It’s not often that a Penn graduate can wax poetic about working with Madonna. And it’s pretty rare that a Quaker can cite the decade’s biggest blockbuster, Spiderman, on her résumé. But if you’re Elizabeth Banks C’96, you can do both.
If you haven’t yet heard of Banks, that’s about to change. This month she’s poised to burst onto the Hollywood scene when she stars opposite Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, and Oscar winner Chris Cooper in the on-screen adaptation of the bestselling Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Set during the Depression, the book and movie tell the story of a champion racehorse and the team behind it. As a confirmation that Banks’ own career is racing along, she was named the Most Exciting New Face at Movieline’s Young Hollywood Awards in May.
For those who knew Banks at Penn, her achievements come as no surprise, though her last name, perhaps, does. Known as Liz Mitchell while in college, Banks laughs that she didn’t change her name due to vanity or anything nearly as “Hollywood” as that; rather, there is already an established actress by the name of Elizabeth Mitchell. “It just got to be too confusing,” she explains. “Eventually, I just wrote five names down on a piece of paper and chose one. Banks sounded the best to me.”
Raised in sleepy Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Banks dabbled in theater throughout high school, but never gave it much thought until she made her stage debut in Penn’s Theater Arts production of Tom Sawyer, in which she played Aunt Polly. From there, she thrived in the University’s drama community, performing in everything from City of Angels to Assassins, all of which culminated at the Edinburgh Theater Festival her senior year.
Banks applied to three drama schools and was accepted to the competitive American Conservatory Theater. Upon graduation she appeared on requisite New York television shows such as Sex in the City and Law and Order, then went bi-coastal in 2000. Once in Los Angeles she frequently caught up with other alumni who were toiling in the entertainment field. “It’s nice having that connection,” she says. “There’ll always be that camaraderie because of Penn.”
In 2001, she made her feature film debut in Wet Hot American Summer, and to promote the movie, she hit the celebrity-packed Sundance Film Festival with the stars of the film, such as Janeane Garofalo. “Those guys knew everyone, and in Hollywood, it’s all about who you know,” Banks says. “I went to Sundance, and the next thing I knew, I was auditioning for the lead in Spiderman. It was all a little crazy!”
Kirsten Dunst landed the part (and Banks was cast instead as the character Betty Brant), but the buzz on Banks had begun. Soon thereafter, she was whisked to the Mediterranean to work with “the Ritchies” (that would be Madonna and her husband, Guy) on Swept Away, and was then hired by Steven Spielberg to play a smitten bank teller in Catch Me If You Can. “I did a few great scenes which aren’t in the movie,” she notes. But she’s hardly complaining. “Once you’ve worked with Spielberg, things start to happen. He’s good friends with Kathleen Kennedy, one of the producers of Seabiscuit, so my name was floated in front of her.”
Banks isn’t sure where acting will take her next. Right now, she’s busy working on Spiderman 2, auditioning, and enjoying her new-found stardom. One thing is clear though: with a résumé like this, she’s not slowing down anytime soon.
—Allison Winn Scotch C’95