In 2008, when W, Zack and Miri, and Role Models—a “bromantic” comedy starring Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott in which Banks plays Rudd’s put-upon lawyer-fiancée—came out back-to-back, a rash of magazine and newspaper articles featured breathless interviews that revolved around two themes: “Elizabeth’s Golden Age,” touted Entertainment Weekly, portraying her as an actor on the brink of major stardom. The second theme: Who is Elizabeth Banks? A comedic actor or a dramatic one? Will she be branded one or the other based on these movies’ fate? The answer: Reply hazy, try again. All three films did respectably well, but none was a breakaway success. Banks continues to be offered both types of roles.

Which kind of actor would she like to be? She’s still wavering. “Look, I’d love to have a brand because brands make money. That’s one of the first things they teach you at Penn,” she points out. “Being branded is not a bad thing, I just don’t know if I’ve figured out what it is yet.” She says this between shooting scenes for the big action drama with Russell Crowe. “Frankly, I’m surprised I haven’t been doing more comedy. One reason my husband and I are developing movies is to develop comedies. That’s what we really like to make, it’s where a lot of our friendships lie, and it’s personally just a necessity because there are so very few movies for funny women.”

Still, her acting role models are Meryl Streep and Jodie Foster, not Julia Roberts. And she’s definitely interested in “serious movies.” According to Allison Brecker Shearmur C’85, president of production at Lionsgate, the studio behind Three Days, Banks actively pursued that role. “Her reading was undeniable—the passion, the emotion,” says Shearmur, but the actor’s campaigning was the x factor. She reached out to director Paul Haggis to express her interest. “Her entrepreneurialism and ambition kept Liz in consideration,” Shearmur says.


What seems to engage Banks most these days is storytelling, an interest that was nurtured at Penn, where she majored in communications with a concentration in theater arts. Digging deep into Shakespeare texts via Penn’s theater classes proved to be an essential foundation for an acting career. “It’s fascinating how many actors I meet who are not familiar with the classics, who are not familiar with basic storytelling,” she says, “who can’t tell the difference between a comedy and a drama, and who don’t know, for instance, that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy.”

These skills serve her well in many capacities—for example, when she’s collaborating on the script for Pitch Perfect, a Brownstone property in development that’s a comedy about a cappella groups (the type of people, says Handelman, he and Banks knew at Penn). They served her well when she accepted the part of Beth in Role Models, then took Beth from one- to three-dimensional by suggesting the arm-candy role be fleshed out by making her character into the lawyer needed in the script’s third act. These instincts for storytelling also come into play when she and her husband hunt for properties to acquire for Brownstone. “We have complementary skills,” says Handelman. “I like to be a strategic thinker. I like looking for material and asking, ‘Is there a movie here?’ Elizabeth is very good with the details of how to extract the compelling aspects of the story.”

Banks takes storytelling very seriously. “It’s a tradition that goes back to when we were living in caves and acting out the history of our people,” she says, “or when we’re teaching our children by telling them stories, or just as a way of trying to make sense of the world around us.” After 10 years in the movies, she’s realized that an actor is merely a cog in the storytelling machine. Actors struggle to craft perfect little moments—puzzle pieces that are then manipulated and fitted together by editors, effects, and ultimately the director.

Only the director has ultimate control (or the closest thing to it), which is why she’s eager to direct for the first time this January on a short comedic film produced by the Farrelly brothers, known for comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber. Shearmur, who knows about these things, predicts Banks will succeed as a director. “I think Elizabeth has an interest in the written word and a respect for writers and an insight into story that will make her a great producer and director,” she says. “Her interests lie in the total experience of the film, not in how it relates to her.”

It seems Banks has reached another turning point in her career. It’s a quieter moment than the W/Zack and Miri/Role Models triple-release in 2008, but maybe the fame generated from that wave will allow her the luxury to slow down, stop working so hard, and take some time to figure out what she really wants.

“I do want a little more control over telling stories,” Banks says. “I mean, I could totally bomb at directing. It could go horribly. But I will work very hard, like I always do. I’ll put in my best effort and hope that I have some talent for it.” So far, it’s been a winning formula.


Caroline Tiger C’96 is a freelance writer in Philadelphia and a regular contributor to the Gazette.


 

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