Elizabeth Banks on Acting ‘Rites of Passage’ and What She Learned from Ray Liotta

Elizabeth Banks argues that the way to "make it" in acting is very different from when she came into the business.

“You have to make [stuff]… You’ve got to do your stuff and put it out there.” – Elizabeth Banks

In 2015, actress Elizabeth Banks made her directorial debut with Pitch Perfect 2 — and her latest film as a director, 2023’s Cocaine Bear, has captured audiences’ imaginations with its outlandish (but based on a true story!) premise. Speaking with The New York Times Magazine, Banks spoke about what she shares with aspiring actors and what she learned from the late Ray Liotta in their work together.

Banks argues that the way to “make it” in acting is very different from when she came into the business, but the idea is that aspiring actors need to still put themselves out there. She explains, “Coming into the business, when I lived in New York, if you weren’t on an episode of Law & Order, you weren’t going to be an actor. That was a rite of passage. I don’t know what those rites of passage are now. There are people who say to me — they’re living in Ohio — and they’re like, I really want to be an actor, but I don’t know what to do. Well, first you have to leave Ohio. You have to actually get started. You have to make [expletive]. I cast Scott Seiss. It’s not like he was doing nothing. He was a standup comedian. He had an agent. But he made us laugh so much with his TikTok videos, and when we were auditioning people for Cocaine Bear, I was like, ‘You know who would be fun?’ He came in and auditioned, and he was great. You’ve got to do your stuff and put it out there.”

Banks directed Ray Liotta in Cocaine Bear, one of his final films. Banks points to a film they worked together on in which she learned a valuable lesson about acting and directing from him:

“I worked with him on a little film called The Details long ago, and he provided me with a great life lesson. I’ll give you the back story: Tobey Maguire’s character was cheating on his wife, me, with Ray’s wife from the movie, Kerry Washington. Ray was extorting him. He basically said, Pay me or I’m going to tell your wife. So the scene is Tobey Maguire’s character delivering the money to Ray Liotta. Ray Liotta takes the money; they’re out on this bridge, and he opens the package up and empties all the money. It rains down into the river below, shocking Tobey Maguire’s character, and Ray Liotta gives this great speech about how, essentially: You’re a coward. I don’t need your money. I wanted to test you to see if you would come clean, and you didn’t. Ray Liotta did this with scathing intensity. It was amazing. The director came out and said: ‘That was incredible. Let’s do another one.’ Ray said, ‘OK, what do you want me to do differently?’ The director said: ‘I don’t know. I feel like we just need one more for safety.’ Ray said: ‘No. If you’re not going to direct me, then I did my work. I’m done.’ And he turned around and left the set.”

Another lesson that Banks learned about acting was being adept at looking deep in thought on camera. She points to an example in the 2014 film Love & Mercy, noting, “I know a lot of actors who look good thinking on camera, but if you cut away from the shot, you never see that work. I was in this movie Love & Mercy about the Beach Boys. I got a lot of praise for that performance, and when I watch it, what I notice the most is that the editor spent a lot of time on me processing Brian Wilson. Taking him in, wondering about him and falling in love with him. None of that was verbal. I was so grateful to the editor for letting that stay in the film, because so much of the actor’s job is listening.”

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