Receiving the 2019 Pioneer of the Year award from the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation, Elizabeth Banks is leading in a new field. In addition to her achievements as an actor, director, producer and writer, Banks also devotes considerable time and money to a wide array of philanthropic efforts and organizations.
And on Sept. 25 she will be the first female director to receive the honor in the 78-year history of the Pioneer of the Year Dinner benefiting the Pioneers Assistance Fund. Banks was surprised and delighted by the prestigious honor.
“I’m pretty excited to be following in the footsteps of so many incredible past honorees,” says Banks, who joins a who’s who of legendary recipients such as Cecil B. DeMille, Jack Warner, Darryl F. Zanuck, Cheryl Boone Isaacs and last year’s honoree Tom Cruise. “And we’ve already raised over a million dollars for the Pioneer Assistance Fund, which feels really great.”
The Pioneers Assistance Fund is dedicated to taking care of the industry’s own when adversity strikes, be it illness, injury or natural disasters. Helping people in the theatrical entertainment industry with financial assistance as well as providing services, and assistance navigating those services, is the primary mission of the fund.
“Elizabeth Banks is just an incredible talent, she’s very much a visionary member of our industry,” says Jim Orr, president of domestic distribution for Universal and chairman of the board of directors of the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation. “Her philanthropic endeavors and specifically her work empowering women in this industry really have no equal. I just can’t stress enough how extremely grateful we are, really thrilled that she agreed to be our honoree this year.”
As with a number of past honorees, Banks has worn many hats in the business. For the upcoming “Charlie’s Angels” reboot, she not only directs, produces and appears in the film, but also co-wrote the screenplay.
“I like to multi-task and I love my job, that helps a lot,” she says, noting that each job she performs on a project speaks to the other roles she fills. “And I think that being in this business for 20 years now is also something that informs all of my work. I definitely feel more confident about my storytelling and my ideas.”
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Banks studied her craft first for the stage, receiving her MFA from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Banks had early roles in films such as “Wet Hot American Summer,” 2002’s “Spider-Man” and its two sequels, “Catch Me if You Can” and “Seabiscuit.” Continuing to build her resume with roles in films across genres, her comic skills showed she could more than hold her own in comedies on screens large (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) and small (“Scrubs” and her Emmy-nominated turns on “30 Rock” and “Modern Family”).
One possible regret Banks might have in terms of her acting career is that she feels she might have missed the boat when it comes to one of her favorite film genres.
“I’m pretty disappointed that I came into the industry at the moment that they decided to stop making rom-coms, because I grew up loving romantic comedies,” she recalls. “All of the female stars of the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s, they were all in romantic comedies.”
Her stardom was unaffected by the lack of rom-coms, however, as she hit new heights appearing in blockbusters such as the quartet of “Hunger Games” films and voicing the female lead in the Lego movies. By this time, she had already been sharpening her producing skills, taking on the role for “Surrogates” with Bruce Willis in 2009 and then for 2012’s “Pitch Perfect.”
“I really love producing, it’s fun to help create jobs and opportunities for other people,” she says, and that includes creating a sense of fun at work. “I also believe frankly that we’re here for to entertain. That’s why I got into this business, I love entertaining people. It’s my No. 1 goal.”
She and her husband, Max Handelman, formed Brownstone Productions, which has credits that include the “Pitch Perfect” films, Hulu’s “Shrill” featuring “Saturday Night Light” alum Aidy Bryant and a slate of several dozen upcoming projects.
The “Pitch Perfect” franchise would catapult her even further up the Hollywood ladder. “Pitch Perfect 2” served not only as Banks’ full-length feature directorial debut, but also shattered the record at the time for biggest movie musical opening with a box office gross of nearly $70 million.
Wearing so many hats is only part of what drives Banks and informs her decision-making when it comes to selecting material and building her teams. The clout she’s earned gives her the ability to help other women coming up in the industry.
“I believe that empowered women empower women,” she says. “And I’m definitely trying to do that in my life and in my work. I grew up in sort of a matriarchal family, I love making sure that women matter.”
Being in the position to help others extends beyond the industry for Banks, who has been exceptionally active in a wide array of causes, including American Foundation for AIDS Research, the American Heart Assn., the American Stroke Association, the March of Dimes, Stand Up to Cancer, Time’s Up and Women’s March Los Angeles.
Currently, her philanthropic focus is on the Center for Reproductive Rights, a non-partisan legal organization that fights for women’s reproductive freedom worldwide. The organization has been instrumental in fighting to keep Planned Parenthood open and was also involved in the effort to make abortion legal in Ireland.
“I think that women’s opportunity is so dependent on our ability to decide when and with whom to parent children,” she says. “I think that women’s reproductive rights are the cornerstone of our actual human rights.”
In the meantime, she’s preparing for the release of “Charlie’s Angels,” which has roots to her childhood, although she watched the original series in reruns.
“I had two sisters, so we were totally Charlie’s Angels growing up,” Banks remembers. She played the Kate Jackson role. “The idea that these women, they were going undercover and they got to wear disguises and they got to fight bad guys! I think that there were so few examples of that for young girls.”
A full schedule looks like it will be the norm for Banks in the future, as she’ll be appearing in the 2020 FX miniseries “Mrs. America” alongside Cate Blanchett.
Future directing projects for Banks include “The Greater Good,” written by Caroline Williams; “The Grace Year,” based on the novel by Kim Liggett; and “The Red Queen,” based on the popular YA series.
While many would be happy with a career a fraction as prolific as Banks, she’s still passionate about what’s ahead.
“I’m very excited to still be on the way up and not have reached the peak,” she says, with hopes that her work and efforts have a positive impact. “I want people to feel happy, I want people to feel inspired, a little bit braver and a little friendlier when they watch something that I do.”
What: The Pioneer of the Year Dinner
When: Sept. 25
Where: The Beverly Hilton