Eric Bana has become Hollywood’s quintessential team player, writes Vicky Roach
MARK Read, the ex-con with whom Eric Bana is inextricably linked thanks to his breakout performance in the 2000 film Chopper, had very few boundaries before he reinvented himself as a crime writer.
But even he might have baulked at the prospect of laying into a 16-year-old girl.
It’s lucky for Bana’s straight-bloke reputation, then, that Irish actress Saoirse Ronan is tougher than she looks. The intense, hand-to-hand combat in
Hanna, an ice-cold action thriller about a teenage girl who has been groomed to be the perfect assassin, caused Bana some doubt.
‘‘ There’s a hell of a lot of physicality in there,’’ the Melbourne-based actor says. ‘‘ And I was concerned about hurting her.’’
In an attempt to protect Hanna from the cruel fate that awaits her when she comes of age, Bana’s ex-CIA agent has raised his daughter in a cabin in the Norwegian wilderness, where she has learnt to hunt and trap like an animal. When it comes to their full-on fight lessons, he gives Hanna absolutely no truck. The off-balance physicality of the characters’ relationship, set against a spectacular, snow-covered backdrop, had to be convincing on screen.
But in real life, a grown man felling a fresh-faced teenager would not have been a good look.
‘‘ There was a very large responsibility on my shoulders,’’ says Bana, whose job was rendered even more difficult by the minus-28 degree temperatures cast and crew had to contend with while on location.
‘‘ She’s the lead, she’s in every frame of the film, so I had to be careful not to land one.
‘‘ But we trained really hard together and I could tell after the first couple of sessions that she had really done a lot of work and was really committed.’’
It helped that Oscar-nominee Ronan, who had previously worked with director Joe Wright on Atonement, is a good deal older and wiser than her tender years would suggest.
And that the pair of them got on extraordinarily well.
‘‘ I would say our dynamic was more like brother and sister than father and daughter,’’ Bana says.
‘‘ She has got a wicked sense of humour. We would rip into each other all day, every day.’’
Not many A-list actors combine Bana’s tough guy potential and leading man good looks with his willingness to let other actors share the limelight – and even hog it.
That’s presumably why Wright cast him in the role of Erik, the support man for Ronan’s scene-stealing performance.
While Bana’s team spirit has served him well in films such as Munich and Troy, it may also turn out to be his achilles heel.
In a recent article, American cultural critic Joe Queen described Bana as ‘‘ a guy who was just born to finish second’’ – at least on screen. That’s a close cousin of the truism nice guys always finish last.
If the actor’s international career hasn’t entirely delivered on his attention-grabbing feature film debut, his lack of screen hubris might well be the reason.
In the past decade, Bana has worked with many of Hollywood’s leading directors – Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee and Ridley Scott among them – but he has yet to land his
Brokeback Mountain or Gladiator. A more recent sidestep into romantic dramas – The Time Traveller’s Wife, with Rachel McAdams, and Lucky You, with Drew Barrymore – did respectable box office business without setting the world on fire.
And while the actor’s return to his comedic roots opposite Adam Sandler in Funny
People caused a good deal of enthusiastic conjecture at the time, he hasn’t followed it up with another film in that vein.
The former Full Frontal star reckons he doesn’t miss the laughs. Or ‘‘ not that much’’.
‘‘ But I have always said if there was something appropriate I would do it. As much as I love a Will Ferrell movie, I don’t look at it and say, ‘ God, I should be in that’.’’
Bana sees Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s TV series Curb Your Enthusiasm as more his speed.
‘‘ But Funny People was one of those rare occasions where I read something and I went: ‘ Yeah, I can contribute to this. I think this would be a lot of fun.’ And it was,’’ he says. ‘‘ If something similar came along I would definitely consider it. But it’s not something I actively pursue.’’ But what exactly does light Bana’s fire? After Chopper, perhaps his next most richly layered performance was in another Australian film, Romulus, My Father, directed by fellow actor Richard Roxburgh.
‘‘ I don’t divide the material up. I look at everything and just choose the best thing that’s available,’’ Bana says.
‘‘ I don’t care if it’s big or small, whether it’s Australian, British or Canadian, I just selfishly respond to the best material wherever that may be.’’
If Bana is dissatisfied with the direction his career has taken, he’s not letting on.
‘‘ To be honest, I don’t think about it too much. I pretty much live in the moment,’’ he says. ‘‘ For me to do my job, I really just have to respond to material that’s around. I don’t dwell on stuff that’s in the past.’’ Off-screen, Bana is similarly pragmatic. Hugh Jackman, a consummate showman, wears his celebrity lightly. Russell Crowe tackles it head-on.
When he’s not promoting a film, Bana tends to fly under the radar. ‘‘ It’s my specialty,’’ he quips. In his directorial debut Love the Beast, a well-crafted documentary about his long-term love affair with muscle cars, Bana shows himself getting ready for a red-carpet premiere in an anonymous hotel room.
It’s clear, from the way the suit collar chafes his neck, that this is the part of the job Bana is not entirely comfortable with.
In interviews, Bana is friendly but guarded. His observations about the themes in Hanna – a film he sees as dealing with the loss of innocence – could be equally well applied to Hollywood.
‘‘ I don’t think it’s exclusive to children, but it probably comes more suddenly for people who are cosseted,’’ he says.
‘‘ You see it a bit with professional sports people – they get to a point in their career where things happen dramatically, because they have been surrounded within a team structure for a long time.’’
Such keen insights beg the obvious question: did Bana experience something similar during his own transition to Hollywood star?
‘‘ There was no cliched moment,’’ he says, making it clear that this is not a subject he wishes to pursue.
‘‘ It was more of a gradual awakening.’’