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Elizabeth Banks on Her Roles in The Hunger Games, Our Idiot Brother, and 30 Rock

Vulture, Tuesday, August 9, 2011, 11:00am (PDT)
  • Elizabeth Banks landed her first feature role ten years ago, as Paul Rudd’s slobbery make-out partner in "Wet Hot American Summer." Now the two are onto their fifth collaboration with "Our Idiot Brother" (in theaters August 26). In it, Banks plays a cutthroat journalist named Miranda who is trying to impress her bosses at Vanity Fair with a good story. Rudd is the movie’s idiot brother, Ned, a guy who’s just out of jail for selling pot to a cop in uniform and reentering the lives of his three putatively more “together” sisters (Banks, Emily Mortimer, and Zooey Deschanel). Jada Yuan spoke with Banks for a New York Magazine feature shortly after the actress finished shooting her first scenes for what is sure to be her most watched movie to date: "The Hunger Games," the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s hugely popular dystopian trilogy. Banks stars as Effie Trinket, the pink-haired “mentor” to teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she’s forced to fight other kids to the death on TV. Here is more from their wide-ranging conversation.

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    It's so cool that you're playing Effie.

    I can’t wait for people to see her. The makeup is incredible. We were actually shooting in North Carolina. It’s 100 degrees, like 98 percent humidity. There’s, like, 400 extras, or some crazy number. They’re all little kids. They’re standing in the hot sun. We felt so badly. We’re, like, handing out Popsicles to keep their strength up and they’re just dropping like flies.

    Are people going to have brightly colored skin?

    All I can tell you is that Effie does have pink hair. When the hair and makeup was finished, we had all these people in the trailer and it was like everybody just got giddy all at once, like, “We did it!” and “This is Effie! It’s going to be awesome!” We were so happy.

    Did you tone down her look from what's described in the book?

    Yeah, you know, it was like, “What’s the shape of the hair? Is it long? Is it curly? Is it short? Is it straight?” And I know Suzanne Collins had ideas, so it was all about like, “What can we do tonally right in the movie?” You can get away with a lot of things in a book that you can’t get away with when you’re visually watching kids kill each other. So we just wanted to make sure that she didn’t look too clownish. And that we honored the solemnity of what’s going on in the book. I wouldn’t say we toned it down at all, but it’s very specific.

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    Had you read "Hunger Games" before you got the part?

    I read the book a long time ago. I was a very early adopter. I’d actually just read a book called "The Maze Runner," which is another great book with a similar theme, but it has a male protagonist … my husband and I are always looking for properties to produce. So we had an advance reader’s copy of "The Maze Runner."

    You have a production company?

    Yeah, Brownstone Productions. So we looked at that book and someone said, “If you liked 'Maze Runner,' you’ll really like 'The Hunger Games.”' And I think Lionsgate or Nina [Jacobson], the producer, already had the rights. She got it really early. So anyway, I read the first one and I was like, “Oh my God!” I devoured it in, like, five hours. And partly I think I liked it because it has a female protagonist. And then I immediately got on the list to get Catching Fire and then preordered Mockingjay, like, a month in advance. So then I started talking to the head of production over there [at Lionsgate], about the book. Like, “I would pay to be Effie.” So I planted the seed way back then.

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    She was the part you saw yourself as?

    Oh yeah, totally. It’s the only part that I’m right for. The movie is about 20-year-olds.

    Sixteen-year-olds, actually.

    Yeah, the cast is all 20.

    There’s brouhaha about that.

    Yeah, but if people had to deal with the labor laws that we have to deal with, they’d understand why we can’t cast 15-year-olds. Anyway, Jen [Lawrence] is perfectly cast. She’s amazing. The real deal. Honestly, when we shot the Reaping, I wept.

    How did you get the part?

    Oh, so Gary Ross [the director] and I did "Seabiscuit" together, and I sent him an e-mail and said, “I want to be Effie!” Again, planting the seed. I was working on something else at the time — I’m always working — but I knew he was up for the directing gig. And then he got the gig, and I was like, “Hey, if you want to make life easy, I’m here.” I think I probably sent him one e-mail and then we had a phone conversation. I called him and said, “Let’s just talk about it, just so you know where I’m coming from and see if we’re on the same page.” Because Gary has his process and it’s his movie and if he didn’t think I’m right, there’s no pushing anything on Gary. And so, you know, we had a great conversation. I know he looked at other people. He did his process. I was not privy to it. And he just called me one day and he was like, “Okay, if you want to do it, let’s do it.” And I was like, “YEAH! Finally! Let’s do it!”

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    What are you doing with the production now?

    Not much since they’ve been shooting all the battle sequences. So it involves all the kids that go into battle. I’m going back for the first time on Friday [post-dated to last week]. I'm excited because all of the adults will be there, so it will be me and Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland, and we're going to be in Charlotte doing all the scenes that take place at the Capitol, which will be really fun. I’ve never been to Charlotte because when I went for Hunger Games [the first time], I immediately flew into the airport and drove to the country.

    Is Charlotte going to double as the Capitol? It doesn't seem gaudy enough.

    I actually have no idea. I know we’re shooting on stages and some stuff on locations, but I have no idea. I’ve seen all the boards and I can tell you it looks really cool.

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    This summer you have "Our Idiot Brother" with Paul Rudd. Did you know him before the two of you did "Wet Hot American Summer"?

    No, we met making that movie.

    And making out a lot.

    We did a lot of making out in that movie. I had admired him since he did "Clueless" before that. And I think he did that Jen Aniston movie, where he was gay. What was that movie called? “Out of the Closet”? “My Best Friend’s Out”? [Editor's note: It was "The Object of My Affection."] You know, he’d been making movies. He’d been out for a while. He was definitely someone who was of my generation who I admired.

    I think it’s badass that you’re a female in this Apatow-Showalter comedy world.

    I mean, Jane Lynch is in all the movies. I think there are a couple of us girls who work that way. I have such a respect for comedy. It’s a lot harder than doing drama, in my opinion; you have to have sort of an innate sense of humor. There are rules to comedy you can learn. But ultimately it really does require a certain point of view on the world and that really does appeal to me. I really want to star in a romantic comedy. Like, in a true comedy. I’ve been doing a lot of playing with the boys and I’m sort of over it.

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    Like a "Bridesmaids" thing?

    Yeah! They make so few of them, or they make them really badly. When I was coming up, it was the golden age. It was Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan, and Reese Witherspoon was starting. You really had, “Who is America’s Next Sweetheart?” every couple of years. And then this sort of bromance, slacker thing took over. And I don’t want to talk shit about people, but I easily could [laughs]. There are just a lot of bland versions of comedy happening for women. I think that’s why "Bridesmaids" is so beloved. Let me tell you that I wrote a scene that took place in a bathroom where girls took a shit with each other eight years ago, and the studio execs were like, “Nobody wants to see that. People don’t want to see girls doing that.” And I was like, “Yeah, but there’s a way to do it that’s true to life. Because I’ve done this! I’m writing from experience! You go to a club and you have to wait in a huge line, so people double up. Because that’s what we do. We take care of each other. And, yes, you think you’re only going to take a little pee, but sometimes some poops come out. And wouldn’t that be hilarious?” And they were like, “No. Nobody wants to see girls pooping.” Well, Bridesmaids was like, “Fuck you! We want to see that! Because that’s funny!” Of course, the poop scene was the one everyone talked about. They did it right. They did it in a grounded way that was about, you know, the shame of that situation for Kristen [Wiig]’s character, which was really great.

    What movie was that poop scene you’re talking about for?

    It was for a movie that we developed that was called What About Barb? that was really similarly themed. It was about a woman who was planning her wedding and her crazy cousin Barb is sort of thrust upon her by her family to be her maid of honor. Literally, it was like eight years ago.

    You and your husband were developing it?

    Yeah, with this great writer. And, you know, ultimately it sort of went into purgatory, as many, many projects do. And then it just kind of faded out. Which happens all the time. We did not ever get the pooping scene as right as they clearly got it in "Bridesmaids." But, yeah, I have been in that situation, so I pitched that full idea out, and everyone was like, “I don’t know about pooping.” I think that everybody was looking for a minute for the female Hangover and I think then everybody writes that version of women being sluts, basically. It’s like, “We’re going to Vegas and we’re gonna slut it up! We’re going to, like, f--- dudes! And we’re, like, cougars!” Or I don’t know. I’m like, I don’t feel like that’s attractive.

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    What kind of comedies do you think should be made?

    I‘ve actually read a couple briefly that I thought were great. [But] when’s the last time you saw a great rom-com where you believed that they were in love and you rooted for them and it was actually romantic and comedic? Romantic comedy gets such a bad name. Bridesmaids, God forbid you call it a romantic comedy. It’s a female comedy. They had to call it that. She falls in love, she has a boyfriend. But she’s surrounded by other women and it’s more about the female relationship than her relationship with the guy. And maybe that’s just the pace now. Maybe I’m old-fashioned. But I’d love to make a movie where I feel like I have chemistry with the actor.

    Like a "When Harry Met Sally" kind of thing?

    I think it’s the reason "The Proposal" did so well. Because you really feel that Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock are totally into each other, and they seem like they love each other in real life. Like, they’re friends; you believe them that they got together despite their age difference, despite everything. I can’t think of the last satisfying romantic comedy that I’ve seen.

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    Do you have trouble getting offered those roles?

    The studio system is … There are a lot of great ladies. I don’t want to take anything away from those ladies. Sandra Bullock is awesome. She was great in "The Proposal." Reese Witherspoon is really funny, Cameron Diaz ... but [studios] only make four of them [rom-coms] and once they give them to Reese, Cameron, Sandra, Rachel McAdams, there’s not much. I got slim pickings. It also drove me to write and direct and produce movies and have a little more control over what I’m doing with my time. Because if you are just waiting around for someone to hand you a great role, it’s even less likely to happen. And then the male actors, I don’t even feel that good about the male actors. I would really love to see [Paul Rudd and I] actually make a movie together, like, for real. Where it’s the two of us in a two-hander movie. Like it’s my dream. I would love that. But for some reason that has not happened yet. Role Models I played his love interest, but that was a bromance movie with Sean William Scott. So someday, somebody will put us together. I hope.

  • Do you feel like you get typecast at all?

    I literally don’t get typecast at all; I would love to be typecast! [Laughs.] I do a lot of great different projects; I do dramas, comedies, crazy characters like Effie Trinket, and I get to play all kind of things and it’s great.

    Brownstone is going to produce "Pitch Perfect," by "30 Rock" writer Kay Cannon, based on a book by GQ writer Mickey Rapkin.

    This is our second green-lit feature. The first was "The Surrogate" with Bruce Willis. Max, my husband, is in Louisiana on a scout this week, which I’m happily not at. Because it’s about 120 degrees in New Orleans. We're relocating there in a month. We’re deep in production and it’s a comedy set in the world of competitive collegiate a cappella singing. It’s much more of a comedy than a singing movie. It’s the anti-"Glee." We went to UPenn. We totally understand this world.

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    You'll be relocating with your baby, Felix, whom you had by surrogate. How has your life changed?

    I cry a lot more [laughs]. Someone told me that having a baby is like having your heart walking around outside of your body, and I didn’t understand it until I had a baby. Now, like, everything he does literally crushes my heart. In a great way. And then if he’s in pain, it’s like my whole endeavor is to make sure he’s not in pain.

    Like if he stubs his toe?

    Like if he has gas. And he’s fine. You know, he can’t do anything yet. But if he has a cry of pain, oh my God, it stops my whole world. I drop everything.

    You'd been planning a baby for a while?

    Oh yeah. You’ve met my husband. We’ve been together a long time and we’ve always wanted a family. We’ll have been together nineteen years in September. I’ve been with him more than half my life now. It’s the most important relationship in my life.

    What do you make of "The Hunger Games" and its parallels to real life? It’s like a fictionalized version of the debt crisis.

    Wouldn’t it be wild if the debt crisis resulted in us having a reality show where children killed other children for the debt?

  • That would be horrible.

    But if you listen to how they talk about it, that’s probably going to happen. There’s so much drama surrounding that.

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    So you do see parallels?

    I definitely see parallels. Hunger Games is a tried-and-true tale about a totalitarian society. It’s more similar to China than America, but it’s also similar to Nazi Germany and anywhere where the populace gets semi-brainwashed into serving the agenda of a very few.

    Do you think if the recession is still going on when it comes out that the film will sell better?

    I don’t know. But we have a problem where the top one percent controls everything and then 99 percent of Americans don’t have a say in their daily life. That stuff really affects me because I grew up in a working-class family, and my parents and sisters all lost jobs.

    You’re the oldest of four, so did you draw from your personal experience for "Our Idiot Brother"?

    The structure [of my family] is exactly the same as in the movie. My family is three sisters and a brother. Literally when [director] Jesse Peretz called me about the movie, he kind of explains the movie to me and I was like, “Hang on a minute. Wait. What? You realize you are pitching me my own family, right?” It was bananas.

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    What was it that drove you to think you could do acting?

    I had no idea if I could do acting. I gave myself a time limit on it. I didn’t want to be a struggling artist, and do the whole “go live on the Lower East Side” in the late nineties and do Off-Off Broadway” thing. I grew up poor. There was no way I was staying poor. I mean, I went to UPenn and I was pre-professional [communications major] and I had a great GPA, so when I came out I had my pick of jobs, and I decided instead of getting a job to go to drama school. And honestly my mentor is my uncle and he’s a lawyer in D.C. and my godfather. He said, “Those jobs are there for you now; they’ll be there for you in two years and see what happens.” That’s what I did. So it really was him pushing me. I paid my way through college myself working three jobs and I was thinking, I’m going to take out more loans to go to grad school and then go to drama school and get an MFA and then what will I do?

  • But it all worked out. My friend pointed out that you’re the actress who can masturbate in front of Steve Carell and then play Laura Bush.

    I also played Miri in "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" and I did that and Laura Bush [in "W"] within three weeks of each other. I went to my meeting with Oliver Stone [who directed "W"] before I had wrapped "Zack and Miri." I think I flew home or something, but I literally met with Oliver Stone and I called my agent and said, “Does he know that I’m in a movie about porn right now?” I was so nervous that if he found out he’d think it would be too controversial or something. And they are like, “Yeah, I think he knows.”

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    You also play Avery Jessup on "30 Rock" and she’s a conservative …

    But Avery’s also a sex fiend. She is a bag of tigers in bed.

    We don’t know about Laura.

    I think Laura, she gets it on. I think they have a very good relationship. But that was never a problem to play that whole thing. I played it as a super-loving wife who’s really obsessed with her husband. And I think that’s a very true portrayal.

    How are you going to react if Jack Donaghy gets a new love interest while Avery is in Korea?

    It’s going to be a knife in my heart, personally and professionally. It may happen. I’m prepared for it, but it will kill me. I am his baby mama, so I’m hoping I get to stay at least alive a little longer. I have no idea what the writers are thinking for this season. I’m going to be production on two movies before they even go back to work. So who knows?

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    Was her kidnapping in the show prompted by you?

    No. It didn’t come from me. But I’m inferring from all that I heard, it was like, “Listen, you’re really hard to schedule around. We have to send you somewhere so we don’t have to deal with you.” And, you know, it thematically makes sense for the show, and it gives Alec something to do in this next season, but it also allows him, like, now he can get romantic with someone else. So we’ll see what happens. I have no idea what they’re going to do. I love being on the show. I got an Emmy nomination. That’s something that’s happened. I’m really happy to have “Emmy-nominated” in my bio.

  • What were you doing when you found out?

    I sort of knew. I’m in the Academy. I voted for myself. I’ll admit it. I knew that it was happening. When I got the phone call, my husband was up and making a bottle [for their baby] and he handed me the phone at six o’clock in the morning. I thought I had to be somewhere. “Am I in trouble? Am I supposed to be at a shoot?” And he’s like, “No, no, honey. You got nominated for an Emmy.” My first thought was, “Oh, I’m in trouble.” That’s literally the first thought of a Goody Two-shoes like me when you get a call that early.

    When you say "Goody Two-shoes," what do you mean? Do you not drink?

    No, I do. But I’m just very responsible. I don’t like being late for things. I’m usually very on top of everything. The idea that I’m getting a call in the morning, I’m assuming it’s the “Where are you?” call and you’re supposed to be somewhere. Most people would be like, “Why the fuck are you calling me?” I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m doing something wrong.” It’s that Type-A personality.

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