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After graduating from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Elizabeth Banks won an early role in the 1998 independent film Surrender Dorothy, but it wasn’t until 2001 that her gift for bright, unabashed comedy started to become apparent. Her small roles as Paul Rudd’s French-kissing girlfriend in David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer and as Betty Brant in Spider-Man both led to more prominent parts, including several other Wain and/or Rudd collaborations (Stella, “Wainy Days,” Role Models, the upcoming My Idiot Brother) and recurring appearances throughout the Spider-Man series. Banks had another breakthrough as a flirtatious (and crazy) bookstore clerk in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which she’s since parlayed into memorable turns in Slither; Invincible; Fred Claus; Definitely, Maybe; and Zack And Miri Make A Porno. Lately, Banks has extended her range to different types of roles, including a sympathetic portrayal of Laura Bush in W. and a cheerfully psychotic mother-in-law in The Uninvited, an American remake of the Korean horror film A Tale Of Two Sisters.
In The Next Three Days, a new thriller from Crash director Paul Haggis, Banks stars as Laura Brennan, an upper-middle-class wife and mother arrested and convicted for a co-worker’s murder. Russell Crowe co-stars as her husband John, who resolves to break her out of jail when the appeals process fails to exonerate her. Banks recently talked to The A.V. Club about playing women instead of girls, what she learned from female inmates, and why she tweets.
A.V. Club: You’re identified mostly as a comedic actress, but lately you’ve appeared in movies like W., The Uninvited, and now this. Is this your way of pushing back on that reputation?
Elizabeth Banks: [Laughs.] No, I’m perfectly happy to have that reputation as a comedian. That’s why I’m still doing 30 Rock. I love comedies, I would love to be doing more comedies. But I also felt like I hit the limit on playing the girlfriend type in a lot of rom-coms that aren’t actually rom-coms, but guy movies that happen to have girls in them. So it’s really just about the material that comes along to me. And frankly, nobody’s offering me really funny roles in big movies. So I’m happy to explore a totally other side of my acting. I went to drama school, I’m classically trained, I studied Shakespeare, blah blah blah. But I always preferred to do Oscar Wilde, or Shakespeare’s comedies over his dramas.
I felt like I was waiting for this particular role for a long time. It’s a little bit of a coming-of-age for me, in that Lara feels like a real woman in a way that a lot of the comedic characters I play have felt like girls. And although I don’t want to be portrayed as some old lady or anything, I felt like I was coming to a point in my real life where I felt much more womanly, suddenly. I’ve been married for a while now. I own a home. I just was feeling grown-up. So this role really came to me at the right time. I think if I had been approached about this even two years before, I don’t know that I would have had the confidence to play her as much as I did now.
AVC: Your character spends a lot of time in jail, yet the movie isn’t about her experiences there. How did that affect the way you went about preparing for the role?
EB: I was very lucky, in that we shot most of my scenes at the actual Allegheny County Jail where my character was incarcerated. They were very helpful to us. The whole city of Pittsburgh was very helpful to us. And so a lot of my research was going to that prison and being in a cell. All of my clothes are prison-issue clothes. We got them directly from the prison. We bought their old stuff and bought them new stuff. And so that sense of place really, really helped me, because it’s very isolating, and it’s totally institutional. There’s nothing on the walls—it’s long florescent-lit hallways, and it’s very unpleasant. And then I got to sit with a lot of inmates. I got to sit with 40 women, 40 female inmates. Even though you don’t really see me in prison, I felt like I needed to have a really full sense of what’s going on there, so when [John] comes to visit, you know how much it’s wearing on her.
I wanted also to have a sense of how much harder she gets as she starts to accept that she’s going be there for a long time, and she’s got to make peace with it. In the beginning, she’s really vulnerable there, and all the women I spoke to said they all cried like babies the first night they were in there. You want to try and be strong, but you’re not. They also talked to me about their little battles every day for a little dignity and a little freedom. It’s really cold in there, for instance, and so the women will take the stuffing out of their pillows and put it over the vents so cold air doesn’t blow on them at night while they’re sleeping on their really thin blankets. They get one thin blanket. Things like that, I just thought really created such a full picture for me of what it was to be there. I was locked in a cell for two minutes, and I just thought, “Holy shit, get me out of here! I got it. Don’t get arrested!” [Laughs.]
AVC: Talking to these inmates, did you also get a sense of how they might respond to a woman of your character’s social station?
EB: No differently. Once you’re there, you’re all the same. There are some women there who are clearly better educated, who have better lawyers, who are going to have shorter stays. But the fact of the matter is, you’re having the same experience. They seem genuinely collegial with each other. There were certainly some angry women in there that I met, and then there were… it’s just like a mini-society. So there were den mothers who you could tell took leadership roles, or women who had been in there longer who would be like, “You be quiet. You sit down.” [Laughs.] And the younger ones do what they’re told. It’s wild. It’s a whole society in there. So it was also interesting for me to imagine how I would fit into that over time.
And the other thing about the Allegheny County Jail: It’s not a prison, so there are no services there. You can’t get your GED there, there’s not really a library there. It’s meant for short-term stays, not long-term stays, but I met someone who’s been there for seven years. There’s also no outdoor space there, so I was imagining this woman not seeing the sun for three years. What was also really interesting for me about playing this, at the point where she’s broken out of the jail, she’s actually looking forward to going to the prison. They all do. [Laughs.] They want to get out of that jail. Because the prison is much more free, they have televisions, there’s more people there, you can go outside, and you can run. Those little dignities that you’re missing, you actually get there, which you don’t get at the jail. So I imagined she’s sort of ready to get out there and learn nursing skills or something.
AVC: The film comes around to the question of whether your character, who Russell Crowe’s character goes to such lengths to free, might actually be guilty. How did that question figure into how you played her?
EB: Here’s how I played her: We were never positive we were going to reveal whether she did it. And the fact of the matter is that we decided it didn’t matter whether she did it, because he was never going to believe she was capable of doing it. Or that if she did do it, he was going to rationalize why. He didn’t care. So for my own purposes, I played it like, “bad things happen to good people all the time.” I think we have a tendency toward violence as humans, I think chaos happens, I think things get out of control, and I think she was probably in a situation where something got out of control, whether it was her emotions, or something physical. Something bad happened, and it only took an instant, and in that moment, her life was forever changed, and she was thrown in jail. It’s only about what you can prove, it’s not about what your intention was. So whether she didn’t mean to kill someone or whether it was an accident didn’t matter. I have to deal with the fact that she’s in prison for the rest of her life. So it really became about that for me. I believed that my character was not a bad person. I believe she is a good person who is now paying for something. Whether it was the murder or something else, maybe she’s not sure. She’s in there paying for something. Some karmic something came back to get her.
AVC: For both this movie and The Uninvited, you were stepping into roles that had been played before, in a French film and a Korean film respectively. Did those performances have an effect on you, on your take on the material?
EB: They really don’t. The main reason is this: the set of circumstances physically and emotionally are so different, because I’m not in the same jail as Diane Kruger [in the 2008 French film Pour Elle]. She goes to a French prison where she gets to wear her own sweater, not scrubs. And she gets to be in a room with her husband and her child, and have a playdate. I’m not allowed to do any of those things in The Next Three Days. We were very authentic about what it’s like to have a visit. We shot in the visiting room. You end up reacting to the actual circumstances you’re in. I’m not acting with this French actor. I’m acting with Russell Crowe. So what’s he giving me that I’m reacting to? What’s the environment giving me that I’m reacting to? I’m wearing these itchy, scratchy clothes, and I’ve met these very specific women, so that’s what I’m bringing to the role. I was also very inspired by the actual writing, as well. I think Diane Kruger is a great actress, I really admire her, but I felt like we were in two totally different movies. And we are.
AVC: What about The Uninvited?
EB: The Uninvited is sort of the same thing. I’m in a situation with David Strathairn out in this house in Vancouver. There are so few similarities, other than the journey of the character, but also, all these stories have already been told, so you might as well compare that evil woman to Bette Davis, an evil Bette Davis. You can use any performance to compare it to at that point. I had a lot of fun with it. My inspiration for that part was Rebecca De Mornay in Hand That Rocks The Cradle. Very specifically, that’s what I would say.
AVC: Was there a certain amount of terror involved in working with Russell Crowe?
EB: [Laughs.] Frankly I was so grateful that he was as serious as he was about the work. He can be very light as a person. We definitely joked around a lot. But he’s serious about the work, and he’s totally generous and there for you, and I sort of referred to him as a crutch for me in that movie. He’s really holding me up through so many of those scenes that you really can’t imagine looking across at any other person. I needed him, and he was there for me, totally.
AVC: So let’s talk a little about 30 Rock. Where did the inspiration come for the Avery character?
EB: The writers wanted a sort of money-honey. It’s a combination of a lot of those types of characters, and also sort of an indictment of Fox News, right? [Laughs.] In that, of course, the blonde beauty would be this person. At the same time, I personally take my inspiration from [Alec Baldwin’s character] Jack Donaghy. I like to play Avery as though she is Jack Donaghy with boobs. Why they love each other as much as they do is that they agree on pretty much most things when it comes to the issues, how things are done, and ambition, and take-no-nonsense, and all of it. I just think they really enjoy each other.
AVC: Was there a certain amount of adjustment on your part to get used to the show’s rhythms?
EB: That show is very specific. It’s no “badum-bum.” There’s no setup-setup-joke. I think Alec refers to it as “cheetah-paced.” There’s no pause for any laughter. It’s not done in front of an audience. We’re just there delivering really clever lines. The comedy works on so many levels that if you play any one thing, I think you end up ignoring these five other levels the joke is working on.
AVC: That’s what made the live show kind of strange. It’s like the show is going a third of the pace it normally goes.
EB: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s right, probably.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of work with David Wain and the Stella troupe, and you worked with the Apatow troupe for at least one movie. Can you talk about those experiences and the varying demands different troupes have on you as an actress?
EB: The main difference, especially with David Wain and Judd, who have a very similar style, is that there’s a lot of improv. Improv is very welcome. Certainly the writing is great and funny, and the characters are hilarious, but it’s just about real grounded characters in outrageous situations, or people in very ordinary situations saying and doing outrageous things. Sometimes you’re inspired by something as simple as Seann William Scott wearing a red shirt. So let’s make a bunch of “red” jokes. It really comes down to what’s happening in the moment on camera. And can we make more out of it than we thought we were going to get to when we wrote it?
AVC: What’s behind your Twitter obsession? What’s your interest in that?
EB: I do it because I really enjoy the direct dialogue with the fans. I’m very cognizant of my audience. I’m a trained storyteller and entertainer, and I know I wouldn’t be able to work at the level I work at if people didn’t enjoy what I did. So it’s sort of a way to engage with my fans. What I love about Twitter specifically is that reciprocity is not guaranteed, nor expected. In other words, I can go one way. I can put things out. I don’t have to respond to everybody. I was on MySpace for about five minutes, and I would get these messages like, “Why don’t you friend me, bitch? What’s your fucking problem?” I was like, “Wow. I don’t want to invite that negativity into my life.” The great thing about Twitter is, you get a lot back, and I read through a lot, and I want my fans to know that I do read a lot, and it’s why I do respond or retweet clever posts, and I’m constantly amazed by the cleverness of people on Twitter. I just think it’s a really great tool to communicate with fans and influence conversations and raise awareness about things I’m interested in, that I think deserve some attention.
AVC: I always wonder what publicists think of actors on Twitter in general. Your feed is fairly sane, but other celebrity feeds are a window into the unvarnished craziness that publicists are supposed to keep the people from knowing about.
EB: Well, I find that it’s a true reflection of my actual self, which is fairly sane. I think people respond to me as a down-to-Earth, girl-next-door person, because I am one of those people. [Laughs.] That’s something I don’t have to act very hard at.