Bana Bangers: the Australian actor on his most memorable roles

Eric Bana through the years: Troy (2004), Chopper (2000), The Dry (2020).
Eric Bana through the years: Troy (2004), Chopper (2000), The Dry (2020).

From charismatic criminals and green-hued Hulks to Apatow comedies and his first-ever sequel, Eric Bana takes Mitchell Beaupre on a tour through his versatile career.

We achieved something extremely rare in cinema, which is an Australian person appearing with an Australian accent in a non-Australian film. It’s the rarest thing in world cinema. It took Funny People for me to be able to do that.

—⁠Eric Bana

“Eric Bana should be in everything,” writes Sam in their Letterboxd review of 2020’s The Dry, the noir-tinged Australian mystery thriller that notched the highest-grossing opening weekend in the country’s history for a locally made independent film. The success of The Dry, based on the popular novel by Jane Harper, encouraged director Robert Connolly and producer-star Bana to take on the author’s follow-up: Force of Nature. With Bana returning to play Federal Agent Aaron Falk, this marks the first time in his career that the actor has reprised a feature role, as the sequel takes Falk into the Victorian mountain ranges to investigate the disappearance of a whistleblower who was on a work retreat.

The Dry series is a welcome Australian return for Bana, where he made his name as a stand-up and sketch-comedy actor before launching to Hollywood stardom in the early 2000s with studio pictures from directors including Ridley Scott, Ang Lee, Wolfgang Petersen and Steven Spielberg. Karim might have been disappointed that Bana didn’t continue on in the comedy sphere after his feature debut The Castle, in which “kickboxing Eric Bana is my favorite Eric Bana” per their review, but the actor transitioned smoothly into dramatic fare, bringing a stoicism that harkened back to the golden days of Hollywood actors like Sterling Hayden and Robert Ryan.

Coming out of Force of Nature, Lauren reflects that they “might become an Eric Bana stan”, which is a sentiment that would put them in plenty of Letterboxd company. Declared a “national treasure”, you can course the Bana fandom through reviews of any one of his films: Troy (“Eric Bana supremacy”), Chopper (“Eric Bana is so versatile”), Hulk (“Eric Bana is the best Hulk”), The Dry (“Eric Bana is criminally underrated”) and beyond. Hanna had Sheldrake questioning, “I may have overrated this because of Eric Bana. But how could I not, it’s Eric Bana!”

Whatever your taste may be, there’s truly an Eric Bana out there for everyone, which is why I sat down with the actor to read him some Letterboxd reviews and reflect on a career packed with hijinks, hunks and all manner of heroes.

Eric Bana with Michael Canon and Sophie Lee in his film debut, The Castle (1997).
Eric Bana with Michael Canon and Sophie Lee in his film debut, The Castle (1997).

You started your career as a comedian, doing stand-up and The Eric Bana Show, before making your film debut in The Castle, which was a massive hit in Australia. I want to read this review from Manhunter Supremacist: “This film is so Australian you can’t even show it to non-Australians as a means of saying ‘This is what Australia is like.’ You’ve got to be Australian to understand just how Australian it is.”
Eric Bana: Look, I think first and foremost, it was just so bloody funny. I’ll never forget the first time I read the script. I distinctly remember us having a cast read-through, which was hilarious. I mean, it was absolutely hilarious in the room, and we all knew that the script was amazing. God knows what the film was going to be like. [Laughs] But it was just so well-written and it had such a great heart. So it was so much fun to be a part of and came at a really amazing time, I think, for Australian cinema, and then became this juggernaut. I concur with the reviewer. It’s hyper-Australian.

Like a lot of non-Australians, I became familiar with you initially through Hollywood pictures like Black Hawk Down, Hulk and Troy. A lot of people outside of your home country are surprised when they learn of those comedy roots. When you’re walking down the street and someone approaches you, are you able to easily spot when it’s going to be someone who wants to talk about Munich versus the early stuff like Full Frontal?
It’s very hard to silo. Sometimes a particular age bracket might give me a clue. I might be slightly safer with a really young audience. I can fly under the radar. But there’s an age category that I just can’t escape. There’s just too much filmography that’s crossed over different genres. It is hard to pick, but it’s a lot of fun, and I love the fact that there’s such a mixture of things that cross different styles and sizes of films and different kinds of roles and so forth. It’s been the favorite part of my career—being able to navigate that in different ways. So yes, for the people around my age here in Australia, they will all be familiar with my old comedy characters, and I will never be able to shake them.

“It was a lot darker than people were expecting.” —Eric Bana on Hulk (2003).
“It was a lot darker than people were expecting.” —Eric Bana on Hulk (2003).

It was your Full Frontal work, funnily enough, that got Mark Read to recommend you to play him in Chopper. How did that feel? Having this career criminal, who is also a super charismatic guy, say, “Yeah, Bana. That’s who has to play me.”
Well, the more I got to learn about him, the scarier that thought became. [Laughs] I also realized there was a real danger in that as well, like real danger. I had to just put all that out of my mind, really. I couldn’t really entertain all of it. I was grateful for the suggestion. I think his quote was, “I saw someone who I thought was insane enough to be able to portray me.” So yeah, I am grateful for the endorsement, because Andrew [Dominik] wasn’t a big TV watcher. I don’t think Andrew really knew much about me at the time. So I just ran with it and didn’t try to overthink it.

Your Chopper performance helped you land the part of Bruce Banner in Hulk with Ang Lee, which is a movie that has really grown in appreciation over time. LoganKenny wrote a wonderful Letterboxd review fifteen years after the film came out, calling it “visually bold, incredibly layered, formally progressive, and genuinely jaw-dropping, especially in the world of neutered, gray, hollow comic book films with no real humanity in them. This is the only version of the Hulk that understands he’s a man, not a meltdown.” What do you think it is about Hulk that has made it resonate stronger for people as the years go on?
I think maybe it was a lot darker than people were expecting. You have to remember, at that time, there wasn’t a Marvel universe. It was so early. The only thing that had come out was Spider-Man back then. So I’m not sure what people were expecting, but it was probably quite different. That’s the only thing I can put it down to: that a lot of the fans probably have a deeper appreciation and understanding of the comic world than even I did at the time. But that was one of the reasons why I wanted to do it. I knew it was going to be really different, and kind of push the envelope of what the expectations would be. It was coming from a really interesting filmmaker with a really interesting perspective.

There’s definitely this heavy Greek tragedy element to it, which leads perfectly into perhaps my favorite film of yours: Troy. I want to ask specifically about the Troy and Achilles fight, which Mario writes is “one of the best things I’ve ever seen,” and I fully agree. Not only is it visceral from a physical perspective, but that scene and that film are all about how story and character drive action. You can feel the strength, the anguish, the honor, the responsibility that Hector has as a father, a son, a husband coursing through him in that fight. Could you tell me about maintaining all those complexities of the character amidst such a powerful moment of action cinema?
Thank you so much. That’s the first time I think anyone’s ever broken it down like that. I really appreciate it. You’re exactly right. We worked with incredible stunt coordinators and fight trainers on that film and had a long time to learn that sequence. We were always going to film that towards the end because it had so much complexity and so many moving parts. I knew that fight choreography from beginning to end and I could do it from start to finish.

I remember working with the stunt crew and us always talking about getting the fight to the point where it was so ingrained that you had the freedom to be able to act within the choreography—which we don’t always get to do as actors, particularly with the way things are edited. Usually, in fight scenes, things are really broken up. In the end, you look at it and you go, “I didn’t even need to learn the choreography, to be honest. I just needed to learn who moves at what time. I could have picked that up on the day.”

We had to follow this notion that Hector was gradually breaking down during the fight. Then we have to feel that he thinks he’s going to win, and then we have to get to that moment where it really looks like he’s not going to win, and how does he deal with that? And then he eventually loses. The way that the choreography was designed, there were moments of breath and so forth in there where you got to see the juxtaposition between Achilles’ brutal confidence and Hector’s humanity and how he was feeling during the course of that fight.

It really came from having the time for the choreography to be nailed down and being constantly reminded by the stunt team and Simon Crane, our second unit director, “This is what’s happening here. This is what’s happening now, and don’t forget this and don’t forget that.” It was an amazing team effort in that regard.

Eric Bana sharing the screen with Robert Duvall in Lucky You (2007).
Eric Bana sharing the screen with Robert Duvall in Lucky You (2007).

There’s this great list on Letterboxd called “Eric Bana is having some unsolved daddy issues, but HEYY his father is portrayed by a Screen Legend”, and on that list we’ve got Hulk, Troy and Curtis Hanson’s Lucky You, which is a film I quite like—although from other interviews it seems you’re maybe not as big a fan as I am. I’ll concede that everything doesn’t fully work about it, but one thing that absolutely does is the father and son dynamic between you and Robert Duvall. What insights did you gain from acting opposite him?
Well, he is one of my acting heroes, if not my favorite actor of all time. So to get that opportunity, man, was I pinching myself. That was one of my career highlights. I’ve been so blessed. I mean, you look at Nick Nolte, Peter O’Toole, Robert Duvall—it’s just insane, that run. Being able to watch him work, watch him just turn up and be so on point at the age he was at that point, I was just in awe. It was effortless working with him. There’s a kind of natural quality to him that’s, at the same time, really considered and prepared. But once the camera rolls, it just felt effortless—absolutely effortless. I adored hanging out with him and peppering him with questions as a fan and getting the chance to work with him. It was amazing.

I read that he taught you the importance of having hobbies, and that was what helped him get through that ’70s and ’80s era where a lot of his contemporaries spiraled into these cycles of cocaine and other drugs. Particularly at this point in your career, where you were very much in the Hollywood sphere, how did that speak to you?
Yeah, it was a nice, gentle reaffirmation of what I always instinctively felt. One of the reasons I love Robert—and he was one of my icons—is the longevity of his career and the standard of his work across his entire career. An actor can’t do that without a work-life balance. It’s just not possible. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. They go really hard and then burn out or lose interest or whatever, and so I was really keen to hear from his perspective what it was.

He loves his horses. He loves being on his ranch. He loves dance, he loves doing the tango. While I already had my hobbies and interests, it just reaffirmed that is a really important thing, and maybe that is a thing that helps you keep fresh and look at things from a different perspective. So it was really lovely. It was really lovely that he was able to share that with me.

Let’s talk about Munich, and by that, I mean let’s talk about Knocked Up and the line “If any of us get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich.”
[Laughs] Oh, god.

There are so many Letterboxd reviews that are just people quoting that line. What was your reaction the first time you saw the film and it hit that moment?
I was in the cinema with my wife.

I just slunk down. I was like, “Oh, my God, that is hilarious.” Obviously, I was very chuffed. It took me out of the film for a second, which I was really, really enjoying. And then obviously I got the chance to work with Judd [Apatow], which was great. I loved that movie.

Did that lead you to working with Apatow and Seth Rogen on Funny People?
Well, actually, Barry Mendel, who was one of the producers on Munich, was one of the producers on Funny People. So I think [Judd] and Barry had a conversation. They just reached out. Barry sent me an email, and I read the script and I was like, “This is really funny.” The first conversation I had with Judd was, “I really like this character. I think he’s really funny, but I think he’ll be funnier if he’s Australian. I know the Australian version of this guy. I don’t know the American version of this guy so well. Would you entertain that? Would you be open to that?” Which he was.

So we achieved something extremely rare in cinema, which is an Australian person appearing with an Australian accent in a non-Australian film. It’s the rarest thing in world cinema. [Laughs] It took Funny People for me to be able to do that. So hopefully I can find another one.

I was just watching it again the other night, and the bit where you’re going on about Cameron Diaz and the There’s Something About Mary scene with the semen in her hair, I was losing my mind on my couch at like two o’clock in the morning.
[Laughs] It was so much fun. Judd would yell out these alternate lines from behind the monitor. I remember my first day of filming, I felt so bad. We lost so much time because I could not stop laughing for about an hour with Leslie [Mann] when we did the scene at the airport where she slaps me in the face. I adore Leslie. I think she’s hilarious, and I’m like, “I have to stop. This is really bad. It’s so unprofessional. They’ve hired the dramatic guy, and he’s the one that’s chewing up all this production time because he can’t keep a straight face. This is so embarrassing.” But that was amazing.

Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) is back on the case in Force of Nature: The Dry 2.
Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) is back on the case in Force of Nature: The Dry 2.

Since then, you’ve played so many memorable roles in films like Star Trek, Hanna and Lone Survivor, but the first character you’ve ever returned to in your whole film career is Aaron Falk from The Dry. What was it about this guy that made you and Robert Connolly feel like there was more to explore with him in Force of Nature?
Well, the second book is such a treat, and it has, in some ways, a much easier premise to explain and sell than The Dry. The Dry is a very complex story to try and distill into two or three sentences if you were trying to market that story, particularly overseas. When they see the film, they get it. Luckily, the success of the film in Australia got us a bit of forward momentum in the overseas market. But Force of Nature is: five women on a corporate retreat go on a hike on a team-building exercise and get lost. One of them is my informant, and she gets lost amongst the five. It’s just such a great premise and gave us the opportunity to cast these five incredible women in the lead roles. After The Dry, Rob and I sat down and tried to work out what to do next, and this just felt like a really great opportunity.

It needed some tweaks, which Jane Harper was open to and allowed us to do. We knew it was going to be completely different cinematically in terms of its location and its scale, and you didn’t have to watch The Dry to enjoy Force of Nature. We want it to be standalone. But for me, it was amazing. I’ve never been able to reprise a character before, so I felt like a cheek to turn up and go, “I already know this guy and I’ve done all this work on him, and the audience might know who he is but not where he’s at now, and how do we explore that?”

The difference is that in The Dry, he’s on a personal journey, and he gets lured into work. Here, he’s a professional in a work environment, and that is what then lures him into his personal and private convictions and moral complexities. So they’re quite different in that respect, but we always felt really confident that this could deliver another unique cinematic experience.

There’s this great line in Force of Nature where Aaron says, “Nature holds us all to account,” which speaks to how these films take all of the good guy and bad guy stereotypes and tell us that it’s not that black and white, because Mother Nature is the ultimate god that we must all bow down to.
That feels like a very natural thing for Australians. It’s one of the things that I feel intrinsically when I travel that I think makes us slightly different. We know our place in the pecking order as Australians, and we know that we sit under Mother Nature. Mother Nature constantly kicks our ass, whether it be drought, flood, bushfire, cyclone. It’s one or the other. You rarely get periods of rest in between. So I think we have such a deep respect and reverence for nature and its effects. Jane Harper does such an amazing job of depicting and revering the landscape, and that’s central to the drama and tension in her stories in almost all of her books.

We’ve talked about a lot of films from throughout your career, but I want to open the floor up to you and ask if there’s any movie you’ve done that you feel maybe didn’t get the audience it deserved when it was released that you would recommend for people looking for a hidden gem?
Yes, there’s one in particular that I think a lot of Americans may not have come across, and it’s called The Forgiven, with myself and Forest Whitaker. We shot in a maximum security prison in Cape Town, South Africa, about five years ago maybe, or thereabouts. Roland Joffé directed, and it is such an amazing film. It deals with a lot of very heavy issues. It’s quite a challenging film, but I’m really proud of it, and Forest is incredible in it as Desmond Tutu. That’s one that may have flown under the radar, but in terms of their strength, I would say that would be at the top of the list.

I remember that came out around the same time as The Secret Scripture, where you worked with Jim Sheridan. Two films with these mammoth directors, but both were a little buried in their release, at least in the US.
Yeah, they’re both small films and it’s hard for these films to punch above their weight. But you’re right, I absolutely adore The Secret Scripture. That would be a very close second. Both incredible directors. That’s probably the one thing I’d love to touch on most. I’ve been so lucky with filmmakers. I mean, it’s been a very deliberate thing, but if I allow myself to sit down and reflect and look at the list of people I’ve worked with, it’s insane. It’s absolutely insane. And it’s what really keeps me excited about the work.

Force of Nature: The Dry 2’ is in Australian theaters now from Roadshow Films, with IFC Films releasing in the US at a later date.

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