For the longest time, lovely Elizabeth Banks was that actress who, if you saw her out at the grocery store or Starbucks, you'd recognize her only enough to suspect maybe you knew her from somewhere in the real world. After this autumn, you'll never forget where you know her from again.
The Massachusetts native, who's now 34, had been kicking it around Hollywood for more than a decade, landing roles here and there, including a memorable turn in 2001's Wet Hot American Summer, bit parts in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man series (which she returned to in both sequels). But it wasn't until Hollywood phenom Judd Apatow asked her to put a showerhead between her legs in The 40 Year Old Virgin that America sat up and took real notice. Three years later, the tender affection she showed that bathroom accoutrement, not to mention the work she'd been doing for years, finally paid off. If you don't think that's a true Hollywood fairy tale, then consider this: Earlier this month, she played Laura Bush in Oliver Stone's W. and this week she plays the titular protag of Kevin Smith's raunchy sex comedy, Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
"I'm ecstatic about W.," she says, sitting in a hotel room at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons — and much more diminutive in person than you'd expect. "I think the performances in the film are amazing. I'm really proud of what I did in the movie."
However, despite that the role's the most high-profile of her career — particularly because the biopic's about history's worst American president and, of course, the current election season — she doesn't want to think about whether America's most prominent wife will ever see her performance. "I really can't imagine the surreal circumstance of someone making a movie about your life. I don't know if you want to see that or if you want to run as far as you can from that. So if she sees it, I would consider her very brave."
Her latest, Zack and Miri, comes with even more controversy than Stone's notoriously controversial flick, oddly enough. Writer-director Smith often generates controversy for his movies, generally for his use of foul language, commentary on the Catholic Church, and, in Clerks II, even bestiality, but, with Zack and Miri, a sweet sex comedy that, given the title, features surprisingly little onscreen sex, the outcry is mostly about the use of the word "porno" in the title and, in particular, in commercials and on billboards and bus-stop ads. Banks pulls a Sarah Palin blame-the-media deflection if you bring the subject up, though.
"You mean the controversy that the media keeps talking about because I keep getting asked about it? That controversy?" she asks, offering a quick laugh that's equal parts charm and condescension. She has some spunk, Banks. "I think there are much bigger problems in our world today than the word 'porno.' I think if you have a problem explaining to your 7-year-old that porno is for adults just like the TV that you don't let them watch after nine o'clock, just like the food that you don't let them eat, just like the beer that you don't let them drink, just like the cigarettes that you don't let them smoke, you're a fucking idiot. I just don't understand how it's any different from any of those things. 'Hey, kid, it's not for you.' That's it."
Media-generated, knee-jerk controversy aside (OK, not really), Smith's movies have always succeeded or failed depending on the amount of heart the dude was able to instill into the story. No matter how foul-mouthed his characters get, they're often, at their cores, better people than most of us. Or at least are closer to figuring out how to be better people than we are. Zack and Miri is no different, built around the idea that two old friends and roommates, Banks' Miri and Seth Rogen's Zack, decide to shoot a porno for online distribution after they realize they have no other ways left to pay their mounting debt. Love between the friends doesn't enter the picture until, despite what Christian conservatives and family groups argue, the two characters get it on.
"It's just going to be fucking, and it's not going to mean anything, and then you get there and you make love and it does mean something," Banks says, summing up the emotional turn.
Or, as Smith explains later, "I love romantic comedies. I just can't stand it when they're sanitized and cleaned up, and it ends with a kiss. I like mine to have the fucking happen, and then everything falls apart."
Rogen was an obvious choice for the role of Zack, probably because Smith wrote the part for him and only him, but the role of Miri wasn't as obvious — which confused Rogen, a friend of Banks' since 40 Year Old Virgin. "She kind of has a dirty sense of humor and I always thought it was crazy she wasn't in these kinds of movies, that she wasn't the main girl in a romantic comedy," he says. "So as soon as Kevin said, 'Is there anyone you can think of?' It was like, 'Elizabeth Banks, obviously. It's weird that you didn't think of that.'"
And Banks was just happy to see Rogen as the desired leading man rather than the putz he'd played in Knocked Up. That does not mean she was looking forward to letting her friend climb on top of her, though. "Seth and I, we adore each other on a lot of levels," she laughs, "and so I think there was a lot of relief that it went as well as it did and that it was over quickly."
Next month, Banks will appear in the comedy, Role Models, while next year The Uninvited will drop as well as The Surrogates — a movie she executive-produced with her own Brownstone Productions. The actress who once was that familiar face in the movie crowd is now, unmistakably, a leading lady, and Hollywood has decided she can do it all, from political dramas, to thrillers, to her beloved comedies. "It's pretty exciting to be able to go in any direction," she says. "But I have no expectations for what's going to happen in the future. I enjoy making comedies a lot. If I had to guess what my next movie was going to be, I'd say it's probably going to be a comedy."
Zack and Miri Make a Porno hits theaters on Friday, Oct. 31.Cole Haddon is film correspondent for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org