“The studio head is going to read it and be like, ‘Wow, that Liz Banks has got a lot to say.’ ”
In Elizabeth Banks’s upcoming movie, “Call Jane,” which is in theaters on Oct. 28, she plays a conservative housewife who winds up working for the Jane Collective, the underground organization that helped women procure safe abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. The film is, at moments, wrenching; it’s also a gas, with a groovy period soundtrack and an uplifting narrative arc. The way “Call Jane” balances political ideas and entertainment value makes it a useful stand-in for Banks’s work in general. Whether as an actress (Effie Trinket in “The Hunger Games” films; Laura Bush in “W.”), director (“Pitch Perfect 2”; the intriguingly titled thriller “Cocaine Bear,” due in February) or an increasingly prolific producer (the Hulu series “Shrill”; the ABC game show “Press Your Luck,” which she also hosts), Banks has proved adept at bringing both pure pop and her own political sensibility to screens. Though that blend is not free of complications and frustrations. “I don’t want to have to always represent my gender,” says Banks, who is 48, “because it politicizes my work in a way that doesn’t acknowledge I’m just trying to make a living. I’m trying to entertain people. I don’t want to deny that my choices feed my personal belief system. What I don’t want to be presented as is some sort of feminist warrior, like, woo-ha, I’m fighting the system all the time.”
“Call Jane” was obviously finished before the Dobbs decision came down. What does the new context around abortion mean for how the film might now be received? I have no idea how people are going to receive the movie. I will say that the Dobbs decision has solidified our commitment to getting audiences to see the movie in the right light, which is to say that there’s maybe a bigger responsibility on the movie that I didn’t feel when we were making it. I don’t want to give it too much import, but we have a midterm election happening right after the movie comes out and, well, my hope is that it invites Republican women voters to go vote. The Democratic women I know, we’ve done all we can do. I want the movie to inspire people to vote out Republicans who don’t support reproductive justice.
There’s that old conservative trope of liberal Hollywood elites judging other people’s morality and telling them what to believe. Do you worry at all that being explicit about your political goals for the movie might turn off as many people as it compels? No, I don’t worry about that. I didn’t use the word “judge.” I used the word “inspire.” I want people to see the movie and be inspired to act. I know that’s possible because I’m inspired by art and stories. I study how people live, and I put it into stories. When you do that for your job, you become more open to different people and experiences. I didn’t stay in my small town. Once you get out in the world and get your hands dirty and meet a lot of people, you have to be super [expletive] open to everybody’s perspectives and ideas, and it makes you, frankly, a liberal. The whole point of Hollywood liberals is we don’t want anyone telling anyone else how to live their life. We want you to figure out what’s best for you. That’s how I feel about abortion. You don’t want to get an abortion? Don’t get an abortion.
For a smaller film like “Call Jane” to be effective in the way you described, people have to see it. But what are your expectations for it in that sense? Because right now feels like an especially hard time for smaller films to find their audience. The theatrical model of staying in the theater for 25 weeks, that’s not happening. But I made this movie called “Walk of Shame” — so long ago — and I get stopped in airports for that movie now more than ever. I don’t know where, but people are seeing it. “Wet Hot American Summer” affects my life to this day. When it came out, it made no money, but people found it because it was interesting and good. Lorne Michaels gave me advice: Don’t do things unless you think they’ll be part of the cultural conversation. I’ve tried to make choices based on that. I’m getting older, and I want to stay relevant and be in the conversation.
How do you interpret that phrase “the cultural conversation”? Does it mean something that speaks in a direct way to currents in the culture, like “Call Jane,” or does it mean something that’s popular? It can mean multiple things. For instance, making “Mrs. America” felt easy because I’m on the creative council of the Center for Reproductive Rights. I live a life with a bunch of women activists working at the highest levels on American policy. That’s what that was about and basically how nothing has improved in 45 years. It felt like there was a way to make that relevant. Also, Cate Blanchett: I’m like, she’ll get nominated for everything, so the show will stay in the conversation for a period of time, and it did.
But what about something poppier like “Press Your Luck”? Do you see that as also part of the conversation? Well, this year a big conversation I had with my partners at Fremantle and ABC was about marketing the show around our contestants. You put up three people, and at the end you get a great personal story out of each of these contestants, and we’re literally either changing their lives or not. Our contestants are up there crying because their mom has multiple sclerosis and we’re about to give them an accessible van so that their mom can go to their wedding. That’s great drama. Everybody can cheer on that person. I felt like there was a way for us to create conversation around the contestants and their lives and the real stories, and I think it’s proven out. We’ve done really well this year.
But you’re always working on something ahead of whatever the news or cultural mood is going to be. Are there specific factors that you look for that can help you be in the conversation? “Shrill” is a good example. Being able to take Lindy’s voice and put it onscreen and put Aidy Bryant in a lead role on a comedy — it’s culturally interesting to see a fat woman as the star of a television show and someone who’s having a real life, a sex life, the whole thing. It’s for someone specific, and at the same time that opens it up to be for everybody. That’s Marketing 101: Make people love it, and the cool flows out. “Cocaine Bear”: It’s a fun conversation piece inspired by this insane true event from 1985 and an opportunity to cut through a little noise. The title alone! I was clear with Universal. I made them make sure that we could use the title in America. I was like, I don’t want to direct this if you’re going to tell me it’s going to be called “Bear in the Woods.”
“Cocaine Bear” is the first movie you directed after “Charlie’s Angels,” which didn’t do as well as you hoped. What did you learn from that experience that you could apply to this movie? That’s a long conversation that I don’t know that I want to get into.
We’ve got time. I’ll just be in trouble. Let me say I’m proud of the movie. I loved Kristen Stewart being funny and light. I loved introducing Ella Balinska to the world. I loved working with Patrick Stewart. It was an incredible experience. It was very stressful, partly because when women do things in Hollywood it becomes this story. There was a story around “Charlie’s Angels” that I was creating some feminist manifesto. I was just making an action movie. I would’ve liked to have made “Mission: Impossible,” but women aren’t directing “Mission: Impossible.” I was able to direct an action movie, frankly, because it starred women and I’m a female director, and that is the confine right now in Hollywood. I wish that the movie had not been presented as just for girls, because I didn’t make it just for girls. There was a disconnect on the marketing side of it for me.
You said you were able to get that job because it was an action movie starring women. Has that dynamic shifted since then? One of my least favorite things to do in talking to people like you is to represent all women in Hollywood who are doing interesting things. I am in a rarefied category. There are very few female directors in Hollywood. There are even fewer who are actresses who have become directors. I’ve [expletive] worked my tail off to be able to do what I’m doing. I would love for you to interview the studio heads and the corporations and ask them these questions, because I can’t solve it. I’m putting my head down and showing these big corporations that if they give women the opportunity to do this job, they can make a good product that can make them a profit. It’s a male-dominated industry. It’s a male-dominated world. That’s what I’m up against, but I can’t solve it and I don’t really want to analyze it. It’s not interesting to me. It puts me, frankly, in a position where the studio head is going to read it in The New York Times and be like, “Wow, that Liz Banks has got a lot to say.” I don’t need that added pressure. I truly feel that it’s dangerous to talk about these things now.
I’m not trying to put you on the spot. Thank you for saying that. I’ve just been put in this position of my statements’ being perceived as being grand when they’re really just about my personal experience, which is all I should be talking about. I was told by a big producer of big action movies that I couldn’t direct action, that male actors were not going to follow me. He was flummoxed at the idea that a woman would be able to lead the Rock on a C.G.I. screen, I guess? That was said by someone with a lot of power in our industry to my face.
Let me ask about your acting career. Early on, the dream was that you could follow in the footsteps of a Julia Roberts or a Reese Witherspoon. But the kinds of movies that made them stars stopped being made. How would your goals be different if you were starting out now? It’s all different. When I came into the business, they were making romcoms. I felt I was always a natural lead in those movies. When I made “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” I felt like it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing with my life. Then the movie didn’t work. They marketed the movie with a poster with stick figures or something. I don’t know what they thought that movie was meant to be marketing-wise, but it was a little gem for us. Anyway, coming into the business, when I lived in New York, if you weren’t on an episode of “Law & Order,” you weren’t going to be an actor. That was a rite of passage. I don’t know what those rites of passage are now. There are people who say to me — they’re living in Ohio — and they’re like, I really want to be an actor, but I don’t know what to do. Well, first you have to leave Ohio. You have to actually get started. You have to make [expletive]. I cast Scott Seiss. It’s not like he was doing nothing. He was a standup comedian. He had an agent. But he made us laugh so much with his TikTok videos, and when we were auditioning people for “Cocaine Bear,” I was like, “You know who would be fun?” He came in and auditioned, and he was great. You’ve got to do your stuff and put it out there.
“Cocaine Bear” is one of Ray Liotta’s last performances. What’s a memory that stands out? I worked with him on a little film called “The Details” long ago, and he provided me with a great life lesson. I’ll give you the back story: Tobey Maguire’s character was cheating on his wife, me, with Ray’s wife from the movie, Kerry Washington. Ray was extorting him. He basically said, Pay me or I’m going to tell your wife. So the scene is Tobey Maguire’s character delivering the money to Ray Liotta. Ray Liotta takes the money; they’re out on this bridge, and he opens the package up and empties all the money. It rains down into the river below, shocking Tobey Maguire’s character, and Ray Liotta gives this great speech about how, essentially: You’re a coward. I don’t need your money. I wanted to test you to see if you would come clean, and you didn’t. Ray Liotta did this with scathing intensity. It was amazing. The director came out and said: “That was incredible. Let’s do another one.” Ray said, “OK, what do you want me to do differently?” The director said: “I don’t know. I feel like we just need one more for safety.” Ray said: “No. If you’re not going to direct me, then I did my work. I’m done.” And he turned around and left the set.
Just to go back to this, because I want to make sure I understand: You said you don’t want to be put in a position where you’re speaking for all women in Hollywood because there’s danger in it. The danger being that people could decide they don’t want to work with you? Is that correct? Let me be clear: I’m a leader in Hollywood, so I’m not trying to shirk my responsibility. I just want the framing device around me to not consistently be that I’m some sort of feminist activist. That’s all I’m saying. I find, no offense, that talking to male journalists who are never going to understand foundationally what women go through, especially female actresses in Hollywood — I got into an industry that values only my youth and my beauty. I’ve been on sets where I’ve watched a big-time actress go up to a big-time director and say, “Listen, I’m wondering in this scene, what is our relationship?” And this man said to this woman: “Baby, don’t worry about it. It’s all about your hair and your sunglasses.” That’s the baseline that I’m coming from. I went to sets for a long time in my career where my ideas were not valued or I didn’t get jobs because I was too “uppity.” That’s the place that I started, and that is the hurdle that I’m still having to overcome. I’m also grateful for all the opportunity and investment that is being made in me. So I like to front that stuff right now. Look, I made a political piece of art called “Call Jane.” It’s about women’s reproductive justice. I understand that’s a topic for conversation.
I’m asking about these things because I’m interested. I appreciate that. I get myself in trouble. It’s not you; it’s me. I can talk to you all day about feminist issues, but you’re never going to have a deep understanding because it’s not something that happens in your life. I hope that you take something away from this conversation and have a deeper understanding of what women, even rich, self-made powerful women like myself, are up against daily. I hope that resonates for you. But I don’t know that you get it. It’s an intellectual exercise for you, and it’s an emotional exercise for me. It’s the parameters in which I live my life, do my job.
Let me get back to “Call Jane.” What are movies that affected you in the way you hope “Call Jane” will affect people? “Working Girl” comes to mind. “Flashdance.” I grew up in a very small town. Working class. The idea that this Staten Island girl could go to Wall Street, and she was underestimated by everybody. It’s the same basic story line in “Flashdance”: This woman wants to be a ballerina, but she’s a welder. There were also all of the John Hughes movies of my youth that starred the underdog, Molly Ringwald, who was not some traditional beauty. All those movies were about this system in place that tells women that they’re not good enough as they are and that they’re going to have to overcome that system. That being said, the characters I watched where I was like, Oh, I want to be that person! They were Harrison Fords. I’m a type-A personality. I’m an ambitious go-getter. The idea of being Molly Ringwald sitting in the back of the class, Oh, nobody’s looking at me — that wasn’t my experience as a young person. I found love in high school. I got into the university that I wanted to go to. I took advantage of these looks as much as I could. These qualities that we look at in men and boys and think, This is the recipe to create a winner in life — I had those. So the things I watched that I loved? I’ll think of a more recent example: “The Martian,” with Matt Damon. I watched “The Martian,” and I was like, I could have crushed this role. Matt Damon, love him. He’s having to figure out how to survive. I want that role.
He’s so good at showing the act of thinking in front of a camera. You know what’s interesting, though? A lot of that is directing. Meaning, it’s an editorial choice. I know a lot of actors who look good thinking on camera, but if you cut away from the shot, you never see that work. I was in this movie “Love & Mercy” about the Beach Boys. I got a lot of praise for that performance, and when I watch it, what I notice the most is that the editor spent a lot of time on me processing Brian Wilson. Taking him in, wondering about him and falling in love with him. None of that was verbal. I was so grateful to the editor for letting that stay in the film, because so much of the actor’s job is listening.
Speaking of which, what did you learn about storytelling from doing a podcast? That was the first time you’ve worked without images. I definitely learned about the intimacy of being in someone’s ear. It creates a visual in their mind’s eye, and when you provide them the visual, it’s maybe less engaging. It does make you focus on how to invite people’s imagination. They’re participating in the story. I find that interesting. And of course, it’s bled into my other work, because I’m very intelligent and I would’ve processed that.
This is maybe overly philosophical: When you said that my asking certain questions was just an intellectual exercise but it’s the emotional foundation of your life — isn’t an interview an intellectual exercise? Isn’t that why we’re here? It’s more that sometimes when I’m talking about these things with a woman, there’s a connection to a deeper — most women I know, for instance, have seen some unwanted penises in their lives. They’ve been harassed. I don’t know that there’s any way to communicate that to you. It’s a state of being. It’s constant, and it’s why when we’re talking in the media, it would be a pleasure to not have it feel like … I don’t know — people presume that women who are doing interesting, powerful things in a man’s world — it’s all politicized in some way. But I’m on “Press Your Luck” because I love that job. It’s fun to change people’s lives with money.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
Opening illustration: Source photograph by John Fleenor/ABC, via Getty Images
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. Recently he interviewed Neal Stephenson about portraying a utopian future, Laurie Santos about happiness and Christopher Walken about acting.
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Elizabeth Banks Thinks This Interview Is Dangerous for Her – The New York Times