in the Tri-Delt sorority house on Penn’s campus. An alarm clock sounds around 6:00 a.m., rousing two sophomores. The one named Liz gets out of bed and makes her way to the bathroom to start her day. The one named Rebecca falls back to sleep. After getting dressed, Liz slinks through the silent house and out the door to her Faculty Club work-study job at an hour that, in college time, may as well be the dead of night.

Liz Mitchell C’96, who changed her name to Elizabeth Banks when she became an actress to avoid confusion with Elizabeth Mitchell of Lost fame, remembers Penn as a time of constant work. “I think I slept an average of three to four hours a night all four years I was there,” she says over the phone one November afternoon during a lunch break on the Pittsburgh shoot of The Next Three Days, the movie she’s filming with Russell Crowe. Her sophomore-year roommate and good friend, Rebecca Stewart C’96, now an anchor for Fox News in Hartford, Connecticut, remembers Banks left most days at 7 a.m. and didn’t return until 11:30 that night.

By sophomore year, Banks was running the work-study program at the Faculty Club—a choice gig that allowed her to keep up with the pulse of the school by dining with professors. Even better, the free lunches meant she didn’t have to spring for a full meal-plan. Banks also did catering and acted in a children’s theater group that performed for local schools. It was her first foray into extracurricular theater at Penn. Her first Penn role: playing Aunt Polly in a production of Tom Sawyer. Between rehearsal every night, work-study every day, going to classes, being in Delta Delta Delta, trying to have a social life, and doing all the class work necessary to graduate magna cum laude, it’s easy to see how Banks didn’t have much free time.

Life isn’t so different now, even if the 36-year-old has gained celebrity by starring in movies including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Uninvited, W, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Her packed schedule may include stints in Cannes, on various red carpets, and on the couches of Jay, Dave, Conan, Jimmy, and other talk show hosts, but she’s still working around the clock and taking little time off between projects. “I like being busy,” she says. “I do better when I’m juggling a lot of things. When I have down time, I get bored and lackluster, and I don’t really feel like myself.” It’s not the most unusual sentiment from a Penn grad, but according to Stewart, “In a sea of overachievers, Liz was a standout.”

Three years ago, Banks added producer to her resume when she and her husband, Max Handelman C’95, founded Brownstone Productions. She’s also occupied being the face of Loréal cosmetics, preparing for her first directing gig, and doing speaking engagements in support of A Woman is Not a Pre-existing Condition, a National Women’s Law Center initiative to persuade Congress to pass health-care reform legislation that includes affordable coverage and benefits for reproductive health.

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