Lady in Waiting

Elizabeth Banks takes on her biggest role yet: the woman in the White House.

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Lady in Waiting
Elizabeth Banks, wearing a Marchesa dress, at the Harvard House Motel in Los Angeles.

Lady in Waiting

Elizabeth Banks takes on her biggest role yet: the woman in the White House.

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.

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.

“I felt right away that she connected in some way to Laura Bush,” says Stone, who offered Banks the part after a brief meeting just weeks before shooting started in May. “And because we don’t know the real Laura very much from all the manufactured reality around that couple, Elizabeth has unveiled to me what this woman feels like, and whatever shadow areas are in her life as well.”

Yet although Banks admits to relishing the credibility and publicity that have come with playing the first lady, it’s comedy—preferably the screwball, gross-out, as-silly-as-it-gets kind—that gives her creative kicks. “Making people laugh is very addictive, so if you have any talent for it, it just kind of takes over,” she says, despite the fact she’d never get near a comedy club’s stage. “The best stand-up,” she explains, “is always, ‘My life sucks. I can’t get laid. My car doesn’t start.’ There are no very pretty stand-up girls that are successful. And there’s a reason. I don’t want to hear pretty girls complain about their problems.” Instead, Banks foresees directing and doing improv, which made up the majority of her turn opposite Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, as inevitable next steps. “You don’t have to say the most clever thing every time; you just have to not be afraid to fail,” she says. “And if you’re gonna fail, go big. If you’re gonna crack a joke and it’s not gonna work, you should at least really go for it. That’s my motto.”