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How Charlie’s Angels director, producer, and actor Elizabeth Banks took control of her career

The “Charlie’s Angels” director and actor Elizabeth Banks talks about running her own production company—and taking control of her career.

How Charlie’s Angels director, producer, and actor Elizabeth Banks took control of her career
[Illustration: Hsiao-Ron Cheng]

Elizabeth Banks has a knack for portraying women who are easy to underestimate, from the bombshell right-wing media personality on 30 Rock to the Hunger Games’ foppish Effie Trinket. The same can be said for Banks herself. The actor—­who will soon play a conservative feminist rival to Cate Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafly in next year’s FX biopic miniseries Mrs. America—has become a prolific producer. Her company, Brownstone Productions, is behind the Pitch Perfect movie franchise as well as the Hulu series Shrill, starring Aidy Bryant. In 2015, Banks added another position to her résumé: directing Pitch Perfect 2, which became one of the highest-grossing female-directed films, earning $287 million globally. Now she’s doing all three jobs plus one more—writing—in the latest Charlie’s Angels, in theaters this month.

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Fast Company: Charlie’s Angels is a continuation of the 2000 movie, which was inspired by the 1976 television series. Why did 2019 seem like the right time to bring it back?

Elizabeth Banks: Growing up, I watched reruns of the TV show, and my sisters and I idolized the idea of Charlie’s Angels: These women went to the police academy, they did all the right things, and still the system did not allow them to truly live up to their full potential. That continues to be an issue, and so it felt like, Why not tackle that again right now? I felt this was a good time to remind people that there’s tons of potential in the 51% of the human race that we are not tapping into.

FC: The original show may have had a feminist premise, but the way it sometimes catered to the male gaze hasn’t aged very well. How did you update it for today’s audience?

EB: I’m aware of the “jiggle TV” aspect of the television series. That was partly what people were tuning in for. [But] I’m just not one of those women who is like, “Ew, gross, we need to reverse that.” Women can wear whatever they want. My thing is, if you see them in an outfit that you think is shameful, then shame on you. I didn’t force anyone to wear anything in my movie. I think that’s the difference [between the movie and the TV show]. Nobody is shamed in the movie.

FC: There’s a sense these days that to create a blockbuster, you have to turn a film into an event. As the writer, director, and producer of Charlie’s Angels, do you feel pressure for this movie to have that kind of outsize cultural impact?

EB: It’s not a pressure that I feel as a director particularly, or even really as a producer. You feel it as a person who makes their living in Hollywood, wondering, How do you get people to leave their house? I love going to the movies, and I would like for part of my legacy in Hollywood to be preserving that tradition.

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FC: What steps did you take to make the film appeal to the broadest audience possible?

EB: We’re always clear on who we believe the passionate “core” fan will be, but we need to be accessible. So I made Charlie’s Angels [as] a big, fun, joyful action movie in the vein of Mission Impossible, and I made it for everyone. Do I think it will feel important to women and girls? I hope so! But I made it for everybody.

FC: Drew Barrymore, who is an executive producer of this movie, was opposed to the Angels using guns in the earlier film, which she produced and starred in. As someone who has called for gun-control legislation, how do you feel about making an action film that involves guns?

EB: Yeah. It’s fraught. It was a long conversation, but at the end of the day, guns are an unfortunate reality in law enforcement, and I didn’t want to ignore that. I try to show in the movie that the Townsend Agency [which the Angels work for] has a different idea about training and police work [and uses] nonlethal tranquilizer darts instead of bullets. But I have guns in my movie, and people get shot. I wanted to make a movie that was grounded in reality.

Elizabeth Banks directing Charlie’s Angels [Photo: © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved]
FC: Last year, only 1% of films employed 10 or more women as directors, writers, producers, editors, and cinematographers. Do you take steps to ensure gender equity on the set of projects you work on?

EB: It’s really hard. I would love to just walk in and be like, “Here’s what it’s going to be.” But as much as I’m the “boss” on the set, I’m not actually the boss. I’m not paying the bills. So it’s a lot of me trying to convince everybody else, all the bill payers, that the idea of inclusivity is worthwhile—and not just admirable but actually helpful to the project. Though I often get the sense that they believe that because they’ve hired me, they’ve done their job. Of course I want more [gender equity], but I also have to balance gratitude for the job with pushing to bring everyone else along with me. That said, the casts of both movies I’ve directed [have] tons of women—and diverse women—and I’m really proud of that.

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FC: Brownstone Productions, the company you founded with your husband, Max Handelman, in 2002, made its name with the Pitch Perfect movies. You’ve also shot the second season of the Hulu series Shrill and have a number of deals in the pipeline with the likes of Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures. Have streaming services opened up new possibilities for you as a producer?

EB: We’ve embraced the new norms—and we’re also trying to figure out how to innovate within them. That’s something all of Hollywood is trying to figure out. We also can’t ignore the data that tells us where the audience is and how they’re consuming [content]. [Data] can tell you that you have the absolute best actors for a job, or it can tell you that you need to recast. It can tell you you’re resonating with a certain audience. You can start to understand how to market to people. It’s like politics or anything where you’re trying to sell something to people; it’s all data-driven now. [But] it limits the imagination of the people with money, because they can literally see risk. They can look at the numbers and go, “Well, it doesn’t check any of these boxes; it doesn’t fit into this category; we can’t figure out who is going to watch this unique, interesting thing.” And that’s a bummer.


Elizabeth Banks on Five Career Highlights


FC: You’ve spoken in the past about a time when you were frustrated by your career and you reached out to actresses you admired for advice. What was the turning point?

EB: I was living in London and playing this hot elf in a Christmas movie with Vince Vaughn, and I knew that it was not a good movie. I was getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning and stuffing a big bra with fake boobs. I don’t have anything against that; sometimes characters have big boobs. [Look at] Erin Brockovich! But I was sitting there, looking at myself like, What am I doing? I’m pretty sure I have more to offer this industry. That’s the moment I decided I could do other things.

FC: What was the best advice you got?

EB: First of all, you get very few opportunities to even meet interesting, cool women in the industry because you work in movies with 20 guys. I’ve been in very few movies with more than one or two women. So I was just grateful to have a conversation about these things.

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Laura Linney told me that you don’t want to get bored. And boredom’s really easy as a woman in our industry. You can get bored pretty quickly just playing the same kind of roles. Diane Lane was very open with me about money. I was grateful to have someone say, “It’s okay to want to make money. It’s okay [to want] things to be fair.” And hearing it from someone who has been doing it her whole life and who is insanely talented and gorgeous, I was like, “Oh shit! If she’s not happy with how it’s going, how the fuck am I going to get there?” I just thought, I’ve got to get some strategies in place.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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About the author

Julia Herbst is the staff editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. Previously she worked as a writer and editor at Los Angeles magazine and BREAKER Magazine.

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