Elizabeth Banks has gone from buttoned up to barely dressed.
Just two weeks after appearing in "W." as prim first lady Laura Bush, Banks is starring in Kevin Smith's sweet-and-nasty comedy "Zack and Miri Make a Porno." And the two risky roles are finally boosting her to the top ranks of Hollywood actresses.
Risk is something Banks loves, and it's one reason she's arriving at a mostly vacant Santa Monica Pier, as the early morning sun shines through a simple arrangement of cables and towering platforms.
Most of the city is just waking up, but she's ready for a trapeze lesson.
"If you just fly, it's fine. But jumping off and letting go? That is the hard part," she says. "It's a total psychological thing. It's all about fear."
It's easy to draw a parallel between her new hobby and some of her recent movie choices.
In Oliver Stone's "W.," her Laura Bush swoons at George W. when they meet in the early 1970s. Sensing a dangerous quality beneath, she playfully calls him "a devil in a white hat."
Meanwhile, in "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," opening Friday, Banks plays rowdy, free-spirited Miri, whose longtime slacker pal Zack (Knocked Up's Seth Rogen) comes up with an X-rated scheme to end their personal cash crisis.
Her philosophy about the high-profile, high-peril roles matches her take on doing aerial gymnastics over the Santa Monica surf.
"If you're going to fail, fail marvelously. Fail big," she says.
In learning the trapeze, she points out, "They say, 'Look, the worst thing that's going to happen is you're going to end up face down in the net, and you're going to look ridiculous.' And that's kind of OK with me, because the rewards if you do it are so great. Might as well go through with it and hopefully come out a winner."
Before "Zack and Miri" and "W.," Banks, 34, played colorful but smaller characters: the bank teller in "Catch Me If You Can" who gawps at Leonardo DiCaprio when he invites her for a steak dinner, the nymphomaniac who intimidates Steve Carell in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," the spunky newspaper secretary with a thing for Peter Parker in the "Spider-Man" movies.
They were solid, fun roles in big movies — but not starmaking.
Finally, thanks to Laura Bush and Miri the would-be porn star, Banks could establish an identity all her own — separate from that group of actresses she has long been compared with (or mistaken for), from Rachel McAdams to Chelsea Handler to Amy Smart. Every time she changes her hair color or style, she says, people seem to compare her with somebody new.
An acting chameleon
Even "W." director Stone says he fell victim to her chameleon nature. "She amazed me because I never recognized her. Every day she'd come on the set, I'd be like, 'Is that Elizabeth?' She always had a different look, and her hair would be one way …" His hands move about his head, indicating some kind of shape-shifting. "Elizabeth Banks will change every day. She would look different. She's a funny girl that way."
But not an extraordinary one, she says, which is part of why she has remained mostly under the radar. "I'm a working-class girl, with a good work ethic," she says. "I'm so generic!"