Eric Bana’s office used to be a chocolate factory. Now it is home to a global skate brand, a barbershop, and the kind of café that’s popular with fixed-gear fanatics and dedicated followers of fashion. Melbourne is the hipster capital of Australia and was recently voted the world’s most livable city for the third year in a row.
Bana grew up in suburbia, just a few minutes from Melbourne Airport. In his 20s he worked a series of menial jobs before trying his hand at stand-up comedy. That led to his own television sketch show in the 1990s and his movie debut in a low-budget Australian film, The Castle. His next role, as infamous Australian criminal Mark “Chopper” Read, changed his life. Bana’s intense performance in Chopper (2000) landed him a part in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. Since then the 45-year-old father of two has starred in blockbusters like Troy, Hulk, and Star Trek and delivered mature, measured performances in Munich, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Hanna.
His movie career has taken him around the world, but Bana has never been tempted to live anywhere else. He’s a true-blue Aussie bloke and proud of it. He supports St. Kilda, his local Australian Rules football team, and in 2009 he directed a documentary about the other love of his life: a 1974 Ford XB Falcon coupe he bought when he was just 15 years old.
Bana has described his dad’s garage where he worked on the car as a teenager as his “cocoon,” his refuge from the world. His office, a loft-style space he shares with a producer/director friend, would seem to serve a similar role in his life today. When he’s not making movies, Bana spends four days a week in the office, running his production company, Pick Up Truck Pictures, a lean operation staffed by Bana and his personal assistant. One day week he heads for the hills to get away from it all.
“Success to me equates to time,” says Bana. “I jump on a bike or in one of my cars and go for a drive in the country to clear my head. I know I’m very fortunate to be in a position to do that. I don’t take anything that I’ve achieved for granted, not for a second.”
THE RED BULLETIN: A review of Hanna argued that your character gets a raw deal in many of your movies. It said: “Bana is consistently cast in roles in which he doesn’t get the girl, doesn’t finish the job, doesn’t save his planet, and usually winds up six feet under by the time the credits run.” Do you think that’s unfair?
ERIC BANA: I think that’s a bit harsh and not entirely accurate. Let’s look at some of the movies I’ve been in: I died in Troy, I died in Star Trek, I died in Hanna, and I died in Deadfall. I survived in The Time Traveler’s Wife, well kind of … I died and came back. I didn’t die in The Castle, I didn’t die in Chopper, I didn’t die in Black Hawk Down, I didn’t die in Romulus, My Father, I didn’t die in Funny People. I didn’t die on screen in The Other Boleyn Girl, and not only did I get the girl in that movie, I got two of them—Natalie [Portman] and Scarlett [Johansson]. So come on, I’ve done OK.
Your next movie, Lone Survivor, tells the true story of a failed Navy SEAL mission to capture a Taliban leader in Afghanistan. What attracted you to the role?
I read the book [by Marcus Luttrell] twice, and I’ve always had a real affection for the Special Forces community going back to Black Hawk Down. I play a small role, but when the director, Peter Berg, rang me and asked me was I interested
I said absolutely. To get the chance to contribute to telling Marcus’ story was really special.
War movies like Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker have stirred up a lot of controversy in recent years. Do you expect Lone Survivor to attract similar controversy?
I don’t like the soapboxing that certain movies attract, where people use a film to voice their opinion on something. I remember when Black Hawk Down came out, people asked my opinion about 9/11 and George Bush and I was like, “What are you talking about?” I prefer people to focus on the film and the story and not make it about themselves and their political views. To me, Lone Survivor is the most incredible survival story. It’s impossible to read the book and not come away thinking‚ “We’re all capable of so much more than we think.” I hope people take that out of the movie and don’t turn it into an argument about whether or not the SEALs should have killed the goatherder.
The backlash against Lone Survivor has already started online with questions about the accuracy of the book.
Then they can go knock on Marcus Luttrell’s door and take it up with him. We had Marcus on the set, we had Navy SEALs on the set, and I know the filmmakers went to a lot of effort to make sure the details were accurate.
Is Lone Survivor an important movie for you, given that your last big blockbuster at the box office was Star Trek in 2009?
Big movies don’t have the impact you might think, and it’s really dangerous to chase those movies, because if you don’t deliver a great performance in a big movie, that’s not good for your career either. I chase roles that showcase what I can do because that’s what’s going to keep getting me work. For me it’s all about the work and what’s interesting. I’m still sent really interesting parts, and I’m still knocking back roles that other people would kill for.
You haven’t done many comedies since your first movie, The Castle. Is that by choice?
Early on I deliberately avoided comedy. It wasn’t hard because no one in Hollywood knew about my stand-up background. I’d be open to it if the right role came along, but I tend to get sent more serious stuff.
Like Beware the Night?
I’ve just finished shooting that on location in New York. It won’t be released until the end of 2014 or early 2015, but I’m really excited about it. It was directed by Scott Derrickson, who did The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister, and it’s a bit of a mash-up. It’s in the horror vein, but it’s character driven; it’s not a slasher film. I play Ralph Sarchie, a police officer who investigates cases of demonic possession and exorcism. He was just an unbelievable character to play, a real powder keg.
Is it getting harder to find good characters and good movies?
Over the last five years it’s getting harder for everyone because everything is going bigger—bigger concepts, bigger budgets, bigger movies—and the more intelligent, interesting movies are harder to get off the ground. The movies I’ve made recently are not movies that people rush to see on opening weekend. Yes, it can mess with your head because you can question yourself and wonder how to find the right balance, but no one really knows the answer to that. I do know that bigger isn’t always better.
Does the dumbing down of the movie industry concern you?
It does concern me in the sense that even if it wasn’t a dumbing down, even if some of the bigger movies were smarter, it’s still dangerous because there are so many small stories that deserve to be told that aren’t being told because that type of filmmaking is getting extremely hard.
Are you keen to tell your own small stories?
I’d like to direct another movie, but I’m not busting my chops at this stage to find that story. I’ll do it at some point and it will probably be a narrative next time rather than a documentary. It would be a real luxury to be able to tell people where to go and what to do and not have to put myself in harm’s way.
You’re talking about Love the Beast, the 2009 documentary about your Ford Falcon coupe. Has your relationship with the car changed over the years?
I should hope so. I bought the car when I was 15, so I would hope I’ve moved on since then, otherwise I’d be a pretty tragic human being. There are periods where it sits under a tarp for a year and other times where I drive it every day. There have been times when it’s in bits and pieces and I curse it, but I’ve got an immeasurable amount of enjoyment from it. I don’t want to sound like a wanker, but the car brings people a lot of joy. It puts a smile on people’s faces.
What do you remember of the crash in the Targa rally in Tasmania that happens in Love the Beast?
As we hit the tree I remember thinking, “Thank God we’re going in head on.” The worst thing to do is to go in sideways, because the car sucks around the tree. We were lucky to walk away from that crash.
The coupe didn’t fare so well, though. It needed a full rebuild, right?
It was in celebrity rehab for quite a while but it’s even better now than it was. I’ve retired it from racing because I’ve put too many man hours into it.
What else is in your garage?
I’ve got a Yamaha 450 motocross bike that I ride in the bush. I’ve got a BMW 1200 GS, a Ducati 851 SP3, an old Ducati Monster, and a Ducati 748 RS race bike, which is just for the track. I’ve got a 1955 Porsche Pre-A Speedster, which is my only serious investment car. I bought it 11 years ago and it’s probably doubled in value in that time.
Apart from being able to indulge your love of motorsports, what does success mean to you?
It means jumping off the hamster wheel whenever I choose. Early on in my career I realized I could work pretty much non-stop or I could make it work for me. If I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids I might have done things differently, but by the time I had any sort of success I was already married with kids.
Has success changed you?
I started in the business when I was 22 and I’m 45 now, so of course I’ve changed. I’d like to think I’m a more evolved version of the species. Still on any given day I can beat the shit out of myself or feel pretty good about myself, like all of us. The key is to make sure you don’t wrap up too much meaning in your work, and having outside interests helps you keep that balance. I’m happy with my life now, but then I wasn’t miserable 20 years ago when I was stacking shelves, pushing trolleys, and doing stand-up comedy.
Steven Spielberg once said of you: “He’s got all his priorities straight. … If he never acted another day in his life, he’d be a very happy man.” True or false?
That’s interesting. I think I’d be a bit frustrated. It’s a lovely compliment, but I’d have to disagree. I love living in Melbourne, I love being a parent, and I love carving out time to do the things I want to do.
What’s coming up for you in 2014?
Right now I’m reading scripts, but I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing next, and I love that. I rarely walk onto a film set knowing what my next movie is going to be. I don’t want to be thinking about that next movie while I’m in the middle of one. Sometimes that means the gap ends up being too long, because it might take you a while to find something.
You have a rule about not doing back-to-back movies, right?
It’s the way I like to work rather than a determined effort to seek a work-life balance. I could do more movies, but if I did I’d be doing movies I don’t really like that much. The reality is it’s really hard to find a good movie. How many good movies are there every year? Not many, and you need to be very lucky to be in one of them. If you can be in one half-decent movie every five years you’re doing well.
Have you had to turn down roles because you live in Melbourne?
Living in Melbourne has made no difference to my career. The only difference is I’m able to hide easier here.
So you’ve never been stalked by the paparazzi?
They’ve never been interested in me. They tend not to hang around the same places I do. I think the paparazzi like to live pretty glamorous lives themselves, so if you stay away from all the cool, trendy places, they stay away from you.
How do you cope with press junkets?
It’s a novelty for me. If I go on a junket, it’s a week out of my year, and it feels weird and flattering at the same time. It’s fine when it’s not every day.
Could you choose between motorsports and acting?
Ouch … that’s low. I’m not an idiot—I know that acting enables my hobbies and my motorsports, but I could never not indulge my love for my cars and bikes. That’s a lose-lose scenario.
Born to run: @EricBana67
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