Eric Bana

Details, Apr 2009

The Australian actor played a conflicted beast in Hulk and a troubled assassin in Munich. Now the antihero from Down Under channels pure evil as Star Trek‘s new villain.

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Photographs by Steven Klein

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AT THE AGREED-UPON HOUR of 2 P.M. a Nissan Pathfinder pulls up outside a sidewalk café in downtown Melbourne and Eric Bana gets out, all long and brawny, wearing jeans and a navy T-shirt. “G’day, mate, how you going? Fancy some lunch?” He’s pally in that Aussie-bloke way: big handshake, singsong brogue—he even says things like “fair dinkum.”

The plan is that he’s going to show me around his hometown. We set off for our first destination, an Italian restaurant. As soon as we pull out into traffic, Bana enthusiastically starts playing the role of tour guide. He’s selling the place like a Realtor. “Stop me if I bore you shitless,” he says while changing lanes.

Sure, he could have moved to some mansion in Beverly Hills, but he prefers being out of the loop. “When it comes to projects, I’m kind of like a wine taster—all the labels are taken off,” he says. “Melbourne is just the right amount of distance that I can make decisions that are not influenced by fear or hype or FOMO—fear of missing out.”

But the best thing about Melbourne is that it’s far enough away that sometimes he actually forgets that he is, in fact, Eric Bana, Movie Star. So the leading man from TroyBlack Hawk DownMunich, HulkThe Other Boleyn Girl, and now Star Trek can kid himself, in brief, blissful moments, that he’s just this regular Joe with a wife and two kids and a big black poodle named Mario. But these moments are fleeting, even in his favorite Italian restaurant.

“Ereek!” The owner, Gino, fusses over Bana, lapsing into Italian as he leads us through the little family-run establishment. Some of the other diners turn to stare. He might like to think of himself as just another Melbournian, but here he’s Eric Bana.

SOMETHING HAPPENED TO BANA when Hollywood called. He was a successful Australian comedian who’d spent five years doing stand-up before landing his own TV show, Eric. Then, in 2000, his searing performance as the blaring psycho Mark Read in Chopper demonstrated a raw talent at full tilt—and offered him a ticket to the movie major leagues. But no sooner had he burst through Hollywood’s gilded doors than he steadied himself and began a run of characters who were defined by their inability to emote: the hawkeyed hard case Hoot in Black Hawk Down; Avner the conscience-stricken assassin in Munich; the conflicted scientist in Ang Lee’s Hulk; Hector in Troy, the warrior trying to avoid war. In these roles Bana glowered, his eyes dark, wrestling with some inner dilemma.

The old Bana does reveal himself occasionally: At Aussie Rules football games, for example, Bana screams himself hoarse. In his comedy-club days, he had to stop going to contests on the night before a gig, because he wouldn’t have a voice the next day. But now, for the most part, he’s thoughtful, earnest, and a little serious. And he’s sincere about wanting to show me around Melbourne. On finding out how far I’ve come, how limited my time is, and that this is my first visit to Australia, he chews pensively, calculating an itinerary.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Melbourne. The city is a gleaming, sun-kissed hive of smiling, bronzed people, a world in which all the girls are blond and jogging or Rollerblading along a riverbank as rowboats glide past.

We leave Gino’s and cruise the length of Chapel Street, “which is kind of like Melrose in L.A.,” according to Bana, then skirt the ritzy shopping district. Windows down, radio off—only the sound of two men chewing Dentyne accompanies Bana’s commentary.

We stop at a park and watch some ducks being fed. It seems a little sedate for Hector of Troy. But the ducks aren’t the draw for Bana. “It’s a Formula One track. There’s a race in three weeks’ time.”

He never planned on being Eric Bana the actor, or the comedian, for that matter. What he really wants is to be Mario Andretti. Between shooting movies, Bana can be found “fart-arsing around with my car, getting ready for a race.” Although he has more than one, his favorite car is a fire-engine-red ’74 XB Falcon coupe that he calls the Beast. He’s had it since he was 15.

“Three of my closest friends—our relationship has been maintained because we’ve always worked on this car,” he says. “The car has transcended itself. It has become a campfire.”

But one day, during the Targa Tasmania rally in April 2007, he crashed into a tree. “I totaled it. After a two-year restoration, everything handmade. Oh, it hurt—yeah. Absolutely.”

He falls silent for a moment, still mourning the Beast. We exit the F1 track and stop at a light. The Temptations’ “My Girl” drifts from the car next to us. “It’s a bashed-up thing in the corner of the workshop,” he says. “It’s sitting there, not being used, but it’s still my emotional bedrock, my anchor.” The Beast represents Bana’s memories, good and bad, and he wants to preserve them, just as his father did before him. A Croatian named Banadinovich who worked for Caterpillar, he came to Australia at the age of 16 and kept a Thunderbird—also fire-engine-red—for 35 years. Bana’s urge to preserve the past goes beyond the Beast. He prefers local stores to malls, for instance. “You want a piece of meat, you go to the butcher. You want a coffee, you go to the café which is not a chain,” he says.

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We drive and drive: past the fancy houses to the rough areas, past the railway station where Bana used to wait on the steps for his first girlfriend, and past his old school, where he says he once showed up drunk—prompting his mom to ground him for six months. “Yeah, I went through a little phase there. But I did a lot better than some of the guys I hung with, who have ended up dead or in jail,” he says. Bana wasn’t a star student: He had to repeat a year of high school. “It wasn’t like I was busting to get into NASA or anything,” he says.

Then he drives to a small, nondescript brick building and we park outside the house he lived in when he first attempted to make people laugh for a living. He made the decision to give comedy a try after driving around the United States in a 1979 Mustang on his own for six months. He was all of 22. “It sounded like a great idea at the time, but after 10 days straight without talking to anybody, you start to think, What the fuck am I doing here?” he says. Still, he plowed on, from city to city, sleeping in his car because money was tight. And then he got lost in the wrong part of Washington, D.C. “I’d be pulling up to street corners, and there were gangs right there, and I’m in this little Mustang by myself. I thought, I am fucking dead. I was running red lights, hoping the cops would pull me over.”

The experience prepared him for stand-up—the loneliness and fear had hardened him. So when he was working as a bartender in a comedy club back home a few months later, he says he thought, “These acts are all a bit shithouse—I can do that. I’ll be a bit uncomfortable up there, but after the trip I had, how bad can it be?”

It was the right choice. He has a talent for impersonating people. On YouTube you’ll find Bana doing ArnoldBana doing Tom Cruise. He went about as far as you can in Australia—from $60-a-night gigs to his own TV show. And then, after 10 years, he quit.

“I got sick of listening to myself,” he says. “I had all the tools, but my act had stagnated and I felt dirty.”

Comedy is not something Bana wishes to revisit. The closest he’s come to that is a part in the upcoming Judd Apatow movie Funny People, starring Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler.

“All I miss about comedy is being producer, director, and writer. I miss the control,” he says.

Like many comics, Bana is prone to dark moods. He says his wife, Rebecca, a former publicist, is great at “talking me off the ledge.” They married in 1997 when he was working the comedy circuit. Their kids, Klaus and Sophie, are 9 and 7. “I do get incredibly frustrated. I tend to dwell on the negative,” he says, staring into the middle distance, his eyes filled with conflict. He takes a long breath and then exhales. “That’s our central post office there on the right.”

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In a few weeks he’ll be racing again. Then there’s a heap of press to do for all the movies he’s got in the can—Star TrekFunny People, the chick-flicky Time Traveler’s Wife. Beyond that, he’s just reading and deciding what comes next. The in-between is his favorite time, living his Melbourne life, sticking the bikes on the roof of the car and taking the kids to the beach.

Today he’s happy just to be a tour guide. “If you’ve got time tomorrow, you should check out the Melbourne Cricket Ground—it’s one of the great sporting stadiums. I think they do tours,” he says before we part.

He shakes my hand and heads into the balmy night in the city where he can fool himself into thinking that he’s still plain old Aussie Eric, the family man and race-car nut who remembers who he is just enough to forget what he does.