From ‘People Like Us' to ‘Hunger Games,' Elizabeth Banks is in search of great roles

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Elizabeth Banks and Michael D'Addario, who plays her son, in a scene from "People Like Us." Banks, who attended the University of Pennsylvania, says, "I love Philly, it's a great town." ZADE ROSENTHAL / DreamWorks

In People Like Us, Elizabeth Banks plays a single mother with a troubled, troublemaking son. She works as a bartender, she's in AA — the irony of which does not escape her — and she's pretty much alone in the world.

 

When Chris Pine walks into her life — he's a messed-up, financial-world hustler — it's because he's been given a mission to give her $150,000. The money has been left to her by his father, who has just passed away. It turns out that Banks' Frankie is Pine's character's half-sister, the product of a long-ago affair his father had, and that Pine's Sam knew nothing about.

"Like it says at the beginning of the film, the story is inspired by true events," Banks explains. "It comes from Alex Kurtzman, our director, learning that his father had a second family. Basically, a woman came up to him at a party when he was 30 years old and said, ‘Hey, I'm your sister.' That's the genesis.

“Alex fictionalized pretty much everything else from there on out, but this idea of damage done by parents and the secrets that families keep, I think these are all very relatable things. … How do you get past it as an adult? And let's make sure that we don't let our pasts determine our future. And that there is a path forward that involves forgiveness. …

“And so, for Frankie and Sam — the characters in this movie — finding someone that they can lean on is so important."

Banks says that she related to Frankie, too.

"I recognized her right away. When I read the character, I fell in love with her. I love her fighting spirit. I think that she's a total survivor, and I really respected her."

Banks, who has a 16-month-old boy, adds that struggling working mom is a phrase that means more than mere economics.

"I'm a struggling working not single mom," the actress says, laughing. "I even have the help built in, and I still struggle — I think all parents do. Just the idea of making it priority number one to create a safe haven for your child, at the expense of your own life, that's also something that many, many people can relate to.

“And this idea of trying to do everything ourselves. I think a lot of people don't want to admit to needing help, or asking for it, and just betrayal, and getting hurt by people, and how that builds walls around your heart. And the type of person and the type of commitment it takes for somebody to break those walls down. It's tough."

And that's what Banks has to say about that.

Raised in western Massachusetts, Banks went to the University of Pennsylvania. She lived at 40th and Spruce, graduated in 1996, and then returned to make her feature debut here, the 1998 Slamdance festival winner Surrender Dorothy.

She came back again in the mid-aughts, to star opposite Mark Wahlberg in the underdog Iggles hit, Invincible, the true-life Philly tale of barkeep-turned-NFL pro Vince Papale.

"I love Philly, it's a great town," she says.

Banks also loves the movie business. People Like Us, which opened in theaters Friday, is the fourth film Banks has been in to be released this year: there was the thriller Man on a Ledge, and the comedy What to Expect When You're Expecting, and a little thing called The Hunger Games. Banks is Effie Trinket in the last of those three, a big-wigged chaperone assigned to oversee District 12's tributes — you know, Catnip Evergreen and Peeta Malarkey, or whatever their names are.

Banks says she had read the Suzanne Collins books before being cast in the film, and had a sense that the movie was going places.

"I wouldn't say its success came as a total surprise. I was a huge fan of the books and of the characters and of that world, and then I'm a huge Gary Ross fan" — The Hunger Games' director.

"That said, I don't think we knew how rabid the young people were going to be about it. It's always tricky, especially because of the subject matter. But I did know that we all loved it, and if there were enough of us out there and they bought tickets that it would translate. And the way that the film has been embraced is incredible."

When she's not acting in movies or grappling with the responsibilities of motherhood, Banks is busy with her other job: movie producer. Her company, Brownstone Productions, shepherded the Bruce Willis futuro-thriller Surrogates to the screen, and Banks has produced — and has a cameo in — Pitch Perfect, due from Universal this fall.

"It's a big comedy set in college, but very broad. It's a female-driven comedy, sort of in the vein of Bridesmaids, about a group of misfits that are in a singing competition, an a cappella singing competition, and it's about underdogs, and boys vs. girls. It's got a lot of classic storytelling in it, but in a very twisted way. We have some amazing characters, including Rebel Wilson, who made a splash in Bridesmaids. Anna Kendrick heads the cast, the Oscar nominee, and then Anna Camp, who had a really great role in The Good Wife this year, Brittany Snow, who I think is familiar to a lot of audiences, and a whole bevy of other really funny, young people."

The first trailer for Pitch Perfect is being shown before Rock of Ages, and Banks talks about the project like, well, it's her baby. And it is.

"I executive-produced Surrogates a few years ago," she says, "but this is the first movie where we had the brunt of the creative control. We hired the writer, we hired the director, we had to find the money, we put the whole thing together. …

“And it was the most gratifying experience. I'm in love with it. It's really hard work, but it's worth it."

And if Banks has her way, look for Tink, a live-action feature about the Peter Pan pixie Tinker Bell, sometime not too long from now. She's producing that, and hopes to star in it, too.

"Tinker Bell obviously has a long, long history and is just a heroine that I think deserves her own movie," says Banks, who envisions something comic in the vein of Will Ferrell's Elf.

"I think we have a good take on it."

And then there's Catching Fire, the second installment in The Hunger Games, with Banks reprising her Effie Trinkett role. That starts shooting in the fall.

"It's all about great roles," she says. "Tinker Bell's a great role, Effie Trinket is a great role with comedic aspects who happens to be in a drama, and this character, Frankie, in People Like Us — it's like I said, I just love her, I respect her, I wanted to be her. She's got a lot of layers, and I needed to tell her story."

 

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.