Elizabeth Banks has lost jobs for being too old, too female, and too unwilling to take off her clothes. But now she’s having the last laugh as the star and director of summer’s biggest comedy

‘I ’ve always been a little too old,” says Elizabeth Banks. As ridiculous as this statement sounds, she won’t soften it with a self-deprecating smile or a laugh. The actress is talking about Hollywood, after all, and an industry whose absurdity can’t be conveyed by ridiculous statements alone.  

Banks is talking about fact. “I remember screen testing to play Mary Jane Watson in Spiderman opposite Tobey Maguire, and they didn’t cast me because I was too old,” recalls the actress: a pretty, slight and jet-lagged figure against the grandeur of her Claridge’s suite. “I was literally told, ‘You are too old.’ Now I was 26 at the time – nearly the same age as Tobey, by the way – but they went with someone 10 years younger. Of course I’m over it now,” shrugs Banks when I ask whether, at 41, she still runs up against the same indictment. “I think I’m enduring.” 

That last statement is served up with a self-deprecating smile. As well it might be. The week we meet, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts-born actress is on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter beneath the headline “The $200 Million Road To Director”.

With the sequel of her surprise 2012 hit Pitch Perfect – a rowdy musical comedy following the lives and ambitions of a group of college a cappella singers, which grossed $113 million worldwide – predicted to earn her a place in history as the most successful female comedy director ever when it premieres later this month, Banks is doing a little more than enduring.  

The sexism in Hollywood is not particularly overt - the system is good at hiding it

Depending on your age and demographic, you’ll recognise her from one or several of the 70 roles she has packed into her 16-year career, whether it’s Steve Carell’s sex-crazed girlfriend in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, George W Bush’s better half, Laura, in W., high-kicking heroine Wyldstyle in The Lego Movie, or The Hunger Games’s inimitable Effie Trinket, elaborately disguised by pastel-coloured wigs and architectural frocks. 

If, by chance, this bubbly blonde with the Fifties pin-up smile and gift for bright, unabashed comedy has passed you by, you’ll be in no doubt as to who she is by the end of this year. 

Banks's Lego Movie character, Wyldstyle (centre) Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

In 2015 alone, Banks will appear in Pitch Perfect 2 – which she also produced and directed – Magic Mike XXL, the final Hunger Games instalment and a Netflix series based on the 2001 satirical comedy Wet Hot American Summer. 

As one of Hollywood’s most sought after and versatile actresses and the co-head of Brownstone Productions alongside her husband of 12 years, Max Handelman, she is reaching, if not at, her professional peak. “No matter what,” she says with the smallest nod of acknowledgement, “I’m in a very small club. There are very few women who have directed studio-level commercial films – very few.”

Why is that? Do women still see it as a hostile male world? “Well I don’t know if it’s women’s fault,” she flings back archly. “I don’t blame the women. I’ve seen a lot of s--- go down. The sexism in Hollywood is not particularly overt – because the system is good at hiding it. But the numbers don’t lie – and they can obviously be improved.

John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks in Pitch Perfect 2

Making the Pitch Perfect films with my husband and Paul Brooks, who was very supportive, sort of made them an inevitability in my life. But because I made them with people I trust, I was able to have a lot of control. And I think it is scary to walk into a situation where you think you may be undermined or underestimated.” 

When I ask whether she has ever felt either, Banks gives one of her big, ladette laughs – which ends as abruptly as it started. “I think I’m constantly underestimated,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to produce and direct, because I knew I had more to offer in this industry and I was being underused.” And now? “Now, although I feel that I have more control over how I spend my time, I still want to act. So I still go around begging for jobs.”

Banks’s assertiveness and single-mindedness is well documented. When she heard that Gary Ross – with whom she’d made Seabiscuit – was going to direct The Hunger Games, she sent him an email saying: “I love these books and I’d like to play Effie.”

Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Still today, Oliver Stone – who cast Banks as Laura Bush in W. – calls her “Laura” in a testament to how fully she played the role. “You don’t get what you don’t ask for,” she explains, pulling a large cashmere scarf around her shoulders. “The problem is that there just aren’t enough jobs to go around. So I found that creating my own opportunities was better than just putting my hand out and waiting.”

As a “late bloomer” who got her first screen role at 25, it’s possible that Banks was making up for lost time. What seems more likely is that the Ivy League-educated daughter of a General Electric factory worker and a bank clerk simply decided to put her naturally forthright manner and proactive attitudes to good use. Having graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in communications, she went on to earn a master of fine arts degree at the American Conservatory Theater. 

But all the qualifications in thesp-land couldn’t have equipped her for the daily bunfight of the audition circuit in LA, where she and her husband moved in the late Nineties – and even booking a commercial was seen as the holy grail. “I went to a few really bad commercial auditions,” she winces, “because I needed the money and when you booked a commercial your life was made: you could eat. But there was this one where I hadn’t realised that I would need to wear a bikini, and it was basically explained to me that I wouldn’t get the job unless I showed them my body. 

I allowed a Polaroid to be taken of me in my bra and panties. I remember getting dressed and walking out and seeing it laid out on a table amid a grid of 50 girls

“I remember asking one of the other girls if I could borrow a bathing suit,” she cringes, letting out a peal of laughter, “which is disgusting, right? Obviously the girl just said no, and because I was at such a loss for what to do, I allowed a Polaroid to be taken of me in my bra and panties.” 

Silently, we both digest the foolishness of this. “I remember getting dressed and walking out,” Banks goes on, grim-faced, “and seeing it laid out on a table amid a grid of 50 girls. Still, I learnt my lesson, and that was: my dignity was worth more than that moment. And maybe I had to go through that to know that I was worth more.”

Thankfully, Banks’s invigorated sense of self-worth doesn’t seem to have spilt over into the earnestness and extreme caution that characterises most Hollywood actresses these days – or cost her the bawdy and unflinching sense of humour that has delighted journalists over the years. 

She has been both honest and witty on issues such as infertility and IVF (both sons, Magnus, two, and Felix, four, were born via surrogate) and still likes to riff on the whole “dumb blonde” perception (which has helped rather than hindered her). “I think it’s good to lower expectations then over-deliver,” she says with a narrowing of the eyes. “I like to surprise people.”

She’s also one of the few actresses I know who publicly admit to enjoying love scenes (in private they’ll often enthuse that it’s really “the ultimate hall pass”). “You want to have actual chemistry with the person, obviously,” she says, grinning, “but I typically find them to be pretty fun – much more so now than when I was younger. When you’re young you worry that all the crew are standing around or that the man is going to touch your fat. Now I’ll just go: ‘Everybody want to watch? Here we go!’ ” 

Knowing how vocal she is on sexism both in Hollywood and in life, I ask Banks how she would counter accusations that the Magic Mike movies – loosely based on Channing Tatum’s experiences as an 18-year-old stripper in Florida – denigrate men. “What could possibly be sexist about it?” shrills Banks, who has joined the cast for the sequel, Magic Mike XXL. The notion of men being objectified by women? “Aw,” she tilts her blonde bob to one side, “poor babies. Welcome to the club, boys!”

Smashing the boys' club: Banks on the set of Pitch Perfect 2

I tell Banks about the British girl who made front-page news by reporting a group of local builders to the police for persistently wolf whistling at her. 

Does she like being wolf whistled at? “Absolutely not,” she counters – and the strength of her reaction surprises me. “I consider unwanted attention in the street harassment, absolutely. Because I’m physically not as big as that man and that’s why I consider it a threat. That’s also why it’s not the same [the other way around] – and don’t let the f------ media tell you it is.

Violence against women is real and something I feel passionately about, and the gateway to all that is wolf whistling

"Violence against women is real and something I feel passionately about, and the gateway to all that is wolf whistling. It’s allowing a man to impose his will on a woman who is just trying to walk down the street and live her life. It’s all about unwanted versus wanted attention, and, of course, there’s a fine line. Maybe most men don’t know where that line is, so my advice to them is: don’t do it.”

LA may be curiously devoid of wolf-whistling men (“Only because we drive everywhere,” quips Banks), but the actress still feels that many a dialogue, in both the professional and the domestic arena, needs changing in America and elsewhere. She rightly corrects me when I ask whether, with her hectic filming schedule, she ever suffers from “mother’s guilt” (“Let’s call it ‘parental guilt’ and bring the men into the conversation, shall we?”) and later declares it mildly irritating that Pitch Perfect was perceived as a “girl power statement”. “Having directed a movie that was written by a woman and directed by a woman, and stars a group of women, is such a rare thing that just by its very existence it becomes a statement. Even though we were not going for girl power,” she shrugs. “We just wanted to make a very funny film.”

To that aim, they succeeded. At the screening of Pitch Perfect 2 – in which the Barden Bellas take their chaotic talents to an international level – the girls seated beside me had to cross their legs, I tell her, they were laughing so hard. “That’s what I want!” she giggles into her scarf. “I want everyone who sees this film to wet themselves. But in the second film, what was really important to me was that we expand the girls’ world into adulthood. They were big fish in a small pond in the first movie, and I wanted that pond to get much, much bigger. Because that’s what happens in life: you get to a certain stage and you find that you’ve got to start over again.” 

At this point it seems unlikely that Banks will have to. With more directing projects up her sleeve, a determination to keep acting and a website - elizabethbanks.com - she can all too often be found giving advice to her fans at one in the morning. “I do enjoy having a direct line of communication with people about things that matter to me,” she says. “That’s one of the best parts of being famous. Not that I think there is ever any reason to complain about it. It’s not a relatable complaint, is it? I’m not working in the mines or dodging bullets in Afghanistan. So really, I’m doing just fine.”

Pitch Perfect 2 is released on May 15