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Elizabeth Banks Answers All Your Burning Questions About Cocaine Bear

10 minute read
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When Elizabeth Banks got her hands on the original script for Cocaine Bear, written by screenwriter Jimmy Warden, she immediately knew it was a movie she had to make—and put her own humorous, gory spin on.

The new horror comedy, in theaters Feb. 24, is based on the true story of a black bear who got into, and overdosed on, 40 packages of cocaine that were airdropped into northern Georgia during a botched 1985 drug smuggling operation. But while the real bear didn’t harm anyone in its drug-fueled state, Banks’ version embarks on a violent rampage that results in some pretty gruesome carnage.

Following the success of her directorial debut, 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2, and a lackluster critical and commercial response to her second film, 2019’s Charlie’s Angels, Cocaine Bear marks Banks’ third outing as a director and comes at a pivotal point in her filmmaking trajectory. “Cocaine Bear is a ginormous risk,” she told Variety. “This could be a career ender for me.”

But ahead of its release, things are looking pretty good for Cocaine Bear. The movie—complete with a 500-pound CGI bear— has garnered a significant amount of viral attention and is aiming for a $15 Million-plus debut.

TIME spoke with Banks about Cocaine Bear‘s star-studded cast, the right kind of gore, and defying expectations.

What drew you to a project about a bear doing cocaine?

I read this script in April 2020, when the world had come to a standstill and chaos was all around me. We were all wiping down our groceries and there were fires raging in California and I just thought, ‘Wow, there’s no greater emblem of chaos than a bear high on cocaine.’ Directing this film felt almost cathartic—I could tame the chaos a little bit. And more importantly, this is the movie I want to see. I want to go to the theater and have a communal experience. I want to be connected through laughter and horror and all of the things that we need to entertain us right now. I knew there was this really high concept hook in the rampaging bear. But I also felt that the script offered incredible character stories. The combination of all these elements presented a challenge to me that felt like it was a really high degree of difficulty. But I knew that if I did it right it would become this very entertaining, heartfelt, fun, energetic movie.

Which cast member were you most excited to see tangle with a CGI bear?

There is absolutely no question: Margo Martindale. The audience is not expecting her to do as much as she does and to be as bold as she is. I had to convince her to do it. She was like, ‘I don’t do these stunts.’ She’s [71] years old. But she was down on the ground and she was on the wires. We built all these special rigs for her and she did it. It’s super impressive.

This was one of Ray Liotta’s last roles. Did anything surprise you about working with him?

I worked with Ray on a little movie more than a decade ago, so I kind of knew what I was getting. I knew how professional he was going to be. I knew how charming he was. I knew what a big heart the guy had. And I knew that if he trusted me, we were going to have a great time together. He didn’t say no to a single thing I asked him to do. I was like can you put on this crazy wig, do these crazy stunts, fly to Ireland to make this movie? He did. He came fully game. He totally got what the movie was. He had a great sense of humor in general and he had a great sense of humor about this material. He came very joyfully to set every day and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to work with the legend Ray Liotta.

Keri Russell is one of the stars of the movie. How did Matthew Rhys, her husband, end up playing real-life drug smuggler Andrew Thornton in the opening scene?

I have known Matthew for 20 years and I didn’t really know Keri. Matthew was actually one of the first actors I met when I moved to LA. So Keri was cast in the film and we shot the movie in Ireland. Matthew is from Scotland, so their whole family came over on their summer vacation and he texted me a picture of himself with a mustache and said, “Can I play Andrew Thornton?” I immediately was like, “You don’t have to sell me, you’re solving a huge problem for me.” I wanted this character to be a cameo. I wanted a known actor to do it so that you wouldn’t know he wasn’t going to make it through the movie. It was a blessing.

There’s a lot of gore in Cocaine Bear. What do you think gore adds to a movie?

For me, gore is a way to process trauma with a little more fun. If someone were just to pull their fingernail off, I would throw up. The straight up reality of a trauma is not interesting to me. You almost have to oversell it with the gore and the blood and the outrageousness of it because it makes it more operatic and more entertaining. And that’s the point of the art. It’s not a documentary, but I also wanted to acknowledge the reality of a bear attack. Bears eat their prey alive. They don’t kill their prey before they start eating it. They’re capable of literally ripping somebody’s body part right off. We did the research. We saw some photos of real animal attacks. So it was like, how do we let the audience process this in a way that still remains fun?

Keri Russell as Sari in Cocaine BearPat Redmond—Universal Pictures

Was there a stand-in for the bear during filming?

We had a bear performer named Alan Henry. He’s incredible. He’s a trained creatures performer, so he’s trained to walk like a quadruped on prosthetic arms. You would blow your back out in five minutes, but he’s learned how to do it and take care of his body at the same time. So the actors always had some reference of the size and shape and eyeline of the bear.

It’s been harder for comedies to succeed at the box office. What gives this one an edge?

I’m not sure that everybody that buys a ticket thinks it’s going to be that funny. I knew it would be comedic, but I certainly feel like it’s a combination of elements that gets people’s butts in seats for this one. That being said, I love laughing and I love funny movies and I would love to see more comedy in the theater. I thought there was a great opportunity here to make people laugh, but to also take them on a a bigger ride where the laughs are just part of it. I want people’s sphincters to tense up and for them to cover their eyes and be rigid in their seats. I love that, as the filmmaker, I’m able to really take people on a physical, visceral journey in this movie. I want the tension of the experience to be, how is this movie going to surprise me next?

Are there movies with a similar madcap style that you took particular inspiration from?

I loved making Slither with James Gunn. He does these kinds of mixed genre things really well. But I also looked further back. I went to Evil Dead and John Carpenter. I had a true North Star in the original Jurassic Park because this is less of an animal attack movie and more of man’s hubris is the real villain. Jurassic Park did that really beautifully and was a great touch point. Another one was Stand By Me, with these kids encountering adult scenarios that lead them to grow as people and they lose their innocence in the process. And then Pulp Fiction.

You told Variety that you wanted to ‘break down some of the mythology around what kinds of movies women are interested in making.’ Did you feel like you had something to prove as a female director taking on this kind of story?

I didn’t feel personally like I had something to prove. I just try and lead by example. I never want to be put in a box. I don’t want people to have any expectation about what an Elizabeth Banks movie is or who I am as an actor. I’ve broken out of a lot of boxes in my career. I want to continue to surprise not just the audience, but myself.

Cocaine Bear has strong ’80s nostalgia vibes, similar to the 2001 Wet Hot American Summer movie you starred in. Is there something that draws you to that time period?

When I first read this script, the movie opened on a 12-year-old girl skipping school in the woods with her best friend. And I was a 12-year-old girl in 1985. So I’m nostalgic for the 80s because that’s when I was formed as a person. That’s the era that speaks to me the most because it’s the era that was the most formative for me.

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This movie begs to be seen with a rowdy crowd. What are your thoughts on the theatrical release vs. straight-to-streaming debate?

I totally understand the moment we’re in is that we’ve reconditioned people to watch things from their couch. But this movie was definitely an opportunity for me to create a communal experience. I think when you see comedy and horror and action, you want to see it with your friends. There’s no substitute. I also feel like with this movie, the audaciousness and boldness of not just the title, but the movie that lives up to the title, is something that creates conversation and people don’t want to miss out on that conversation. Hopefully, that gets people in the theater.

Do you see the viral hype surrounding Cocaine Bear as an advantage?

I don’t know if that actually puts butts in seats. I think sometimes people get their fix online and then that’s all they really need. So I’m cautiously optimistic, but I never count my chickens before they hatch. I still don’t know what’s gonna happen when the movie opens. The interest in it seems real, but I have to get the audience to believe the movie they’re being promised is the one they’re gonna get in the theater.

How do you decide where to focus your energy when it comes to acting vs. directing?

Directing requires a commitment of my entire life. It’s emotional, it’s every day, and it’s a long time. So I have to be so passionate about the material that I’m willing to turn my entire life over to it. That doesn’t happen very often. With every job, I’m looking for: Am I going to learn something? Am I going to be challenged? Am I going to surprise people? Am I going to get to work with interesting people? Am I going to be able to disappear into this? I always have to have a few reasons to leave the house. I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to do as many varied things as I have so far and I hope I get to continue doing that. I truly feel like I have nothing to prove to anyone except to myself, that I can challenge myself and continue to make things that people want to see.

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com