Elizabeth Banks now calls the shots

Elizabeth Banks’ hat-trick – actress, film-maker and business maven – remains rare for women in Hollywood.
Elizabeth Banks’ hat-trick – actress, film-maker and business maven – remains rare for women in Hollywood.PHOTO: NYTIMES

The star of Pitch Perfect has become an industry force, with a deal to direct and produce a new Charlie's Angels film

LOS ANGELES • Elizabeth Banks does not mince words.

Why bother, when you are trying to get things done?

Sitting in her office, in a bungalow on the Universal Studios lot here, the platform heels she wore for a photo shoot replaced with black oxfords, Banks, 43, was no-nonsense when asked why she transformed herself from a comic star into a producer and director.

"I was a frustrated actress," she said. "I was bored."

Now, she is busy. Brownstone Productions, the 10-year-old company she started with her husband Max Handelman, has development deals with nearly every major studio and projects percolating for film and television.

She is a founder of WhoHaha, an online platform for female comedians. And she is still performing, most recently playing herself as Larry David's girlfriend on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

In our fantasy, you didn’t live at 101 Brown Street. You lived at 10-100 Brownstone Drive.

ACTRESS-DIRECTOR ELIZABETH BANKS on how, growing up, she dreamt of having a ritzier life than her middle-class one

Another instalment of her as Gail, the sweetly vicious a cappella commentator, arrived in the United States last Friday with Pitch Perfect 3. Brownstone developed and produced the Pitch franchise.

Banks's hat-trick - actress, film-maker and business maven - remains rare for women in Hollywood, where she has quietly become an industry force, even while audiences mostly know her as the gaudy Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games (2012-2015).

Her directorial debut, Pitch Perfect 2 (2015), was made for a reported US$30 million (S$40.3 million) and opened at No. 1, grossing more than US$280 million globally.

By outperforming expectations, it instantly put her in a league with very few women (and leapfrogged some men). She is on deck to direct and produce a new Charlie's Angels film for Sony, from an idea she conceived.

That many of her coming projects focus on women is equal parts feminism - "I'm fighting the male narrative in all of our lives," she said - and expedience. When selling ideas, she said, "you're always looking for yes. It's easier to get yes, when you're a woman, if you work on female-led films".

At a moment when the entertainment industry is unmoored because of sexual misconduct allegations, the ascendance of a woman whose films primarily revolve around women feels providentially well-timed.

Still, Banks' accomplishments will be measured not just in social change, but also in money.

"She gets that to really change the status quo, you need commercial success," said Ms Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Pictures, the studio behind Pitch Perfect. "Liz is a real businessperson."

Ms Langley gave Banks the green light to direct the sequel and the studio has an overall movie development deal with Brownstone.

Banks' philosophy for success producing in Hollywood, she said, was three-part: access (which she has as an actress), taste (hers skews more mainstream than indie) and clout (which she earned after Pitch Perfect 2).

Her friend, actress Melissa McCarthy, said Banks "has a good bird's-eye view of the world and this industry. She's a realist".

They met and hit it off when McCarthy's husband, Ben Falcone, co-starred with Banks in What To Expect When You're Expecting (2012).

"There's such an assertive quality to her and I mean that in the greatest possible way," McCarthy said.

"She's like some old studio executive from 1942 - her in a suit and cigar would make perfect sense. Ben always calls her the Mogul."

The daughter of a bank employee and a General Electric factory worker, Banks grew up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the eldest of four children.

"I said I grew up poor once and my parents were upset with me. So, I grew up middle class," she said. "Very hard-working parents, who did a great job providing for us."

Still, she and her best friend fantasised about a ritzier life on the other side of town, far from her family's duplex in Brown Street.

"The big homes always had five-number addresses and they didn't have a dirty colour as the name of the street," she said. "In our fantasy, you didn't live at 101 Brown Street. You lived at 10-100 Brownstone Drive."

Naming her production company Brownstone, she said, recalled those aspirations.

Banks, who attended the University of Pennsylvania on grants and financial aid, was the first person in her family to earn a college degree. She graduated magna cum laude and met her husband on her first day there.

When she arrived in Los Angeles, equipped with drama training from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, she had clear goals. "I came to be Julia Roberts," she said. "And they stopped making rom-coms the minute I got here. I have literally fallen in love exactly one time in a movie." (That was Walk Of Shame in 2014.)

In 2001, she landed a breakout part in Wet Hot American Summer, which led to more comedies, but soon enough, she saw that the career she had imagined for herself was not going to materialise.

She said she took an informal inventory, talking to actresses she admired - Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, Diane Lane and Julianne Moore - to figure out a future she wanted. "I felt underused," she said. "I just knew there was more for me to be doing."

Their insight - that the best roles for women often came in indie films that paid little, were a struggle to get made and sometimes took you away from your family to lacklustre locations - made her realise, she said, that she wanted a different route, especially as she and her husband were contemplating parenthood. (They have two boys - aged six and five.)

Artistic fulfilment, she felt, should not have to come at the expense of autonomy.

"There just became a moment where I was, like, I need more control over all of this," she said.

The first film Brownstone developed was Surrogates (2009), based on a graphic novel and starring Bruce Willis.

Then came Pitch Perfect (2012), from the book by Mickey Rapkin, which tracked the first all-female a cappella team to make it to an international singing championship. Banks had encountered the a cappella scene in university.

"I remember this guy singing Elton John's Rocket Man and it moved me," she said. "Max was like, 'Do you remember how nerdy but committed the a cappella kids are?' That a cappella would be a nerd's greatest outlet just seemed like a really funny idea to us."

The first film, with a modest budget and a newly famous Anna Kendrick in the lead, was a surprise hit and created a star turn for Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy. Banks gave Wilson a bigger role and a boyfriend in the sequel.

"As an actor, Elizabeth has the unique ability to see the whole movie, not just her own part, which is why it's not surprising she has turned into such a good director," said Gary Ross, who directed her in Seabiscuit (2003) and The Hunger Games.

Banks' vision for Charlie's Angels - the cast shortlist reportedly includes Kristen Stewart and Lupita Nyong'o - is of an international crime-fighting syndicate with a feminist bent.

In this era, she added, "we don't have to apologise for kicking a man's butt".

This one, she will act in. "I am very ambitious for the project. I am down for go big or go home."

She criss-crosses the studio lot on bicycle. The coffee mugs in her office read "Bada**" - a reference to WhoHaha and the celebrity chat series she hosts there, Ask A Bada**.

On the show, she asks guests, "Finish this thought: I'm a bada** because..." or "On a scale of one to Elizabeth Banks, how bada** are you?"

"I'm like a level one, maybe two," was actress Jennifer Lawrence's reply. "I've heard you on the phone. You're, like, a real bada**."

Recently, some male film-maker friends were discussing what makes a good director.

"They were like, 'You have no problem telling people what to do,'" Banks recalled.


• Pitch Perfect 3 is showing in Singapore cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2017, with the headline 'Elizabeth Banks now calls the shots'. Print Edition | Subscribe