MCN Columnists

By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Files: Actress Elizabeth Banks on People Like Us

Looking at the roster of titles this year that star Elizabeth Banks, one of Hollywood’s hardest working actresses, it’s a mystery where she ever finds time to sleep. As Effie Trinket, she made an indelible entrance in the spring blockbuster The Hunger Games, setting the movie’s tone of dystopia, then pulled off the neat hat trick of making her initially odious character almost sympathetic by the end. Banks also portrayed a smart, tough cop in the thriller Man on a Ledge, and a pregnant author in the comedy What to Expect While You’re Expecting. Now she’s on screen as the female lead in the drama People Like Us, a DreamWorks Pictures release. It’s one of the meatiest roles of her career. She plays Frankie, a single mother and recovering alcoholic in L.A., whose numerous defenses are challenged when she’s befriended by a stranger named Sam (Chris Pine), who’s in town for the funeral of his father, a famous record producer. What Frankie doesn’t know is what Sam has only just learned: she is Sam’s half-sister, part of a secret family dad had on the side for years, before leaving abruptly and without explaining to Frankie. The aftermath of his undisclosed bigamy has left Frankie emotionally scarred.

Banks, a Massachusetts native and Democrat, stopped in Chicago recently for an event on behalf of the campaign to re-elect President Barack Obama. “They reached out because I blogged about some things that they care about,” she explains. Ever the pro, she managed to carve out some time beforehand to talk about her new film, which is directed by Alex Kurtzman, from a screenplay he wrote with long-time partner Roberto Orci (Star TrekTransformers Prime) and their friend Jody Lambert.

Andrea Gronvall:  People Like Us has a few surface similarities to another film that’s out now, Your Sister’s Sister, about two half-sisters whose philandering father wreaked domestic havoc through his multiple marriages. But the movie that your film resembles most is the 2003 documentary My Architect, about the eminent architect Louis I. Kahn, who died in 1974. It’s a memoir by his son, Nathaniel Kahn, who only found out much later that his dad had–

Elizabeth Banks:  A secret family?

AG:  Two  secret families! And as I watched People Like Us, I was reminded how there are more and more movies about broken families, the damage done, and the impulse to create new bonds where old ones have collapsed. The tag line on your movie’s poster is “Find Your Family.” And the way you play a character with these abandonment issues, you hit all the documented steps of anger, distrust, risky behavior, and—

EB:  Self-medicating.

AG:  Yet at the same time Frankie has formidable survival skills.

EB:  Yes, she does. She is a survivor; I mean, that’s what I really hooked into: that despite everything, she is a put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, pragmatic person. That’s humanity, in my opinion. We’re not that kind to each other, and a lot of people have walls up. It’s very hard to ask for help; it’s very hard to face your demons. Frankie is a type-A personality, who sometimes feels the weight of the world, like Jesus, but keeps soldiering on, and I think a lot of people can relate to that.

Ultimately for me this story is about mourning. At the beginning of the movie they lose their father, and they spend the entire movie mourning that loss. It’s not so much the loss of him as the lost opportunities to have closure, to see him again. I think that Frankie always imagined she would run into him, and scream at him until she was blue in the face, and just feel, “Alright, relief! I get to tell this fucker what he did to me.” And she won’t have that chance. But at the end of the day we also want to believe that our daddy loved us.

I feel very grateful that in my life I have great parents. I love my parents. But they weren’t perfect, and there was definitely some damage—there’s damage in every family. Because kids want their parents to be perfect, and we blame them for everything, whether they deserve it or not.

AG:  It’s surprising how entertaining People Like Us is overall. Sure, it has its humorous moments, balance for the more gut-wrenching scenes. But its undercurrents are quite dark throughout, and the viewer gets really pulled in. A big part of that is of course due to your chemistry with Chris Pine, but there’s also the look of the film.

EB:  Yeah, it looks like a beautiful, “old school” Hollywood adult movie. [To prepare] we talked a lot about Kramer vs. Kramer, the vibe of old Robert Benton movies in general, and old James L. Brooks movies. There’s a real sophistication about it.

AG:  Tell me a little bit about Alex Kurtzman’s working method with his actors. This is his debut directorial effort. How extensive were rehearsals? Does he like multiple takes?

EB:  Yes, this is his first time directing, but he has spent a lot of time on movie sets. He is an old pro in this business. It’s always a concern when you work with a writer-director–and I’ve worked with a lot of them–that the writer in them is going to be very precious about the words. And I was very grateful that Alex was not. I have great respect for great writing; this was a beautiful script, beautiful characters, a very personal story, well told. So it wasn’t that I didn’t want the words, but you always also want to feel free everyday, and that you can trust in everybody, and that he can trust me—enough that even if I say something he didn’t write, it’s still Frankie. And he had a really great vision, and actresses want to believe in where a movie is going. Because when we’re done on set, like we give it up, it’s out of our hands. So trust is the most important thing; I had ultimate trust in him.

AG: You and your husband Max Handelman have established your own company, Brownstone Productions. How many years has it been a going concern?

EB:  About five, I think. Our first movie was Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, and that The Walt Disney Company made; we were sort of the junior producers on that one. And our first feature that is truly our baby has come out terrific; it’s called Pitch Perfect, and it’s a comedy set in the world of competitive collegiate a cappella singing, with a great young cast led by Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick. We’re very excited, and we’re working hard to get that movie ready for the world to see on October 5. It’s very funny, about a group of misfits who want to win a championship, and just sing and dance their way to glory.

AG:  Can you sing?

EB:  Yes, I can.

AG:  Have you done musicals?

EB:  I have done musicals in my theater past, yes.

AG:  You say “your theater past,” but what about theater in your future?

EB:  I would want to do a movie musical because you record everything in a studio, and it’s very safe. An actual musical theater production? I think it’s probably out there for me somewhere, but maybe not in my near future. It’s such a huge commitment, frankly. You know: sleep all the time, drink tea with lemon, rest your voice. It’s a real lifestyle commitment, and I have a young son now, so I cannot be doing eight shows a week anytime soon.

One Response to “The Gronvall Files: Actress Elizabeth Banks on People Like Us”

  1. topsyturvy says:

    PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE whoever buys the movie rights to GONE GIRL, cast Banks as Amy.

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“The fear generated by dividing us into genders, colors, religions and sexualities as a means to justify violence destroys the things that we depend on – not only as artists but as humans: the diversity of cultures, the chance to be enriched by something seemingly ‘foreign’ and the belief that human encounters can change us for the better. These divisive walls prevent people from experiencing something simple but fundamental: from discovering that we are all not so different.

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Martin Zandvliet – Land of Mine (Denmark)
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Martin Butler, Bentley Dean – Tanna (Australia)

“I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures. I like to subscribe to Susan Sontag’s thought of no highs and lows. I think dismissing popular culture and popular films can be really dangerous because they may seem innocuous, but some are works of art and even when they’re not they can say so much about the culture that they’re reflecting. This also gets into the idea of canon. What is good and isn’t good? Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Specifically, who writes these canons? Mainly, straight white guys — which basically rigs the system. So, if you have a knowledge of female filmmakers, queer filmmakers, African or Asian filmmakers, some people won’t give them the same culture capital. They’ll say, “Oh, that’s nice niche knowledge.” No, it’s not. You’re just seeing it through the prism of something white and male. Like Shonda Rhimes’ ‘Scandal.’ I love that show, but is it a guilty pleasure because it’s a soap on TV? No. I think it has incredible writing, incredible thought and characters, so we should take it seriously. That’s a long-winded answer to say, “Yes, I love Titanic.” I was 10 years old when it came out and my mom took me to see it three times. I was so obsessed with it. A big thanks to my mom who’ll never get those nine hours of her life back.”
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