by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I am unbearably nervous. My heart is racing, my breathing is barely controlled, and the pen of mine that I am currently fiddling with is basically a blur. This is not nervousness brought on by excitement and being star-struck – although that may have been a barely noticeable part of it – this was nervousness brought on by anxiety and fear.
About 48 hours earlier, I received a message from the editor of The Hullfire, my university’s student newspaper. It told me that there had been some actual progress with regards to an interview opportunity that he had teased a few months back and to which I more or less replied at the time, “Get me in there, do whatever it takes!” The interview was going ahead, it was set for Thursday, and if I wanted it, then the session was mine. I then didn’t hear anything more until 7pm the next day, where I was finally let in on the details of the thing: the interview was at 3:40PM the following day, I had to attend a 12PM screening before it, and it was down in London.
Against most people’s common sense, and even my own, I spent the next 4 hours making the travel arrangements and nailing down locations and such. Cos when you have been writing critically about films for five years, seemingly no closer to making it or even being paid for your efforts, and someone metaphorically calls you up to say “Hi, we’d like for you to attend a press event first thing tomorrow in London and you’re going to have to figure out how to get down there on your own”, you damn well make it work.
This was my first journey around London by myself, going to places I didn’t know, to the type of event I had never experienced before. Hence the anxiety and fear; going on unfamiliar experiences by myself doesn’t usually sit well with me. Not helping matters was the general surreality of the whole experience – the NBC Universal offices, where the screening took place, are two floors in a building filled with corporate offices that’s incredibly sparsely designed and has TVs that play NBC Universal related trailers on muted loop, like something out of a film, whilst Claridge’s, where the interview took place, is a living parody of what you and I think the incredibly rich live like – and the fact that the other critics/journalists at the event, despite also being university students, seemed very experienced and all seemed to know each other. As the fresh-faced newbie that nobody knew and didn’t acknowledge the existence of, this caused me to feel exactly as you’d expect.
That’s why I was sat in a waiting room at Claridge’s at 3:35PM, 5 minutes before the roundtable interview was supposed to start, terrified beyond belief. I mean, I was about to share a room with the director of Pitch Perfect 2, which I had to sign an embargo agreement on before I could go into the screening, and a movie star in her own right. Why wouldn’t I be terrified? What if I said something incredibly stupid? What if I flubbed my questions? What if my recording didn’t work properly? What if I fainted, or was incredibly unprofessional, what if she just plain didn’t turn up? Knowing my luck, any one of those things could have happened and I wouldn’t have been in the least bit surprised.
We are escorted at 3:40PM into the hotel room next door with a roundtable all set up, take our seats, and wait in incredibly awkward silence. There are 8 of us, each with our own Dictaphones, lists of questions, degrees of experience, and our own personal relationships with one another – some knew certain people, others knew others, but none of us, least of all I, knew everyone at the table. So we waited, as the minutes ticked by. Sometimes someone would make a quiet murmured comment intended to make things less tense but would only cause things to feel even more awkwardly, anxiously terrifying.
Then Elizabeth Banks walks through the door and the room’s energy drastically changes. Dressed casually, grinning from ear to ear, and not seeming in the slightest bit tired, phased or sick of having to spend yet another 20 minutes fielding questions, she projects this aura of calming control that seemingly affects every one of us. “You’re all so young,” she observes as she sits down and that combined with her loud emphatic request for questions – simply delivered as “What d’ya wanna know?” – flushes out any trace of fear in the room with genuine laughter. Somebody uses the age comment as a jumping off point to ask for her thoughts on what about university and college-aged protagonists appeals to audiences, and we are off.
“I think it’s a transitional age. When you’re younger than 20, you’re aspiring to be 20, and when you’re my age, you go, ‘Oh, it was so nice when I was 20.’” She answers most every question like that, with that kind of insight and self-awareness and examination, into both herself and the Pitch Perfect series that, as its producer, she has helped shepherd into existence, but in a casual way that keeps the mood from feeling too pressurising, too constricting. Somebody follows up my question on female empowerment and friendships in the series by asking about the importance of a studio comedy fronted and driven by an almost entirely female cast, which leads into Banks, who proudly admits to being a feminist, noting that, while she didn’t set out to make a feminist movie, “because we made a movie about a group of women, and nobody else makes those movies, we are a feminist statement.”
Pitch Perfect 2 is a very much a film of expansion, from the cast to the sets to the scale to the commitment to and exaggeration of the A Capella world it takes place in, which also bleeds over into Banks’ role within the film. Whilst she still returns on-screen as co-A Capella commentator and podcaster Gail, Banks found herself in the director’s seat for the first time in a feature film, a surprising rarity with the Hollywood studio system’s frustrating reluctance to hire female directors. “I was actively looking for a movie to direct, and the stars basically just happened to align,” she admits, noting that due to her production work, her hiring of Jason Moore [the first film’s director], and the studio trusting her, “it was like, ‘yeah, of course I should do it.’”
That kind of determination and desire to try new things likely surprises no-one if they’ve been paying attention to her filmography. This year alone, in addition to Pitch Perfect 2, she’s co-headlining the crime drama Every Secret Thing, appearing in Magic Mike XXL, co-starring in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, and wrapping up her work in The Hunger Games series with Mockingjay, Part 2. I ask her if this comes from a desire to push herself, which she mostly refutes but instead simply states: “I don’t want to be bored. I want stories that interest me.” That might explain why, when the subject of comedy sequels and a possible third Pitch Perfect comes up, she notes that she and Kay Cannon (the series’ screenwriter) “really strove to do something organic and authentic” with PP2 instead of just repeating themselves and why she’s hesitant to commit the series to a third instalment just yet. “I don’t know what the journey would be in the next one, we don’t have a plan yet.”
Each of us interviewing Elizabeth take turns in no specific order, mostly managing to link our own questions from questions prior, never accidentally talking over one another, like we’re all linked in together and acting as one cohesive unit despite that lack of familiarity. It really helps keep me calm during the session, as the fear of failure melts away and worries about being judged fade into the back of my mind. Banks very much seems to exude that kind of kind, understanding calm, the sense that you could ask her how her day’s been and you won’t get an answer too dissimilar to asking one about the belief that the public are scared of musicals – “The people that write the cheques are scared,” she corrects. I ask a slightly bumbling question about the film’s frank and honest handling of bisexuality and sexual desires and her response is both funny, sincere and intelligent – “College is a liberal time. You’re supposed to experiment.”
Eventually, one of her PR guys intrudes to let us know that our time is up. She says her goodbyes and leaves, we all hit stop on our Dictaphones and start filing out of the room. The calm from her time in the room is still within me and it doesn’t dissipate until I get halfway to the stairs and decide to check my phone to make sure the audio actually recorded. Mild panic ensues as I fumble around with my headphones and I skip past the dead air, my mind continually worried that I’ll step out of the shower any second now and find out that the entire experience was actually like Season 9 of Dallas.
But then I hear her voice. The recording worked and, more importantly to myself at that moment, I had physical evidence that the whole thing had actually happened. I really did just see Pitch Perfect 2 at an actual critic screening, and I really did just spend 20 minutes in a room with Elizabeth Banks asking her questions like a professional film critic/journalist. I keep my elation contained until I make it back through the front entrance of Claridge’s, at which point I proceed to cackle like lunatic and swear triumphantly to both myself and the heavens. The feeling was incomparable. Not so much because of the experience, but more because of the knowledge that I could, in fact, do this. I could do this for a living, for real, instead of failing miserably like I was always terrified of happening.
I then head off to meet a friend of mine who lived nearby for a bit before catching a train home. That feeling does not leave for the rest of the day.