Woman On a Mission
She’s the multi-talented Hollywood heavyweight who broke box-office records with her directorial debut, Pitch Perfect 2, and delighted audiences as oddball agent Effie Trinket in the hugely popular Hunger Games franchise. Now ELIZABETH BANKS is back as writer, producer, director and co-star of Charlie’s Angels. And she has plenty to say about it. In fact, JANE MULKERRINS finds out there’s very little she won’t talk about…
Elizabeth Banks is not a bath person. The actress, producer and director has recently been renovating her new home in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles. “And I had three people tell me: ‘You have to put a bathtub in, you cannot not have a bathtub.’” She shakes her head and sighs. “So I put one in, but I told everyone: this will literally never get used.”
Even without this insight into her bathroom blueprints, I could have predicted that 45-year-old Banks was not a bather. As she herself puts it: “I’m a very practical person; baths are the most impractical things in the world.”
An actress of considerable credibility, having played the well-coiffed government agent Effie Trinket in the Hunger Games franchise, Laura Bush in Oliver Stone’s W., and talk-show host Avery Jessup in the sitcom 30 Rock, Banks’ accomplishments behind the camera are no less impressive either. Pitch Perfect, which she produced as well as starred in – as the deliciously vicious acapella commentator Gail Abernathy-McKadden – became a sleeper hit in 2012; when she followed it up three years later with her directorial debut, Pitch Perfect 2, the film made $69 million at the box office on its opening weekend, setting a record for a first-time director. It remains the highest-grossing music comedy film of all time.
This year, Banks added a fourth string to her filmmaking bow with her reboot of Charlie’s Angels, which she wrote, on top of producing, directing and starring in. “It was a great business decision, in my opinion, to put together the existing IP with something I really wanted to make,” she continues. “I’m very pragmatic. You either have to embrace or reject how the system works. I’m an artist with patrons, so you have to take what they want into consideration.”
“To DEMAND that I’m going to write, direct, produce and act in this movie is a ridiculously EGOCENTRIC statement to make, and women are often not allowed to have that kind of AMBITION”
That’s as may be, but this Monday morning in Manhattan, in the genteel restaurant of a high-end midtown hotel, Banks is nonetheless admitting to some nerves over potential audience reactions. “To demand that I’m going to write, direct, produce and act in this movie is a ridiculously egocentric statement to make, and women are often not allowed to have that kind of ambition,” she notes. “So I’m assuming there’ll be a backlash at some point.” And while the movie has had lackluster reviews since our interview, Banks took to Twitter earlier this week to say she is proud of it regardless, tweeting, “Well, if you’re going to have a flop, make sure your name is on it at least 4x. I’m proud of Charlie’s Angels and happy it’s in the world.”
Banks grew up watching reruns of the original 1970s TV series, starring Farrah Fawcett. “My mother worked my whole life, so it never occurred to me that I wasn’t going to be a professional woman. But it was the first time I saw women really doing a job that only men did, and succeeding at it.”
Her Charlie’s Angels – played by Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott (who recently starred as Jasmine in Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin) and British newcomer Ella Balinska – are ferociously focused on their work. “I told the studio and my collaborators: ‘I want to make a movie about women working, and I do not want to tell a story about the boyfriend they don’t see enough, or the mother they don’t call enough, or the cat they don’t feed.’ Those are ridiculous tropes in women’s movies, and you do not see James Bond worrying about calling his f***ing mother.”
And, while there are myriad elements of the story that feel deeply 2019 – including whistleblowing, mansplaining and women not being believed (but being told to smile) – Banks insists that she never set out to make a political point. “I’m not here to re-teach feminism to young women. I am here to empower them and to have them see themselves in a movie, which happens far too infrequently, especially in the action genre.”
Whatever her protestations, though, even Banks’ casting feels somewhat subversive. Stewart is a revelation as Sabina, the wildest, messiest Angel, dropping hilarious one-liners with aplomb and performing many of her own stunts. But it’s safe to say she would not have been the most obvious choice. “She knew that this was an opportunity to change the trajectory of the opportunities she was being given in Hollywood, and I wanted to do that for her,” says Banks of the 29-year-old Twilight star. “As a producer, I make movies that star women all the time, and she was not on the list [of potential stars]. I felt that needed to be changed.” I press Banks on why Stewart was being sidelined by some producers, and, while she won’t go into detail, she says that Stewart “doesn’t play their [by which she means Hollywood’s] game”.
“I had to WORK the system for MYSELF, because it was not going to GIVE me what I wanted”
Banks grew up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the eldest of four children; her mother worked in a bank, her father in a factory. She herself worked from the age of 12, too, first on the reception desk of the local Catholic youth center, then in the city’s parks department, a pizza shop, and a bed and breakfast. “I liked getting paid,” she says simply. In film, where inequities in pay still frequently persist, her attitude is that “it’s OK to want money in the way that your male colleagues want money”. And it’s neatly fitting that, next year, she will appear alongside Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson in FX Production’s mini-series Mrs America, the story of the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, playing Jill Ruckelshaus, a White House staffer and feminist activist.
From the time she graduated from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Banks never struggled for work, albeit landing largely commercials at first. “I’m very all-American, as it turns out,” she quips, framing her face with her hands and adopting a perky, toothsome grin. “I sold a lot of Whoppers.” She cycled through the usual bit-parts in shows like Law & Order, played an acquaintance of Charlotte’s in an episode of Sex and the City, and began steadily gaining more substantial roles in commercial comedies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Zack and Miri Make A Porno.
She wasn’t exactly struggling, but neither was her career scaling in the way she’d hoped. “I looked at my male peers who I came up with [including Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper, both of whom she has worked with in the Wet Hot American Summer franchise] and they were going off to play superheroes and making millions of dollars. I either had to believe I wasn’t as good as they were, or that the system was rigged against me and they had a lot more opportunity than I did.” She shrugs. “I had to work the system for myself, because it was not going to give me what I wanted.” She formed a production company with her husband, Max Handelman. “When I first started producing everybody was just, like: ‘Who? The blonde actress with the small boobs? She wants to do something? And her husband? OK. Good luck.’” Such widespread underestimation of her has, she says, been fully to her advantage.
“I liked getting PAID… and it’s OK to want MONEY in the way that your MALE colleagues want money”
The couple’s two sons, Felix, 8, and Magnus, 7, were born via surrogacy because of Banks’ “broken belly” (she is unable to carry children), a fact about which she has always been open. But, until recently, she says, “women’s reproductive issues were things you would whisper about in small circles.” Now, “there’s #ShoutYourAbortion and IVF Facebook groups”. She pauses. “I definitely think I’m still judged for what I’ve done and that people don’t understand my choices, but I don’t feel I owe anybody any explanation. And, if my story helps people feel less alone on their journey, then I’m grateful for that.”
She and Handelman met on their first day of college and have been together ever since. “Twenty seven years. It’s the thing I’m most proud of,” she beams. “I do think people grow together or they grow apart. We definitely grew together. We were constantly making decisions that kept us close.” Handelman worked in finance on Wall Street until Banks “dragged him into the industry”. “He worked an 80-hour week; I was traveling all the time in a career that requires me to film on location for up to six months of the year. Forming the company really was about trying to combine our professional and personal goals.”
They are, she admits, “a little traditional when it comes to marriage. I think there are people that go into marriage thinking: ‘If it doesn’t work, I’ll get divorced.’ That’s not me. You’re going to have bad moments. You’ve committed to something. Do you value it or don’t you?”
“I definitely think I’m still JUDGED for what I’ve DONE… but I don’t feel I owe ANYBODY any explanation”
On screen and off, Banks’ choices invariably propel the cultural conversation forward. Shrill – the comedy series she produces based on the memoir by Lindy West, the second season of which is due to arrive early next year – has a rich seam of subversiveness running through it, too. Starring SNL’s Aidy Bryant as the protagonist Annie, a self-proclaimed fat woman, the show has been heralded as radical in its representation of a plus-size woman unencumbered by angst or shame about her body. Refreshingly, Annie is given storylines – career frustrations, an abortion, one-night stands – entirely unrelated to her weight, body or self-image. Season two, says Banks, is more expansive. “Lolly [Adefope, who plays Annie’s roommate Fran, a black, gay woman with a voracious sexual appetite] has an episode where she throws herself a party called Franfest that’s all about celebrating you and knowing yourself so you can give yourself to others,” she says, which isn’t a far cry from what Banks has achieved for herself. “Nothing we’re doing is frivolous,” she adds. “It all has deep hidden messages, but the humor makes the medicine go down.”
Charlie’s Angels is out now in the US and on November 29 in the UK
Elizabeth Banks is put on the spot with PORTER’s naughty-but-nice Etiquette Challenge. So how does she cope when she’s mistaken for Chelsea Handler? Or when she suffers a red-carpet ‘oops’ moment? And how does she feel about taking part in a spur-of-the-moment festive food fight? All will be revealed…
Elizabeth Banks is not associated with NET-A-PORTER and does not endorse it or the products shown