Elizabeth Banks Wants You to See Her Porno

vilkomerson 6 Elizabeth Banks Wants You to See Her PornoThe ubiquitous ad campaign for the new Kevin Smith movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno, opening Oct. 31, is coy, to say the least. Calling to mind the hilariously austere campaign for Woody Allen’s 1972 film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, the giant posters feature a plain white backdrop and two stick figures. Above them it reads: “Seth Rogen & Elizabeth Banks made a movie so titillating that we can only show you this drawing.”

The film, which is about two best friends and roommates named Zack and Miri, is, in fact, about the pair making a homemade porno after their debt spirals out of control. (Hey, it happens. But also, don’t get any ideas!) There is some sex stuff in the movie, so people looking to be scandalized will be—there’s one anal sex joke/visual alone that makes us wonder how the film managed to pull an R rating. But all of the bouncy boobs and male full frontal (from Jason Mewes—brace yourself) is merely smoke and mirrors to obscure the real plot: an honest-to-goodness, feeling-fuzzy love story. For the first time in his film career, Mr. Rogen is a credible leading man, one who without question deserves the pretty girl. (Take that, Katherine Heigl, and your success at making him into a shlub!) And also for the first time in our current inescapable Judd Apatow’d universe of eternal bromance and shrilly girlfriends/wives begging the boys to grow up, we finally have a female character who matches up wit for wit, smut for smut, and is an equal in every sense.

As much as credit is owed to Mr. Smith for penning the character of Miri, one gets the feeling that it’s Elizabeth Banks who truly deserves the praise, for managing to pull it off. Hollywood doesn’t always like their pretty blond ladies to be funny and smart. And yet, over the past decade, this 34-year-old actress has been quietly turning in performances that alternately showcase her beauty, her hilarity and her brains—from roles in Wet Hot American Summer, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Scrubs to others in Seabiscuit, Spider-Man and Slither. She hasn’t scored the lead role in a movie that involves a wedding … and hey, we’re glad! In fact, if there were ever an honest-to-goodness Elizabeth Banks moment to be had, we might be smack in the midst of it: She is currently on screens in Oliver Stone’s W. playing Laura Bush, and the week after Zack and Miri premieres, she’ll pop up in David Wain’s Role Models, opposite Paul Rudd. “I always felt like she’s been the best-kept secret in the business, and I think the secret is out this month,” said Kevin Smith, joking (in what could not have been the first time) that Ms. Banks move from W. to Zack and Miri was just “one bush movie to another.”

“When you’re acting opposite Seth Rogen in a comedy, there’s a very good chance you’ll be intimidated, because that dude is just insanely gifted,” said Mr. Smith. “Banks not only held her own, she was just as funny as Seth. She is, hands down, the best actress I ever worked with.”

 

“Oh, he hasn’t worked with that many actresses,” laughed Ms. Banks, in response, last Sunday via phone from her hometown of Los Angeles. “I’m going to get in trouble for saying this because there are a lot of comedy writers out there who fashion themselves great writers of female characters, but Kevin Smith is by far the best at writing real authentic funny women.” Of her ability to keep up with the likes of Mr. Smith, Mr. Rogen or Mr. Rudd, she said, “I love physical comedy. I love Oscar Wilde, I love Shakespeare comedies, I love improv. I knew I had a knack for it at a certain level, but I came into this business as a classically trained drama student and that was my reputation. When you live in a leading lady’s body, which I do, you have to constantly prove that you are funny.”

The Massachusetts native attended the University of Pennsylvania, followed by the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. She credits David Wain and the Stella and State gang for her entree into the comedic world when she was cast as Lindsay in 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer. “That was the start. Here’s the thing: I wasn’t doing improv. I wasn’t doing Second City or the Upright Citizens Brigade. I never worked my way through the comedy circuit. So as a pretty girl you really have to be kissed in to this very small circle of comics and their work. So David Wain and those guys kissed me in.” (“I’ve always thought of Liz as my generation’s Madeline Kahn,” Michael Showalter, who directed Ms. Banks in The Baxter, e-mailed to The Observer. “She is graceful and comedic simultaneously. The two co-exist.”)

But the dramatic roles that followed Wet Hot American Summer, such as her portrayal of Jeff Bridges’ wife in Seabiscuit in 2003, had Hollywood confused as to who exactly this Elizabeth Banks was. “I could not get into comedy to save my life,” she said of that time. It was an audition for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which was conducted totally in improvisation, that re-initiated her. “I essentially ended up doing a lap dance for Steve Carell and Seth was in the room. That was when we first met.” Not many people remember, she said, that at the end of that film, she and Mr. Rogen shared a major snog session. (“We basically spent an entire day making out,” she said.) Kevin Smith had written Zack and Miri Make a Porno with Seth Rogen in mind as the lead. And he’d originally intended Rosario Dawson to play Miri, but the actress decided to do Eagle Eye instead. (“Bless her heart” said Ms. Banks.) Mr. Rogen suggested Ms. Banks for the role. “Kevin said, ‘Seth thinks I should hire you.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I think you should hire me, too.” 

The set of Zack and Miri was an unusual one, certainly, with adult stars Traci Lords and Katie Morgan mingling in various states of undress alongside the mainstream actors. “I’d get to set and literally had forgotten that there was even porn in the movie,” she said, explaining that in the script it would simply state one character would be having sex with another. “And then there’d be, like, naked people having sex. And it’s like, oh, right.”  

Ms. Banks’ Miri is as open about her sexual needs as Mr. Rogen’s Zack—they even compare electronic-aid wish lists. “I’m a total goody-two-shoes in a lot of ways, but I’m totally open about sex,” Ms. Banks said. For a previous film she demurred from naming, she sent vibrators as wrap presents to the three female producers. “I don’t have issues with that stuff,” she said. “I never for one minute felt like this was outrageous or unusual. I thought, oh yeah, I’ve had these conversations. One of the best things that women can do for each other is be tribeswomen and have these conversations and talk about whatever it is that needs to be talked about. Cranberry juice helps a urinary tract infection, you know, you need to have that conversation!”

She was somewhat restrained, however, when Maxim magazine recently asked Ms. Banks to be a cover girl and she turned them down. “It’s not my bag,” she said. “It’s great for other people, but I just would prefer to be known for my work than for my boobs … which are really not that impressive. No, they’re tiny, really! That’s cool, some guys like small boobs.”

The chemistry between Mr. Rogen and Ms. Banks in Zack and Miri Make a Porno is palpable. It’s impossible not to compare their sizzle to Mr. Rogen’s mostly fizzle with Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up, which was criticized by many as being entirely unrealistic not the least because, you know, what on earth would a girl like that be doing with him. Not so here, where one gets the feeling not only that these two legitimately are best friends but also belong together. Ms. Banks has a classic, Mad Men-ish beauty to rival Ms. Heigl’s, but her idiosyncrasies—her cackle of a laugh, her troublemaking glances, her physical looseness—unlock something in Mr. Rogen that makes him seem downright hot here.

“We still live in a very aesthetically oriented culture, because I’ve already seen a few reviews where it’s like, yeah, look, fat guy Seth Rogen gets the thin hot chick,” said Kevin Smith. Besides, “if he’s a fat guy, I’m Jabba the Hutt.”

“In Knocked Up she was never in love with him,” Ms. Banks said. “Never for one second did you believe that Katherine Heigl was in love with Seth. But, as Judd will tell you, that movie was about the baby at the end. He wasn’t making a movie about people staying together forever. He made a movie about what happens when someone you barely know gets you pregnant. This was the opposite—this is the love of your life sitting right in front of you.”

Speaking of love, Ms. Banks and her husband, Max Handleman, whom she married in 2003, though they’ve been together for the past 16 years, recently started their own production company, Brownstone Productions. They already have several titles in or on their way to production, including The Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis. She’s been working for eight months straight, and with three films out within a month, and another slated for next January (a Hand That Rocks the Cradle-like horror movie), she said she wasn’t sure what will come next. Our guess is that we’ll be seeing a lot more Elizabeth Banks, funny girl.

“I love all these guys,” she said. “Look, if I had to put my finger on it, I would say I am just a funny shiksa and those guys are just great Jews. All good mensch-y Jews love a funny shiksa. They really get me.”

svilkomerson@observer.com