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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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MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

INTERVIEWER
Do you outline plays before you start to write them?

PINTER
Not at all. I don’t know what kind of characters my plays will have until they…well, until they are. Until they indicate to me what they are. I don’t conceptualize in any way. Once I’ve got the clues I follow them—that’s my job, really, to follow the clues.

INTERVIEWER
What do you mean by clues? Can you remember how one of your plays developed in your mind—or was it a line-by-line progression?

PINTER
Of course I can’t remember exactly how a given play developed in my mind. I think what happens is that I write in a very high state of excitement and frustration. I follow what I see on the paper in front of me—one sentence after another. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a dim, possible overall idea—the image that starts off doesn’t just engender what happens immediately, it engenders the possibility of an overall happening, which carries me through. I’ve got an idea of what might happen—sometimes I’m absolutely right, but on many occasions I’ve been proved wrong by what does actually happen. Sometimes I’m going along and I find myself writing “C. comes in” when I didn’t know that he was going to come in; he had to come in at that point, that’s all.
~ Harold Pinter

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