The hard cell

Hollywood beauty Elizabeth Banks discusses ditching her glamorous look to play a jailbird on the run in The Next Three Days

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Published: Thu 18 Nov 2010, 8:43 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 1:01 PM

Some actresses learn a foreign language for a part. Some learn to knit. Some ride along with cops on patrol.

Elizabeth Banks went to jail.

To prepare for her new film, The Next Three Days, Banks reported to the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, one of the toughest maximum-security lockups in America. On a quiet weekday afternoon, the 36-year-old actress went through processing and was incarcerated.

“The prison warden walked me to my cell,” she recalls, “which was this little metal box with a bed, a toilet and a tiny shower stall. I was told to stand back, and then the doors locked. It was a deafening sound.

“All I can remember is that it was freezing in there and there was only one thin blanket,” Banks says, speaking by telephone from her couch at home in Los Angeles. “There was this odd little shower, where you got to preserve your dignity because the only things that stuck out were your feet and the top of your head. At least you could avoid the whole group-shower situation.

“All I could think of was the fact that there was no Blackberry,” she continues. “No internet. You were allowed a book and a crossword puzzle. I kept thinking about how your mind would rot in jail as you sat on that bed for days, months and years.”

Not that her experience was entirely that of a typical inmate, of course.

“After a few minutes a prisoner was walked past my cell,” Banks recalls, “and she took one look at me and said, ‘Oh. You? In here? Loved The 40 Year Old Virgin...”

The actress laughs, but adds more seriously that she had taken about all of prison that she could take.

“After a few more minutes in my cell, I said, ‘Okay, warden. I’m good. You can let me out,”’ she says. “For the rest of the day I was around the cell block and hung out with 40 inmates. I heard their stories and learned about their daily lives and how it was a constant struggle in jail for dignity and for survival.”


Banks stars opposite Russell Crowe in The Next Three Days, written and directed by Paul Haggis and due to open in the States on Friday. She plays Lara Brennan, a wife and mother who has an argument with her boss and then happens to be in a parking garage at the same time that her boss is brutally murdered there.

A splotch of blood on the back of her coat and the testimony of a confused eyewitness convict her of murder, and she is sentenced to life in prison.

Meanwhile her husband (Crowe) goes through the appeal process to no avail, and finally is told that there is no hope. Undeterred, he hatches a plan to break his wife out of her maximum-security prison and then disappear with their young son.

It was Haggis who first approached Banks about the role.

“He watched me play Laura Bush in W (2008),” she says, “and was really excited to discuss his next movie. I was so flattered, but I knew that Russell was going to have a say about who would be his wife.”

Though she was in the middle of shooting the upcoming The Details with Laura Linney and Tobey Maguire, Banks wangled a day off, hopped a jet from Seattle to Los Angeles and, working on two hours of sleep, sat down for a meet-and-greet with the notoriously hard-to-please Crowe.

“The minute I got to his suite, we actually read scenes together and it was very intense,” she says. “I’m such an actor geek – part of me was just really excited to read a movie scene with Russell Crowe. I thought, ‘If I ever write my memoirs, this will be a good chapter.”’

Five days later Banks had the role, though she still hadn’t really figured out the movie.

“The real question is, why would this man risk everything to break his wife out of jail and save her?” the actress says. “If you break someone out of jail, you and the other person can be shot on sight. I don’t care if you’re in jail for a parking ticket – the breakout is such a big crime that police are given a shoot-to-kill order.”

Ultimately she decided that the film was, for all its action and mystery trappings, a love story.

“You really needed to believe that this man couldn’t live without his wife,” says Banks, who has been married since 1993 to her college sweetheart. “They so intensely needed each other that there was no other choice.”


Banks wanted audiences left in doubt about Lara’s guilt or innocence.

“I actually wanted the audience to believe that I could have killed her,” the actress says. “I needed the audience to doubt me, because the evidence is very slim when it comes to her guilt or her innocence. I thought it was more complex to say that this is a strong woman who perhaps, in a fit of rage, might have made an extremely bad choice.”

Crowe’s character, a professor, has no such doubts. He is obsessively convinced that she’s innocent.

“From my time with real female inmates, I sensed that they want their families to move on,” she says. “In the movie, I can’t really say to my husband, ‘Just find another wife, find another mother for our son.’ But in her own way she gives him this permission to write her off – yet at the same time she’s so grateful that he’s not giving up on her.”

Fans may need a second glance to recognise Banks, who sacrificed her customary blonde hair for a straggly brunette look.

“I let the blonde grow out, because there wasn’t a good salon in jail,” Banks says with a laugh. “This character was definitely a bottled blonde. She has to let her vanity go. Her days are just putting one foot in front of another.”

Today she and her real-life husband, Max Handelman, have their own production company, Brownstone Productions. He remains her closest adviser.

“My husband and I have known each other for 17 years,” Banks says. “I’ve never met anybody I liked more, so he’s stuck with me.”

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