Elizabeth Banks is a Type A personality. She keeps to her schedule. She’s never been the kind of actress who floats around Los Angeles and New York, falling into auditions. From the start - in her hometown of Pittsfield - she’s been a planner, always studying, always researching.
She believes that diligence has led to her stardom, and a resumé that includes quotable roles in such television shows as “Scrubs’’ and “30 Rock’’ and movies “The 40-Year-Old Virgin’’ (Banks was the vixen who worked in the book shop), “Zach and Miri Make a Porno,’’ “Wet Hot American Summer’’ (she was the one French kissing Paul Rudd), “The Next Three Days,’’ and “W.,’’ in which she played Laura Bush for director Oliver Stone.
Banks’s latest movie is “Man on a Ledge,’’ which features the actress as a cop who tries to talk Sam Worthington (“Avatar’’) from jumping off a Manhattan hotel. On the horizon for Banks is the March release of “The Hunger Games,’’ the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s wildly popular dystopian novel, in which Banks plays Effie, an over-the-top bureaucrat covered in makeup. Banks, who’s also a new mom (she had her son, Felix, via surrogate 10 months ago), made a recent visit to Boston to talk about “Ledge,’’ upcoming projects, and her Pittsfield past.
Q. When you were growing up, back in Pittsfield, did you plan to be a movie star?
A. No. Not at all. I did perform in high school, mostly because I broke my leg sliding into third base and I could no longer do sports. I grew up on baseball. I went to softball tournaments. Cheerleading tournaments. Our big rivalry was like Leominster. I was the statistician of the hockey team when we were state champions. People in Massachusetts love their sports, and I was no exception. I was very athletic, a very physical person. But - I didn’t know anyone who was an artist. Or I guess if I knew anyone who was an artist, they didn’t make any money doing it. And I didn’t want to be a waitress. Going to school was my way to - it was the only way I understood how to proceed. Go to this college, graduate. Go to this grad school, graduate. Keep studying the storytelling. Keeping getting a better handle on what’s a great story. What’s a great character. That’s what I knew how to do. Study.
Q. What was the turning point for you?
A. I got my MFA at the American Theater Conservatory in San Francisco, and upon graduation, you do a showcase for agents, and I got an agent. I mostly did commercials in the beginning, which is absolutely fabulous because they take very little time and pay lots of money. I paid off most of my student loans in the first few years of my acting career, which was really important to me. The main reason I couldn’t do the starving artist thing was because I owed a [expletive] ton of money to the University of Pennsylvania [for an undergraduate degree]. And then I did that slow and steady thing. I did all the TV shows that were filmed in New York. So “Sex and the City,’’ “Law & Order,’’ “Third Watch.’’ And then I very quickly was asked to come to LA to come to pilot season. And then I booked this little movie called “Wet Hot American Summer.’’
Q. When I told people I’d be interviewing you, most people brought up “Wet Hot American Summer.’’ Not your role on “30 Rock,’’ not “40-Year-Old Virgin,’’ but “Wet Hot American Summer.’’
A. It gets quoted to me the most.
Q. I recently rewatched your first episode on “30 Rock,’’ when you meet Alec Baldwin’s character and there’s a fantastic, fast back-and-forth. Was there instant chemistry?
A. It was actually the perfect way for us to enter into a relationship with each other as actors and as characters. Because every actor wants to walk into a situation and know that they have a great partner - that they’re going to be challenged, that the other person is going to bring out the best in them. We all want that in our job. Alec Baldwin and myself are no different. I knew he was going to do it for me, and I walked in going, “I’ll just make sure he knows that I’m going to do it for him, too.’’
Q. Were you intimidated at all to work with him?
A. [Laughs] No. I’ve worked with some pretty. . .
Q. I know, I know. You’ve worked with big stars. But there must be someone who you’d sweat a little, even with all of your success.
A. I would sweat Meryl Streep seriously. I would sweat me some Meryl. I would probably sweat me some Jodie Foster.
Q. Let’s talk about “Man on a Ledge.’’ You’ve had so many projects this year - and a baby. When was this one filmed?
A. It was made over a year ago. We finished shooting it in December 2010. So we were on that ledge mid-October. Mostly in the month of November we were out on that ledge. It was very cold and very windy. We were up against the clock because we were like, we have to get out of here before it snows.
Q. I didn’t know if you were really out on that ledge.
A. There are very few effects. It’s very real.
Q. Was it awful?
A. I’m a bit of a thrill-seeker, so I was into it. I was excited by it - in the way that I love roller coasters and trapeze-ing.
Q. The project seems . . . out of genre for you.
A. I was sort of looking for something like this. I was really happy to not be playing anyone’s wife or girlfriend. I was really interested in running around with a gun chasing bad guys - and stunts. I liked how she’s like the smartest person in the room and the glue that holds the whole thing together. She’s a pivotal, important character.
Q. Is it still that difficult to find movies where the part isn’t girlfriend or wife?
A. I challenge you to go through the movies that have opened - just look at the last two months. I mean, I’ve had great leading men. And some wives and girlfriends are better roles than others. “The Next Three Days’’ was a phenomenal role opposite an amazing actor [Russell Crowe]. Playing Laura Bush - she’s a great wife to play. But . . . she’s not the glue holding that movie together.
Q. Now’s a good time to bring up “The Hunger Games.’’ It’s a female-driven story.
A. Suzanne [Collins] created an incredible world and it’s thematically amazing, and the scope and scale is awesome, but of course, I love, as a woman, that there’s a heroine. There’s sort of a love triangle - kind of - but it’s much more important that she survives.
Q. I know it’s often compared to “Twilight,’’ but in “The Hunger Games,’’ the stakes are much higher.
A. What are the stakes in “Twilight’’? Like, “I don’t know . . . should I marry this werewolf?’’
Q. And did Effie appeal to you right from the start? She’s over the top. I know you had a hand in the look of her. . .
A. Well, she’s definitely grotesque. The director’s only sort of reference for us, the team - me and the hair and makeup and costume design - was Joel Grey in “Cabaret.’’ So, we started there.
Q. One thing you haven’t tried is writing. Is that something you’d ever do?
A. I really enjoy writing. I plan to do more writing. I started ElizabethBanks.com - please send all your readers to it - where I intend to blog. I love Twitter, but 140 characters isn’t doing it for me anymore. I’d love to write a book someday, for sure. I don’t know if I will, but I’d like to. Let me put it this way - I didn’t put it on the goals of 2012, but it’s a life goal.Interview has been edited and condensed. Meredith Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.