Meet Elizabeth Banks, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire star whose career is burning brightly

With the hotly awaited The Hunger Games: Catching Fire out this week, and four new films set for release next year, actress Elizabeth Banks’s career is aflame. And about time too, says Jane Mulkerrins, who met the thoroughly modest megastar in waiting…

Elizabeth Banks

'I am unrecognisable on screen, thank goodness. I can't imagine what it's like for Jennifer Lawrence'

IT is a little ironic that Elizabeth Banks’s biggest, most wildly successful blockbuster role to date is also the one she is by far the least recognisable in. Even the most ardent fans of the phenomenally popular Hunger Games franchise in which she stars might well walk

past her in the street. Elizabeth, 39, plays futuristic government agent Effie Trinket in the films adapted from the cult trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins. ‘But I don’t think people immediately associate me with Effie, or with the films,’ says Elizabeth. Indeed, with her extravagant, almost pantomime-style make-up, arresting array of colourful wigs and hats and wardrobe filled with feathers and frills galore, becoming Effie Trinket is quite a transformation. ‘It was really fun to watch myself disappear in the mirror every day while filming, and get that “aha” moment when Effie would show up,’ she says.

The films tell the story of teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who triumphs, against expectations, in the violent Hunger Games, an annual televised event in which 24 young people, selected from the 12 districts of Panem (a dystopian version of the US), are forced to compete against one another in sacrificial sports in which only one of them can survive. The series also stars Josh Hutcherson as Katniss’s fellow competitor Peeta Mellark, and Liam Hemsworth (former fiancé of Miley Cyrus) as her oldest friend, Gale Hawthorne.

The first film, released in the spring of last year, instantly rocketed its trio of young stars to an astonishing level of global fame. The eagerly anticipated second instalment, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, opens this week. ‘I have a little less heat on me because I am so unrecognisable on screen, thank goodness; I can’t imagine what it’s like for Jennifer Lawrence every day,’ she says of her 23-year-old co-star, who won the Best Actress Oscar earlier this year for her role in the romcom Silver Linings Playbook. ‘Being that young, I just don’t know how she copes with all the attention.’

While Elizabeth is fresh-faced enough to pass for a 20-something herself, she has more than 15 years of acting experience under her belt, including playing Mercela Howard in Seabiscuit, Laura Bush in W, Wendy Cooper in What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and recurring roles in the sitcoms Scrubs and, more recently, 30 Rock. ‘I have had “moments” before,’ she demurs modestly of her career trajectory, which encompasses both comedy and drama, ‘but they haven’t changed my life dramatically. I am very much a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of person.’

Elizabeth (centre) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire with co-stars Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence

Elizabeth (centre) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire with co-stars Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence

Nonetheless, following The Hunger Games, she has four more films due for release next year, including Every Secret Thing, a crime drama with Dakota Fanning, and Love & Mercy, the biopic of the Beach Boys star Brian Wilson. Elizabeth’s supposed ‘slow and steady’ pace might well make others’ efforts look positively plodding. 

Today, the petite, pretty blonde, clad in her far more casual, un-Effie attire of skinny jeans and a striped top, is reclining on a vast L-shaped leather sofa in the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband Max Handelman, a financier-turned-film producer, and their two sons, Felix, two-and-a-half, and Magnus, who has just turned one. The evidence of the boys is scattered across the floor in the form of toy trains and pieces of railway track.

Elizabeth is luxuriating in a rare month off between films, having just wrapped Love & Mercy, which will be released next year and co-stars Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson, John Cusack as the musician later in his career, and Paul Giamatti as his controversial therapist Eugene Landy. ‘I play Brian’s second wife, Melinda, who he is still married to, and who essentially saved his life,’ explains Elizabeth.

‘Brian suffers from a sort of paranoid schizophrenia, and always has, but for years no one knew quite what to do to help him,’ she says. Wilson also tumbled into long periods of drug abuse and addiction, and Eugene Landy used radical means to attempt to ‘cure’ him, including illegally prescribed psychotropic drugs, which led to the loss of his medical licence and a restraining order from the musician. ‘Melinda met Brian, fell in love with him and knew she had to save him from this doctor,’ says Elizabeth.

The biopic of the musical legend could hardly be more different from The Hunger Games, where the totalitarian regime rules Panem and the privileged Capitol with an iron fist. Catching Fire, the second in the trilogy, is the most significant of the series for Effie’s character, says Elizabeth. ‘I like to call it the evolution of Effie, because in the first film she was very much the dutiful Capitol citizen – she definitely drank the Kool-Aid. But in this she develops a much greater consciousness of what the regime that she is involved with really is – something she was oblivious to, or at least chose to be oblivious to, before.’

There was controversy over the brutality of the first instalment, in which children fought each other to the death in the violent games. ‘The second book is darker in some respects but much less dark in others,’ continues Elizabeth. ‘In terms of the games, it is no longer kids killing kids, so that is a relief. Katniss and Peeta are forced to compete again but the contestants are all older; they all seem like adults now,’ she says.

Elizabeth in 30 Rock with Alec Baldwin
Elizabeth Banks in Seabiscuit

Elizabeth in 30 Rock with Alec Baldwin, left, and in Seabiscuit

In Catching Fire, the seeds of revolution are also becoming apparent among the oppressed citizens of Panem, says Elizabeth.

‘The story has something to say about political systems in our society and what human nature has wrought in the past, and is a reminder not to go down that route in the future,’ she says.

‘I think that is part of the appeal for young people, who generally have a mistrust of the regimes in power over their lives, so it strikes  a real chord with them.’

Striking chords with young people was also very much the theme of Pitch Perfect, the 2012 musical comedy about an all-girl university a cappella group in which Elizabeth played a competition commentator. The film, which has become a cult hit in the US, is one more reason why the actress has become so well known among young female fans (‘They are all obsessed with it!’ she exclaims in slight wonderment).

However, it’s an obsession she’s delighted to indulge, since she not only acted in the film, but also produced it along with her husband. 

While some couples would balk at the many potential pitfalls of collaborating in a professional capacity, Elizabeth and Max formed their production company in order to help their home life. 'Working together partly came out of the necessity of wanting to have a successful marriage,’ she tells me.

‘My husband was in finance on Wall Street for years, where he worked an 80-hour week with three weeks of holiday a year; I have a career that requires me to film on location for up to six months of the year. Forming the company really was about trying to combine our professional and personal goals. I don’t know that we would have been able to have success in our personal life otherwise,’ she shrugs. 

They are not, she says, one of those couples happy to live on opposite sides of the country for months on end. ‘We can go about ten days being apart, but that’s our maximum, and even that feels pretty long,’ she admits. ‘I don’t necessarily think that absence makes the heart grow fonder. If we’re not sharing things, I think we start to feel disconnected.’

'I am very much a 'slow and steady wins the race' kind of person'

'I am very much a 'slow and steady wins the race' kind of person'

In an industry where romantic unions can be made and unmade in the blink of an eye, Elizabeth’s marriage is a rare beacon of stability; she and Max have been together for 21 years and married for ten. They met on her first day of college at the University of Pennsylvania, at a party. ‘I was 18, so it was not love at first sight, but it was definitely lust at first sight,’ she laughs.

They went on their first date within days of meeting, and have been together ever since. ‘It is unusual today,’ she concedes. ‘But 50 years ago, it was the norm, and I think my husband and I are both just a little old-fashioned. I think we chose well, and we have never met anyone we liked better.’ Her husband is, she says firmly, ‘a fantastic partner to go through life with’.

While today their family home is littered with the joyful debris of two small, sticky sons, for some years they feared that might not be the case; she has been admirably open about the fact that both Felix and Magnus were born via surrogacy. ‘I don’t feel the need to hide what happened to me. I didn’t want for me one day not to have a baby, and the next day for me to have a baby, and for people to wonder: “How did that happen?”’ she says.


● Reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
● Watching The Voice and The Goldbergs (now that Breaking Bad is over)
● Listening to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories
● Splurging on First-class air fares
● Biggest Indulgence Great food and drink
● hero beauty product Mario Badescu Moisturizer
● Favourite designer Mary Katrantzou
● Favourite city to visit Prague
● Dream holiday Mustique, adults only

‘With the internet, I also know that my children will grow up and be able to read about themselves and our experience. So I felt that I should speak about it so that the record was straight, and to honour my surrogate, who is an incredible human being.’

Elizabeth says the decision to use a surrogate was not hard to make. ‘When it was confirmed that I couldn’t get pregnant myself there was only one option, because I really did want to make a baby that was a little half-me, half-my-husband human being,’ she says. And her frankness has borne fruit, in the form of grateful feedback from women facing similar decisions.

‘I think it is something that a lot of women feel a huge amount of shame over,’ she says. ‘So if anyone feels a little less shameful because I spoke about it, then I am extremely happy for that.’

The eldest of four children, Elizabeth herself grew up in decidedly unstarry surroundings in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where her father worked shifts on the factory floor at General Electric, and her mother worked in a bank. ‘I was raised by the village,’ says Elizabeth with a fond smile. ‘My mother worked, but I grew up on the same street as my grandparents, two aunts and uncles and cousins, so I never had a babysitter who wasn’t related to me.’  

Living in LA, her own set-up is somewhat different. ‘I don’t have anyone that’s related to me here, so I have had to create a family,’ she says. ‘I rely on great help, and I make no bones about it: I go to work and someone else is watching my children. But I wake my children up every morning and make their breakfast; I take my children to nursery, I pick them up and I put them to bed most nights. I am there as much as I can be, and I try not to sweat it too much.

‘Of course,’ she adds with a rueful smile, ‘you always feel a little guilty, but I do think that might be the female condition. My husband is an absolutely fantastic father, but I don’t think he agonises over his work/life balance in the same way that I do.’

Elizabeth with husband Max

Elizabeth with husband Max

Though she looks very far from it, Elizabeth will turn 40 in February. ‘I don’t fear the number or the milestone birthday; I just fear my bottom falling down!’ she laughs. ‘I fear that I will not age as gracefully as I hope to.

‘I think that I looked pretty much the same for a very long time, from the ages of 20 to 40,’ she is happy to admit. ‘But I am realistic; I know I’m not going to look 20 when I’m 50. So I am really trying to embrace my life and what is happening to me physically because I can’t stop it.

‘We just don’t take advantage of our youth,’ she continues with a sigh. ‘I wish I had walked around in a bikini between the ages of 16 and 30. But I didn’t, and now I never will again.’

However, she is too down-to-earth and gracious not to recognise that she is in a golden time in her life, whatever physical changes may befall her over the next decade.

‘I am really excited by everything that has happened in my 30s: I bought a house, I got married and started my family,’ she enthuses. ‘But I don’t feel any less ambitious now than I did in the past about what I want from my life, and I don’t feel like I dream less,’ she says. ‘I just dream more and dream bigger; I am very excited for the future.’

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will be in cinemas from Thursday