You know him as a badass Delta sergeant, a green monster, and, most recently, a doting assassin. But away from the screen, the actor is something of a mystery, which is just fine with him. To really understand the man, you have to hit the racetrack and strap in beside him.
Bana has been coming to Calder Park Raceway since he was a teenager. “It was our Friday night hangout,” he says over lunch at a cafe in St. Kilda, a trendy Melbourne beach neighborhood not far from where he lives. “They used to have legal drag racing, so you could just bring your car, bring your helmet, pay 25 bucks, and race as many times as you could get in.” He grew up about 40 minutes from here, in an industrial, landlocked part of town where Australia’s heavily marketed surf culture was totally alien to him. He and his mates were “rev heads,” car-obsessed.
Some of this gear lust was passed on from his father, who emigrated from Croatia when he was 17 and worked at the local Caterpillar plant. “It was that classic immigrant thing,” Bana says. “The symbol of freedom and success was framed in a large American car.” Dad was eventually able to buy the family a T-Bird, which was shipped from the U.S. in pieces and then converted for right-side driving and painted cherry red. A few years later, Bana scored his own chariot, a Ford XB Falcon Coupe. It was used and in pretty sad shape, but that didn’t matter: It was freaking Mad Max’s car.
Bana spent nearly every night of his teens in the garage, tinkering with the Falcon — which he nicknamed the Beast — with the help of three buddies who remain his closest friends. “Over time I think men have a tendency to neglect friendships a little bit,” says Rebecca. “Eric is very good, for a bloke, about bringing people together, about calling and just checking in. I think he has an awareness that in the crazy world he’s in — and it is mad and it does play with your ego — it’s really good for his soul to be around people who are not gonna talk about film when they’re together.”
If the home crew keeps him down-to-earth, that makes life a lot easier on the other crews in his life. “It was –29 degrees when we were filming the opening scenes of Hanna in Finland,” says director Joe Wright. “A more precious actor and we would have had a complete fucking nightmare on our hands. There were no large Winnebagos. Catering was basically set up in an old wooden hut — reindeer stew or something like that. But Eric was incredibly game. He just hung around the fire in the hut, and then off we’d go and film the scene.”
While Bana has remained grounded, his Hollywood career has been anything but. It was, after all, only two years after his American debut, as a hardcore Delta Force sergeant in Ridley Scott’s 2001 Black Hawk Down, that he was being touted as the next huge leading man, mostly in anticipation of Ang Lee’s Hulk. (“The Incredible Hunk,” screamed one newspaper headline.) Then that film tanked, and his next project, the costly Troy, with Brad Pitt and close friend Orlando Bloom, never caught traction. Just when it seemed Bana’s career had stalled, he delivered his best performance to date as a conflicted Israeli assassin in Munich — the male Jewish response to which was summed up nicely in Knocked Up: “If any of us gets laid tonight,” says Seth Rogen’s character, “it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich.” Next came Lucky You, which — perhaps poetically for a poker movie — cut short the winning streak. He followed that in 2009 with The Time Traveler’s Wife, a box-office disappointment, and Star Trek, a monster hit in which he was nearly unrecognizable as the once-again time-traveling villain Nero. In between, he returned to the present for a supporting role in Judd Apatow’s Funny People.
“Eric’s got a healthy ego, a strong sense of himself, so I would not say he’s easily bruised,” says his wife, “but it’s natural that people can say all sorts of nice things about you and you remember only the negative bits.” Bana says he just tries to focus on picking good scripts and doing them well — a cliché, he knows, but one he backs up by living 18 time zones away from all the extracurricular Hollywood bullshit.
“I’m pretty invisible when I’m not part of a movie,” he says, “so I can’t afford to think about the fashion side of the business too much or I’d go insane. I try to have some faith that the system will balance itself out over the long haul.” In Hanna, he’s backing up a teenage actress, but the role did give him room to stretch his muscles, both the ones that do the acting and the ones that do the ass-kicking. Bana plays Erik Heller, a former intelligence operative who lives off the grid, teaching his young daughter (played by Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan) the assassin’s arts, including hand-to-hand combat, firearms, and, of course, proper crossbow etiquette. He’s preparing her for the day when the bad men — and one very bad woman (played ice-coldly by Cate Blanchett) — come after her, which they do. Much vanquishing ensues.
One reason Wright cast Bana was straight-up physical ability. The film has dozens of highly choreographed fight scenes, shot in long takes without stunt doubles, meaning no faking it in post. “We used their fight training as a way for Eric and Saoirse to get to know each other, to find their rhythms and their trust,” says Wright. “He was incredibly protective of her, almost to a fault. There were times he held back his punches over concern that he might hurt her. We had to tell Eric not to worry, that she could take care of herself, and to just go for it.”
Bana says that while Hanna’s script was a page-turner, he was wary of some familiar elements — the girl assassin, a backstory involving CIA-bred superbabies. It was his conversation with Wright, who also directed Atonement and Pride & Prejudice, that sold him on the film as a modern, twisted fairy tale. “I have absolutely no clue what I said to him,” quips Wright. “But I was very nervous. I was very afraid to reveal to him that I have never even driven a car.”
“I was a little concerned that this man living in the forest with a teenage girl could come across as a bit creepy,” Wright continues. “But Eric couldn’t be creepy if he tried.” It’s an odd assessment of an actor whose most renowned roles are a psychopathic criminal (in the 2000 Aussie indie Chopper, his dramatic breakout) and an Israeli assassin. Wright insists there’s an underlying warmth in both performances. “The amazing thing is that he plays these killers that you absolutely like. He plays them with enormous heart. He’s definitely intense. But intensity is something very different from coldness. I consider it to be a kind of passion, and Eric’s performances are always passionate.”