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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Just His Luck

Interview with Eric Bana from last Friday's Day and Night magazine in the Irish Independent (22/6/2007)

You might have seen and, if you’re anything like me, drooled over him in Troy, Hulk and Munich, but can you honestly say you know anything about Australian actor Eric Bana? He’s never in the press for bad-boy or difficult behaviour (unlike his fellow Antipodean Russell Crowe). He’s not out banging the publicity drums for temporarily fashionable charities. This 38-year-old self-effacing bloke is probably the most famous non-famous star working today. And that’s just the way he likes it.

“Fame is easy to me because, quite honestly, I’m not that famous,” he says in his strong accent. “I can go out right now for a wander and I won’t have a problem. Someone might occasionally recognise me, but I have a very easy level of fame and I wouldn’t swap it for anything. There’s a perception that anyone who’s even remotely famous has this crazy life and that’s just not true.”

Be that as it may, on this hot Friday afternoon in the St Regis Grand hotel in Rome, Bana is prompting a flurry of excitement among the gathered international press, particularly among the female contingen. There is no escaping it: Bana is an extraordinarily handsome man. He’s tall (almost 6’3”), dark, built like a Greek warrior (a physical hangover from his Troy days) and, on the day I meet him, immaculately attired in a light blue shirt, dark navy jeans and sporting the kind of designer stubble that no mere mortal man could achieve.

Bana is in the Eternal City to talk about Lucky You, a romantic drama set amongst the world of professional poker in Las Vegas. Bana plays Huck, an ace card player with a huge chip on his shoulder regarding his gambling legend father L.C (played by Robert Duvall). Huck’s life is all about the game and not making connections with other people in order to keep his edge. That way of life is challenged, however, when he meets aspiring singer Billie (Drew Barrymore), whose sweet honesty and emotional intuition forces Huck to confront his father around the table and away from it, and ultimately to learn to “play poker, but have a life too.”

Lucky You is directed by Curtis Hanson, the gifted helmer of such diverse movies as 8 Mile, In Her Shoes and his Oscar-winning magnum opus LA Confidential. The movie very much uses the game of poker to metaphorise key questions about life and love, and Bana relished the chance to play a romantic lead that audiences would have to struggle to empathise with.

“Huck is a bit of a d*ck at the start of the movie,” Bana tells me. “You can see he’s quite selfish and immature, but at the same time, I think there’s something envious about that. I think we all wish we could be so careless and self-centred, but life dictates that most of us can’t be. So I hoped people would relate to that.

“For me, I found the father-son stuff to be most interesting part of the film. It’s kind of like Greek mythology: that whole notion of the son defeating the father in order to become a man.”

While Huck and his father L.C might be in conflict with one another, it was the opposite for Bana when it came to sharing the screen with the legendary Duvall. “He’s my favourite actor in the world,” Bana reveals. “His consistency of great work all throughout his career is really inspiring to someone like myself. But it’s the way Bob embraces life away from his work that I admire most. I remember one day I was talking to him about the old days in the 60s and 70s and I asked, ‘How did you survive that crazy time with all your friends doing coke and going into rehab?’ And he just said [breaking into an uncanny impression of Duvall], ‘Hobbies, you got to have hobbies! I have horses. Go race your cars [Bana is an avid racing driver and fan], stick to your hobbies’. That’s a great lesson from someone like him to impart to a younger actor: having real interests outside the work keeps you motivated and keeps you fresh.”

Maintaining his life firmly outside of the Hollywood bubble has been one of the defining aspects of Bana’s career to date. Born in Melbourne to a German mother and Croatian father (his surname is actually Banadinovich), he set his heart on becoming an actor after seeing his fellow countryman Mel Gibson in the Mad Max movies (“Parts one and two are awesome…we don’t talk about the third,” he jokes).

He moved to Sydney to study acting and began doing stand-up comedy, landing TV roles in the sketch show Full Frontal and a short stint on his own titular comedy show. Bana made his big-screen debut in the The Castle in 1997, but it was his astonishing portrayal of the notorious Melbourne criminal Chopper Read in Chopper (2000) that seared Bana into the national and international consciousness.

It’s a role that still follows him around to this day. “It was a seminal film for me and I’m really proud of it,” he says. “For a movie that nobody made any money on, it sure has lived on! It’s the one film that always comes up and I’m always surprised that people have seen it.”

Ridley Scott cast Bana in Black Hawk Down soon after, but in 2003, he took his first steps into the mainstream by playing the title role in Ang Lee’s movie adaptation of the Incredible Hulk. The movie was panned by critics, and was deemed a commercial disappointment, so much so that the follow up movie, currently in production, has been taken over by a new director and star, Edward Norton.

I carefully broach the topic of the new Hulk movie, expecting it to be a sore point. Bana effects mock surprise and gasps, ‘What? There’s a new movie? Who’s in it? Edward Norton? Who’s that?!” He then laughs and says: “You know, if Hulk opened today and did the same business it did, everyone would say it’s a huge hit. It made $140m!

“But when Hulk came out, it was after the first Spiderman so everyone stupidly thought every comic book movie was going to make $750m and Hulk didn’t. The movie is very dark so it probably didn’t get as much as much of an audience as it could have. Personally I think the film could have been a little more fun, but that was the film Ang Lee set out to make and we all knew that.

“I’m really proud of it and I think it’s unique in that genre. There’s no ill feeling whatsoever. It was an amazing experience that created a lot of opportunities for me. Steven Spielberg said himself that’s what made him cast me in Munich. So I can’t have any regrets about it. And the fact that Edward Norton is doing the next one is the icing on the cake. He’s one of the great actors of my generation and I personally find that flattering. To be honest, there was never a conversation we had about a sequel, so I have no qualms about it.”

Bana still lives in Melbourne with his wife Rebecca and young Klaus (7) and Sophia (5). He categorically has ruled out moving to Los Angeles for his career’s sake and likes to take breaks in between movies so he can spend as much time at home as possible. But the star says that working pattern came about due to the nature of the projects he was involved in, rather than by any conscious decision to work less.

“So many of the movies I’ve done have been so long in production that it just turned out that way,” he explains. “You work on movies like Hulk or Troy and they’re huge. So if I have less product than other actors my age, it’s because I haven’t done movies that only took 2-3 months to shoot. I have done less movies than my peers, but I couldn’t have done it any other way. And there’s no point living in LA for me, because nothing is shot there. I just made a small movie back home [Romulus my Father] and my next one [The Time Traveller’s Wife] is likely to be shot in Canada. So if I moved to LA, I’d spend the whole time going, ‘Sh*t! Why the hell did I do that?!’”

Right now, Bana is an actor very much in control of his career and is extremely grounded in his attitudes to Hollywood and fame. “I never had expectations of Hollywood and I still don’t,” he states. “Essentially the benefit of working in Hollywood is that you have more to choose from. I now have scripts that come in from Australia and ones that come in from overseas. That’s the most you can expect.

“Besides, it’s too late for me anyway! I don’t think at my age you suddenly can pop and turn into a huge star. People never really get to see me as myself, in my own accent. For American actors, it’s different because people feel like they know them better. So I think the ability of the public to get hold of what I am is harder.” Bana pauses for a second and then laughs: “I’m optimistic that it will stay that way for me!”

Declan Cashin

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