Eric Bana: Star-Spangled Bana

The former stand-up comic wowed film festival crowds in Chopper. Now the Aussie is in the macho cast of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, and he'll next play the Incredible Hulk for Ang Lee. What do you mean who's Eric Bana?


If Eric Bana's hands vanish occasionally while you're talking to him, you have to wonder whether he's pinching himself. After all, how many other actors have gotten so far so fast? Although few Americans outside Hollywood circles know who he is, the Australian actor is poised for a breakthrough thanks to a showcase role in director Ridley Scott's harrowing war epic Black Hawk Down. What's more, director Ang Lee just chose the 33-year-old Bana over scads of other incredible hunks to star in The Hulk, the movie version of the comic-book classic The Incredible Hulk.

Who is this guy, and did he make a pact with the devil or something? For Bana beginners, here's the skinny. Eleven years ago, he began performing razor-witted stand-up comedy in his native Melbourne. In the mid-'90s, he became a household name Down Under, having appeared on the popular Oz TV series "Full Frontal" and his own self-titled sketch-comedy show. By 1997, he'd worked his way into movies, debuting in the Australian comedy smash The Castle; a showy role in the dramatic series "Something in the Air" soon followed. But it was last year's blistering film-festival favorite Chopper that grabbed Hollywood's attention. Bana's no-holds-barred performance as Mark Read, a real-life murderous Australian criminal who wrote a best-selling gonzo autobiography while serving a prison sentence, earned him comparisons with everyone from the young Brando to De Niro in Taxi Driver, not to mention job offers from world-class directors and the Aussie equivalent of the Best Actor Oscar.

So, when the outgoing, stylishly dressed Bana hunkers down for breakfast at the refreshingly restrained Raffles L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills, he can be forgiven for sometimes resembling someone who expects to be shaken awake from a blissful dream.

"Can you imagine how exciting it is for me to come to this country with 10 to 12 years' experience doing stand-up and television, and no one here has seen my work?" he says, with a self-deprecating laugh that seems ineffably Australian. "I made this gritty, full-on art film, Chopper, for which our best hope was that it'd at least be seen around Australia. But the reviews were so crazily good that I was waiting for the sucker punch--this barrage of criticism that never came. The movie ended up in the VCR of every director, producer and studio person I could have dreamed of. Chopper was the greatest Scud-missile show reel ever."

Then, of course--if recent history is any indicator--the fact that he's Australian means stateside filmmakers won't be able to resist him. How does Bana explain Hollywood's fascination with Aussie actors like Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman, Heath Ledger, Guy Pearce, Frances O'Connor, et al?

"I'm lucky to come along in a time when it's clear that so many Australian actors and actresses are doing well because they're good, not just because they are Australian," he says. "There are so many other Australians who've come before me now that I know it's not for 'flavor of the month' reasons, and when we do get discovered, there's a fair bit of work that's already gone on before that point.

"Australians have a healthily unhealthy attitude toward anyone potentially deemed better than anyone else," he laughs, invoking the country's deeply ingrained "tall poppy syndrome"--the notion that if one rises too high above the rest, he will be summarily chopped down to size. "While I sometimes think that's unhealthy, the root of it is actually good. Australia is almost socialistic in its ideals. As a result, we're incredibly cynical and question everything. So, what's happened to me in my career seems really weird in that 'tall poppy way. I also keep thinking, 'This can't be real.'"

But it certainly is. Wowed by Chopper, Ridley Scott recruited Bana for the ensemble picture Black Hawk Down, based on author Mark Bowden's nonfiction account of a 1993 should've-been-easy mission by elite American Delta Force soldiers in Somalia that turned into a debacle. Apparently, the four-month location shoot in sweltering Morocco--with castmates Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Jason Isaacs and Tom Sizemore--was a nightmare all its own.

"It was 32 guys with absolutely nothing to do when they weren't working," says Bana, who dieted and spent four months with a Melbourne trainer before tackling the role of Hoot--"a kind of Michael Jordan of special ops" whom, he learned later, many of the other actors hungered to play. "A good day in Morocco was a day when you were working. When you're not, it isn't a pleasant place at all. It wasn't so bad for me because when I was off, my wife was with me and I had my young son to chase around. But I saw guys quite literally going mad through boredom, slipping into really worrisome stages of depression. We were all pretty good at trying to pull each other out."

Couldn't he and his family have spent their off hours in Spain instead? "Ridley wouldn't let me," he says, almost apologetically. "He kept making my role bigger and bigger every day."

Bigger still is his role in The Hulk. "Don't think I don't know how ridiculously lucky I am," says Bana, who aced out many famous contenders in Ang Lee's eight-month-long search for Dr. Bruce Banner, the scientist whose experimentation accidentally leads to the creation of his green-skinned colossus alter ego. "I was a long shot, and I literally thought they had cast someone else. I mean, I would have been a complete asshole to think, 'How dare I not get The Hulk?' My wife said, 'With all the wonderful things happening, it's good you didn't get it because that would have just been too ridiculous.' Then, it was so bizarre to literally find out I had the role three days after the September 11th tragedies. My wife and I shared a wonderful moment, but it didn't feel appropriate to go out and pop champagne and smoke a cigar."

So far, at least, filming the movie is its own reward. Bana, who claims that as a kid he saw every episode of the late 70s "Hulk" TV show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, says, "This project is going to be unbelievable in every way--from its idea to its structure and execution, let alone what Ang expects from me. When Ang first explained to me how he was planning to do the film, I was like, 'Would it be appropriate to stand at the door of every theater in the world and offer audiences a money-back guarantee?'

"For me, this is the ultimate geek reward. If I get hit by a bus when it's all over, so be it."

Spoken like a true Aussie.