Combined with her Homecoming Queen beauty, that earthiness made her a favorite with the flock of writer/directors whose films feature man-children and the women who love them. Judd Apatow, the godfather of the latest wave of these comedies, whose other films include Knocked Up and last summer’s Funny People, cast her in Virgin; Kevin Smith in Zack and Miri; and David Wain in Wet Hot American Summer and 2008’s Role Models. Banks has no problem delivering the boys’ bawdy lines and embracing scenes like the one in Virgin where her sex-crazed bookstore clerk’s bathtub romp scares away Steve Carell.

When Zack and Miri came out, she explained her apparent lack of inhibitions to the L.A. Times: “Sex is ridiculous on all levels,” she said. “As a woman, I don’t see it as a big romantic thing. We have needs as human beings. I’m not a self-serious person in general, and I’m not somebody who believes that women have to uphold the code of morality for men.”

Despite flirtations with immorality, she claims to be a major goody two-shoes. “I’ve been in the same relationship with the same person for 17 years,” she points out over the phone from Pittsburgh, “so, you know, you don’t really get a reputation as being a wild woman.” She doesn’t lie. She’s never done drugs. She won’t run a yellow light. “This is all about how I was raised.” Maybe that’s why, where Rogen saw a fledgling porn star, Oliver Stone saw a buttoned-up first lady.

After seeing Virgin, Stone called her in to audition for the part of Laura Bush in W. He says he knew the moment he met her she was Laura. Banks had a giggle fit on the drive home from the audition—a reflection of her incredulity over such a surreal experience. She couldn’t believe Stone had handpicked her for the part. Stone sang her praises after the movie wrapped, saying he’d call her “Laura” on set because she embodied the role so completely. She has played plenty more dramatic roles: Jeff Bridges’ wife in Seabiscuit; the photojournalist daughter of a famous stage actress, played by Glenn Close, in the indie film Heights.

Her character in The Next Three Days is a prisoner who’s been wrongly accused of murder. You can usually tell which kind of movie she’s working on—drama or comedy—by the color of her hair. Appearing on Leno during the filming of Three Days, she pumps her brunette locks with one hand and tells Jay this is her “serious movie hair.”

Presumably that’s the hair she sported back at Penn for her serious interviews for jobs in fashion, finance, and consulting. With her grades, she didn’t have trouble getting interviews, but she was never very convincing. “The interviewer was constantly asking, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’” she recalls. “‘Are you sure you want to work at McKinsey?’” Though she knew she wanted to make money to pay off her loans, she didn’t feel strongly about any of the careers that paid big bucks. She had no desire to study for the LSAT and much desire to continue acting. Her theater friends were applying to drama school so she followed suit, applying to NYU, Yale, and the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.  “I loved school,” she says, “so the idea of more school appealed to me.” But the loans didn’t, and corporate job offers beckoned. Happily, her uncle encouraged her to pursue her dream and go to drama school, telling her, “These jobs will be here for you in two years.”

After graduating from ACT in 1998 with a masters degree, Banks immediately started acting in commercials for products like Dove soap, Crest toothpaste, and “alcopop” beverage Zima. She was focused on paying off those loans. Handelman, by then working for the investment bank and brokerage house Solomon Smith Barney, was transferred from New York to the firm’s Los Angeles office, and the couple began their West Coast life together. Banks worked steadily, dealing with the de rigueur rollercoaster of rejection and acceptance. Says Carineh Martin, “It’s a really challenging industry. It takes its toll on you mentally if you’re not a strong person with a strong foundation and sense of self.”

Before long the breaks started coming: her role in Wet Hot American Summer was followed by 2003’s Seabiscuit, a serious drama that was nominated for seven Academy Awards. In the summer of 2005, The 40-Year-Old Virgin opened at #1 at the box office and turned out to be that year’s 19th top grossing film in the U.S. A lot of people saw it.

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