Mother, actress, producer, director. Elizabeth Banks is one of the hardest working people in Hollywood today. She’s about to direct the third installment of Pitch Perfect, and can be seen in the final Hunger Games movie. Ever since June there’s been chatter about Elizabeth Banks getting an Oscar nomination for her role as Melinda Ledbetter in the Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy. I sat with Banks at her Brownstone Productions office late Wednesday to talk about the great year she’s having.
Awards Daily: How’s your day been?
Elizabeth Banks: It was long, every day is long. [laughs]. I got a lot done today.
AD: Love & Mercy, Pitch Perfect 3, The Hunger Games. Let’s talk about Love & Mercy. The film came out in Summer.
EB: The fact that people are still talking about it is a miracle. [Laughs]. I think we were all disappointed with the date because these kind of movies get lost in the Summertime. We did really well for Roadside, and it keeps coming back. As people find it on videos and airplanes, I get emails saying, “I just flew back from London. Oh my God, I saw it on the plane and it was so moving.” It’s really moving and nice, and now people are getting screeners, so there’s a whole new wave of fans coming up.
AD: How do you keep the momentum when you’re talking about it?
EB: First of all, I love talking about the movie. I love the movie, and I mostly love the people involved. I think we all have this incredible camaraderie amongst all of us, and we knew were going to be part of Brian’s legacy. So to have the movie be as well received as it’s been, that’s what makes us so excited, that Brian is getting this recognition and Brian is at the forefront again. Also, that Brian and Melinda who gave us their lives to play, they get to keep showing up, that’s what’s fun. John Cusack likes to say, “This is probably the only definitive approved biopic.” This is the one he’s going to be involved with in his lifetime, this is the one that feels important because this is for him, and I think that’s what’s keeping us going, knowing that the two of them are being celebrated.
AD: Something that was really great to see was that night at Vibrato grill, you, Brian, Melinda and everybody having a great time, really happy and just all together.
EB: Yeah, that’s the authentic feeling. We went to Toronto last September, we premiered the movie there, Brian got a standing ovation, it was this amazing and beautiful moment for all of us. We took that moment, then the movie sold. We didn’t see each other until the movie came out in June and we all got to hang out. We also went to Berlin in February, so we all got to party there. We really like hanging out with each other.
AD: That’s so clear.
EB: Melinda actually came to SNL. It was her daughter’s birthday and that love and support means everything to me.
AD: Did you have fun doing SNL?
EB: I did. It was surreal to do it post Paris. It was a little bit of a show-must-go-on moment and I had to put everything out of my mind for it.
AD: So, you play Melinda in Love & Mercy. She’s going to watch the film. Was it hard playing that character?
EB: It’s funny because it’s been over two years since I did that and since then we’ve become so close. I definitely remember feeling the responsibility to her, but we had a really honest conversation at the beginning where I said to her, “I just want to get your essence.” The events of the movie take place over twenty years ago. Even for her it’s an impression of what happened. There are definitely moments that are seared into her brain that are specific, but she being married to an artist and knowing how art is created and knowing what the graphic process is, she was so generous the whole time with, “It’s going to be an impression, it’s not going to be exact.” It’s not a documentary, it’s always going to be an impression from their perspective of what was going on in their lives then. So, that really helped, it helped to know that her expectation was not total validity.
The thing that was freeing for me in this instance is that she’s not well known. Whereas, I’ve played Laura Bush. I felt like, you better get the voice exactly right. You better get the relationship right. There’s a lot more research and mimicry of certain things. I really studied how she carried herself.
In this case, Melinda today is not the Melinda who met him twenty years ago so there’s already this disconnect, there’s not video of her or audio. There’s some great photos that we recreated in hair and make-up but no one else knows those things. It was private research for me. Her friends have come up to me and said, “Great job.” That’s really meaningful.
What was freeing was she is alive, she’s known and she’s not a public figure, so I didn’t have to totally worry about that. Also, I’m not playing her today so we can stand next to each other and you can understand that I’m playing her 25 years ago. That all helped. My bottom line is I feel relief because she’s happy and that was always a concern.
AD: What do you think the charm of the film is?
EB: For me, I think people have an experience in watching the movie. The John Cusack story is meaningful because you have the history of the Paul Dano story. I love that we broke it up that way. You see what a genius, but fragile person he was, and how he was betrayed by his parents and that no one really understood him. He didn’t know his place. He just wanted to be with his music. He didn’t really know how to live his life. Then you get to John who now is under the care of this terrible man, being taken advantage of, being abused. For me, I have had times where I felt like I wasn’t in control of my life. Where maybe you feel worthless or lost. We’ve all had a bad relationship. So when you think of him and Landy as, he put his trust in someone who abused him and took advantage of him, I feel that that’s personal to a lot of people. Then to know that someone could come along, put their hand out and change that for you, I think we also all want to be that person for someone. We all have had that moment too: this person needs a little care, a little understanding, a hand.
There are just so many connection points for me and people, but especially the notion of just getting into something that you don’t know how to get out of, and hoping someone will come along and save you. That resonates with me and with a lot of people.
AD: That’s making me want to go back and want to watch the film because that’s exactly it, I felt that connection to it.
EB: He’s also just an incredible artist. I think both John and Paul did an incredible job presenting what is the real Brian. If you saw him at Vibrato, he’s such an open and sweet person, he’s just an incredible spirit who draws people in and just by his presence, that’s music, that’s why people love music.
AD: Were you a fan before this movie?
EB: I was. I was a Beach Boys fan, they were my parent’s generation for sure. To me the music which you know all the words to but you don’t realize you do is the fabric of Americana. It also represented California. That whole vibe of that music and sound, Frankie Valli and Grease. I grew up in Massachusetts where it’s dark when you go to school, it’s dark when you come home, it’s snowing and it’s cold. The notion that people run around in bikinis 24/7, have carnivals in their back yard, and surf all day and drive in convertibles, that seemed aspirational to me. It brought a sense of joy into my home, and those are my impressions of their music, so then getting to understand and see how the music was put together, and to meet Brian, that’s his soul talking, it was really interesting.
AD: A few weeks ago, I was driving down Sunset Blvd to Pet Sounds. I grew up in London, so it was kind of surreal listening to the Beach Boys…
EB: In California.
AD: The beach is 20 minutes that way. Their music was the sound of California.
EB: Yeah. It became the sound of America. The promise of America. Go West is America. The dreams come true over there. [chuckling].
AD: On this side. I’ve been speaking to a lot of female film-makers. You’re an actress, a producer, a director which is really inspirational to many women out there, especially in this day. What made you take that step into producing and directing?
EB: I wanted a bit more control over the stories I was telling. I have a really amazing partnership with my husband. We have always prioritized our relationship in life generally. One of the ways we did that was by saying we wanted to work together so we could have our family and be together and travel together. So that was partially a seed of this venture, so the producing stuff came naturally in that way. We found some really fun ideas really early on and I made a couple of movies. We got movies made.
The directing was something I’ve always wanted to do. I remember looking at Infinite Jest when I was first in New York, super naive, I wanted to pull a chapter out of there and make it into a short film. How do I do that? I remember calling the publisher, and the rights were with HBO. I remember calling them and asking how to carve out a chapter, and having that conversation was over ten years ago. It’s always been an ambition of mine. Producing the first Pitch Perfect, and having The Hunger Games and knowing that I have this iconic character to play for four movies, I was like, “OK, I don’t have to worry about my acting career for a minute. If I don’t get a movie this year, it frees up the time to direct a bit.” So I directed some shorts, I directed this campaign for the American Heart Association which caught the attention of Donna Langley and it all came together in the right way.
I wanted to do it, you have to work towards it and you have to do it.
AD: What’s your advice to young women out there who want to get into film-making?
EB: I’ve gotten very far saying I’m going to do something and following through. It’s surprising to me how many people don’t want to say out loud what they want. Secondly, if they do, they’re not being able to create it. You have to be able to create the opportunity in a way or you have to just do it.
AD: Let’s go back to Love & Mercy for a bit, How did you get the role of Melinda?
EB: It came in the traditional way, my agents called and said they had read a cool script and Bill Pohlad was interested in meeting me for Melinda. I think there’s a love for Oren Moverman, he’s such a good writer, he’s so ambitious and seduced me with the notion of two different actors, two different time periods, the subject matter, the mental illness, the picture of a fragmented person, the whole thing was such a complete idea. I was seduced by the big idea of what it was.
I met Bill in LA and New York. John Cusack was not yet cast when I was meeting. I didn’t say yes right away because I didn’t know who I was going to be working with, and also because I hadn’t met Melinda yet. I also had some reservations about getting involved with someone with that much baggage. What was the reality there? How was it negotiated? It’s the negotiation I feel that I’m very proud of in the film.
Melinda is a very rational and commanding person – she’s fierce – who also has a tender side to her. She met a man she totally connected to, dreamed of this big life with, and they won. They live a big beautiful life and have five adopted children, twelve dogs, and it’s a second act for both of them. It felt so fairy tale in a way that I really wanted to understand the basis on which it was all built. I didn’t totally grasp that until I met her. She had so many answers and keys into it for me. Otherwise, she just sold a car to a guy who was stone cold nuts who had bodyguards, was rich and said he was the founder of the Beach Boys.
AD: I loved that scene when they first meet. What can you tell us about Pitch Perfect 3 without having to kill me.
EB: [laughs] I can’t tell ya much. We’re still at the beginning process, the movie isn’t out until 2017. Everyone calm down, we have plenty of time.
AD: There’s a lot of excitement for it.
EB: People are going to sing and dance and it will be funny. I promise.
AD: You’re having a great year.
EB: Hunger Games 3 Part 2.
AD: And then, there’s the Santa Barbara Virtuosos Award next year.
EB: YAY! I know it’s really fun. It’s a cool festival. It means a night away from my children with my husband in a nice hotel. I’m so excited and it’s right by my birthday.
AD: Do you prefer comedies over drama?
EB: Making comedies is more fun. You don’t tend to take home the work in the same way, especially as I have a family. When you’re in it, it’s hard to shake it off. It’s easier with comedy to have my real life at the same time.
AD: What are you doing for Thanksgiving?
EB: I’m staying home. I’m cooking my turkey. I was planning out my side dishes in my mind.
AD: But you’re getting a break.
EB: Yes. I’m taking my kids to the beach too.
AD: Thank you for seeing me so late.
EB: Thank you.
Love & Mercy is on demand and out on DVD