Exploring Chinatown with Elizabeth Banks

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Photos Courtesy of 20th Century Fox & NBC Universal

The specialty of the house at Chinatown’s Phoenix Bakery is a deep-fried, syrup-drenched wonton called the butterfly. There may not be a more caloric sweet in all Los Angeles. No sooner has Elizabeth Banks purchased a box of them than she pops one in her mouth. A minute later she comes up for air. “Wow,” she says, “that’s good.” Maybe too good. “These are going to last a long time,” the actress promises as she opens a canvas tote and sets the container inside as if it were dangerous contraband.

Banks has been coming to Chinatown since she moved to Los Angeles seven years ago. She likes watching the old men playing mah-jongg in the middle of the day at the Hop Sing Tong Benevolent Association. She’s been known to shop for satin slippers and platform mules at Bamboo Plaza. While she’s yet to try the remedies at Tin Bo Ginseng and Natural Herbs, that doesn’t keep her from lingering in the doorway with the air of someone who on her next visit will take the plunge. When she married producer Max Handelman at Beverly Hills’ Greystone Mansion in 2003, Banks decorated the tables with paper parasols she bought here. “This place is so vibrant,” she says. Whereupon she does a very L.A. thing, extracting a map of Chinatown she’d downloaded before leaving her Studio City home. “I want to make sure I know where I’m going.”

Just a couple of weeks earlier, Banks was on the Pittsburgh set of Zack and Miri Make a Porno, a comedy costarring Seth Rogen about two financially hard-up friends who believe they can get themselves out of hock by appearing in an X-rated movie. The film draws on the humorously sexy persona the actress has all but perfected. The saucy bookstore clerk who tried to seduce Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin—that was her. The saucy urologist impregnated by Zach Braff last season on TV’s Scrubs—her again. This month will see her as Eddie Murphy’s saucy girlfriend in Fox’s big summer release, Meet Dave. Later in the year she will appear as Paul Rudd’s saucy girlfriend in Universal’s Little Big Men. Blond haired and gray eyed, with high cheekbones and a delicately sculpted jaw, Banks has established herself as the Carole Lombard of the Judd Apatow set: the pretty girl who likes to cut up as much as the boys. “With this face,” she says, “it’s fantastic that I get to play such great character parts.” None of it, however, has happened by accident. “In my career I lead with my head and not my heart,” she says. “It keeps the personal out of a very personal business. I’m a businesswoman.”

To spend a few hours with Banks is to be aware that she doesn’t do anything without a sense of purpose. She always gets right to the point. Entering R.G. Louie Co. Chinese Gifts, the gaudy emporium known for its vintage neon sign, she makes a beeline for the friendship rings, soaps, and wooden back scratchers, calling out the prices— “one dollar, sixty cents, one dollar ”—as if they’re excursion fares on some South Seas steamer. “I’ve bought tons of bracelets here,” she says.

Driven as Banks is, she’s open to the unexpected. “I was in Pittsburgh making Porno the day before Oliver Stone cast me as Laura Bush in W.,” she says, putting her role in the forthcoming biopic into perspective. “The irony of this isn’t lost on me.”

Playing the First Lady—her biggest part yet—may seem something of a stretch for the 34-year-old Banks. In her lavender cotton hat, black sweater, Habitual jeans, and custom pink-and-gray Converse All Stars, the actress looks as if she’d be a better bet as First Daughter Jenna. But notwithstanding her track record as the ingenue who goes for laughs, Banks is capable of portraying pensive characters. Her breakthrough role was as Jeff Bridges’s dutiful wife in 2003’s Seabiscuit. More recently, she gave a nuanced performance as the frightened college girl who grows into the assertive wife in the romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe. The ability to hit such sober notes owes a lot to her background. “I grew up in the real America,” says Banks, who describes her hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, as an industrial hub (her father still works in the local General Electric plant) with heartland values. “I grew up around cows and farms,” she says. “We walked to school through the woods.” As for what matters most in life, Banks believes she’s in sync with the First Lady here. “I’m old-fashioned. I’m loyal to my husband. We’ve only been married 5 years, but we’ve been together 16. We met on my first day of college at Penn. We had a serious conversation about environmental law. I was intrigued by him. It wasn’t a pickup.”

Banks resisted acting as a career. “I saw my parents struggle,” she says. “I never wanted to struggle. The whole idea of being a starving artist just didn’t interest me.” Once she decided to pursue a life on camera, she did so single-mindedly, first in New York, where she earned a graduate degree at the American Conservatory Theater, and then in Hollywood, where she has worked steadily from the outset. Two years ago she and her husband, a former Fox executive who went out on his own after picking up an MBA at UCLA, launched Brownstone Productions, a company they envision developing projects not only for her but others as well. Their inaugural effort, The Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, began filming in April, and more are in the pipeline, among them Too Far from Home, a picture about three astronauts stranded on the International Space Station after the shuttle Columbia broke up. “Our philosophy,” says Banks, “is that producing is about taste, access, and clout. We knew we had good taste. We knew we could get access, and now we’re working on clout, because clout is what gets movies made.”

Portraying the First Lady in a takedown of the Bush administration by a director who, despite his spotty box-office record, never fails to stir up a hornet’s nest will undoubtedly raise Banks’s profile. There’s nothing like playing a public figure to turn you into a public figure. W., which features an impressive cast (Josh Brolin handles the title role, while James Cromwell stands in for George Herbert Walker Bush) and began shooting in May, will require Banks to become a diplomat. Over green tea at Bamboo Plaza’s Via Café, she is practicing her sound bites. “I have nothing but respect for Laura Bush,” she says. “Whatever you think of her politics, she’s likable. One of my favorite things about her is her ambition for her daughters.” That said, Banks pulls from her tote a copy of The Perfect Wife, a biography by Washington Post reporter Ann Gerhart that paints the First Lady as having suppressed her intelligence and beliefs in the name of political expediency. “She’s an enigma,” the actress says, relishing that she’s landed such a good part.

After tea Banks makes her way down Broadway, passing Great Wall Books & Art, the Dynasty Center, and Golden Dragon Seafood Restaurant. She’s on the lookout for toys for her nephew and niece. They live back East, but whenever they visit she brings them to Chinatown. “It’s great,” she says. “I can give them $5, and they can go crazy. I like to let them pick out their own things. God forbid you get them something that isn’t cool.” Not that Banks won’t purchase at least a few items for them today. Wandering into a shop called Feng Shui Wing Wa High, she scoops up a handful of Mornaga candies; tart, chewy, and foil wrapped, they come in grape, strawberry, and green apple. “This is yummy,” Banks says after inhaling one. “Every so often you’ve got to try candies you’ve never tried before.”

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