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Elizabeth Banks shows her versatility in 'Man on a Ledge'

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Action-packed: Elizabeth Banks and Jamie Bell appear in “Man on a Ledge.”

Back in the 1930s, smart cookies like Miriam Hopkins and Carole Lombard proved that actresses could be pretty and funny at the same time. Elizabeth Banks is bringing back that tradition.

Born in the small town of Pittsfield, Mass., the 37-year-old Banks doesn’t claim to be a comedian, however. She feels too lucky for that.

“I don’t think I’m that relatable as a comedian,” said Banks during a recent visit to San Francisco to talk about her new film, “Man on a Ledge,” opening Friday. “There’s a reason standup is done by gay Ellen and overweight Roseanne. They’re really in on the inequities of life.”

But her working-class background nevertheless instilled in her a great sense of humor. “I’m a goofball. I’m very goofy,” she smiles.

Banks made her movie acting debut in the 1998 indie “Surrender Dorothy.” As her career took off, with films like “Shaft” (2000), “Spider-Man” (2002) and “Seabiscuit” (2003), Banks found it difficult to land comedy roles.

“I had trained at the American Conservatory Theater, and I was considered a very serious actress. I remember I was suddenly going up for jobs with Jennifer Connelly, and Rachel Weisz. But that’s not my true nature,” she says.

Then, producers of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005) fought for her to play a small, but crucial — and hilarious — part with Steve Carell; it proved to be her breakout.

More recently, she appeared in Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” (2008) and as Laura Bush in Oliver Stone’s “W.” (2008), as well as in recurring roles on TV’s “Scrubs” and “30 Rock.”

In the exciting, crafty popcorn movie “Man on a Ledge,” she plays a New York Police Department negotiator whose job is to talk down jumpers from high places.

So how does Banks go from comedy to a role as a cop? It’s that “smart cookie” factor.

“I loved that I wasn’t playing someone’s wife or girlfriend,” she says. “I loved that I was the smartest person in the room. I felt like John McClane [from ‘Die Hard’].”

While Banks plays it straight in the new movie, she must have been cracking up her co-workers out of sheer nerves. The movie was actually filmed on a ledge 22 stories up. For trickier shots the crew built a façade, even higher, up on the building’s roof.

“It’s a miracle nobody died. I feel like there was a 2 to 4 percent chance of death at all times on this movie,” she says, laughing.

Man on a Ledge

Starring Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Genesis Rodriguez, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Edward Burns, Kyra Sedgwick
Written by Pablo F. Fenjves
Directed by Asger Leth
Rated PG-13
Running time 2 hours, 2 minutes

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