Eric Bana At 155 MPH
Posted By MJ On May 9, 2011 @ 10:22 am In Cover Stories,Culture,Features
Eric Bana is wearing flame-retardant underwear. This makes me slightly nervous. He is about to take me out for a few hard laps around the Calder Park Raceway, here on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, and I’m wearing plain old cotton boxers — breathable, sure, but not much protection in the event of a fiery crash.
Bana picks through extra racing gear in the back of his pickup, then tosses me a helmet and one of his spare fireproof jumpsuits. “You’re about my size,” he says, being kind. This is, after all, the guy who played the shirtless Trojan warrior in Troy and the shirtless librarian in The Time Traveler’s Wife. (Much to the delight of Bana’s many female fans, the time traveler’s clothes do not travel with him.) At 42, he’s still so fit he was able to do his own stunts in his latest movie, the combat-intensive Hanna, with almost no time to prepare.
“First lap I’ll take it easy — I want you to see the topography of the racetrack,” Bana says, referring to Calder’s 1.6 miles of high-speed straightaway and turns, 15 of them, some fairly hairpin. “Second lap I’ll speed it up. Third lap we’ll go full-on.” We walk over to the pit lane and locate his race car — a bright blue Porsche that shares the silhouette of a street-legal 911 and not much else. Its 400-horsepower engine propels a featherlight frame, which is why it runs more than $200,000 off the line — and that’s only a tiny fraction of the actual cost of racing. “Every time you go out, it’s $2,400 on tires alone. Just to put the car on the track, you’re looking at 10 grand of wear and tear, and over the course of a race weekend, 20 to 30 grand. If you actually calculate it over kilometers, it’s hideous; it makes you throw up,” Bana says, pulling on his driving gloves. “We don’t discuss that with our wives.”
Bana tries to fit in something like six major racing events a year; it would be more if he didn’t have to make movies in order to pay for those tires. “He’s at the highest level of amateur driving possible,” says friend and fellow driver Peter Hill, the founder of Globe surf wear, who’s also out today for a few practice laps. Last year Hill and Bana drove together at Bathurst, a six-hour relay race. “We were doing extremely well, running fourth and in really good contention for a podium finish,” says Bana. “Then Peter had a small spin and was sitting in the middle of the track when someone ran up his ass at about 100 miles per hour. We were very lucky that no one was hurt.”
Here’s hoping Bana’s luck holds for at least a few more hours. As we climb into the Porsche — his crew installed a passenger seat for my benefit — Bana tries to convince me that “race cars are actually the safest kind of cars out there.” Really? Safer than, say, a Volvo on carpool duty? “Biking is more dangerous,” Bana insists. (He’s an avid cyclist, too.) “The most scared I think I’ve ever been was biking alone on the PCH in L.A. — that section where you just can’t get off. People murder along on that road. I almost got hit half a dozen times. I finally just stopped, got off my bike, walked across the road in my cycling shoes, and just threw the bike over the barrier to get to where the beach is. That’s much scarier than anything you can do in a car.”
We strap in. “Getting in the car and closing the door, that’s my favorite part,” he says. “No one can get at you, no one can talk to you — that’s the one time you’re completely off-limits.” Sitting in the still car, fully suited up, is so stifling — the thing has been baking in the sun all afternoon — that any fear I had has been replaced by an eagerness to just get moving. Still, we have to wait our turn like every other driver out here — no special movie-star treatment for Bana. “I’ve been part of the racing scene long enough that I’m just part of the furniture,” he says, pleased by this fact. It’s the same reason he still lives in Melbourne, even though that means a 15-hour plane ride whenever he has a meeting in L.A. “It also comes down to the fact that we think Melbourne is a great place to raise our kids,” says his wife, Rebecca, a former TV publicist. (Married for 14 years, the couple has an 11-year-old son, Klaus, and a nine-year-old daughter, Sophia.) “And Eric’s a really big Australian-rules football fan. I don’t think he could live without it.”
The track manager eventually pokes his head through our window. “Don’t you know that you never get in the car with a race-car driver?” he asks me, laughing but not entirely joking. Since it’s highly irregular to carry a passenger, the manager’s plan was to clear the track for our run. But it’s crowded today, and that would be, well, sort of a pain in his ass. “I’ve made a decision,” he says to Bana. “I’m not gonna tell anybody else that he’s out there. Just don’t terrify him, and try to bring him back in one piece.”
Bana lets the engine growl a bit, then shifts into gear. A little gas and the Porsche tears down the first straightaway.
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.”
Bana had long dreamed about bringing together his two passions — racing and film — but he never knew exactly how. “I remember Globe had just released a surfing documentary called The Secret Machine,” says friend Hill, “and Eric saw it and was like, ‘I don’t understand why someone doesn’t do that with motor sports.’ ” Hill assumed it was just a bit of beer talk, until Bana came back to him a week later with a plan to make a small, personal documentary about his old Falcon Coupe, Love the Beast, now on DVD.
For the film, Bana and his three old school buddies did one final restoration of the Falcon, which took two years. When they were done, the battered old muscle car emerged as a gorgeous, cherry-red, 600-horsepower monster. Bana then had a bit of cinematic inspiration: To see what this thing would really do, he’d enter it into the Targa Tasmania rally. Hill told Bana he thought it was a terrible idea — that he’d probably end up scratching the car. “No, I put so much into it; I’d never risk that,” Bana told him. “I’m gonna be really careful.”
Bana and his friends headed down to Tasmania, a rugged island off Australia’s south coast, for the rally: five days over 1,150 miles of steep and twisting rural roads. Bana’s friend Tony Ramunno, a winemaker, was his in-car navigator — despite the fact that neither he nor Bana had driven the course in more than a decade.
Even with her recent upgrade, the Falcon was still a big, heavy car, not the ideal machine for Tasmania’s tight corners and slippery roads. But by day four, Bana was feeling confident. “We were going hard,” he says. “We really got into a rhythm, and I started to push it.” A camera mounted in the Falcon shows an intense-looking Bana at the wheel, determined to make up for the time he lost the first few days. “Eric is an intrinsically competitive guy,” says Hill. “I knew that once he got into the heat of the event, he’d push that car as hard as he could.”
As the Falcon came off one very steep hill and into a hard right turn, Bana jammed the brakes, but the tires couldn’t get traction. The Falcon violently careened down into a ravine, slamming into a gum tree.
The fact that both Bana and Ramunno walked away unhurt was a minor miracle. Ramunno even had the presence of mind to grab a camera out of the glove box and film a dazed Bana numbly staring at his car. “I have no recollection of that at all,” Bana says. “I remember he was shouting, ‘Get off the fucking road!’ because I was just sitting there, about to get hit. It was not physical shock. I’ve been in accidents before. I think it was just…I literally couldn’t believe that I’d suckered myself into driving the car so hard.” The Falcon was totaled. The film ends with a devastated Bana anguishing over whether he should rebuild the car again. He did, though it has taken him more than two years.
“It’s straightened and painted. We just gotta rebuild the engine, do a bit of rewiring and replumbing, and it should be good to go,” he says. “I’m just looking forward to being able to drive it and enjoy it.”
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.
On our final lap, we hit 250 km/h, or about 155 mph, which feels pretty exhilarating to me, though Bana isn’t much impressed. “Straightaways and top-end speed are batshit boring,” he says, meaning that a real driver showcases his skill on the corners. We’re about to come into Calder’s two trickiest turns, and a hell of a lot faster than we have on the previous laps.
As we approach the first hard right of an S-shape double turn, Bana downshifts, slows, then accelerates hard, passing two other cars. The steering wheel is twitchy as hell, and the Porsche feels like it’s about to slide off the track. I wonder, just for a moment, if Bana is pushing too hard, but then he guides us out of the second half of the turn perfectly. “I certainly have no interest in dying and leaving my kids without a father,” he tells me later. “At the same time, I believe in setting the example of risk taking.”
His favorite moments in making films, too, are when the stakes are the highest, when acting itself becomes a sort of physical challenge. “That happened a lot in Black Hawk Down,” he says. “When you could hear the money flying around and you knew it’s an hour-and-a-half reset for something. Or on Troy, when you had hundreds of people running and yelling and screaming and cameras flying overhead and horses, you could really get hurt. That’s when I feel really comfortable, when those two worlds combine and you have to get it right or there are consequences. I thrive on that. It’s like WWF ultimate acting.”
Bana slows the Porsche into the pit lane, allowing the blood to rush back into my head. I thank him for the ride and get out of the car, expecting him to do the same. But he stays put.
He chats through his window with his crew about the last run, about where he can eke out a few more hundredths of a second of time. Then he closes the door to the outside world, shifts into gear, and without a journalist’s deadweight dragging him down, takes off for a few good, hard laps all his own.
This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Men’s Journal.
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