Elizabeth Banks on telling (funny) women's stories in Hollywood

Elizabeth Banks attends a Hollywood gala on Nov. 1. (Photo: Donato Sardella/Getty Images for Porter Magazine)

The stories most often being told by women in Hollywood and beyond these days aren’t happy, and they sure aren’t funny. Elizabeth Banks — an actress, producer, and director who co-founded a digital media company, WhoHaHa, to showcase female-driven comedy — is hopeful that the wave of sexual misconduct allegations marks a moment of change.

“You know, it’s all very complicated, and it’s hard,” she tells Yahoo at YouTube Space Los Angeles, where she mentored a filmmaker as part of WhoHaHa and YouTube’s Women in Comedy program. “It all feels necessary and hopeful, but I also feel a lot of anxiety about it. For me personally — only just for me, I don’t want to speak for anyone else — but for me personally, to live in a culture where everything feels very hopeful, like, ‘We’re speaking our truth out loud together in a community of voices,’ which feels amazing — but it also makes me think, ‘Man, Anita Hill…’ I look at her and I think, ‘How did we not all stand up around her?’

“And at the end of the day, the most powerful man in the world has been accused of sexual predation and he is still the president of the United States, so … I’m hopeful and then I’m like, ‘Well … we’ll see,’” she continues. “One step forward, two steps back. I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. I think we’re at the beginning of that. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to the end. I think we’re at the beginning and we’re all learning.”

The Pitch Perfect producer and star, who also directed the second installment of the a cappella franchise, is doing her part. Besides making movies of her own — she’s set to direct 2019’s Charlie’s Angels reboot — her company teamed with YouTube to give more than 100 content creators, chosen through an application process, access to resources, including studios and mentorship.

Banks understands the importance of having a solid support system in place before making a career leap. She says it played a role in her transition to producing and directing over the last decade after becoming a “fairly frustrated actress” who wanted more control over her creativity.

“I had a great support structure in place, and at that point, you’re just like, ‘Let’s try.’ That’s all you can do [is] just start trying,” she says. “A lot of it is trial and error. I pursued scripts and projects and directors that I met, and a lot of it didn’t pan out. And then other things happened really quickly. … My advice is always: You get back what you put into it. So I just started putting more and more of my time and energy into developing ideas that interested me. Like, what are the seeds of ideas that are cool and fun and interesting? I love the problem-solving process of how do you take this idea and make it into something that people consume as entertainment?”

Long before she hosted Saturday Night Live, Banks says, she stayed up late to watch it.

“I grew up on comedies and SNL and then In Living Color, which I loved,” Banks, 43, says. “Eddie Murphy and even, like, Tom Hanks, you know? I grew up loving comedy and being really moved by comedy and feeling like it was something that was like a respite in life.”

As a performer, she finds comedy even more irresistible.

“Making people laugh is very addictive, so once you start doing it, it feeds on itself — you want that high more and more and more,” Banks explains. “I think people feel that when they’re sitting at a dinner party with their friends. When you land a great joke at a dinner party, you feel like a superhero!”

Banks now gets excited about helping other women get that same feeling and amplify their voices. Her career, which has included roles alongside Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and other equally funny women, has put her in a place to be able to give back. While she can’t mentor everyone, Banks does have some advice for women who aspire to do more in their career.

“If you set an unaccomplishable goal, it’s gonna be a lot harder. If you’re like, ‘I want to be Beyoncé,’ but you haven’t been singing and dancing since you were 5 years old, you’re behind! But, if you’re like, ‘OK, I want to be in the live show at the Groundlings’ [comedy show]… That — you can do that! Like, you can work toward that and you can make that a goal that can happen in six months, in 12 months.”

It can be even simpler than that.

“Sometimes it’s just like, ‘I’m going to make a video today and put it on my YouTube channel. I’m just going to get up this morning, and I’m going to make sure I do it. I’m going to edit it, and I’m going to add music, and tomorrow I’m going to make it a little bit better,’” Banks says. “And just keep going. Set those accomplishable goals that you can check off of the list, because it will build momentum in your life.”

She also urges artists — YouTube creators and others — to collaborate.

“You’re trying to say something to people, so you have to actually put the idea out there. You gotta give it away. You can’t just hold on to it,” Banks says. “And fear is your enemy. So if you want to be creative, it’s about output. You gotta put it out, and not everything will connect, and you will fail a little bit, and the sun will come up tomorrow.”

It might even make a funny story one day.

 

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