Elizabeth Banks was born Elizabeth Mitchell in Pittsfield, a small city in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts near the New York border, on February 10, 1974. She is the daughter of Ann (Wallace), who worked in a bank, and Mark P. Mitchell, a factory worker. Elizabeth describes herself as having been seen as a "goody two-shoes" in her youth who was nominated for the local Harvest Queen.
Banks left home to attend college at the University of Pennsylvania--from which she graduated Magna cum Laude--and went on to attend the Advanced Training Program at the prestigious American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, graduating in 1996. She then moved to New York and worked in the theater, and began getting small roles in films and on television. Seeking more screen work, she moved to Los Angeles and was soon cast in supporting roles. She also had to change her last name, to Banks, in order to avoid confusion with actress Elizabeth Mitchell.
Her breakthrough role was as Betty Brant, the secretary of the cantankerous newspaper tycoon in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002). She followed up this performance with small roles in other movies: Swept Away (2002), Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (2002), Seabiscuit (2003) and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). In 2003 she won the Exciting New Face Award at the Young Hollywood Awards.
The winsome, beautiful Banks projected an exceptionally charming screen presence that drew comparisons to Audrey Hepburn, and Hollywood eventually began to take notice, Banks being cast in the lead in such films as Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) and in Oliver Stone's biopic of George W. Bush, W. (2008), as Laura Bush.