A self-proclaimed “reluctant fashionista,” Banks approaches clothes with the same pragmatism she brings to everything else in her life. She grew up scouring the racks of her local T.J. Maxx for designer labels, and though she now has the resources to purchase a Burberry trenchcoat—an item she professes to love—she still has difficulty shopping. She rarely uses a stylist, although she does have a long-standing relationship with Prada, which happened to begin after college, when one of Banks’s sorority sisters worked in VIP relations there. “I could go out in jeans and a T-shirt every day, but I like to play the game a little bit,” she says, “and when you hit it with an outfit, that’s when those relationships really pay off, and the photo goes everywhere.” For this year’s Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which celebrated superheroes, Banks donned a dove gray Prada dress, its flouncy skirt and bustier playing to the evening’s fashion-forward theme.
In her work, however, Banks has often forsaken vanity for laughs. After appearing in commercials for Dove and Crest fresh out of graduate school, she landed a role in the 2001 cult summer-camp comedy Wet Hot American Summer, which placed her in the company of the East Coast comedy cabal of Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black and David Wain. Next came brief parts in Swept Away and Spider-Man (and its sequels), followed by Seabiscuit, in which she was cast as the young wife of a horse owner played by Jeff Bridges. It was at a White House screening of that film that Banks, in fact, met the woman she is now channeling onscreen.
“I found her to be lovely,” says Banks, a Democrat whose crisp directness about all matters—from the dearth of “real women with real problems” shown in multiplexes to her desire to make movies “to pay my mortgage”—makes her assessment of Laura Bush ring true. “I very much relate to the desire to be a good wife, and I relate to the sense that that is a very important thing to be,” she says. To prepare for W., which portrays Laura from age 30, when she met the future president, to age 58 in 2004, Banks, whom Stone calls “one of the most focused actresses that I’ve ever worked with,” has been listening to podcasts of Mrs. Bush giving speeches, looking to nail her slow cadence and West Texas drawl (she’s a particular fan of Bush’s 2005 White House correspondents’ dinner speech, in which the first lady compared herself to a desperate housewife). “I think making sacrifices for your relationship is very respectable,” Banks adds, no doubt referring to her own nearly 16-year partnership, a veritable lifetime by Hollywood standards.