Elizabeth Banks: ‘My film is loaded with sneaky feminist ideas’

Actor, writer and director Elizabeth Banks is that rarest of people in Hollywood: a woman who gets her voice heard. As her Charlie’s Angels reboot arrives in cinemas, she talks about setting her own agenda, equal pay – and what she learned from Julia Roberts

When Elizabeth Banks was starting out in Hollywood in the late 90s, she had one goal: to have a career like Julia Roberts. “Everyone wanted to be Julia Roberts,” she says. “I still want to be Julia Roberts! Believe me, if I was Julia Roberts, I would not be working this hard.” Over the past two decades, Banks has been working very hard indeed. And if her name isn’t instantly familiar, her body of work certainly is. She has been a regular in commercial comedy films – The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012) – and a recurring guest star on TV shows such as 30 Rock and Modern Family, for which she received Emmy nominations. For a time she played the eccentric Effie Trinket in the wildly successful Hunger Games trilogy (2012–2015) while simultaneously playing the gobby Gail Abernathy-McKadden in the Pitch Perfect series (2012-2017).

But it’s Banks’s work as a producer (on Pitch Perfect) and a director (on Pitch Perfect 2, which became the highest-grossing music comedy film of all time) that has brought her international recognition. She has transformed from jobbing actor to bankable filmmaker, a transition that is usually fraught and complicated – but she has made it seem easy. This month sees the release of a new Charlie’s Angels reboot, a film Banks has written, produced and directed. Now 45, she has become what the industry might call a triple threat: an actress, a filmmaker and a business magnate rolled into one.

“I was a frustrated actor,” she says. We’re chatting in a low-key LA neighbourhood brunch spot, an airy-fairy sort of place that seems at odds with her work ethic. There are instructions to: “Leave your laptop in the bag please, this table is for dining, daydreaming and conversation.”

‘Everyone wanted to be Julia Roberts’: Elizabeth Banks wears dress by Carolina Herrera; platforms by Brian Atwood; lucite drop earrings by Saskia Diez; ring by Jennifer Fisher.
‘Everyone wanted to be Julia Roberts’: Elizabeth Banks wears dress by Carolina Herrera; platforms by Brian Atwood; lucite drop earrings by Saskia Diez; ring by Jennifer Fisher. Photograph: Ramona Rosales/The Observer

“I didn’t have enough to do,” she continues. “The industry wasn’t offering me enough. It wasn’t permitting me to tell the stories I wanted to tell.” Julia Roberts never has those problems. “She decides what she wants to do, when she wants to. You have to make your own opportunities.”

In 2013, Banks was on the lookout for a romcom to direct when Pitch Perfect 2 came along. The opportunity was unexpected. She’d been following her own path for a while. She’d directed and starred in a public service announcement for the American Heart Association that “went very viral” and a funny short film with the actor Chloë Grace Moretz. Banks had already set up a production company, Brownstone, with her husband, the sportswriter Max Handelman. When the director of Pitch Perfect declined to take on a sequel, Banks considered it a no-brainer to take the job. She’d been a producer on the franchise already; she had all the intel she needed. I suggest Banks has been a frustrated director on set her whole career and she shrieks: “I’m not the only one!”

She learned everything she knows on the job, Banks says. “But that means you recognise pretty quickly when you’re in a process with somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing. And when you’re trusting your performance with someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, it’s terrifying. It happens to everybody. We all work with people who are not up to the job.”

Banks recalls going into a meeting at Sony to announce, simply: “‘I want to direct a Charlie’s Angels movie.’ To be able to work for a big studio with a big budget? They don’t usually just hand that out. But I felt ready and confident.” Pitch Perfect 2 earned $69m on opening weekend, setting a record for a first-time director, bringing Banks accolades as a filmmaker. Suddenly she was in demand in a way she hadn’t quite been previously: to realise a film’s larger vision, rather than play a smaller, acting role within it. “I wouldn’t say I could have directed whatever I wanted,” she says. “But I definitely had leeway to have some autonomy over what I was going to do next.”

New generation Charlie’s Angels 2019: from left, Naomi Scott, Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks.
New generation Charlie’s Angels 2019: (from left) Naomi Scott, Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks. Photograph: Lifestyle pictures/Alamy Stock Photo

Watching Charlie’s Angels, it’s impossible to question her ambition. Charles Townsend’s investigative agency has expanded and there are now groups of Angels – all smart, highly trained women – across the world. Banks plays a key role: Bosley to the Angels Sabina (Kristen Stewart), Elena (Naomi Scott) and Jane (Ella Balinska).

Some of the film’s details – for example, a female employee discovers a sinister plot in a large tech company, but is dismissed by her male bosses – might be construed as political. Is that impossible to avoid in 2019? “I’m not making any grand statements,” she says. “I happened to make an action movie about corporate malfeasance that also happens to star women and everyone’s like, ‘What a political statement!’ And I’m like, ‘Is it?’ If they were all men and it was the exact same story, it wouldn’t be very political, would it? I wanted to make a broader, appealing movie rather than something actually political.”

She finds it interesting that “simply because I made a movie that stars women, that it’s feminist enough. That’s something I heard when I was putting the movie together. Like, ‘You’re lucky you’re getting to make it, it’s feminist enough. You don’t have to push it.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m pushing it at all!’”

Banks has ditched the male gaze of Charlie’s Angels past and has loaded the film with “sneaky feminist ideas”. “Little things,” she says, “like, ‘Don’t forget to smile!’” Because the reality for female directors, she says, is that they are still not afforded the same opportunities as men. Even those who get to direct a juggernaut like Charlie’s Angels.

“I don’t think you’ve ever heard anyone say to a man, ‘You can’t direct that story because it’s about a woman,’ and yet I have been told – I’m not going to tell you who said it – that I couldn’t direct men because they ‘wouldn’t follow me’ as a director. Directing is all about leadership. So basically they were saying I couldn’t lead. I’ve worked with a lot of difficult men as an actor and it’s never been a problem. A good leader is a good leader. I did not take to heart what that gentleman said to me, but I’m also positive he’s never said that to a man.”

‘We’re being bad Jews this year because we decided to take the kids to Disneyland.’ Elizabeth Banks with her husband Max Handelman.
‘We’re being bad Jews this year because we decided to take the kids to Disneyland.’ Elizabeth Banks with her husband Max Handelman. Photograph: Picture Perfect/Rex/Shutterstock

Banks was born Elizabeth Mitchell in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to a bank clerk and a factory worker. The eldest of four children, she grew up in a close-knit family that “did a wonderful job raising me and have been completely supportive my whole life”. But things were not always easy. “My upbringing was socio-economically tough,” she says, which “meant that you had to make decisions about what you could afford.”

How bad did things get? “It’s what Kamala Harris talks about a lot now. A $500 emergency will put a lot of families into bankruptcy, basically. That’s what it was like. When I was growing up, if the car broke down, it was a state of emergency. My parents did an excellent job shielding us from it. But to me, a big part of success is not worrying if the car breaks down.”

Banks met her husband on her first day at the University of Pennsylvania in 1992. She went on to study at the American Conservatory Theater, before the couple settled in LA and married in 2003. They are now parents to two boys, both born via gestational surrogacy because of a womb issue, or what Banks refers to on her personal blog as her “broken belly”. “We make a ‘baby cake,’” she explained at the time, “and bake it in another woman’s ‘oven’.”

The family practise Judaism, though Banks has never formally converted. When we meet, Jewish New Year is just a few days away. “We’re being bad Jews this year because we decided to take the kids to Disneyland,” Banks says, her eyes lighting up. “They don’t know we’re going. It’s a surprise! They have the day off school and I felt like if we stayed here I would get pulled into work, but this way I’m out for the day. I’m taking my youngest on his first rollercoaster and I’m so excited.”

After a decade in the same home, the Banks clan recently upgraded to a sizeable property in Sherman Oaks and she’s enjoying doing the “nesting, decorating and organising” that the past 10 years have not exactly allowed for. She’s getting better, Banks says, at taking time out. “I want to be available for my kids as much as I can be. We might try and do a Saturday date night, but we don’t leave the house until the kids are in bed so they don’t miss a minute with us on the weekend. I decide when I have to work. That provides comfort and space for the other things I love, which is my family and my friends. I have control over my time. If I don’t want to do something, I say no.”

Talk turns to pay parity. Michelle Williams has just broached the issue in a speech at the Emmys. “She’s one of the greatest actors of her generation,” Banks says. “And she works so hard on every job and yet, in Venom, Tom Hardy made way more money than her. It’s hard to be, like: ‘You guys, you know sometimes just paying us tells us that you like us!’ You can show that you value us in many ways. One is by giving us awards, one is by letting us play really cool roles, another one is to pay us.” She’s deadpanning. “It’s interesting that we’re expected as women not to value money as a factor in our worth when it’s a factor in everyone’s worth.”

‘Honestly, I’m having a hard time feeling optimistic in the world we’re living in today’: Elizabeth Banks.
‘Honestly, I’m having a hard time feeling optimistic in the world we’re living in today’: Elizabeth Banks. Photograph: Ramona Rosales/The Observer

Does she feel that things are starting to improve at all? “I don’t know. I hope. Honestly, I’m having a hard time feeling optimistic in the world we’re living in today in general. Whether that’s about women being directors or women having autonomy over their bodies, I feel like every step forward we’re looking over our shoulder waiting to see if they’re going to come for us.” How long has she been feeling like this – since Trump was elected? “Uh huh.”

In 2016 Banks gave a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention in support of Hillary Clinton, where she famously parodied the soon-to-be-president. “Some of you know me from The Hunger Games, in which I play Effie Trinket, a cruel, out-of-touch reality TV star who wears insane wigs while delivering long-winded speeches to a violent dystopia,” she said. “So when I tuned into Cleveland last week, I was like, ‘Hey, that’s my act!’”

Her show of support for Hillary was “a no-brainer if you’re a feminist,” she tells me. “I’m here for more justice in the world, generally. There was all this anecdotal evidence that the system works against us. And now the system is openly and actively working against us. I’m a white lady and it’s so much worse for people of colour and non-cisgendered people and I’m totally aware of that. That’s depressing to me because I’m someone who believes in the more the merrier at the table. We are living globally and we can’t put that genie back in the bottle, so let’s help each other.”

I’d pick her brain on this more if we had longer. But as soon as our meeting ends there’s a blacked out SUV waiting for her. There’s no let-up, but I’m certain Banks wouldn’t have it any other way. “I have to figure out what I’m going to do next,” she muses, before heading off. “I have to get pitching. And reading. And coalescing things into reality.”

Charlie’s Angels is released on 29 November

Hair by Mark Townsend at Starworks; makeup by Fiona Stiles at Starworks; stylists Wendi & Nicole at Forwards Artists. Green dress by Carolina Herrera; Pink platforms by Brian Atwood; Lucite drop earrings by Saskia Diez; Ring by Jennifer Fisher. Orange dress by Zuhair Murad; Hoops by Jennifer Fisher


Martha Hayes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Elizabeth Banks set to reboot Charlie's Angels film franchise
Pitch Perfect 2 director tapped to bring private-eye action comedy back to the big screen more than a decade after 2003’s middling Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle

Ben Child

16, Sep, 2015 @2:35 PM

Article image
Behind the scenes, film and TV workers want less drama
It’s a glamorous industry, but the bullying culture can make working conditions unbearable. By Eva Wiseman

Eva Wiseman

03, Oct, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
From the archive: working with Alfred Hitchcock on his last film in 1982
The final film, The Short Night, was never shot, but screenwriter David Freeman recalls dealing with the great director as his health and mental wellbeing failed

Chris Hall

12, May, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
The most memorable moments in film, as picked by readers in 2000
The shower scene in Psycho featured on the Observer readers’ list, but only in second place. By Chris Hall

Chris Hall

11, Sep, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Roma sets the scene: the magical Mexico City district behind the film
Alfonso Cuarón’s award-winning movie takes place in a gritty, colourful barrio that has retained its stylish eclecticism

Joanna Moorhead

17, Feb, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
The day Grace Jones told me she 'loved the smell' of my film
It’s 2002, London, the first showing of a film about Grace Jones’s brother, and someone exciting walks in and sits down at the front, recalls Sophie Fiennes

Sophie Fiennes

26, Nov, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Rupert Grint: ‘The line between Ron Weasley and me got thinner with each film’
The actor, 30, on being an introvert, peaking early and his desire to have kids

Nick McGrath

01, Dec, 2018 @2:00 PM

Article image
Sex and the City 3 could have been the best worst film ever
They’re canning it and, judging by the last one, we should thank them, says Eva Wiseman

Eva Wiseman

15, Oct, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Forty years since Fat Is A Feminist Issue
Susie Orbach never imagined her classic book would still be so relevant decades later

Susie Orbach

24, Jun, 2018 @11:00 AM

Article image
Elizabeth Banks bows out of directing Pitch Perfect 3
The actor-turned-director made her directorial debut with Perfect Perfect 2 – but has decided to only star in and produce the third film in the hit series

Nigel M Smith

03, Jun, 2016 @8:27 PM