Real movie stars, fake names

Elizabeth Banks: Real Movie Star, Fake Name

Elizabeth Banks is quickly becoming known as one of the most versatile actresses in Hollywood. She gained fame in comedies like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Role Models,” along with a recurring role on “30 Rock” last season. But she has also showed her dramatic range in films like “Seabiscuit,” “Invincible” and “W.” In the upcoming thriller “The Next Three Days” from Oscar-winning writer/director Paul Haggis, she has her highest profile role to date opposite Russell Crowe as a wife and mother sent to prison for murder.

Her skyrocketing career is truly making Elizabeth Banks a name to remember. But it’s not her real name.

She was born Elizabeth Maresal Mitchell, and she was credited as such in early appearances on an episode of “Sex and the City” and in the 2000 movie “Shaft.” But there was already an actress in the Screen Actors Guild named Elizabeth Mitchell, so she needed to change it. She told the Seattle Times in 2008 that she didn’t pick the surname Banks as a reference or tribute to anything: “I just wanted something short and sweet and a little WASP-y, because I wanted to advertise exactly what I was.”

It was a smart move for Banks to pick a name to distinguish herself from the other Elizabeth Mitchell, who played Juliet on “Lost” and now stars in the new version of “V.” They are both beautiful blue-eyed blondes, both did guest spots on “Law & Order: SVU,” and both appeared in Christmas movies set in the North Pole (Banks in “Fred Claus,” Mitchell in “The Santa Clause 2” and “3”). But the ironic thing is that Elizabeth Mitchell wasn’t born with that name either. She was originally Elizabeth J. Robertson, but took her stepfather’s last name.

It’s not unusual for an actor joining the Screen Actors Guild to modify or change their name to differentiate themselves from another guild member. According to SAG’s website, when applying for the guild they ask prospective members to submit three alternate names if their first choice is not available. When an applicant pays their initiation fee — currently $2,335 — the union does a final check and the new member’s professional name is officially assigned.

One notable example of this: “Beetlejuice” and “Batman” star Michael Keaton, who was born Michael John Douglas. He changed his name so as not to be mistaken for the Michael Douglas of “Wall Street” fame. He reportedly chose his stage name after seeing a photo of actress Diane Keaton. As it happens, she was born Diane Hall, but there was already an actress by that name in the Guild, so she took on her mother’s maiden name. Woody Allen later named the title character in “Annie Hall” after Keaton’s real family name.

It’s also common for actors to add middle names or initials to distinguish themselves from other actors. Michael J. Fox did so, even though his middle name is actually Andrew (he didn’t like the sound of “Michael A. Fox”). “Ugly Betty” star Vanessa Williams is officially “Vanessa L. Williams,” to set her apart from actress Vanessa A. Williams (“New Jack City”). Sometimes letters can be added to a name, like Mitchell’s “Lost” costar Terry O’Quinn, whose birth name Terrance Quinn was also already taken.

But sometimes it’s not sharing a name with another actor that causes someone to change their name. In the case of actor/comedian Albert Brooks, he originally had the same name as a celebrated figure from a very different field. He was born Albert Einstein, but obviously that particular name had already been claimed.

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