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'Zack and Miri's' Banks is cashing in on comedies

The classically trained actress showed her range in 'W.,' but she's OK with letting the box office be her guide.

October 31, 2008|Robert Abele | Abele is a freelance writer.

Whenever actress Elizabeth Banks reads that an actor has planned his or her career, she wants to laugh. "We have no control over anything that's happening to us," Banks says, although given her cluster of new and upcoming films -- Oliver Stone's "W." just opened, Kevin Smith's profanely comic romance "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" hits theaters today, followed a week later by "Role Models" -- you'd think she was a strategic mastermind.

The possible game-changer for the high-cheekboned, blond beauty who for 10 years has expertly run the woman's-role gamut of wife ("Seabiscuit"), girlfriend ("Invincible"), secretary (the "Spider-Man" films), hot pickup ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") and also-ran ("Definitely, Maybe," "The Baxter"), is this week's costarring role as Miri, a cash-strapped Pittsburgher who out of desperation agrees to produce an adult film with her similarly broke best friend, Zack, played by Seth Rogen. For Banks, the range was now all in one lead: sexy, funny, hurt, confused and smitten.

"It's why I love Miri," said Banks over lunch recently at the Chateau Marmont. "It's the best role I've ever played. I mean, Kevin actually put a woman's name in the title of the movie!"

Smith returns the praise, calling Banks "hands down the best actress I've ever worked with" and citing a high school reunion sequence in which Miri brazenly, futilely comes on to a long-ago crush (Brandon Routh). "It's heartbreakingly awkward and wonderful, a comedic tour de force," says Smith, who cast her after Rogen lauded her comic skills, letting on that Banks got very far toward the lead role in the "Knocked Up" auditions. "She's got that 'guy's girl' thing going for her, so she can roll with dudes and be funny, but scrape that away and you realize this chick is way better than an R-rated comedy."

Banks responded so strongly to the romantic sweetness in the "Zack and Miri" script that the "Make a Porno" part of the title ultimately sneaked up on her after filming began. "Seth and I joked about that a lot," she says about the stripping and simulating around them. "It was like, where do we put our eyes? Not really sure."

But considering how exquisitely hilarious and carnal she made her anything-goes temptress in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," she is hardly a prude about such matters. "Sex is ridiculous on all levels," says the 34-year-old, who has been with her husband, producer Max Handelman, for 16 years. "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."

In Hollywood, though, acting-trained babes often get stuck as paragons of virtue or the amorphous arm candy that props up the male star, like Beth, the frustrated girlfriend of malcontent Paul Rudd that Banks plays in "Role Models." Done as a favor for writer-director friend David Wain, who originally gave an unknown Banks her funny cred in the 2001 cult spoof "Wet Hot American Summer" (in which she was also paired with Rudd) and who cast her to hilarious effect in his Web series "Wainy Days," for which Banks was called in to help flesh out the script's undefined girl role.

"She had no purpose in the story whatsoever," Banks recalled noticing, before suggesting that Beth also be the lawyer needed for the story's third act. "David was like, 'Great! That's why we got you!' "

Banks would like to give up playing second-tier women to guys but knows it's hard when leading-lady roles are so scarce in Hollywood. "You can go be in a female-driven indie and make two cents and maybe get an Independent Spirit Award, but then you can't pay your car lease," she says. "So Vince Vaughn makes movies, he needs a girl to be in it with him, it might be me."

The irony of her role as Laura Bush in "W." being a high-profile leap for Banks, however, is that the first lady has always seemed like the political equivalent of that sympathetic girlfriend in the male-driven blockbuster. But as Banks notes, for this particular wife, support was a matter of private character. In scenes from their courtship and early married years, Banks-as-Laura will glance briefly at her alcoholic husband's beverage with a '50s-housewife's unspoken worry. "She clearly thinks he should put the glass down," she says. "But the mantra I had on this movie, which came from one of the biographies, was that Laura Bush doesn't tell you to calm down. Laura Bush acts calm and then you are. She's quietly supportive, but you know there's much more going on with her."

Banks' working-class background growing up in Pittsfield, Mass., explains why she frowned on a starving artist's life doing basement plays after she earned her master's at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater in 1998. "I'm perfectly OK saying when I started out it was to make money," says Banks, who was born Elizabeth Mitchell and chose her stage name for its monosyllabic complement to her long first name. "I started in commercials, made great money and paid off my student loans. I feel very lucky, but I worked my . . . off to get there."

Likewise, she grasps that for all her desire to walk the line between a "W." and a "Zack and Miri," Hollywood wants to see a return on its investment too. She thinks her brandlessness could end soon, actually. "If 'W.' makes $5 and 'Zack and Miri' makes $200 million, then it's done, the path is chosen. 'You are now a comedy star.' "

She pauses. "But I'll definitely use it to be able to dip my toe back into the other side."

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