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Elizabeth Banks On Success: 'You Don't Get What You Don't Ask For'


This is FRESH AIR. Our guest, Elizabeth Banks, made her directorial debut with the comedy "Pitch Perfect 2," which opened last weekend and was No. 1 at the box office. Banks is best known for her roles in the "Hunger Games" films, "W" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," and the TV shows "30 Rock" and "Modern Family." Her production company was instrumental in getting both "Pitch Perfect" films made. She found the book the first film is based on and brought on screenwriter Kay Cannon. In both films, Banks plays Gail, an a cappella official, announcer and podcast host. "Pitch Perfect" was about how the college women's a cappella team, the Barton Bellas, went from underdog to champion. In the sequel, after a wardrobe malfunction at a performance, attended by President Obama, they lose their title. Now they're underdogs again and facing an international competition. Elizabeth Banks spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. They started with a scene in which the Bellas, led by Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, meet up with their main competition, a Germany team, after a performance.


BIRGITTE SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) Barton Bellas, you came here to see us? Is it because you are - what do the American kids say? - jelly?

BRITTANY SNOW: (As Chloe) We are so not jelly.

SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) We should really thank you for making this tour a reality, you know, with your bumbling ineptitude. We should send them something - fruit basket?

FLULA BORG: (As Pieter Kramer) Yum, yum.

SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) Or would you prefer mini muffins?

ANNA KENDRICK: (As Beca) OK, we didn't come here to start something with you guys. We just wanted to check you out before the Worlds, where we're going to kick your a**.

ESTER DEAN: (As Cynthia Rose) That's right.

SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) You? You are the kicker of a**?

KENDRICK: (As Beca) (Laughter) Well, yeah.

SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) You are so tiny, like an elf - or is it a fairy, sprite? (Foreign language spoken).

BORG: (As Pieter Kramer) Troll.

SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) That's it. You are like a troll.

KENDRICK: (As Beca) You are physically flawless.

SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) Thank you.

KENDRICK: (As Beca) But it doesn't mean I like you.

BORG: (As Pieter Kramer) Your team is like - how do you say that? - a heated mess. You know? A mess where heat is applied to it so what once was a little messy is now even messier.

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: That's a scene from "Pitch Perfect 2." Elizabeth Banks, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ELIZABETH BANKS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

BALDONADO: Now, you were instrumental in getting the first "Pitch Perfect" made and obviously the second one you've directed. Can you tell us how you got interested in this project?

BANKS: Well, actually what happened was my husband, who wrote a book a long, long time ago about fantasy football, his book agent sent us a book proposal for a book called "Pitch Perfect" by Mickey Rapkin and thought, you know, we might think it's a funny movie idea. And we went to the University of Pennsylvania together, where there are a bunch of a cappella groups. And the way my husband tells it is he thought it was such a fun, sort of niche world where people are completely self-serious about something that's sort of ridiculous because making music with your mouth is a particularly nerdy thing to do. It's a really nerdy side of singing. And I think partially because of our movie, over the last few years, it's become a lot less nerdy (laughter). But definitely when we first read the book proposal, we thought, wow, this is a really fun group of oddballs who like to make music with their mouths. This could be a fun idea.

BALDONADO: I think one of the things that people relate to in the films is that the main characters are this group of young women. And another thing that people relate to is the music, and a lot of it is current pop and hip-hop but also songs from the '80s and '90s. And I'm going to play a little clip from "Pitch Perfect 2." This is from a scene where the Barton Bellas go to an underground, hip-hop sing-off - private sing-off. And is this something that's in the book? Does this exist anywhere - underground riff-offs?


BANKS: Well, the - no, the riff-off idea even in the first film was inspired by my collegiate experience of being a nerdy musical theater kid and going to house parties where we would all stand around a piano with lyric sheets and just sing and show off and go back and forth and sort of throw it to each other. That was the inspiration for the riff-off in the first film. And I knew in this one I wanted it to feel like a fight club.

BALDONADO: Yeah, so when you were in college when you were doing those sing-offs, what kind of music did you guys sing?

BANKS: It was much more like musical theater tunes (laughter). It was a lot of Sondheim, really geeky stuff, really total nerdy stuff.

BALDONADO: Well, let's take a listen to this scene. Like I said, the Bellas and some other a cappella groups, including the group that is the big, evil group this time around, the Germany group, Das...

BANKS: Das Sound Machine.

BALDONADO: Das Sound Machine. And they are in this underground sing-off hosted by this eccentric a cappella fan, played by David Cross. And it's a final battle between the two of them. Let's take a listen.


DAVID CROSS: (As Character) All right, come on in. Let's do this face-off style. OK, let's take a look and see what your final category is - '90s hip-hop jams. OK, y'all, take a second to think about it. Time's up, go.

BORG: (As Pieter Kramer) (Singing) This is how we do it.

SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) (Singing) I'm kind of buzzed and it's all because...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Das Sound Machine) (Singing) This is that we do it.

SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) (Singing) South Central does it like nobody does.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Das Sound Machine) (Singing) This is how we do it.

SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) (Singing) To all my neighbors, you got much flavor.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Das Sound Machine) (Singing) This is how we do it.

SORENSEN: (As Kommissar) (Singing) Let's flip...

DEAN: (As Cynthia Rose) (Singing) Girls, you know you better watch out. Some guys, some guys are only about that thing, that thing, that thing.

BORG: (As Pieter Kramer) (Singing) That girl is poison. Never trust a big butt and a smile. That girl is poison.

REBEL WILSON: (As Fat Amy) (Singing) Here we go, yo. Here we go, yo. So what's, what's, what's the scenario? Here we go, yo. Here we go, yo. So what's, what's, what's the scenario?

BALDONADO: So that's a scene from "Pitch Perfect 2." I have to say, I love that scene. When I saw - when that clip was released before the movie came out, I was like, yes, this is what we want to see again. But you were the producer on the first "Pitch Perfect," and you acted in it. How did you come to be the director of the sequel?

BANKS: (Laughter) Well, it was, as with most things in Hollywood, the stars sort of all aligned. As we were developing the script for the second film with Kay, we were very hopeful that Jason Moore, who directed the first film, would come back for the second one. But he was developing a movie for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the same time. And then it just sort of lined up that he was going to go make that movie and be unavailable to direct this one. And I kind of was just standing in the right place at the right time, you know? I had made the first movie, worked very closely with him on it and had been working towards directing a feature. I was actively looking for a feature to direct. So when Jason fell off, it was just sort of - I got a call that said, we think a young female director should take over the helm. And I said, I'm so glad you think she's young.

BALDONADO: (Laugher). I was thinking about the different directors that you've worked with and how they must have very different styles. And I think one film that a lot of people saw you in first was "40-Year-Old Virgin," the Judd Apatow film. And I want to play a scene from that. In this movie, Steve Carell is a 40-year-old virgin. And one of his friends, Seth Rogen, is trying to convince him to talk to the woman who works at the bookstore next door that's played by you. And Seth Rogen's character tells him that women just want you to ask them questions. So Carell's character comes to you in the bookstore and his technique is just to start asking questions. Let's take a listen.


BANKS: (As Beth) Can I help you?

STEVE CARELL: (As Andy) I don't know, can you?

BANKS: (As Beth) Are you looking for something?

CARELL: (As Andy) Is there something I should be looking for?

BANKS: (As Beth) (Laughter) Well, we have a lot of books. So maybe it depends on what you like.

CARELL: (As Andy) What do you like?

BANKS: (As Beth) We have a great section of do-it-yourself.

CARELL: (As Andy) Do you like to do-it-yourself?

BANKS: (As Beth) Sometimes (laughter). I mean, if the mood strikes.

CARELL: (As Andy) How is the mood striking you now?


BANKS: (As Beth) What's your name?

CARELL: (As Andy) What's your name?

BANKS: (As Beth) I'm Beth.

CARELL: (As Andy) Andy.

BANKS: (As Beth) Andy. Don't tell on me, OK, Andy?

CARELL: (As Andy) I won't - unless you want to be told on, Beth.

BALDONADO: That's a scene from "40-Year-Old Virgin" with Steve Carell and my guest, Elizabeth Banks. I read recently that Judd Apatow shoots the equivalent of over a million feet of film, which is four times more than a regular comedy. And that just means that he shoots a lot of improv, alternative versions of scenes. Can you describe working with this kind of style of direction and did any of this scene we just heard come from improv?

BANKS: Yes, that entire scene came from improv (laughter). There literally was a sign hanging in that bookstore that said do-it-yourself. That was a section. I just looked at it and read it. That's how that happened. I think people think we make it seem so easy. Like, oh, you can just show up and, like, just improv. But, you know, you have to - you have to cover improv very technically so you get both sides of a conversation. Typically when you're shooting a movie, you shoot one side of a conversation. That person says theirs lines. Then you turn the camera around. You shoot the reactions of the other person and their side of it. But when you're improv-ing, you need to catch it in the moment when it's happening - both sides of the conversation - because improv takes that exchange. It's not one person doing a monologue. It has to be sort of a conversation, a back-and-forth. And so Judd, when I was working on "40-Year-Old Virgin," was really figuring out how to do what we now call in the business - have always called in the business - cross coverage. And cross coverage was something that was very important to me when making "Pitch Perfect." I love improv. I do it with my co-star John Michael Higgins in both "Pitch Perfect" films. So we had to do a lot of cross coverage. So I learned a lot about that technique working with Judd - and just also the impetus to do it. You know, luckily for us, that style, that improv style, and wanting to shoot cross coverage and wanting to shoot alternatives to what's scripted, we're much more able to do now cost-effectively because we don't shoot on film. We shoot digitally. And so I think his way of doing things has actually beautifully dovetailed with the sort of turnover in the technology.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview that Elizabeth Banks recorded with one of our producers, Ann Marie Baldonado. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with actress and producer Elizabeth Banks, who directed "Pitch Perfect 2."

BALDONADO: I want to ask you about growing up. I read that to you were an athlete, and an injury kind of early on led you to your first school play.

BANKS: Yeah, I played softball. I was on an all-star team. I traveled with the team. I loved it. We were actually just practicing. We weren't even playing, which is sort of depressing. We were practicing, and I broke my leg sliding into third base. I spiral fractured both my tibia and fibula and had to surgery and was in a giant full-leg cast for quite some time. And, you know, I was a latchkey kid growing up, so my parents always made sure we had something to do after school so we weren't just hanging around watching "Santa Barbara," which is what I wanted to do.

So I was encouraged to try out for the school play. They were doing "Jesus Christ Superstar," and I didn't get the lead, which is a theme in my life, I realize. I'm always the bridesmaid. I'm never quite the bride. But I played Pontius Pilate. And I wore long robe over my walking cast that I ended up in. And that became my afterschool activity instead of sports.

BALDONADO: You just said that you feel like you never get the lead. Can you elaborate that - the lead role in a movie? Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

BANKS: (Laughter) Well, I - you know, I haven't played a lot of lead roles in my life, and very early on in my career, even with, you know, "Wet Hot American Summer" being the very first time. I auditioned to play the role that was ultimately played Marguerite Moreau. And, you know, David Wain said, I don't know. You just - you seem too pretty to play, like, the lead role and to be in love with Coop, so would you want to play Beth instead? And, of course, I just wanted a job, so I said, yes, of course, I'll play Beth.

You know, I had an audition for Mary Jane Watson in "Spiderman" and ended up playing Betty Brant in that series. I auditioned for Amy Adams' role in "Catch Me If You Can" and, you know, ended up playing the bank teller. So there were a lot of times early on where I felt like I was always sort of the bridesmaid, never the bride - never quite right. But it's - you know, it's just sort of how it's played out for me (laughter).

BALDONADO: Why do you think that is?

BANKS: Oh, it sort of sad when I say it out loud.

BALDONADO: (Laughter) Oh, no.

BANKS: I don't know. I don't know. You'd have to ask the people doing the hiring. I mean, I was always given a reason. And it's always some sort of backhanded, weird compliment, like, well, you're too pretty. Or, you know, it's stuff - I was too old for Spiderman, for sure. That was for sure the answer on that one.

BALDONADO: When you graduated from grad school at the American Conservatory Theater, which I guess a sort of classical training for the stage or dramatic training, what did you think of your career would be like when you left school? Like, did you think you'd be more of a dramatic actress? Or were you already interested in comedy?

BANKS: I wanted to - I was very pre-professional. All of high school, I couldn't wait to get to college and sort of get on with my life (laughter). You know, I grew up sort of lower working class. And I just didn't want to have the money struggles that might parents had. You know, I could just - as loving an environment I grew up in - and I grew up in a great home, a very loving home - but, you know, we had that stress. We had that stress in our life.

But I had no idea. My expectations for my career changed. You know, I sort of - honestly, when I graduated from graduate school, I just wanted to make money as an actor. I sort of told myself I was only going to give myself a couple years, and if I - if I was a waitress who occasionally acted, I was not going to do it. I was going to give it up. And when I got to New York, within the first couple of days of being in New York, one of my first auditions was for a soap opera, and I got offered a two-year contract of that soap. And one of the hardest decisions I ever made - I called my mom, and I said, I don't think I'm going to do this. But, you know, it was so much money. I could have paid off all my student loans. Like, it - I would have been set.

But there was something inside me, and I actually signed with the agent who said the same thing, which was I don't know. I've been here a day. Let's see what happens tomorrow. I mean (laughter), like, all of a sudden, the thing that I thought I wanted, which was wealth - steady work on a soap opera, sure. But then the minute I got it, I thought, well, what else can I get, you know? I mean, it's sort of how I ended up directing. You know, I kept acting, and I just keep asking myself, well, what else can I get? What else can this business give me?

BALDONADO: In some of the articles about you, they talk about how persistent you are in getting things like the "Pitch Perfect" movies made and getting roles like the role of Effie in "The Hunger Games." Is that something that all actors kind of have to do these days?

BANKS: You know, I'll say that one of the great lessons I've learned in my life is that you don't get what you don't ask for. And I do think that, you know, there's all this sort of research out to now that women like to be asked to do things, that we have hard time sort of raising our hand because we're just culturally not taught to do it, you know? We're undervalued sort of from day one. I just - I raise my hand a lot. I don't always get what I'm asking for. But if I didn't ask for it, I definitely wouldn't get it. And I just feel like what's the worst that can happen? Someone can say no.

BALDONADO: Well, Elizabeth Banks, thank you for coming on to FRESH AIR.

BANKS: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Elizabeth Banks, speaking to FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Banks produced and directed "Pitch Perfect 2." On the podcast edition of today's show, we have an extra featuring Banks talking about co-starring in the comedy film "Wet Hot American Summer," which has been adapted into a Netflix series. Tomorrow on our show, something very different. I get interviewed by Marc Maron, the great comic, star of the TV series "Maron" and host of the famous podcast "WTF." Our conversation was recorded on-stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and it got kind of personal.

MARC MARON: You have to understand that, like, a lot of us have created a life for you, Terry. And this is all...


MARON: This is exciting information. This is exciting stuff to me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ann Marie Baldonado is an interview contributor and long-time producer at Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She is currently Fresh Air's Director of Talent Development. She got her start in radio in 1997 as a production assistant at WHYY and joined Fresh Air in 1998. For over 20 years, she has focused on the show's TV and film interviews. She became a contributing interviewer in 2015, talking with comedians, actors, directors and musicians like Ali Wong, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cho and Jeff Tweedy. In 2020, Baldonado hosted the limited-run podcast Parent Trapped, about the struggles of parenting during the pandemic. She talked to Julie Andrews about encouraging creativity in your kids, and comedian W. Kamau Bell about what to watch with them.
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