’Oh my God. It’s a disaster!” says Elizabeth Banks, frantically shoving dollar bills into a parking-lot meter at Fryman Canyon in Los Angeles. She’d picked this spot, just ten minutes from her home, for a morning hike, not knowing that the trail’s main access point would be blocked by an obstacle course of construction cones, or that her usual street parking would be overtaken by backhoes, or that she didn’t have cash for the parking fee and would have to venture back through the roadwork to find an ATM and then buy an iced tea just so she’d have change. Still, she’s arrived pretty much on time—and so obviously stressed out by the effort that she has to laugh at herself. “I’m such a goody two-shoes. I don’t like being late!” she says in the same high-pitched clippy voice of her 30 Rock character, Avery Jessup, the neocon CNBC talk-show-host wife to Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy.
Banks hikes wearing a glove on one hand to hold her iced tea becauseshe hates cold, clammy hands (“You don’t want that! That’s not fun!, she says, playfully smearing the glove’s condensation on my face). She often hikes this route with husband Max Handelman, whom she’s been with for nineteen years, since they met on the first day of their freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. The two have a production company, and in March, they gave birth to a son, Felix, via a surrogate.
On our way up, we pass Sara Gilbert, and George Clooney’s house, which Banks points out, though she’s never been inside. She finds all other canyons around town to be plagued by paparazzi and a stifling cloud of seeing and being seen. “I won’t hike Runyon,” she says. “You have to wear makeup before you hike Runyon. I can’t deal. I have no eyebrows right now.”
Banks, 37, is petite and pretty, but she does, in fact, look a little freakish. Her brows have been bleached to invisibility so she can wear the mask of makeup required for what is sure to be the most watched and scrutinized role of her career—as Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games, the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s hugely popular dystopian trilogy. Trinket is the pink-haired “mentor” to teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she’s forced to fight other kids to the death on TV. Banks, who got the role after hounding director Gary Ross, with whom she’d worked on Seabiscuit, had long been a fan of the books. “I definitely see parallels” to today’s world, she says. “The Hunger Games is a tried-and-true tale about a totalitarian society.”
It’s not America—yet—but she does worry. “We have a problem where the top 1 percent controls everything and then 99 percent of Americans don’t have a say in their daily life. That stuff really affects me because I grew up in a working-class family—I worked three jobs in college—and my parents and sisters all lost jobs recently.”
Her latest film, Our Idiot Brother, reminds her of her family, too. In it she plays a cutthroat journalist named Miranda who is trying to impress her bosses at Vanity Fair with a good story. The film was written by real-life Vanity Fair writer Evgenia Peretz and her husband, David Schisgall, and directed by her non-idiot brother, former Lemonheads bassist Jesse Peretz. The movie’s idiot brother is Ned, played by Paul Rudd, just out of jail for selling pot to a cop in uniform and reentering the lives of his three putatively more “together” sisters: ruthless Miranda; Emily Mortimer’s in-denial-about-her-unhappiness stay-at-home mom; and Zooey Deschanel’s restless Brooklyn lesbian, who’s having issues settling down with girlfriend Rashida Jones.
In real life, Banks is the oldest of four. Her middle sister is recently remarried with two kids by her ex; her baby sister just moved in with her boyfriend in Brooklyn after a long period of underemployed wandering and is “figuring out her life.” And then, of course, there’s Banks’s baby brother, Geoffrey, the Ned of the family, “who’s 26 and works in the kitchen of a pizza parlor and smokes weed and hangs out.”
Our Idiot Brother fits neatly within the genre of male-centric raunch comedies in which Banks is either cast as a tightly wound overachiever on the verge of imploding or, more often, as the unrepentant slut. Her first feature role was ten years ago, as Rudd’s slobbery make-out partner in Wet Hot American Summer. (His character dumped her with the oft-quoted line “You taste like a burger. I don’t like you anymore.”) She’s also been the sex-crazed bookstore clerk who masturbates in front of Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (also with Rudd; Idiot will be their fifth film together). When she got the role of Laura Bush in Oliver Stone’s W, she was coming directly off the fake porn set of Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
“I’ve been doing a lot of playing with the boys, and I’m sort of over it,” she says. Several times, she mentions wanting to play the romantic-comedy leads that go to Reese Witherspoon and Cameron Diaz. Eight years ago, she tried writing her own female-centric comedy, called What About Barb?, about a bride whose crazy relative Barb is forced upon her as her maid of honor. There was a scatological scene in the ladies’ room in the script, but “the studio execs were like, ‘People don’t want to see girls doing that.’ And I was like, ‘I’m writing from experience! You go to a club and you have to wait in a huge line, so people double up. And, yes, you think you’re only going to take a little pee, but sometimes some poops come out.’ ” It never got made. Says Banks, “We never got the pooping scene as right as they got it in Bridesmaids.”
As we come back to the parking lot, she is significantly more relaxed from the hike. She’s not sure if she’ll be back as Avery, for which she was nominated for an Emmy. As of 30 Rock’s season finale, the character was being detained in North Korea, where she was forced to marry Kim Jong-un and read propaganda on-air. Anyway, Banks is busy. Right now, she’s got to go to Target to get diapers for Felix and buy wrapping paper for a friend’s baby shower. Then she’s got a meeting with a writer, “for one of my badass female projects.”
Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that Banks worked with director Gary Ross on Secretariat. The two worked together on Seabiscuit.