Wearing a lavender tennis skirt, a collared shirt and clean-as-a-whistle Sportmax sneakers, her streaked blond hair tucked under a feathered brunette wig, Elizabeth Banks bounds into a Shreveport, Louisiana, hotel room (in Sam’s Town Casino, to be precise) looking more like a Seven Sisters coed than a woman who will, in the next decade, become the wife of the governor of Texas. “Laura was out playing tennis, George was hungover from his 40th-birthday party, and when I come back, he tells me he is going to quit [drinking],” explains Banks of her character’s sartorial choice. The Laura in question is, of course, Laura Bush, along with her sobering-up husband, the future 43rd president of the United States, portrayed by Banks and Josh Brolin, respectively, in Oliver Stone’s highly anticipated biopic, W., due out just in time for the presidential election. So it was an emotional scene? “Not really,” Banks says with a shrug. “There aren’t any big crying jags or fights in the movie. They seem very even-keeled, actually.”
It’s a statement that could easily be made about Banks herself, an actress known best for her disarmingly funny roles in male-centric movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Baxter. Educated at the University of Pennsylvania and already a producer in her own right (she and her husband, Max Handelman, whom she met at a frat party on her first day of college, are producing the latest Bruce Willis vehicle The Surrogates), Banks, 34, has become something of a comedic go-to girl for some of Hollywood’s biggest directors, from Judd Apatow to Kevin Smith. She plays a young slacker plotting to get out of debt by making racy straight-to-video movies with her best friend (played by Seth Rogen) in Smith’s upcoming comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
As for W., the film is controversial not just because of its always divisive director (who is working from a script by his Wall Street collaborator, Stanley Weiser), but also because it purports to depict the life of the leader of the free world and his wife before he has even left office. For the role, Banks has drawn on the steely determination that, as she tells it, helped her make “a lot more money my first year as an actor than I would have my first year as an associate at a law firm.
“I never wanted to be a starving artist,” Banks adds, tucking into a plate of salad and chicken in her trailer, to which a fire alarm in the casino has sent us scurrying. “I focus on the business side of my work. I know what this commodity is”—she circles a finger around her face—“and I don’t fit the definition of ‘artist’ very well. I’m not tortured. I like putting deals together.” Born and raised in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Banks (née Mitchell; she changed her name to Banks because another actress already had hers) is the oldest of four and the first in her family to graduate from college. Her father is a factory worker, and her mother, until recently, worked in a bank. “I grew up poor,” she says matter-of-factly, explaining that acting itself seemed like an impractical career choice at first, given that she had paid for her Ivy League education with loans. “I really didn’t want to study for the LSAT, and I thought, Well, since I don’t know what I want to do, if I get into drama school, I’d do that, because it would be a sign,” she says of her decision to attend San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, which, of course, meant more loans. She pauses as the door to her trailer swings open and a costumer steps in, holding up two robin’s-egg blue outfits—one, a silk shirtdress; the other, a decidedly more matronly two-piece suit. Banks glances between the two and points to the second. “I think Laura would wear the suit,” she says, and the shirtdress is whisked away.