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Banks in Seabiscuit with Jeff Bridges
Everett Collection

Banks read the book before it became a best-seller and fell for Effie immediately. “Effie could be reduced simply to comic relief,” she says. “She is funny, but of course there’s so much more going on. Effie walks a very fine line. She is mentoring her tributes and pulling for them on one level. On another level she is essentially a puppet for a totalitarian regime and understands all her liberties in life are given with strings attached. If she [angers] the leadership, she could lose everything, even her life. I was fascinated by playing someone who is so motivated by both ambition and fear.”

It became a very happy Hunger Games for Banks, indeed, when she learned the film would be directed by Gary Ross. As the director of 2003’s Seabiscuit, Ross cast Banks in her first significant dramatic film role: Marcela Howard, the elegant, supportive wife of Seabiscuit’s owner (Jeff Bridges). Banks emailed Ross to lobby for the role of Effie, and after auditioning, he knew she was the obvious choice. “It was clear to me she understood this character as well as, if not better than, I did,” Ross says. “And I had just written the screenplay!”

Still, Banks wasn’t completely comfortable in Effie’s painfully pointy shoes until she perfected her voice. The novel makes a point of how pretentious and ridiculous the Capitol accent sounds to people in the outlying districts. Banks tried out a chorus of voices before settling on a mid-Atlantic/faux British accent that was an homage to Rosalind Russell in the 1958 film Auntie Mame. “There’s something very theatrical about what Rosalind Russell does in that movie. There’s also a tinge of desperation in Auntie Mame,” she says. “I wanted all those things in the voice.”

Banks’ voice came through loud and clear her first day of shooting, when she jumped right into Effie’s biggest scene: the reaping, or selection, of the District 12 tributes. “When I saw her come out of hair and makeup and stand on that stage, there was such an amazing jolt I got at seeing that character come to life,” Ross says. “Liz brought a nuance and subtlety to it; at the same time she brought all her incredible comedic skills.”

Banks put those comedic skills to use off-camera, too, in her repartee with co-star Woody Harrelson. His character, Haymitch, frequently infuriates Effie with his drunken behavior. “Woody and I have a very special relationship,” Banks says with a chuckle. “My first exchange with Woody involved some off-color jokes, so we were off to a great start. We can both be very silly and also very serious. I took a lot of pride in trying to make him laugh.”

After all, laughter is what Banks does best. “I am addicted to making people laugh,” she admits. In several of her best performances, the mere sound of her wide-eyed laugh is enough to make viewers roll in the aisles. “She’s got one of those start-in-the-knees kind of laughs that doesn’t care where or in what setting it’s heard, or how loud it is,” says friend and frequent co-star Paul Rudd.

Banks earned an Emmy nomination in 2011 — Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series — for her recurring role as conservative talk-show host Avery Jessup-Donaghy on 30 Rock. Yet her favorite role (so far) is not Avery but Miri, from Kevin Smith’s comedy Zach and Miri Make a Porno. “The film is pretty overlooked. Everyone hears ‘porno’ and thinks it’s dirty,” she says. “But it’s a really sweet movie. That character took advantage of all the things I’m good at: being funny, being vulnerable, being in love. We all remember the moment when you are friends with someone and then decide to be more than friends. I loved telling that story and being on that journey again in my life.”