Elizabeth Banks on Becoming a Director, Mentoring Young Women

Elizabeth Banks
Jason Merritt/Getty

It’s no news to Elizabeth Banks that her “Pitch Perfect 2” isn’t something that happens everyday.

“We did something really rare,” she says of the movie, on which she made her directorial feature debut. “We made a movie that was directed by a woman, written by a woman, produced by a woman and stars a poster full of women.”

The accomplishment is only one of the reasons Banks has been chosen as one of the honorees at the 12th annual Inspiration Awards, held by the Step Up organization, where she’ll be honored with a special ceremony on Friday, along with Hudson Jeans CEO Peter Kim and one of the teenagers from the Step Up program.

Step Up aims to propel girls from under-resourced communities to finish high school, enter college and more, with such methods as after-school programs and mentorships. Banks got to meet some of the young girls in the program herself when she visited a school and spent time with high school girls, participating in a recreation of a Hollywood writers’ room. The visit brought Banks back to her own worries and stresses as a teenager.

“They really worry about what other people think and what their parents’ want for them, which might not actually be in line with what they want for themselves,” she said. “How do you go against your own parents, or your culture? … Their culture doesn’t define them, they’re more than just one or two things. They don’t need to live in a box.”

The actress and director recognizes the struggle of breaking through and getting a job, especially since she wanted to get into the entertainment industry — without knowing anyone else in the business, and never having been west of the Mississippi until she moved to California.

Added to that, she didn’t come from money. She said her dream of becoming an actress and filmmaker — even going to drama school — felt like a “pie in the sky.”

“I didn’t grow up with money and I felt the insecurity of that as a kid,” she said. “And I really wanted security and I didn’t want to be reliant on anyone else for it.”

“I didn’t know how to move to California,” she went on. “There just was no path that seemed available to me. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know what the first step was.”

Still, it was a mentor of hers that encouraged her to take the risk — which obviously paid off. “Pitch Perfect 2” has already made $229 million worldwide, an impressive feat especially for a first-time feature director.

Before her feature debut, however, Banks helmed a short for Peter and Bobby Farrelly for the 2013 comedy “Movie 43.” She explained that the brothers originally called her to play a role in the movie, which consists of a number of shorts helmed by various directors.

However, when looking at the list of those writing and directing shorts, Banks noticed something was amiss.

“I said to them, ‘You know, you don’t have any women writing or directing any of these comedic shorts. Like, I feel like you should probably represent,’” she said.

Banks cites that shot that the Farrelly brothers gave her as encouragement to move further into helming. In fact, she noted that her sketch was the highest-testing sketch in the film.

Taking that encouragement to “Pitch Perfect 2,” the director wanted to show women in plots that weren’t revolving around getting married or having kids. Instead, she showed women in a transition period — the time just before graduating college.

“I was so proud to see our poster go up after the ‘Fast & Furious’ poster which had, like, seven guys, and the ‘Avengers’ poster, which had like five guys and Scarlett Johansson,” she said. “I think it’s important for these women to see that someone wants to tell their story and make a movie that’s not about who’s going to get married and have a boyfriend.”

Part of Step Up’s mission believes that “you can’t be what you can’t see,” emphasizing the importance of mentorship. Banks noted that she “obsessed” with the women of the Supreme Court, and even slipped a Sonia Sotomayor joke into “Pitch Perfect 2.”

She added that she’s happy to be a mentor to young girls, and believes strongly in after-school programs for young children, remembering that she was a latch-key kid herself and saying that the after-school period is an especially crucial time for young people.

“I just think kids are stupid,” she laughed. “I mean, literally, their brains are not developed. I remember partaking in risky behavior at that age because you’re trying to figure out what your boundaries are as a person.”

Still, with all her experience, Banks’ biggest advice for young girls? “Birth control. My number one advice to high school girls is birth control. You want to keep all your options open for as long as possible? Birth control.”

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