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Elizabeth Banks, 'Cocaine Bear' stars talk about one of the wildest based-on-a-true-story movie hits ever

Hit thriller is based on true incident of an American black bear that ingested mounds of cocaine in 1985.

COCAINE BEAR, 2023. © Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
A scene from Cocaine Bear. (Photo: Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Elizabeth Banks admits she was immediately won over by the title. After all, it's not every day a script called Cocaine Bear lands in your inbox.

“I felt my agent really knew me, deep in my soul,” she cracks about what became the drug-fueled-bear kill-fest that surpassed expectations with a grizzly-sized $23 million opening this weekend to lead the box office. “I felt seen, is really what happened.”

As an actor-turned-director, Banks stresses that the characters and subplots surrounding the eponymous animal were deeply important, too: A mother (Keri Russell) searching for her daughter. A crime boss (Ray Liotta, in one of his last roles) dealing with the death of his wife.

And of course there was the unbelievable (if ultimately tragic) fact that the film’s premise was based on a true story, a rabbit hole Banks quickly found herself diving head first into.

What actually happened: In December 1985, a drug smuggler named Andrew C. Thornton II dropped more than 40 containers of cocaine on the northern Georgia wilderness as his plane headed toward a crash landing. One of those packages was then ingested by a 175-pound American black bear. The animal died soon after (and was long thought to be on display in a Kentucky store, though doubt has been cast on that story.)

The Jimmy Warden-scripted movie, however, imagines what could’ve happened had that high-on-coke bear gone on a human-hunting rampage.

“This bear got into these drugs and OD'd on the drugs and was sort of collateral damage in this insane war on drugs that totally had gone sideways. And I really felt for the bear,” Banks says of the real animal, who posthumously earned the nickname Pablo Eskobear. “And so by the end of reading the script and then going on the dive about what the real story was, I felt like I could make a redemption story for Cocaine Bear. That just felt like a really fun idea to me, you know, something that I could bring the audience along for.”

COCAINE BEAR, from left: Alden Ehrenreich, O'Shea Jackson Jr., 2023. © Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
A scene from Cocaine Bear with, from left, Alden Ehrenreich and O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Photo: Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

It was an easy sell for co-stars Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr., too, who play criminal associates hunting for the lost cargo.

“It’s crazy,” says Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story). “Reading it, you’re like, ‘What is this? It can’t actually be about what it seems like it’s about.’ And it is. And it’s really fun, and Jimmy did a great job. And the fact that Elizabeth Banks was directing it, I was in.”

Jackson (Straight Outta Compton) retweeted his way into the movie. “I saw [the announcement] in a tweet, it said that Elizabeth Banks got the rights to Cocaine Bear,” he says. “I retweeted it, talking about how crazy the movie was gonna be. And she saw that tweet and decided to call and bring me onboard.

“I was ecstatic. When you see a title like that, you know it’s gonna put butts in seats. And at the end of the day that’s our job.”

About that title. While the drug reference within it limits the scope of how wide its distributor Universal can market the movie, Banks says there was no way they were ever going to alter the film’s perfectly on-the-nose name.

“There were never other titles floating around because I basically said [at the beginning], ‘I don't wanna make this if we're gonna have to change the title, so tell me now if we're gonna have to change it,’” Banks laughs. “Everybody loved the title. We all held hands. I have great producing partners in [Phil] Lord and [Christopher] Miller. Great producing partners in Universal. The marketing team said, ‘You know what, we're gonna go for it.’ The title is what cuts through. It gets people's attention. I had to deliver the movie that lived up to that title, and hopefully I have.”

Audiences were certainly intrigued. Cocaine Bear "blew past projections" in its opening weekend, as Variety notes. And as wild as its ripped-from-the-headlines premise may seem, a possible sequel may have already started writing itself.

Earlier this month, New Zealand police reported finding more than three tons of cocaine floating in the Pacific Ocean after it was dropped there by international drug smugglers.

Cocaine Shark, anyone?

“I'm sure an AI chat bot is generating that script right now,” Banks says about the viral story that she’s been repeatedly sent in recent weeks. “I have no doubt.”

“I didn’t know about that, actually,” admits Ehrenreich. “How about Loch Ness? Cocaine Loch Ness Monster.”

Cocaine Bear is now playing.

Watch the trailer:

Originally published Feb. 24, this story was updated Feb. 27.