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After cutting her teeth for a decade in films like Seabiscuit, Spider-Man, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and W, Elizabeth Banks is currently killing it as Jack Donaghy’s baby-mama-to-be, Avery Jessup, on 30 Rock. Returning to her roots at Sundance this year in two comedies, My Idiot Brother (debuting January 22 at the Eccles Theater at 6:15 pm in the Premieres category) and The Details (bowing January 24 at the Eccles Theater at 6:15 as a premiere), the native New Englander reflects on her favorite co-stars of all time, studying Shakespeare and swapping emails with David O. Russell.
The Hollywood Reporter: What film brought you to your first Sundance?
Elizabeth Banks: Wet Hot American Summer, with Paul Rudd, in 2001. One of my all-time favorites. We had a giant cast and slept three to a bed with people on the floor. I remember going around handing out flyers trying to get people to give us the audience award.
THR: How would you describe the films you have in this year’s festival?
Banks: The Details is a black comedy about the slippery slope of infidelity. Tobey Maguire and I play a couple. Laura Linney is our next-door neighbor. She’s incredible in it. We are all obsessing over raccoons in the yard, meanwhile everything is falling apart around us. The director, Jacob Estes, had a movie a few years ago at Sundance called Mean Creek. He’s a really interesting writer.
THR: Were there certain films you watched to help you channel suburban malaise?
Banks: Not really, but we did spend weeks rehearsing. It’s wild because the two films I have in Sundance this year are with two co-stars that I have worked the most with. I think My Idiot Brother is my fifth or sixth movie with Paul Rudd, and with Tobey, definitely our sixth movie. This is the first time Tobey has ever acted with me when I’ve had blonde hair!
THR: Do you think it helps or hurts the acting process to be so comfortable with a co-star?
Banks: Oh, it helps. Tobey and I have never played a couple, so it was interesting to delve into that together. Paul and I are like two peas in pod. I would make every movie with him if I could. We have a great relationship in My Idiot Brother. It’s one of my favorite characters I have ever played.
THR: In that film, you play one of three sisters [along with Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer] whose brother, played by Rudd, gets out of jail after a marijuana arrest, and essentially drives them all nuts?
Banks: [Laughs] Yes, it’s about a guy who goes to live with each of his three sisters and ruins their lives. It’s sort of in the vain of What About Bob? This person is ruining your life, but he’s also solving your problems. He’s more of idiot savant than a straight up idiot.
THR: You studied acting at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Has that training stuck with you?
Banks: Yes, absolutely. The tools you get in a program like ACT are all about classic storytelling. You study Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. You get a much better understanding of how to tell a story. I’m very proud of the fact that I feel comfortable getting on a stage. That’s something that young actors are embarrassingly bad at.
THR: Whose career did you hope to emulate when you were starting out?
Banks: It’s probably too late now, but when I was coming up I wanted to be the female Tom Hanks. Or Will Smith.
THR: Do you like to see yourself as three parts of a whole? Movie Elizabeth, TV Elizabeth and Theater Elizabeth?
Banks: Somewhat. I think that [kind of range] works well for longevity in a career, but necessarily doesn’t help for branding. For example, nobody thinks Michelle Williams should go do the 40-Year-Old Virgin. She is very specific in what she does and I’m not.
THR: Do people recognize you mostly from TV now?
Banks: I find people either know me from one thing or another. I remember going to the set of 30 Rock and Alec Baldwin asked my writer friend on the show, “Is she even funny?” He had only ever seen me in W and Seabiscuit. He wasn’t watching Zack and Miri Make a Porno. And last night, I was emailing with David O. Russell and he was quoting back to me lines from 30 Rock, so I was like, ‘I think he thinks I just do TV.’
THR: Are you at the point where people come to you and say, ‘I’ve written this role with you in mind’?
Banks: I find yes, more and more. I think it’s just a product of a long career. I’m feeling very lucky. Not auditioning is fabulous! It’s nice to go have lunch with someone and then they’re like, ‘Yeah let’s do the movie together.’ That’s really lovely.
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