Though he professes that he’s never adhered to any actorly “formula,” Eric Bana has the celebrity act licked. Entering a pristine suite at New York’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the 45-year-old Australia native is dressed like he just left his tailor, and he’s rocking the best hair I have ever seen on an actor. On a coffee table, a pair of aviator glasses rests unattended, as if to merely add an aura of cool, and in a corner, Bana’s publicist stands at attention, one eye on a clipboard, the other on us (at a certain point, thanks to a scheduling snafu, she gave me the rather unceremonious Tabitha Soren treatment.) But Eric Bana isn’t exactly the star you think he is. He may largely make action movies, but he got his start as a successful comedian in his home country. He may be known as an actor, but he also directed the documentary Love the Beast, which involves his lifelong (and ongoing) adoration for cars and racing. And his name isn’t even Eric Bana; it’s Eric Banadinović, which is linked to his Croation ancestry on his father’s side.
This month, Bana returns to the screen in Lone Survivor, a polarizing war film based on the 2007 book by Marcus Luttrell. A former Navy SEAL, Luttrell, as the title suggests, was the only one to come out alive following Operation Red Wings, a 2005 mission that resulted in four soldiers being trapped in a Taliban firefight in the Afghan mountains. Directed by Peter Berg, who basically serves up his version of The Passion of the Christ, the movie is unrepetantly violent, showing the SEALS (played by Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, and Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell) enduring countless gunshot wounds, lacerations, and shattered bones thanks to multiple tumbles down craggy hills. Bana portrays Lt. Cmdr. Erik Kristensen, the man calling the shots of the fateful mission from base camp, and a man not far from the one Bana portrayed 12 years ago in Black Hawk Down. Before his handler plucks me away, Bana dishes on his fondness for the military, his reception of Lone Survivor’s violence, and why he’d rather keep mum on that whole Tom Cruise-Wahlberg thing.
Lone Survivor, for me, is shockingly brutal in its depiction of what these soldiers’ bodies can withstand. Watching the finished cut, do you wish you were in the thick of things with your four co-stars, or did you feel a little relieved to be playing someone behind the scenes?
Neither, really. I was just so caught up in the story. It brought me back to when I read the book. The film is kind of differently weighted to the book. In the book, the first third heavily tells the story of SEAL selection, which is fascinating, and the third act is much, much longer. You get a much better sense of what Mark went through once he was captured, or, after the other three guys were killed, how much he endured from that point to actually being rescued. That’s a whole movie in itself. So I was just intrigued by the whole thing, and just like everyone else, found the film to be a pretty overwhelming experience.
How many times have you seen it?
I’ve seen the film twice. The first time was with my wife, back in Australia, and then the second was at the premiere, which, again, was pretty overwhelming. I actually felt more uncomfortable the second time, I think.
We’ve seen you in similar territory before, playing Delta Force operator Norm Gibson in Black Hawk Down, another fact-based film about American troops trapped in a dangerous spot. What differences or similarities did you find between Gibson and Kristensen?
Well, with both being Special Forces, there’s most definitely a similarity. I was already familiar with what the basic kind of personality type is because I’d worked closely with the Special Forces community years ago [on Black Hawk Down]. That was a formative experience and a life-changing experience in so many different ways, and we filmed something that we’re all so proud of. And I knew going into this that it was an opportunity to be reacquainted with that kind of experience. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the film. So there most definitely were similarities, and I got to hang with the SEAL guys, some of whom I actually worked with on Black Hawk Down, like Harry Humphries, who oversaw our Special Forces training.
I know Ridley Scott sought you out for Black Hawk Down, but given things you’ve done since, from visiting soldiers in Kuwait for a screening of Star Trek to getting involved with this movie, you seem to have a strong affinity for the American military.
Yeah. I mean, having had large exposure to it, and very unique exposure to it, it did change my perception. And just Special Forces-wise, it really does open your mind and your eyes to what they go through, and also the respect they have for other Special Forces communities around the world. Obviously our SAS [Special Air Service Regiment] in Australia work very, very close with these guys, and I get to meet them back home in Australia as well. And they love these kind of movies. So, yeah, it’s given me a very good appreciation for Special Forces communities, and further more I know a lot of them here in the U.S. now. So there’s a unique perspective there, I guess.
You started in comedy, which I feel like a lot of American viewers may not have known before Funny People was released, or maybe still don’t know. Is it true that comedy is the hardest thing for an actor to do well?
I don’t know, because I never considered myself an actor when I was doing comedy, because it came first. It came pretty easy to me, actually, and sketch comedy in particular was something I was pretty prolific at. I did it for a long time. But, yeah, I think if you took someone who’d never done comedy before and said, “Now you’re going to do stand-up,” there’s nothing that would reduce someone to a cold sweat quicker than the thought of standing in front of 300 strangers and hearing “You’ve got 30 minutes.” Most people would run off kicking and screaming. So it’s a pretty unique thing and experience, and it’s a unique skill set to have.
Still, any actor or comedian’s job isn’t quite as hard as fighting in Afghanistan, as a certain someone may have unwisely suggested recently.
I don’t know if that person suggested that, actually.
No? Well, we can skip past this if you’d prefer, I just know that, at a certain point, one of your co-stars, Mark Wahlberg, got pretty heated over the matter.
I don’t really know exactly what was said, so I really can’t comment on it.
No sweat. I’m gonna shift gears and say that one film of yours I’ve always thought is wrongfully underrated is Ang Lee’s Hulk.
Well, you’re definitely in the minority. [laughs]
Yeah, whatever. I think it has a really unique aesthetic and editing style, and it definitely stands out in the superhero-film landscape. Considering the same character has since been brought to life by two more actors, what are your thoughts on that film now?
The same as they were back then, I think. I knew it was going to be a very unique take on things, and that’s why I did the film. It was Ang Lee. He’s got a very individual perspective and point of view, and I think Hulk was kind of the first of that darker version of that genre. So I think that’s why it’s so divisive. It’s not for everyone, but I kind of knew that ahead of time.
I also wanted to briefly talk about cars, because I know you’re a big fan of motor racing, you compete in Australia, and you’ll be teaming up with Formula 1 driver Mark Webber for the Bathurst endurance race in 2015. This whole world’s a little foreign to me, so maybe you could just give me a quick rundown of your involvement with it.
Well, that’s what I do when I’m not shooting. I’ve done it all my life—play with cars and bikes. And yeah, I do a lot of racing back home. And there’s this big endurance race that we have once year—a 12-hour race at Bathurst, which is a famous race track [in Australia]. And Mark has just retired from Formula 1, but he’s now Porsche’s number-one driver, worldwide. He said that, for fun, he’d come down and pair up for that race, which I’ve done a couple times. So we’ll see how it goes. We may be able to pull it off, schedule-wise. It’d be amazing. I’m a huge fan of his and followed his entire career. He’s a great guy, and obviously, an exceptional driver.
I read that Peter Berg initiated the Lone Survivor project a while ago, but he wasn’t able to get support for it unless he agreed to do Battleship first. Are there any similar compromises you’ve had to make in your career in order to get to some desired next step?
No, I think it’s different for an actor than it is for a director. And I’ve never bought into the notion that there’s, you know, one for them and one for you. I think that’s a real quick road to disaster for an actor. If you go chasing some amorphous thing that’s hard to define and doesn’t really exist, I think that’s really dangerous. So I’ve just preferred to respond to how I’m feeling that particular year. You grow up, you go through different phases of your life. A character that you would consider this year would be, perhaps, a character you wouldn’t have contemplated a year ago, and you may not contemplate a year from now. So I’ve just always responded to where I’m at in my life, and the scripts that really appeal to me, and the characters I think are going to be challenging.
What are some of the things you consider when first contemplating a project?
You know, I’m pretty bad, actually, at recognizing what size a film is when I’m reading it. I don’t read a film and go, “Oh, this is a low-budget movie, or this is a big-budget film.” You just read it. And you’re selfishly looking at your character, and if you can add to [the film], and whether or not it’s something that’s going to be a fit. And if it’s right for you to pursue. I tend not to ever get sucked into “the formula” of what one’s supposed to be. Plenty of people would argue that my formula’s fatally flawed. But I don’t care. That’s how I want to do it.