Actress Elizabeth Banks

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The talented actress and filmmaker talks about her big year in 2015, and her acclaimed performance in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy.

Elizabeth Banks' versatility has made her one of Hollywood's go-to actresses. She's proven both her comedic and dramatic chops in such features as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, W and The Hunger Games and in the series 30 Rock—with a performance that earned two Emmy nods. Banks studied at the University of Pennsylvania and the American Conservatory Theater. After graduation, she moved to NY, where she worked in the theater and took bit movie and TV parts, and expanded her onscreen credits in L.A. She's also taken on the role of film producer, and made her directorial debut in 2015 with the very successful  Pitch Perfect 2. She's receiving a good deal of awards buzz for her performance in Love & Mercy, about Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson and the woman who saved his life.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with multitalented actress, Elizabeth Banks. The Emmy nominee has had quite the year in 2015 starring in the box office smash, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2”, and making her directorial debut with the very successful “Pitch Perfect 2”.

She’s now garnering supporting actress awards buzz for her performance in the new film, “Love and Mercy”. The movie tells the remarkable story of the prolific Beach Boys cofounder, Brian Wilson, and the relationship that saved his life.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Elizabeth Banks coming up right now.

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Tavis: So pleased to have Elizabeth Banks back on this program. She’s had quite the year in 2015 starring in, of course, the smash hit, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2”, and making her directorial debut with the film, “Pitch Perfect 2” whose opening weekend set a box office record for a first-time director–and I ain’t mad at you.

She’s now garnering some award buzz for her performance in the powerful film, “Love and Mercy”, which tells the true story of Beach Boys cofounder, Brian Wilson, and the redemptive relationship that saved his life.

In the film, Banks portrays Wilson’s girlfriend and now wife, Melinda Ledbetter, who meets Wilson back in the 80s, a time when he was being maltreated by an over-controlling therapist. The film is also starring John Cusack, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti. Before we start our conversation, though, a look at a scene from the film, “Love and Mercy”.


Tavis: So this ain’t your first rodeo. You’ve done this a few times, which is to say–I mean, obviously, you’ve acted in many films. This is not the first time you’ve played a real life character.

Elizabeth Banks: No.

Tavis: I’m thinking of Laura Bush in “W” for Oliver Stone’s project, “Seabiscuit”…

Banks: Yeah, Marcella Howard.

Tavis: Marcella Howard. So this isn’t the first time you’ve done this. How does this real life character stack up?

Banks: Well, what’s amazing here is Melinda, who I play in the film, was my main resource of information, you know. Unlike Laura Bush who did not–that was an unauthorized [laugh] Oliver Stone film.

Tavis: You weren’t hanging out with Laura Bush, were you [laugh]?

Banks: Laura Bush was not my best friend.

Tavis: Yeah. She was not hanging out with you [laugh].

Banks: And Marcella had passed away by the time I played her. So this is the first time that I really had the real person at my disposal to really answer those burning questions that one always has. You know, I was able to do so much research talking to her.

You know, it’s a blessing and a curse. Of course, it’s the greatest resource, but also adds a lot of pressure because, you know, you want her to love the performance and you never want to do–you don’t want mimicry.

Tavis: Sure.

Banks: You know, you really just want to capture someone’s essence. That’s really all you can promise. But you really need them to appreciate a performance which, thankfully, Melinda does.

Tavis: Where is that line? How does one not mimic the real life person, but get to the essence of the person? So how do you master that?

Banks: Well, you want to have, you know, someone like Laura Bush, she was so specifically from Texas and even more specifically, she’s a public person. So people know her. You want to have that voice down.

I really always approach everything from the humanity of the person. Loved the husband, you know, great wife, misgivings about being in the White House for so long, and things like that. You know, really trying to drill down those emotional connections that I personally can make to someone like a Laura Bush.

In this case with Melinda, same thing. You know, what are those connection points between she and I that I can hone in on? You know, she’s a very fierce woman, very protective of Brian, amazing relationship, deep love for the man.

You know, I had so many questions because this is also a portrait of someone with mental illness. Brian Wilson suffers from mental illness and this film does not shy away from that. That scene that we just played was him, you know, having a sort of moment.

And this woman stayed involved. They’ve been married now since the 80s. They have five children together, adopted children together, 12 dogs. That’s the latest update of a couple of weeks ago [laugh].

Tavis: I think that makes a statement. Twice as many dogs as children, but I’ll leave that alone, though, yeah [laugh].

Banks: They just have a big happy life together. You know, they won, which is, you know, something that sort of carried me through this film. But, you know, it’s really about her solving for me those little moments of why do you get involved with someone with that much baggage, you know? And she says to me, “Well, everybody has baggage”, which is true.

How did you negotiate Dr. Landy, this horrible doctor that, under his care, Brian was in when she met him? You know, she’s so specific about her feelings about that guy who was played in the film by Paul Giamatti. So it was just great to sort of get that specificity from her and then just go like I’ll do my best. I didn’t feel like I needed to get her voice. She’s not a public person.

Tavis: Sure, sure, sure.

Banks: People don’t really know her that well.

Tavis: Since you went there, though, I was thinking while you were talking, Elizabeth, about the pressure, to use your word, that one might feel when one’s playing a real life character.

So the difference between these two films is, as you mentioned, one is unauthorized where you’re playing the character of former First Lady, Laura Bush, unauthorized film by Oliver Stone, and then you’re doing this project which the Wilsons, I’m told, were very supportive of on this project. So you don’t have that kind of pressure.

But I’d also think that maybe the inverse of it is true as well, which is that, if Laura Bush isn’t going to hang out with you and you don’t really have to please her and you take the job knowing that it’s an unauthorized version, is there some sort of freedom, some sort of liberty that comes along with that, as opposed to with Mrs. Wilson? You’ve got to get this right because you know you’re going to talk to her.

Banks: Absolutely going to talk to her. You know, we’re very close, actually. It’s also that Brian, he’s just loved. He’s loved by so many people. If you meet him, which I know you have, just a gentle soul, just like somebody who invites you to be interested, to care about him.

He’s got grace, you know. He doesn’t hold grudges. He’s just a beautiful human being. I think that’s why we are attracted to his music, you know. So we all felt, I think, a real responsibility to him and his legacy.

This is, as you say, probably going to be the only film that he is involved with in his lifetime, you know. I don’t want to say it’s going to be the definitive Beach Boys movie. Maybe someone will make another film about his life. He’s certainly worthy of many films, but this is the one he is going to be involved with.

So I think, for all of us, we felt like we’re going to be a little asterisk in the pages of the legacy of the Beach Boys because we made this movie for him. It feels like a big responsibility. It felt like we needed to get it right for him.

Tavis: You are right, and I thank you for the setup. I’ll take it and play a clip in a second of when Brian Wilson came on this program. But what’s fascinating for me which I want to get back to is this dichotomy of how someone can be, as you said, so loving and so sweet and so open, and yet the film is really dark in a lot of places, given the journey that his life took him on.

I want to come back to how that duality sort of exists in the same person. But as Ms. Banks said a moment ago, Brian Wilson was on this program some time ago and I asked him a couple of questions that I think are relevant to what the film is about. So take a look.

Tavis: How have you decided musically what works for you? I mean, the sound that you want to create, the songs that you think has…

Brian Wilson: Well, it depends on the record or the song. If it’s a ballad, then you play easier instruments. If it’s a hard rocker, you thump, thump, thump it, you know.

Tavis: We all know in your history, there was a period where you kind of stepped away from the music. When you decide to step away or have stepped away, what brings you back? What’s brought you back?

Wilson: Well, my wife said, “You know, you been laying around for like a couple of years. Why not get going again?” I said, “All right.” So I started writing songs again.

Tavis: Yeah. That’s all it takes is for your wife to say, “Come on, Brian. Get busy.”

Wilson: Right.

Tavis: Were you surprised or not surprised–I don’t know what the result was when you actually sat down. So when your wife says get up and do something, you been sitting around for a couple of years, were you surprised at the ease, the flow, that it came back to you? Or did it take a while?

Wilson: I was very surprised. Well, no, no. I was instantly surprised. It was instant karma. As soon as I got inspired, I said, “Hey, I know this is going to happen”, and it did.

Tavis: So how does this stuff get–I mean, this may be hard to explain. So how does this stuff come to you? It just comes? Is there a process for you, the music, the…

Wilson: Well, the process is the piano, they keyboard. You play the keyboard and you like what you hear. You play a chord, ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, you say, “I like that!” And then a melody just pops in your head. It’s a magic trick. I don’t know how to explain the creative process. It’s magic.

Tavis: I’m so jealous of you.

Wilson: No, it’s magic.

Tavis: My favorite part, “I like that!” [laugh] “I like that!” He was a delight to talk to. But back to this point, he is, you can see, an open guy, a delightful guy, easy to talk to, kind of transparent, and yet when you see the film, some dark days.

Banks: Well, I think, you know, he had people in his life who really took advantage of him. It started, you know, with his–it was a family endeavor, don’t forget, and they were the moneymakers. I think that’s always a little–it’s not like we don’t have other examples of that throughout history of, you know, parents taking advantage of the talents of their children. He was betrayed, really, by his father and then, with Dr. Landy, betrayed again.

I think, you know, one of the things that drew me to the script and also in meeting him is this notion that we’ve all been in bad relationships. I think we all know when we’re in something and we don’t really know how to get out of it and we’re not really being treated how we know we deserve to be treated.

I think that’s very relatable to so many people. It happened to Brian on a deep, dark level, you know. He just got into things and was being taken advantage of for his immense talent because it made people a lot of money. It made his family money. It made Dr. Landy money.

You know, he comes at it from just this pure artistic–you see he speaks through the keyboard, you know, as he says. And yet he needs help because he doesn’t quite live in the same way that we all live because he is mentally ill. That’s the only thing that drew me is that Melinda was that hand.

I think, when we’re in those situations, those relatable situations, how the heck do we get out of this, I don’t like this person, I’m in something I don’t know how to get out of, you want that person to come along and say, “Come with me. I’ll show you the way.” You know, we all need that helping hand.

Tavis: With all due respect to therapists, Giamatti’s performance in this film makes me not want to ever go see a therapist [laugh].

Banks: Well, he was a quack.

Tavis: Yeah, he was the quack.

Banks: He was a fraud, yeah.

Tavis: I’m looking at all therapists with a real jaundiced eye right about now, which isn’t fair, but…

Banks: Yeah, it’s not, it’s not. This is not a combination of all…

Tavis: I’ll get letters for saying that, but anyway, he’s a great actor, obviously.

Banks: He is.

Tavis: So there are a few things I want to ask you about. I assume there is some takeaway from every role you play. You know, this isn’t just an exercise in futility. You’re doing this and you’re investing yourself in it and I assume that, for your own real life, there’s a takeaway from characters you play.

Let me ask your thoughts, if I can, on a few things. In no particular order, one, what’s your takeaway, what’d you did you learn about the impact that mental illness has on families? You have a family. What do you make of…

Banks: I do. You know, what we hope is happening now is that the conversation about mental illness is shifting. You know, we with the film we’re working with, an organization called, which was born out of, frankly, service members coming back and not asking for the help they needed, to be treated for things like PTSD and depression, right?

And partially you don’t want to stand up and say, you know, I’m depressed because there’s this horrible stigma attached to it. Why can’t you just get yourself together, as if it’s something you can always control, which we all know we can’t, you know.

There’s deficiencies in, you know, your brain chemistry every once in a while, I think, and we all have good days and bad days and we can all feel this way. So, you know, someone was saying you can go to a meeting and you can say, “You know, I was playing tennis this weekend and I threw my back out. I’m gonna need to take a couple of days off.”

But if you come to the same meeting and say, “You know, my cousin died two weeks ago. I’m just having a bad–like it’s affecting me today. I need to take a couple of days off”, people are like, “Get it together.” It’s like, really? I feel like it’s okay that we need mental health days, you know.

And that’s the conversation that we’ve been having with this film and also that Melinda specifically saw in someone so much worth despite the fact that, oh, by the way, and their baggage is they suffer from mental illness.

You know, he has great doctors. He’s very well cared for. He is properly diagnosed and all of it. Like you can have an amazing life. This is what I’m meaning with the five kids and he’s on tour. He’s constantly on tour.

You know, my mother just went and saw him with her sisters in Boston two weeks ago. You know, he’s still making music, making peoples’ lives better. I think that’s the conversation. Like the stigma, you can’t just throw people away because they’re not “normal”. You know, what is normal?

Tavis: Next issue. So you’re in a marriage.

Banks: Yes.

Tavis: Happily?

Banks: We have 12 years, yep.

Tavis: 12 years now. Is there a takeaway? Were there revelations? Were there moments you were like, wow? Wow moments about the strength in their marriage?

Banks: Yeah. You know, Melinda and I, we come at marriage similarly, which is one of those connection points I was talking about. I’m somebody who loves. I like having projects I like to recommend to people. Like I have projects, you know, because I think that, you know, people can grow apart or they can grow together.

Having children, that’s a great example, like a real big project. It’s a big endeavor, you know, raising kids with someone. But even just those projects that sort of start relationships like planning a wedding or, you know, planning the birthday party or buying the house.

And then you sort of get into those lulls, I feel, like a lot of relationships do. I feel like it’s really important to have projects keep going, you know, that you’re working on together so that this person’s not going to work and doing projects over there and you’re over here doing this thing and then never the twain shall meet. Good to have projects.

I think, you know, Brian in that life and him touring and you’ve heard it in the interview. “Get up out of the bed! Make some music! Get back into it!” That’s Melinda and I love that about her. I love that she’s sort of understands that, again, it’s a partnership. You know, you’re in it together. I love that. I practice that in my own marriage.

Tavis: How much Beach Boys music did you listen to in the process of…

Banks: A lot making the movie. Although, you know, it’s interesting because, like Melinda when she met Brian, didn’t realize who he was and, you know, grew up in the music, loved the music, but had no idea about the man behind it.

Same for me. And I kind of approached it–honestly, I did a lot of research about Landy and the time period and the meeting and speaking with Melinda for a lot of answers. But I ultimately as an actor felt like, you know, I didn’t want to have any notions of who Brian was because what I was going to deal with was John Cusack’s version of Brian Wilson.

Tavis: Sure, sure.

Banks: And I wanted to be present for John Cusack’s version of Brian Wilson and react to what he brought to the table and let him do–that was his job [laugh].

Tavis: That’s his research, yeah [laugh].

Banks: That’s his research [laugh], you know.

Tavis: Okay.

Banks: It’s interesting. I started reading, you know, some of the biographies and I thought, oh, I actually don’t want to know too much because then I’m not open in those moments when he starts telling me about my father beat me. You know, like I don’t want to go into that conversation knowing too much about where he’s coming from.

It was a really interesting like sort of I thought about it in a way of like, oh, I’ve just hit a bump in the road of–like I’ve just realized like this is going to be a dead end. Don’t go down that street in my research when I was preparing to play this role. I really wanted to just be with Cusack.

Tavis: So how difficult–I’m being tongue-in-cheek here. But how difficult is it now being in front of the camera when you have the experience of being behind the camera and running the operation as you did in “Pitch Perfect 2”?

Banks: A lot easier to be in front of it [laugh]. Let me tell you.

Tavis: But that doesn’t mean you’re not going behind it again because I’ve already read you’re going to do the next one too.

Banks: I really did enjoy directing. I really loved it, but as an actor, you’ve got one job. Play that role. Do it to the best of your ability. You know, you do research, whatever you need. You know, whatever your bags of tricks is for every role that you play.

As a director, you got to have the big picture in mind at all times. You got to be able to answer questions from every department about what’s going on. You have to have the vision that everything is servicing, you know. And if you’re not clear about what the end goal is, the whole thing starts to fall apart.

Tavis: What does it say to Hollywood? What does it say to the country, to all of us, that you set a box office record as a woman in a directorial debut?

Banks: Well, you know, we in Hollywood, I think we like to think of ourselves as leaders and we’re a little behind when it comes to parody for women in the workforce, especially behind the camera. In front of the camera we well, by the way. You know, we only account for about 30% of speaking roles in films, women do. And behind the camera, much worse. I think it’s like 4% of the top 250 grossing films are directed by women.

You know, I just think there’s something to be said for being in the job, doing the job well. I’m really happy for all the conversations to be happening that’s sort of in force this year. You know, Sam Taylor-Johnson had a huge opening with “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Angelina Jolie had a big opening with “Unbroken”. I had “Pitch Perfect 2”, but there are women out–we like the job.

We want the job. We like the job. I think that there are now all of this research, all these numbers that support the anecdotal feeling that we weren’t sort of getting the opportunities. Now we’ve got these hard facts in front of us and that’s really opened up the conversation.

Tavis: Do you think the conversation–this conversation, for me at least, has been more dynamic and more organic this year than any year prior about the income inequality, the pay equity issue, where women are concerned in Hollywood. But it’s really gotten to be interesting this year. I guess the question is whether or not you think it’s going to yield something, whether it will lead to something.

Banks: You know, I find I’m raising two young children and they don’t like to share and they don’t really like change, and I think that is our nature as humans.

Tavis: Okay [laugh].

Banks: You know, parody, equality, we as women, like we’ve never had it [laugh] in the history of humanity. So it’s already taken all these years. We still don’t have it [laugh]. I’m encouraged, but, of course, I think change comes slowly because it requires people to share power and money and resources and position, you know. I think that’s not something that comes easily to humans.

Tavis: I keep saying to myself, keep reminding myself, of what I believe which is that there’s a huge difference between cynicism and skepticism. Skepticism is good, cynicism not so much. I don’t ever want to be a cynic.

But as an African American, every time we have this conversation about the door finally being open for Blacks in Hollywood, it opens and closes really fast [laugh]. So it’s like I don’t know if women feel the same way I feel, but I get it.

Banks: I will say that I’m alwaysprogress happens. It is happening. You know what I mean? This is not the 40s, this is not the 60s.

Tavis: And thank God, yeah.

Banks: And thank God. You know, we wear helmets now. We have seatbelts. Like progress can happen. We do get a little bit smarter. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back, but…

Tavis: It takes time.

Banks: Progress happens. It’s glacially slow, unfortunately, but I’m encouraged.

Tavis: But you’re going in the right direction, though.

Banks: Well, I’m trying to lead by example. It’s the best I can do.

Tavis: And you’re doing that. A great 2015, and 2016 seems to be off to a great start as well.

Banks: Hopefully.

Tavis: Have a great year.

Banks: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Good to see you.

Banks: Thanks for saying that.

Tavis: “Love and Mercy” is the project. Tells the life story on the part of the Beach Boys Brian Wilson starring one Elizabeth Banks. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: December 26, 2015 at 2:00 pm