Nimbus douses Los Angeles, and all that is vegetal in this city of concrete and sun drunkenly glistens. Its an early Friday morning, the streets are virtually empty, the drive to the L’Ermitage Hotel one of unusual stealth and metropolitan beauty. Inside the establishment celebrated for its celebrity clientele, the lobby is warm and vacant. A waiter paces behind the bar as pop muzak plays softly over the hum of a descending elevator. The doors open with a dim ding, and out steps its distinguished human cargo.
Eric Bana walks briskly toward the bar and is greeted by the waiter. He walks Bana to our table, and just as quickly as he sits, the actor asks for a coffee with natural sugar. “Interviews before coffee are dangerous, very dangerous,” he says, smiling.
Bana is tall, muscular, and appears fresh, like a well-groomed statesman, showing none of the wear and tear of his recent spate of promotional trips for his latest film, the action thriller Hanna. For the proud, longtime resident of Melbourne, hitting the road to make your ends takes some real gruff. “Living in Australia, there’s a lot of traveling, there’s a lot of physicality to going off and making a movie and promoting a movie. There are challenges that are unique to that situation. But that’s one of the great things about acting, is that you quite often end up somewhere that you would never otherwise have gone to, and Finland was definitely one of those places for me.”
What Bana refers to is the region of frozen northern forests in which the film begins, a place where, despite the forbidding climate, the versatile Australian was able to enjoy being on set. “It was absolutely beautiful. We got to film in some pretty extreme cold environments and it just looks amazing, really. I was concerned when I got there that it would look so good that it could look like a soundstage, because it’s just so flat, beautiful, and striking.” Everything drenched in ice and snow, the winter wonderland was the perfect starting point for the generally well-received, ultra-stylish and violent fairytale.
“From the point of view of my character Eric, it’s a kind of bizarre parenting story,” explains Bana, easing into his chair, “It’s really a story about our loss of innocence in the world. Here’s this teenage girl in the wild, being trained by her father for reasons that we’re not quite sure of at the beginning, but as its revealed, I’m training her to fight and kill in order for her to survive in the real world. It’s a cool premise—really interestingly executed by Joe Wright, who had a fantastic take on what was a strong original script. The whole story is a little bit of a microcosm of what parenting is for everybody. Eventually the kids are their own living, breathing, solo entity in a big scary world.”
The kid in question is played by remarkably talented Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, only 16-years-old during the filming of the physically demanding production. “Saoirse is very mature and very, very funny,” remarks Bana, “we got along amazingly well. It was fun because all that youthful energy and cheekiness and, you know, both the Irish and Australian sense of humor is very cutting and very wicked, so we were a healthy match for each other in terms of being on set and enjoying ourselves.”
The film reeks of talent, what with Bana, Ronan, and of course, Cate Blanchett as s despicable FBI bootstrap. Not to mention that it was directed by award winning English director Joe Wright, known more for films such as Atonement, Pride and Prejudice, and The Soloist—films not particularly known for their action sequences. “I loved working with Joe,” says Bana, “He’s a very smart filmmaker. And he said at Comicon something that I have a lot of respect for. They were asking him, ‘What makes you want to do a particular project?’ And he said, ‘Being scared. Being scared of the material, being scared of the project.’ Which I think is a very honest answer. It’s also a sign of someone who is prepared to get out of their comfort zone and be stimulated.”
Bana has in fact made his career by pushing himself into roles beyond his comfort zone. The actor jumped from TV sketch comedian to the Australian big screen in his terrifying embodiment of notorious criminal Mark “Chopper” Read in Chopper (2000), before exploding into worldwide recognition with his role in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, in which he plays an American Delta Force soldier with invincibility mode turned all the way up: lobbing grenades into whatever window he wishes, offering sage advice to nervous combat newbies, and running through a hail of bullets with all the concern of a child running through the rain. Then in 2005, Bana sealed his reputation as an actor with serious dramatic chops with his performance as Avner in the gritty, psychologically intense, and critically acclaimed film by Steven Spielberg, Munich.
Bana first came across the material on which Munich is based at the Telluride Film Festival. It was there, in 2000, that he watched the documentary One Day In September, the Kevin McDonald film about the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. “I remember meeting the director at the festival,” recalls Bana. “I’d seen a midnight screening like on a basketball court in Telluride, and it was just like, ‘Whoa, what a kick in the teeth.’ It’s so shocking and moving. Incredible, just very well made.”
That same historical event forms the basis of Spielberg’s historical action film, in which Bana plays a conflicted Israeli secret service agent seeking retribution on behalf of his government. The film holds a particularly warm place in the actor’s heart.
“I’d say Munich is the film that would most clearly define the kind of film that I grew up loving,” says Bana. “That style of cinema, that genre, that world, would be probably be the one that I would buy a ticket to see first. There’s a lot of others that I really enjoy, but that one in terms of growing up and watching ‘70s cinema—it was just a great world to inhabit, a great period to try and recreate, it was very interesting.”
Since then, Bana continued diversifying his portfolio. He worked through some uncanny flops (Hulk, Troy), survived the obligatory Drew Barrymore vehicle (Lucky You), put in a solid dramatic performance as King Henry VIII in 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl, and landed in the surprisingly endearing rom-com The Time Traveler’s Wife. “I had a great time making that film, and my work was made a lot easier by having someone fantastic to play with in Rachel [McAdams]. But I imagine it could be a shocking experience if you’re working with someone you didn’t really like or didn’t have chemistry with. So that was definitely something to be very scared of because, you know, there’s no one to shoot, there’s no one to punch, there’s no one to scream at.”
Bana returned to shooting, punching, and screaming in his role as Commander Nero in 2009’s wildly successful reboot of the Star Trek franchise, in which Bana made a rare (and to many, physically chameleonic) venture into science fiction, although admittedly it was an action science fiction film, which seemed more like Star Trek-on-steroids as compared to previous installments.
Perhaps even more startling to American audiences would be his next film, the neorealist Judd Apatow comedy, Funny People, in which Bana delivers a spot-on, laugh-out-loud performance as—what else?—an Aussie prick in love with his footie. “I was extremely comfortable making Funny People. You know, that’s where I came from. I did stand up for 10 years and TV sketch comedy for six, so that’s where I started. So to go back felt very comfortable and it was a hell of a lot of fun and a lot more fun than making dramatic movies—that’s for sure,” he admits
Action films such as the groundbreaking Australian film series Mad Max undoubtedly left an impact on Bana (the protagonist’s car in the series, a Ford Falcon XB GT, is also one of Bana’s favorite cars), but growing up, among the actor’s list of heroes was also one Richard Pryor. “Richard Pryor was my hero when I was a kid. My whole [comedic] act was all long storytelling. I never had any ‘jokes’. Stand up was kind of weird for me because I really enjoyed it, but I’m the last guy who wants to take all the attention in the room, so it’s a weird thing to do. I enjoy the challenge, I enjoy experiencing things from my characters perspectives, I enjoy thinking about things laterally and walking in other people’s shoes. It’s a very unique experience.”
Despite this significant background in Australian comedy, on the international scene his reputation had remained mired in drama and action. Knowing this, Bana took his time in choosing just the right comedic role to show his talent for levity. “I was always going to be very careful about doing a comedy in the U.S. And Judd Apatow’s world is the sort of world where I feel like I can fit in, in that regard.”
As it turns out, Bana’s character was originally meant to be played as American, “but Judd let me tweak it a bit,” explains Bana. “I said, ‘Judd, look, I think it’d be funnier if he’s Australian. I know these types of guys. I know exactly how they are.’ I told him I’d be able to add a lot more if I make him Australian because there’s just a lot of minutia to the character that I can bring that I wouldn’t be able to if he was American.” And, if laughs are any measure, Bana did a fantastic job playing an Australian.
Hanna is his first feature film in the last 2 years, during which Bana produced a little-known but well-liked documentary called Love The Beast, detailing his affection for building and racing a’74 Falcon he’s owned since his teens. “For me, if I’m not shooting its about getting time to throw my dirt bike on a trailer and head out with some of me mates into the bush. You know, working on my cars, racing, getting onto the track and actually racing, it’s a total immersion and it’s a hobby that allows you to completely forget about work and the business.”
The documentary ends with Bana crashing his beloved vehicle, putting the beast temporarily out of a commission, a situation Bana is actually thankful for. “I won’t race it again, it’s just too precious and took many man hours. To me it’s a work of art, actually. That’s another reason why I don’t race that car anymore. Because suddenly events start dictating your life. So I decided to take the car out of that environment and get it back to being a fun enjoyable relaxing pastime. Its nice having those projects with no time line.”
One gets the sense that, unlike other celebrities of his generation, Bana is more than content to avoid the film industry’s deceptive glamour and take long breaks away from the glaring spotlight. “In terms of living in Melbourne, I have no triggers that tell me that I’m an actor,” says Bana. “None. Where I eat, where I take my kids to school, there are no triggers that tell me I am an actor. I’m just a husband and a dad and someone with a dog. And everyone I associate with has the same things in common. So there’s nothing unusual or exciting about me at home because it’s just where I’ve kind of dug my line in the sand. I think it’s very important. I mean, sometimes it’s not so idyllic, but at least it’s my reality.”
Regardless of where he might call home, Bana’s line of work requires that he still face the ever-darkening reality of Hollywood. “People have often asked me why I don’t move to L.A. and one of the reasons is because I’d move to L.A. and my next movie would be shot in Sydney, or worse, in Melbourne. It’s far more gypsy-like today than it was 20 to 30 years ago, when a lot the movies were shot down the road in the studio.”
And with the globalization of the film industry comes dealing with an economically volatile global economy. “In these climates, you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Bana. The last two years have been very interesting, its that kind of perfect storm of the writers strike, the remnants of the writers strike, the threat of the actors strike, and then the economy going down, different parts of different studios merging into one another. It’s been a pretty dramatic change compared to when I first started being involved in movies here.”
Today it often seems that movie stars have little choice but to be steamrolled into the next eye-dazzling film of an atrophied, risk-averse mind. “I consider myself very lucky because I think my filmography—most of it probably wouldn’t be repeated today because they’re not as commercial in their basic ideas. Even Black Hawk Down, which did very well and was huge on DVD—I was talking to someone who was involved in getting the film made and he said, ‘That film wouldn’t be made today. There’s just no way.’ And I think I got a few of those movies that probably in 2010 wouldn’t get the green stamp at the board table.
“So I do consider myself very lucky. I think it’s going to get very hard, and I think that the kind of talent that gets discovered and the kind of work that people get to do is not going to be the same. It’s one thing having the ambition to do really interesting work, but if the opportunity is not there, people can’t do it. In a way I feel sorry for the young actors because I don’t think they’re going to get the same opportunities that a lot of us have had over the last 10, 20 years”
The future, however, is for those who work at it, and to this end, Bana has established his own production company, a self-stylized film-tank bent on finding the kind of thoughtful, challenging films that that have disappeared from the big screen. “At the moment there’s a script that I love with the working title of By Virtue, Fall, written by Sheldon Turner, who wrote Up In The Air,” says Bana. “He’s written this fantastic script that we’re trying to get made, and I’m producing as well, and we’re just in the early machinations of putting that together.”
As to other projects in development—such as Blackbird (set for 2012 release), in which he shares the screen with the delectable Olivia Wilde—Bana remains politely tight-lipped. “I’ve got a couple of other projects in development, but you know, things can shift and change when you’ve got more than one project bubbling away. It’s a pretty irrational landscape at the moment for films that are in development, so anything can happen.”
The sentiment rings loudly in the warm, empty lobby. Rain continues outside as Bana sips his coffee and continues in serious reverie. “I think the beauty with acting is that it is something you can do until you die,” he says, “my favorite actors are people like Robert Duvall and those sort of guys who have just continued to do strong work as they grow older. I’d love to just keep doing it. I think its probably one of the most unique jobs where, if you’re lucky, you can do what you need to do to stay fresh and keep it interesting. And not just keep doing it because you can, otherwise you burn out. Its definitely a profession that can burn people out.”