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.
It’s sort of hard not to think about that crash as we come out of our second lap and Bana gives me an inquiring thumbs-up, meaning: You ready to really go for it? He accelerates: 150…180…230 kilometers per hour on the straightaway. I can’t help but notice that he looks like he did just before the Targa wreck — that deep stare, his eyes so dark that the pupils almost disappear into his irises. “You’ve found my secret: I don’t have eyes, just two giant pupils,” he jokes later, when I ask him (rather awkwardly) if he’s conscious of those eyes.
“I sometimes have to say to him, ‘Eric, you’ve got that scary look at the moment,’ because of those big eyes,” says his wife. “I remember when I first met him, I would be like, ‘OK, he’s looking really intense right now.’ ” On film, those eyes come across as expressive and soulful, but when they’re locked on the racetrack, they’re sharp and focused and a little bit menacing.
“Most of my friends with comedy backgrounds have a sort of dark edge to them underneath the stage persona,” Bana says, including himself in that class. Although Americans have scarcely seen the guy crack a smile onscreen, Bana started out as a comedian, doing stand-up in Melbourne in the early ’90s.
College hadn’t been an option for him — he was never much of a student — and so he had been stuck picking up glasses at a pub. A work friend dragged him to watch a few sets at a local comedy club, mostly awful. But even the hacks were getting 50 bucks a show. “We were in a recession. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So I thought, bugger it. I went and wrote down five minutes of stuff, and a couple of weeks later, I jumped on the bar where I was working and got a good response. I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a go.’ ”
He spent the next few years on the Australian stand-up circuit and eventually landed an invitation to join Full Frontal, an Aussie sketch comedy show, as a cast member and writer. “I did an audition tape,” he says, “some bad impressions of famous people like Columbo.” Available on YouTube, his celebrity impersonations — a garrulous Arnold Schwarzenegger, a painfully reticent Tom Cruise — aren’t quite as bad as he says. That kind of material led to his own short-lived Australian sketch comedy series (called The Eric Bana Show), based on characters he’d developed himself, like a young working-class Aussie with a mullet who hosts a Masterpiece Theatre–style show.
By 1999, when director Andrew Dominik cast Bana for the lead in Chopper, a biopic based on one of Australia’s most maniacal criminals, it was a ballsy choice — not because he was an unknown (as it seemed to the rest of the world), but because Bana was so well known in Australia as a comedian. When the film became an indie hit, Bana was suddenly seen as a dramatic lead. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think there was this very unique opportunity to reinvent myself internationally,” he says. “Back home, nobody took me seriously, and overseas, no one thought I could possibly be funny. Suddenly that was very handy. After a couple of films, I couldn’t stop. It was like, they will no longer believe I used to do comedy.” He stayed clear of the genre until 2009’s Funny People, in which he play’s a hyperaggressive Aussie. “That movie was so much fun to make that a week into production I felt sick,” Bana says. “I was like, have I missed out? Have I purposely punished myself by missing out on this much fun?”
Sometimes, Bana admits, he’ll catch a comic perform and think it would be great to try stand-up again — “That adrenaline is addictive,” he says — or maybe do a one-man show, but then he quickly buries the thought. He knows the amount of time that would go into creating even five decent minutes of material means he’d have to put his acting career on the back burner. And his racing.