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SYFY WIRE Cocaine Bear

Elizabeth Banks reveals how she convinced acclaimed 'Cocaine Bear' cast to sign on for 'insane' film

Here's how Banks got a bunch of Emmy- and Tony-award winners to agree to be in Cocaine Bear.

By Tara Bennett

For 25 years, actor/producer/director Elizabeth Banks has not only been earning goodwill from audiences who love her comedic skills in front of, and behind, the camera, but from her peers in Hollywood too. Having appeared in 90+ film and television projects, from Spider-Man (2002) to The Hunger Games trilogy, Banks has worked with a lot of talented people who she's been able to wrangle into her own directorial efforts like Pitch Perfect 2 and Charlie's Angels. And then she decided to direct Cocaine Bear, the black comedic take on the true story of a bear in 1985 that found and ingested a drug dealer's stash of cocaine.

While it's arguably the greatest film title in cinematic history, it's also a premise that might make more than a few "serious" actors balk at participating. But that's the power of Banks' reputation and network of collaborators in the biz, because she got Emmy-, Oscar- and Tony-award nominees and winners like Ray Liotta, Margo Martindale, Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell and Jesse Tyler Ferguson to all say yes to being part of her horror/comedy. 

RELATED: The 12 scariest horror movies streaming on Peacock, from 'Sick' to 'Sinister'

Banks tells SYFY WIRE that her affinity for scripts that tell stories from multiple points of view means that she's always crafting ensemble pieces. And actors love crazy ensemble pieces. "I love inviting the audience in with lots of characters that they can relate to, and I don't believe there's any small parts," Banks explains. "You can fill out a movie like this with really fun character actors. Plus, the humor stood out right away."

Banks says executive producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller asked her to read the Jimmy Warden-penned script as her next directing project and her immediate response was that it felt like a tonal tightrope walk. "I love that balance of holding tone together. I think it's what I do best," she assesses. "And then it was the idea of being able to work with CGI and the horror stuff because I won't lie, love those movies."

But Banks knew she would have to get an amazing cast to ground the more ridiculous elements of the bear's rampage, and the big characters who invade a small Georgia town looking for their lost drugs. So, she reached out to her comedian friends starting with Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Margo Martindale. 

"It's super easy with Jessie," Banks laughs. "And Margo was like, 'I want to come. I think it's gonna be really fun. But this really seems insane.'" Banks says Martindale was primarily worried about performing the majors stunts involving her character, and the director promised her that they would make it look great and realistic without any danger. "I get it. She's 70 years old," Banks says with compassion. "She's not a stunt woman and it's really physical. I think she read it as a fun character who will flirt with Jesse but how would I do all the physicality? I really had to reassure her that we would take care of her."

Banks was also able to land real life partners Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, the former for a cameo and the latter for a big role as the mother of one of two kids stalked by the bear in the woods. "Keri really is the actual center of the movie in that she's almost a straight woman," Banks explains. "She grounds it, right? We said about Pitch Perfect 2, you can have Fat Amy and Cynthia Rose and Anna Camp puking because Anna Kendrick is just grounding it all, watching everybody be crazy around her. I think you always need that grounding presence in a movie. And to me, that was Keri."

On the other end of the spectrum is Ray Liotta's big performance as Syd Dentwood. An actor who could both sing with The Muppets and convincingly play mobster Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Liotta died in his sleep in May 2022, so Cocaine Bear is one of his last roles to showcase his spectrum of talents. "He came so joyfully and was game to do it. And he knew what he was getting into," Banks laughs.

"My favorite memory, frankly, is the day that he wrapped," Banks remembers of his final shoot day in Ireland. "We shot his very final scene on the ledge of a waterfall and he's covered in blood and guts; laying there. We wrapped him and then he gave a really beautiful speech to the crew, thanking all of them and talking about how everyone assumes he's Italian because he's played these Italians. He actually found out through his genetic tests that he was mostly Irish, so being in Ireland was really meaningful to him. And it truly brought all of us to tears. It was just so lovely."

Cocaine Bear arrives on the big screen this Friday, Feb. 24. Click here to purchase tickets.

Looking for more creature-based thrills? Jordan Peele's Nope is currently streaming on Peacock.