The first thing you notice about Frankie Davis, the multitasking single mom played by Elizabeth Banks in People Like Us, is her body language. Whether the recovering alcoholic at the core of this fact-inspired dramedy is turning the tables on the school principal determined to expel her son or whether she's opening up to the handsome stranger who's taken a borderline creepy interest in her life, the character's jittery mannerisms are peppered with an assortment of nervous tics and insecure gestures.
It's a behavioral pattern that's rooted, not just in her daily quest to remain clean and sober, but in the low self-esteem issues that arise when one grows up without a father. “Frankie is very uncomfortable, isn't she?” the prolific 38-year-old actress observes during a roundtable interview that took place during a recent Miami visit to promote her new film. “She has a lot of energy that has nowhere to go. I think she really feels like she's carrying the weight of the world, and she really does need a break,” she adds.
Enter Samuel Harper, the fast-talking corporate vulture played by the suddenly ubiquitous Chris Pine (Star Trek, Unstoppable). The self-described “facilitator” makes a reluctant trip back home to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) to attend his dad's funeral. To say Sam and his late father, a successful record producer, were estranged is putting it mildly. This cold, distant man kept many things from his son, but nothing could have prepared Sam for the whopper of a secret hiding in a wad of cash that the family attorney hands over to him. The handwritten instructions: to take the money to Frankie...his half-sister.
Instead of running the errand like many people in his place would have opted to do, Sam proceeds to befriend Frankie, who works as a bartender, and her son Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario), all while withholding that crucial bit of information about his identity. It was a story arc that fascinated Banks when she first read the film's script, and she had no qualms about trusting the material to the film's first-time director, TV veteran and sci-fi screenwriter Alex Kurtzman (Alias, Fringe, Michael Bay's first two Transformers movies).
“Alex is an old pro in the actual business [end of the industry], and more importantly, he's a great storyteller,” she says. This dysfunctional-family tale hit close to home for the filmmaker, who based Frankie on the woman who approached to him at a party nearly a decade ago and said, “I'm your sister.” As Banks elaborates, though, this is pretty much where the similarities end between her character and her real-life counterpart. “His sister is not a recovering alcoholic, and she was never a bartender,” she reveals.
Banks jumped at the opportunity to play such a complex part, a change of pace for the Massachusetts native. “She really is a survivor, and that's what I latched onto. I loved that, despite all her emotional baggage and despite her current circumstances, she is hopeful, and she is going to make a good life for her kid. She's got a great life force inside of her,” she says. Listening to Banks extoll the virtues of her latest screen venture, it's hard to ignore a desire to make viewers see that there's more to her than a long string of lighthearted comedies (Definitely, Maybe, Role Models) and scene-stealing turns like Betty Brant, the secretary of Peter Parker's editor in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy. Earlier this year she earned some of her best reviews for her spot-on portrayal of Effie Trinket in the screen adaptation of The Hunger Games.
Banks recognizes a similar willingness to flex dramatic chops in her People Like Us co-star. “I have a lot of respect for Chris. I think this is a real opportunity for him to prove that he's not just a pretty face,” she says. One of the biggest challenges they faced, and which led to many discussions with Kurtzman, is dealing with the fact that Sam allows the ruse that he's just a compassionate stranger to go on for a very long period of time, a decision that raises the “ick” factor about the way his friendship with Frankie is portrayed. “We really struggled with that in the storytelling, partially because you worry that you lose the audience. But he's so broken, and I think that's part of what's going on [with these characters]. These two people are extremely damaged, and it turns out they were damaged by the same guy,” Banks says.
As taxing as some of the scenes in People Like Us were to shoot, Banks insists that tickling moviegoers' funny bones remains a bigger challenge than going for the tear ducts. “It's a lot more fun to make a comedy, of course, but at the end of the day it's the much bigger risk, because you have to fail a lot in comedy. It's just what's required to be funny, frankly: You've gotta check in your vanity and you've gotta be a little fearless,” she says.
The mixture of humor and pathos in People Like Us was only one of the reasons she joined the film's cast, which also includes Michelle Pfeiffer as Sam's mother and Jon Favreau as his boss. Another key element that drew Banks to this project was the opportunity to play a single mother, a role that has special resonance for the actress now that she is discovering firsthand what it's like to care for a child. In March 2011, Banks and her husband/producing partner Max Handelman welcomed baby Felix via a surrogate and, as Banks admits, motherhood changes your priorities. “I have a lot of clarity now, because [Felix] is number one, and it's good to be able to check off number one [on your to-do list] so that everything else competes to be number two, but it's nice to have a real focus every day.”
Banks' work ethic was put to the ultimate test when she made the musical college comedy Pitch Perfect, which is scheduled to open in October and stars Anna Kendrick and Brittany Snow. Even though she has a sizable supporting role in this film, Banks' most significant contribution occurred behind the cameras as one of the film's producers. When asked to describe the creative process when you're this deeply invested in a movie, she likens the experience to it to a pregnancy. “Producing is gratifying in a way that acting is not, and because we really are there from the beginning to the end, you get to see the whole movie through like if it were a baby. In [People Like Us], my responsibility was being Frankie, and for Pitch Perfect my responsibility is everything,” she says.
Much like being part of a harmonious movie set, Banks believes that single motherhood should be a group effort. Her advice to working moms: find a support system. “Don't do it by yourself. Don't take it on. No one can do it by themselves, and I think it's a really strong message in the movie that you need to find family wherever you can. And vote Democratic, because the Republicans are not going to help you out.”
People Like Us is currently showing in wide release.