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Mrs. America chronicles the movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s — and the conservative backlash led by Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett). But before Schlafly’s involvement, there was almost unanimous bipartisan support for the legislation. Jill Ruckelshaus, played by Elizabeth Banks, is the real-life socially progressive Republican who worked to pass the ERA from the right side of the aisle.
Playing Ruckelshaus, who was appointed to a special women’s rights commission by President Ford and who co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with feminist leaders like Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, was a reminder that American politics were not always as divided as they are today.
“For me, playing Jill was a great reminder that bipartisanship was the way of the world for so long in American politics and it’s only very recently that we’ve become as fractured and divisive as we have been,” Banks tells The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s partly due to the work of Phyllis Schlafly. It was really interesting to think about [the fact] that I was alive in the ’70s. The first president of my childhood that I really remember was Ronald Reagan, and he was a Republican. So for me in Massachusetts where I grew up, which is a very blue, very democratic place — we’re the birthplace of the Kennedys — we were very blue and true, and yet everybody seemed to really like Ronald Reagan a lot of the time.”
Banks discusses working with other powerful women, why men need to watch the series and what she’s taken from Mrs. America for her next projects. New episodes of Mrs. America debut Wednesdays on FX on Hulu.
Jill Ruckelshaus is not someone who is always remembered in the same context as her liberal counterparts.
I thought it was very interesting to remind everyone that there are so many issues that are not controversial in the larger electorate of America. For instance, most Americans by a big majority agree on background checks for all gun sales. That’s an easy one. And yet there is a small group of elected officials with a large megaphone and the backing of the NRA and others who would make it seem like somehow that’s a controversial issue. It’s not actually controversial in the larger electorate.
I think that women’s rights fall into that as well. You know, Roe v. Wade being the law of the land, something like between 80 and 90 percent of people in America think Roe v. Wade should be the law of the land that abortion should remain safe and legal. And that’s not really that controversial. And yet we hear every day about these wedge issues. So I find it really fascinating that I was able to play someone who reminded people that the Republican Party in particular at this moment in time is not the Republican Party that existed for most of American history. That there was a lot more bipartisanship, there was a lot more hands across the aisle, a lot of working together that was done, and that compromise and gray area is actually where politics lives. Things are not black and white in people’s everyday lives, especially in a country as big as America.
What are some things you learned about Jill or that you admired about her that you came across in your research?
One of the things I admired the most about Jill was her relationship with Bill and her very longstanding, loving, supportive relationship with her husband. They stayed married a very long time. I was able to look at a video of them giving a couple joint interviews over the years, and you just feel the respect that the two of them had for each other, the mutual respect that they had. And you know that in a time, in the ’70s and in the ’60s when they were also — you have to remember all these people grew up in the ’50s and ’60s so they grew up in a time when women did not work. Women stayed home and made dinners. This revolution really was born in the kitchens of these women’s lives because women started going into the workforce more and more and more after World War II. And so I find it fascinating that this was a woman who was juggling her own personal ambition and that of her husband, and that her husband made room for her in their household to have a really interesting and rich life outside of the home. That was not necessarily the norm for married women in America at that time.
She’s still alive, right?
Jill is still alive, yes. Her husband passed away very recently, but Jill is still alive.
Has she spoken out about the show at all?
Not that I am aware of. But any time you play a real person — for me at least, this isn’t the first time I’ve done so — my hope in my heart is that they feel honored in some way, in whatever way, that they feel proud and honored that their story was told.
The show is very immersive in the era, but it’s also not necessarily a respite from the real world when it’s clear that people are still fighting the same battles for the same rights.
We felt that way when we were making it as well. “You’ve come a long way baby” — I think it’s true in some respects and this show really shines a light on really where we are still failing so many women in America and around the world, honestly. We are half the population and we are up against quite a lot of historical patriarchy and misogyny. We thought that we could win these battles quickly and it turns out that we cannot.
The sheer amount of powerful women interacting with other powerful women onscreen is really striking. Do any particular moments from set stand out to you?
Well, obviously I get to go toe-to-toe with Cate Blanchett, which was a dream as an actor. It’s so fun. It’s why I really want to be part of this series too. She’s such an actor magnet. But at the same time, every single character is played by one of my favorite actresses. So it across the board is one of those all-time great casts of actors and they just all happen to be some my favorite women. I think what you say about women working together onscreen, it’s so rare. Actually, I did a lot of research when I was putting together Charlie’s Angels, and outside of romantic comedy it’s really rare to have scene where only women around the table working to do something that isn’t, like, at a magazine talking about how to get an article about a boy written or something. You see teenage girls in YA-type material doing things like that, but grown-ass women in the working world, to see a group around a table working, it’s actually really rare in the media. That was one of the more exciting things about making this project for me.
It’s true — you rarely see that many powerful actresses together outside of, like, an awards season roundtable, right?
We have to invite everybody to the party because it is not a problem that women created, although a lot of women participate in the patriarchy, which is one of the themes of this show. For me, it really is about that. It’s about we all have to be aware of what’s going on because we can’t change it if we don’t acknowledge it. One of the things that’s so interesting to me about Jill, and Phyllis in the show, and something that Dahvi [Waller, showrunner] and Laure [de Clermont-Tonnerre], the director on this episode who’s incredible, and I [discussed], it was the parallels of their lives. They’re both long-term married mothers of multiple children. They’re around the same age. They both work outside the home unofficially. Jill used to say, “Yeah, I am the head of this commission, but I’m not getting paid.” They both unofficially do a lot of work outside the home, and yet only one of them is aware that they are both up against the same enemy, which is the patriarchy. That lack of awareness, that lack of self-awareness especially, I think really has damaged equality and equal rights for all people. It’s just about getting outside of your comfort zone, shaking loose of your experience, and understanding that there are a multitude of experiences here and that our system is meant to be more just and more inclusive. It’s what is promised in our Constitution.
And this is touched on more in the Shirley Chisholm episode, but the same way that white women have to work within the patriarchy, it’s even worse for the black women who have to work within the patriarchy and white supremacy.
I have a lot of sympathy for everybody who’s learning, who’s willing to be constantly learning. Because how we’re raised and what our life experiences [are], it only gets broader and bigger with time and intention. And so I do think that there are well-intentioned people who still just don’t know what the hell is going on. And then there are people who just don’t care. But I do think if you are a well-intentioned person and you’re interested in understanding someone else’s perspective, you’re going to have a better time in the world. You’re certainly going to be more open to more people, which I do think enriches our lives.
What has the reaction been so far from audiences?
I’m not that focused on it. Personally, I’m very protective of the project and protective of the subject matter, which is intense for some people and elicits a lot of catalysts that I’ve noticed in the past whenever I speak out about women’s issues, it can elicit a lot of negativity and backlash. So I sort of protect myself from a lot of the information. I can feel that people are really liking it. My friends are telling me they like it. My mom loves the show. I’m really only paying attention to the people that are closest to me. I can tell that not enough men for my liking are watching the show.
I guess that’s to be expected.
I don’t know why! I watched every male-dominated thing with a bunch of dudes that features a bunch of guys. No one’s like, “Hmm, I can’t believe you wanted to watch that.” We’re all watching that. We’re all watching The Last Dance.
Is there anything that you took from this experience that you’ve put into your own work that you’re either developing or directing or writing or acting in the future?
This all goes hand in hand with my heart. I’ve been trying to work on things with ensembles of women since the first Pitch Perfect movie, and even before that in my own work and just promoting great female characters with agency. It’s exciting to be to be doing that in my work and collaborating with really interesting women. I love that. It’s not like a big agenda. I mean, it’s more interesting because those characters are more interesting. And the older I get, and the more experienced I am as an actor, I’m looking for things that have a lot of depth and agency where I get to go work with interesting people. These are the things that keep coming into my view.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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