With her girl-next-door looks and Barbie doll figure, Elizabeth Banks could have landed in typecasting purgatory, a go-nowhere loop of girlfriend and rom-com roles. Instead, she’s parlayed her natural spunk into a diverse career that includes comedies, bromances, blockbusters, horror movies, plum TV guest roles, and, more recently, thrillers. In her new movie, Man on a Ledge (in theaters January 27), she plays a negotiator trying to talk a cop on the lam (Sam Worthington) off a (you guessed it) ledge. We spoke to Banks about performing scenes 200 feet above Madison Avenue, becoming the First Lady of North Korea on 30 Rock, and costuming Effie Trinket in the upcoming Hunger Games.
When you heard the news about Kim Jong Il, did you immediately think about Avery, your character on 30 Rock?
No, I didn’t, actually. I thought about the freedom of the North Korean people and how hopefully they would stop nuclear proliferation and open themselves up to trade. But I got a lot of concerned tweets about Avery and then realized, Oh yeah, everybody else is concerned about her. And it was really funny to read.
How's this going to be addressed in the show?
I hope I was an assassin. But I probably wasn’t. I have no idea what’s going on. I’ve spoken to the writers. I have not gone back and shot anything, and they’re trying to figure it out. I feel like everyone wants a concrete answer about whether Avery is doing X, Y, Z, but I have no idea.
Your next movie is Man on a Ledge. I love how unambiguous the title is.
When I read it, it read like a really tight thriller. But it was also really character-based. It was a super-contained movie: This guy’s gonna be out there on the ledge and at some point we’re gonna figure out why. I love the simplicity of the storytelling. Basically, my character is almost like in a play. There’s all this crazy action going on around us, but I’m on a windowsill and he’s on a ledge, and it’s all about us trying to connect and figure things out with each other and keep it interesting for 90 minutes.
I’ve heard that Sam Worthington had to overcome a fear of heights for this film. What about you?
I like to say that I’m not afraid of heights, but I am afraid of human error. I actually don’t have a fear of heights — I’m cool being up there. But I did probably check the harness 50 times. I constantly had anxiety, like, Is a bird gonna fly into me? Is my coat gonna get caught in the window? Is the camera guy gonna bump me? Things like that. It’s a very anxiety-filled situation, whether you have a fear of heights or not.
What kind of safety measures were taken to ensure you or Sam didn’t plummet to your death?
There’s no nets — we were 200 feet above Madison Avenue in New York City. We were attached with harnesses underneath us. That was basically like a seat that you sit in, and then that’s attached to essentially shoestring-sized wires that are attached to some rigging. But the whole time you’re like, The rigging’s gonna fall apart, the bolts are not gonna work. And then the very last thing that’s attached to you is a seven-foot-tall, 300-pound stunt guy. My guy really weighed a lot more than me, so I felt pretty secure that he was not gonna let me fall off the ledge.
Do you get many offers to star in thrillers?
The sad fact is that they don’t make that many thrillers in general. There’s three thrillers coming out in the next couple of weeks: Contraband, Man on a Ledge, and The Grey. And no, I didn’t get offered the one with the wolves. Kate Beckinsale, good for her, got the other one — I’ve already been in a movie with Mark Wahlberg. And I did this one. You know what I mean? There aren’t that many. But I was really excited to run around with a gun and chase bad guys and do stunts.
And most thrillers cast men in the leads.
Yeah, they’re almost always about men. Then the girls you’re either older, like Dame Judi Dench, and you’re the bad guy. Or you’re the wife or the girlfriend. So I was really happy that I’m no one’s wife or girlfriend.
You’ve starred in a really wide range of movies, but people know you especially for your comedies. Judging from the scripts that come your way, how do you think people in the industry tend to see you?
It’s so director-driven. Just recently, in the last couple of years, it really just depends on does the director watch comedies or does he watch dramas? And I get a decent amount of respect for being able to do everything.
About Hunger Games ... is your work totally done, except for promotion?
Yeah, we’re done. We’re getting ready to put it out in the world.
Have you seen any of it yet?
I’ve seen enough to know that the movie is amazing, but I haven’t seen any finished cuts.
I saw that you responded to a Twitter skeptic who hoped you wouldn’t “ruin The Hunger Games.” Are you ready to take on criticism from fans who might second-guess your portrayal of Effie?
I absolutely am, because here’s my answer: I worked with amazing Academy Award–nominated people in figuring out who Effie is, and most importantly, [author] Suzanne Collins blessed everything we did. So as long as Suzanne Collins is happy … I would say if fans wanna fight about it, they can fight with her.
I loved your response to the tweet: “I know, right?”
Oh yeah, well I love those kinds of things.
Did you yourself feel some trepidation about playing a character in a book you adore so much?
I didn’t. I was just so excited. I’m really excited about my portrayal. I like the voice — I worked really hard on the voice. The hair and makeup didn’t happen immediately. It was a couple days of playing and tweaking, and she really kind of suddenly appeared to us. If I could remove myself from the situation, I would be really excited by my portrayal of Effie.
As a fan, did you make any specific contributions to her character?
All the makeup was very collaborative. It was like, “Hey, when I read the book, I always imagined she was like this.” Everybody was like, “Yeah, I always thought she was this,” or “I thought she was this,” or “This would look better.” It was really a bunch of fans sitting around discussing what our visions were for everything. And then of course there are practical things, like I imagined District 12 — and they pretty much nailed it — like it was in the south in an old mining town. And that’s what we shot. And the Games actually blew me away. What I was imagining was too small.
Did you go as far as designing undergarments for Effie?
Judianna Makovsky is an Academy Award–nominated costume designer and she thinks of everything. We talked a lot about restriction. Even though Effie is sort of a free person, she is still contained and restrained and controlled by her life, so all my clothes are very cinched waists. There’s no full corset in anything, but they’re pretty corseted. And there was a lot of talk about making the shape of her look as good as possible. And despite the fact that I’m asked repeatedly if I’m wearing a butt pad, that was all me underneath the behind. My director was like, "Wow, you guys padded the butt?" I was like, “No, that’s my butt. That is 100 percent my behind.”
How dark does the movie get? Is it darker than Harry Potter at its darkest?
I think it’s appropriately toned for a PG-13 movie. You have to remember this isn’t a G. It’s not Disney. The book had a lot of adult themes, but we were very cognizant of making sure that what you’re connected to are the characters, that you understand it’s life or death for this girl. She wants to go back to her family and she wants to take this boy with her. And it’s also the message that you matter, that the act of a single person can set off a revolution. I think we’re seeing that all over the world right now. It’s very timely, and I think it’s such a great message to give.