Tuesday, October 21

PITTSFIELD — She's the ingenue of both sex comedies and date movies, and for her next acts, Elizabeth Banks is presidential and pornographic. The 34-year-old actress and Pittsfield native is starring in two films opening this month: In "W.," directed by Oliver Stone, Banks plays first lady Laura Bush, and in Kevin Smith's "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," she plays a chick who tries to pay off her debts by shooting a homemade dirty movie with her buddy.

"W." opened in theaters Friday, and "Zack and Miri" opens Oct. 31.

Banks is a veteran of almost 40 films and television shows. Her career gained momentum in 2002, when she had a small role in Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can." In 2003, she played the wife of Jeff Bridges' lead character in "Seabiscuit."

But it's "W." that has local movie-goers buzzing at the moment. During a weekend matinee at the Regal Cinemas, audience members at the Berkshire Mall theater could be heard whispering, "She's from Pittsfield!" and "That's her!", when Banks appeared as Laura Bush in the character's first scene.

Banks' range as an actress was evident years ago, when she was a drama student at Pittsfield High School, one of her former teachers said.

"There were depths she revealed at an early age," said Ralph Hammann, who has taught a theater program at the high school since 1976. "I could say to her, 'Liz, take the stage,' meaning, the space is yours. She would know what to do, instinctively."

In a phone interview yesterday, Banks said she's always loved studying people and reading historical fiction. The chance to play the first lady played to both interests.

"When I read the part, I thought, 'This is a drama student's dream come true.' ... Because there's a reality there, and I had to get things right," Banks said.

A learning process came with playing Laura Bush.

"(Laura Bush) is an enigma. I tried to figure out who this woman is," Banks said.

"There were a couple things (I discovered about Laura Bush) that I hung on to for the character," she continued. "I learned that (Laura Bush) felt that her job description was to take care of the emotional and psychological health of the president of the United States. Part of her job was to set aside her own feelings."

Hammann stays in touch with Banks, and says she regularly returns to Pittsfield. When she's home, she visits her high school's drama department.

Banks said what she misses about Pittsfield is "the four seasons."

"Fall is my favorite time of the year," she said. "I miss swimming, canoeing, and jumping off waterfalls in the summer."

She said she also misses the "french fries at Patrick's Pub."

Hammann has a lasting image of the young actress, then known by her birth name, Elizabeth Mitchell, taking command of the female lead in the school's 1991 production of the musical "Man of La Mancha."

Banks played the dual role Aldonza/ Dulcinea, the "earthy slattern" who appears, to the hero Don Quixote's demented eyes, as a virginal angel, Hammann said.

Even when the unexpected happened, Banks stayed in character; during one performance in the steaming-hot theater, someone opened the smoke vents to let in some cool air.

"And then we had a thunderstorm, and it was raining onstage," Hammann said.

The stage set included risers set at precarious angles, and there were puddles forming. Banks was unfazed.

"She didn't miss a single step," Hammann marveled.

Hammann added that his former protégé's wholesome beauty has caused her to be "typecast to a degree," and sometimes her intelligence is overlooked.

"I think as she gets more roles people will discover how much there is to her," Hammann said.

In a recent Associated Press interview, Banks admitted that she "always felt like a character actor in a leading lady's body."

Indeed, her co-star in "Man of La Mancha" remembers Banks as an actress with "a billion characters at her disposal.

"What makes me proud is her fearlessness," said Scott Wichmann, 35. "She shifts gears between comedy and drama, and she's not afraid to look goofy."

Wichmann graduated Pittsfield High School in 1991, a year before Banks. Now working as a stage actor in the Henley Street Theater Company in Richmond, Va., Wichmann said he was thrilled by his classmate's meteoric rise.

"The other day, in the span of one hour, I saw (television) ads for three different movies (Banks) was starring in," he said, referring to "W.," "Zack and Miri," and the upcoming screwball comedy "Role Models."

Banks' father, Mark Mitchell, said his daughter may never have taken to the stage or screen had it not been for a bad accident during a softball game.

When young Liz was a middle school student at Reid, she broke her leg in two places sliding into third base, Mitchell said.

"Before that, she was more into sports than acting," he said, during a telephone interview from his home on Brown Street, where Banks grew up. Mitchell, 59, works in Pittsfield.

Banks recalled that incident, too: "I broke my leg and I couldn't play sports. I found out they were doing 'Jesus Christ Superstar' (at Reid). I got to play Pontius Pilate, because I could wear a robe over my walking cast."

Mitchell and Banks' mother, Ann, separated years ago; they were divorced in the 1990s. Ann also has a home on Brown Street.

Mitchell described his daughter as someone who worshipped superstar artists like Madonna, and loved attention.

"Early on, we all knew we had a star," he said.