Oct. 28, 2008 — -- 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!"
She theorizes she has too little tabloid appeal. "I don't have a love life that everyone cares about because I've been with the same guy for 16 years. I think we're a great example to people, but it's not interesting. There's no scandal involved. I'm not trying to have Jake Gyllenhaal's baby. I'm not a major fashionista. I'm not going through a lesbian phase. I'm just normal. I'm just really freakin' normal."
She and husband Max Handelman, who operates their Brownstone Productions company with her, married in 2003. "I met him my first day of college" at the University of Pennsylvania, she says.
Back then, she didn't expect to be an actress; her only goal was not to go back to her hometown of Pittsfield, Mass. "I wanted to get a good job that paid me a lot of money!" she jokes. "I thought I was going to be a lawyer probably. Or a broadcast journalist. I was a little lost."
When she decided to try acting, she landed small parts in TV shows ("Sex and the City," "Third Watch") and roles such as "Trey's Friend" in 2000's "Shaft" remake.
She changed her name from Elizabeth Mitchell to avoid confusion with another working actress as her parts got bigger.
One breakthrough was playing the young wife of Jeff Bridges' racehorse owner in 2003's "Seabiscuit." And from there came a number of other movies, some hits ("40-Year-OldVirgin"), some flops ("Meet Dave"). The failures didn't hurt her, but the successes didn't propel her to fame, either. Banks remained in search of that definitive role.
Then "W." and "Zack and Miri" came along.
Banks' next challenge is perhaps to showcase her chameleonic talents (à la Meryl Streep) or focus on a persona that clicks (like Julia Roberts).
Maybe she can manage both. Salon.com critic Stephanie Zacharek praised her "W." performance as so nuanced that she "sees everything and says nothing," but later added: "Banks is so likable here that I found myself silently urging her character, 'Run! Run now, before it's too late!' "
As she plots her next move, Banks has two more movies in the pipeline: "Role Models," an oddball mentoring comedy starring Paul Rudd and opening Nov. 7, and "The Uninvited," a supernatural horror film (she plays a vicious stepmother) due in January.
"She has the goods, man," director Smith says. "And now, I think she's going to become a household name. People are going to know her."
When Smith was casting the role of Miri, he had a short list of actresses he thought would be daring enough to take the part.
"Alphabetically, Banks was at the top of that list," he says. "So Seth comes over, and before I could even finish, he's just like, 'Elizabeth Banks. She was awesome. I worked with her in "40-Year-Old Virgin," but also she got really far in the "Knocked Up" auditions. She was almost the female lead.' He was like, 'She's funny, she can do your dialogue, she can lift it, she's good-looking, and she's just got this charm to her, man.' "
Banks has a brash quality but also a delicate side, Smith says. "You want to protect her a little bit."
When he hears she does trapeze, he does a double-take.
"What? I thought you said she has trapeze. Like, 'There's a disease called trapeze?' I was gonna say, 'I feel really bad because she has a lot going for her — but she has trapeze?' " He takes a drag on his cigarette and says with a curious look, "What is she waiting for, Circus of the Stars to come back?"
Taking the plunge
All she really wants to do is successfully complete a split catch.
If the timing and momentum are absolutely perfect, Banks will be able to get into the split position (upside down with legs split), let go of the bar and link with Trapeze School instructor Efe Ilkay, who is swinging and hanging by his knees from an opposite bar.
Getting caught is a big deal. "The first time, it's like no feeling in the world, like no drug," says Banks. "They say you don't have to worry about being afraid of it, you have to worry about getting addicted to it."
She struggles throughout the nearly two-hour class to get it just right. "My legs are banged up a bit, but it's OK," she says. "They're war wounds."
The last time she tried the split catch, she says, "I actually never did it because I got freaked out."
Her next chance arrives. Safety lines are snapped into place around her waist, and Banks climbs the ladder. The school's ground spotter gives her the signal, and she leaps, swinging loosely to the end of the arc, flipping back into the split, then swinging back as her instructor swings toward her.
She lets go of the bar and … is caught!
Cheers rise up as she hangs from Ilkay's arms.
So which of her recent characters would do the trapeze?
"I hope they both would have," she says. "Honestly, I think Laura Bush would have gotten up there before Miri would have gotten up there. Miri is not a real go-getter. She's kind of a loser in all ways. She's not ambitious. She would do it for money."