In May, Banks will take audiences on an altogether different journey: She plays one of five expectant mothers in the ensemble comedy What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Her character, Wendy, is the author of a children’s book about breast-feeding whose rigid assumptions about pregnancy and parenthood get upended when she becomes pregnant for the first time.
“As I was reading the script, I thought it was okay; I was going along for the ride,” Banks recalls. “I really liked my character. Then I got to the end and just bawled my eyes out. It was just one of those super-feel-good movies: Everyone gets a baby at the end of the movie — hooray! I read a lot of films that don’t have third acts. The writers on this did a really nice job of weaving together everything and tying it up in a sweet and satisfying way.”
As satisfying as Banks’ comedic success has been, there’s a catch to being known as a funny girl. Whenever she tackles a dramatic role — as in Man on a Ledge or The Next Three Days with Russell Crowe — the media seem completely surprised, and they marvel anew at her versatility. “It’s like Groundhog Day,” she says. “I have had this same moment over and over. The great thing is that no one knows what to do with me.”
Rest assured, Banks knows: She intends to spend more time behind the camera. “Someone once told me that if you want to direct, just do it,” she recalls. So she has. She cut her directing teeth last fall with a humorous public-service short, “Just a Little Heart Attack,” for the American Heart Association. And this month she is making her big-screen directorial debut, helming the camera for one of the nine comedy shorts that comprise the Farrelly Brothers’ star-studded Movie 43. Her segment is a coming-of-age tale that follows a middle-school girl (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) on a date after school. (She will also star in one of the shorts, a segment written and directed by James Gunn, who directed Banks in the film Slither.)
“I think there is a place for homegrown humor,” Banks says, citing directors Woody Allen, James L. Brooks and Nancy Meyers as role models. “I’m not a huge slapstick, physical-comedy kind of director. But I do love seeing people make absolute [idiots] of themselves. I think everyone is fairly entertained by that.”
After her spring film trifecta, what’s on the horizon for Banks? Hunger Games fans are already talking about the sequel, Catching Fire, slated for a November 2013 release. Banks will reunite with the cast, Harrelson included, and with Ross, who has already signed on to direct. “It’s always comforting to go into a project with trust, and [Ross] is someone I trust wholeheartedly,” she says. “As a storyteller, he is fantastic.”
For Ross, the admiration is mutual. “She has grown into such a wildly funny, accomplished, sophisticated actress,” he says. “There aren’t that many actresses who have her comic chops in the world. There aren’t a lot of funny people who are completely authentic and real in every moment, and that is what makes Elizabeth special.”