Elizabeth Banks is currently starring in "People Like Us." (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
In her early 20s, Elizabeth Banks filmed a commercial for the clear malt liquor Zima in which she played three different possible dates: a preppy girl, a tomboy and — once the booze started flowing — a fantasy vixen in a latex nurse's costume.
Now 38, Banks has outlasted the adult beverage (it was discontinued in 2008), but the booze ad foreshadowed an acting career filled with eclectic, gung-ho characters — and she's more in demand than ever. Just consider her roles in three studio movies in the last four months:
In the dystopian blockbuster "The Hunger Games,"Banks cheerfully chaperones child gladiators into the ring; in the pregnancy comedy "What to Expect When You're Expecting," she crusades for breastfeeding as the manic proprietor of a maternity boutique; and in the family drama"People Like Us," which opened over the weekend, she's a single mom navigating her father's secret history with wit and resilience.
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In a recent interview over salad and tea in Beverly Hills, Banks was a bubbly raconteur on subjects high and low — campaigning for President Obama, obsessing over Girl Scout cookies, surviving a Roman Catholic upbringing, penning a masters thesis on Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke."
"I've been feisty for a long time, basically, always looking for an angle," she said.
That earthiness is a quality that serves her well as Frankie, a recovering alcoholic in "People Like Us."
A rare cinematic look at the meaning of the sibling bond, "People Like Us" is the heavily fictionalized story of its writer-director, Alex Kurtzman, who met his half-sister for the first time when he was 30. In the movie, Chris Pine plays Sam, a young man who must deliver an inheritance to a sister he never knew he had — Banks' Frankie. Kurtzman's writing partner, Roberto Orci, and college friend, actor Jody Lambert, also collaborated on the screenplay.
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When Frankie and Sam first meet, she doesn't know he is her brother, and assumes he's hitting on her, creating an uncomfortable, almost romantic tension.
"We walked a really fine line of, this is a guy I'm starting to rely on and feel a kinship to and I have a connection to him that I haven't had with a man in a really long time," said Banks, who in real life has a brother and two sisters. "But I know it's not exactly what it's supposed to be like. I don't really want to have sex with him. There was no other way to play it. I think it's really fun for the audience, 'cause I'm basically in a little rom-com and the whole audience is going, 'Oh, no!'"
Frankie is the kind of character who is frequently underestimated and potentially a bummer — deflecting guys ogling at the bar where she works, shuffling to AA meetings, fighting with her kid's school principal. To leaven the part, Banks and Kurtzman gave her a quick sense of humor.
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"The key with Frankie is that she has to be both incredibly fierce and very vulnerable," said Kurtzman. "She uses humor to deflect pain. There's not a lot of actresses who can do that. It could only be someone smart and gutsy. It was instantly clear to me that [Banks] understood that at a molecular level."
Banks grew up in Pittsfield, Mass., the eldest daughter of a General Electric factory employee and a bank worker. She received her bachelor of arts from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and describes herself as "probably over-educated" for a career that has, at some of its brightest moments, required her to play a dumb-dumb.
After paying off her student loans with commercial work, Banks found roles in independent films, most notably the 2001 David Wain comedy "Wet Hot American Summer." Banks auditioned for the lead role but was cast, instead and not for the last time, as the hot girl.
"The hot girl is never as interesting as the actual girl girl," Banks said. "It is a total backhanded compliment. I'm really happy to be called hot, but I really wanted the other role."
Nevertheless, her performance earned Banks a trip to the Sundance Film Festival, a manager and screen test for the role of Mary Jane in 2002's "Spider-Man" with Tobey Maguire. Again she ended up with a supporting part, but the high-profile project led to more opportunities: as Jeff Bridges' wife in the sports drama "Seabiscuit," a sexually aggressive bookstore clerk in the R-rated comedy "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and a refined first lady of the United States in Oliver Stone's 2008 biopic of President Bush, "W." She also picked up an Emmy-nominated TV gig, as a conservative talk-show host who caught Alec Baldwin's eye on"30 Rock."