When Elizabeth Maresal Mitchell first arrived in Philadelphia from her hometown of Pittsfield in western Massachusetts, she was well acquainted with hard work but not so much with city living. The small-town girl had never ridden in a taxi. Still, Banks wasn’t easily cowed. Stewart remembers befriending her one day early into freshman year when a group of hallmates in the Lower Quad was hanging out in someone’s room, and Banks started belting out Grease tunes.

Though she was theatrical on arrival, she didn’t plan on becoming an actor. She didn’t know exactly what she wanted to be, but Banks knew what she wanted to make: plenty of money. “I was itching to study theater, but I knew I didn’t want to be a starving artist,” she recalls. “That was not on the agenda for me.”

So how did someone so determined not to be an actor end up producing movies starring Bruce Willis and starring in movies opposite Russell Crowe? Growing up in Pittsfield, a working-class town where her mother was employed at a local bank and her father at the General Electric plant, Banks was a dedicated athlete until she broke her leg sliding into third base during a high school softball game. The teenager filled the ensuing void in her after-school schedule with acting.

Her first role was Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar—the robe handily covered her cast. Banks’ high school theater teacher, Ralph Hamann, told their hometown paper, the Berkshire Eagle, “There were depths she revealed at an early age. I could say to her, ‘Liz, take the stage,’ meaning, the space is yours. She would know what to do, instinctively.” He recalled her star turn as Aldonza/Dulcinea in Man of La Mancha. During one performance, when an unfortunate combination of a thunderstorm and the opening of the auditorium’s air vents led to puddles on stage, she didn’t miss a beat.

Banks’ husband, Max Handelman, claims the critical moment occurred later, during her freshman year and his sophomore year at Penn. Soon after they met at an AEPi party and started dating, she was trying to choose between trying out for cheerleading or trying out for a play. Says Handelman, “I told her, ‘I can’t imagine dating a cheerleader so I think you should go for the play.’” He’s sort of kidding. Max and Elizabeth’s fateful meeting happened on her very first day of school. (Liz remembers the exact date: September 6, 1992.)

Handelman, on campus for Homecoming Weekend in November to screen Surrogates, a sci-fi thriller starring Bruce Willis and one of the first films he and Banks co-produced, recalls that long-ago moment. “The house had run out of beer so the party was pretty much over,” he says. “The brothers were kicking people out.” He spotted Liz in the sea of people gathered outside and noticed she was standing with a friend’s little sister. He grabbed that friend and said, “Let’s go talk to your sister.” The two started dating immediately. They married in 2003.

There was no talk of Hollywood when they were undergrads. “Liz is one of those people who could be good at so many different things,” Handelman says. “I had no idea she’d go on to become a celebrity, but it doesn’t surprise me that it happened.”

Banks’ designations as Homecoming Queen of Pittsfield High and magna cum laude graduate of Penn are a reflection of the versatility that’s characterized her acting career. She feels equally at home in a drama as she does in a comedy, even if she’s better known for her funny movies and regular appearances on TV’s Scrubs. She credits her part in 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer—a low-budget comedy that evolved into a cult film and ended up launching the careers of a number of comedic actors, including Paul Rudd, Michael Showalter, and Amy Poehler—for starting her down the comedic path. She played Lindsay, a camp counselor who makes out with lifeguard and future Banks’ co-star Rudd while a camper apparently drowns. That role helped land her a small but memorable role as one of Steve Carell’s potential first flings in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Seth Rogen, who worked with her in Virgin, suggested Banks for the role of Miri in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Directed by Kevin Smith, who first gained fame with the foul-mouthed but soft-hearted low-budget favorite Clerks, Zack and Miri concerns two longtime non-romantic friends who hatch a scheme to solve their money problems by putting their bodies to work and (surprise!) find themselves falling in love.

Talking to Banks on the phone, it’s easy to see how Rogen could envision her as Miri. Her quick, throaty (and now famous) laugh punctuates her real life conversation as frequently as it does her movie conversations, and she tends to tell it exactly like it is. According to friends, fame hasn’t changed the girl who was just as matter-of-fact and hilarious in college. “A lot of people do change and start to believe their own hype,” says friend Carineh Martin C’95, who worked at the William Morris Agency before segueing into luxury-brand marketing. “Not Liz. She has fun with it. It’s not lost on her that she’s at the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party, sitting next to Tom Ford and Uma Thurman.”

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