The Funny Thing About <br>Mr Eric Bana
Ahead of his upcoming movie with Mr Ricky Gervais, the Australian actor talks comedy, cars and staying grounded.
Chopper. The Hulk. Hector of Troy. Melbourne-based actor Mr Eric Bana has been pursuing earnest, dramatic, macho roles for so long you’d be hard-pushed to see the funny man in him. Even Australians might struggle to recall there was a time (the 1990s) when Mr Bana was known primarily as a comedian. He even had his own TV programme, The Eric Bana Show Live, in which, amid a series of ridiculous scenarios, he lampooned some of Hollywood’s most prominent leading men, from Mr Tom Cruise to Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But that was then. In the intervening years, Mr Bana, 47, has deliberately made an effort to avoid being typecast and taken himself more seriously. “I was always very conscious of not overdoing things,” he explains. “That’s why I stopped [doing] sketch comedy. Same with stand-up. After a while I just started getting sick of myself.” Plus, he says, there were many amazing opportunities that he didn’t want to miss. “Why do a comedy when I can do a Munich?”
Mr Bana is reflecting ahead of the upcoming release of his new film, Special Correspondents, a comedy written, directed by and co-starring Mr Ricky Gervais. In the film, he plays a radio journalist who fakes frontline war dispatches from Ecuador while hiding out in New York. Mr Gervais plays his technician. “It was awesome,” he says of the shoot. “I’m sure there are comedies that aren’t fun to work on, but with Ricky, you spend all day pissing yourself laughing. I remember telling my wife over the phone one night how I actually felt physically different at the end of the day. You’re being pumped with endorphins in a way you don’t get when you’re working on something dead serious.”
If it’s so fun, why has he waited until now to return to the comedy fold? Because, he says, he’s comfortably mid-career and can afford to show some of the “diversity” that, as a young actor, can confuse the casting agents. Besides, surely clips of his TV skits have now done the rounds of Hollywood, thanks to YouTube? “I prefer not be cognisant of why I’m hired to play certain roles,” Mr Bana deadpans, but his eyes are grinning.
The couch on which Mr Bana is sitting is positioned three metres from the one opposite – there’s room to park a car between us. Clearly, Mr Bana likes his space. He also likes his things, in particular bikes and fast cars. In fact, he’s something of a petrolhead. His home in the bayside suburb of Brighton features an underground garage with room for nine cars. If you needed any further convincing, see the name of his production company – Pick Up Truck Pictures. His interview with MR PORTER takes place in this company’s vast offices, located in a semi-industrial part of portside Melbourne, which have a gallery feel to them. Pieces on show here include a mustard-brown, single-speed bicycle (acquired while filming Hanna in Berlin), an original poster promoting the 1972 Munich Olympics, a framed comic strip from his turn as the Hulk (directed by Mr Ang Lee, 2003), and a painting paying tribute to both Mr Bana’s first pet dog, a husky, and his current pet love, a blue Porsche speedster. A black motorbike helmet rests on a distant desk.
Mr Bana has come a long way in his career. But in some respects he hasn’t come very far at all. Born Eric Banadinovich to immigrant parents, he grew up in the very backblocks of Melbourne, next to the international airport. He fondly remembers being spoilt for space. “It was almost semi-rural back then,” he says. “To see your mates you’d just get on your BMX and ride through horse paddocks. Everyone I knew lived on roughly the same-sized block, you know, with a garage at the end of the driveway, so everyone had room to work on their projects.” These projects tended to be “muscle cars”. Mr Bana’s was an XB Falcon coupé in need of serious attention. It became the “campfire” around which he and his mates gathered to an Oz-rock soundtrack of INXS, Dragon and Cold Chisel. Friday-night haunts included the nearby drag-race track, known as the Thunderdome, and the drive-in movie theatre. “Also, there were plenty of roads with no traffic on them,” he smiles. “Not many cops out there. I ended up getting my racing licence very early.”
Famously, he and his friends never stopped working on the Falcon, which went on to star as the ill-fated subject of his 2009 documentary Love The Beast. After crashing it into trees during a motor rally in Tasmania, a grieving Mr Bana solicited conflicting advice on what do with the wreck of his 25-year-long affair. Top Gear’s Mr Jeremy Clarkson suggested cosmetic surgery so the car might be displayed “on a plinth”, whereas Oprah’s Dr Phil McGraw urged him to restore it fully because it was a “thread of continuity” tethering him to his core self. Fans will be relieved to hear he didn’t listen to Mr Clarkson. “I still enjoy the car on the road, but I’ve retired it from racing,” he says, though solemnly, as if the chemistry – its very raciness – has seeped out of the relationship.
The man himself has still got it, though. Mr Bana continues to compete in some of Australia’s toughest circuit events – most recently in a Lamborghini Gallardo. Racing, he says, gives him what making a film cannot: a genuine measure of his own performance. That is to say, races are clocked – critics don’t get a look-in.
Mr Bana has said before that he won’t let his work define him over his passions. Might this be why, unlike most Australian actors who break through internationally, he has never moved to Hollywood? And does this help keep him grounded? “You’re assuming I’m grounded,” he says. “Surely I shouldn’t get a free pass just because I live [in Australia]. I know plenty of grounded people who live in LA. Or in London.
“Having a family helps. I can’t imagine doing this job being single, in your forties. You’d go insane. Beyond family [he and his wife, Ms Rebecca Bana, have two teenage children, Klaus and Sophia], living here is more a product of being selfish, to be honest. I like my things. I like enjoying them. I like having the time and space to go for a ride, or a drive, or go to the footy with my mates. It’s more a case of indulging myself than anything else.”
Special Correspondents premieres on Netflix on 29 April