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TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Eric Bana - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web
Eric Bana's career brings hope to all aspiring screen actors. Seldom has someone of such narrow cinematic experience climbed the Hollywood ladder so rapidly. Who was he, after all, this guy who single-handedly carried Ang Lee's mega-blockbuster The Hulk, then grabbed the role of Hector, arch-enemy of Brad Pitt's Achilles in Troy? Sure, he stood out in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, but weren't Ewan McGregor and Josh Hartnett the up-and-coming stars there? Who exactly was this Eric Bana? Just some populist mimic from Australia? Surely that could not be.
He was born Eric Banadinovich in Melbourne, Australia, on the 9th of August, 1968, the son of a Croatian father (Ivan, from Zagreb and manager for Caterpillar Inc, a tractor company) and German mother, Eleanor, a hairdresser. Eric was the younger of two brothers, the other being Anthony, three years older and now a banker. Though Eric would grow to 6' 3", he would still be short by his family's standards, Anthony measuring a hefty 6' 8".
As a kid Eric lived a typical suburban life in Tullamarine, out on the western edge of the city, near the airport. Melbourne is famed as the most vibrantly cosmopolitan of Australian towns, but Bana's upbringing was typically Aussie. He describes his young self as an "infatuated rev-head", obsessed with cars and motorbikes. It's an obsession that lasts to this day. Having driven in big races like the Targa Tasmania and the Adelaide Classic, in 2003 Bana would become the official patron of the Dick Johnson Racing Company - the former star driver Johnson being one of Eric's earliest heroes. And remember, this was nothing like the glamorous, money-drenched world of Formula One or Indie Car - this was about the V8 Supercar Championship, rough and hard, more Mad Max than Monza. Bana was staying true to his working-class roots.
For Bana, school was fairly uneventful. He was bright and powerful, but the thing that marked him most was a singular tragedy. When a very close friend died from cancer, young Eric was profoundly affected. Harshly taught the lesson that we can take nothing for granted, he felt fortunate for every new day and, heeding his Dad's dictum that "luck is preparation met by opportunity", put his all into everything he did. And what he did mostly was obsess over cars. At the age of 14 he seriously considered leaving school to become a mechanic, finally being persuaded against it by his father. Ivan would show his appreciation for his son's choice the next year when buying Eric his first motor, a clapped-out 1974 Ford XB Falcon GT Coupe. The boy would work on it endlessly.
On leaving school, Eric worked as a labourer for a transport company down on the wharf. This was just one in a string of menial jobs, including washing cars at a service station, pushing trolleys at Coles New World and picking up glasses in bars. They didn't forward his career much but, along with that rev-head adolescence, they did bring him into contact with a host of unusual and eccentric characters, many of whom, as a natural mimic, he would study and imitate for laughs. He was already aware of his gift for entertaining people and, naturally influenced by the thrills and spills of Mad Max, had decided he wanted to act.
But it was another influence that first kick-started him on the road to the top. A big fan of Richard Pryor, he was forever cracking people up with his gags, pranks and rapidly growing collection of impressions. Come 1991, while working as a barman at Melbourne's Castle Hotel, he was persuaded to try his hand at stand-up and proved an immediate success. For the next two years, he played at inner-city pubs, supporting himself by clearing tables. As ever, he was preparing for opportunity. One fellow comic remembers how Eric, unlike all the others, had business cards printed up - no chance would pass him by.
The first big one came with a performance on Steve Vizard's Tonight Live show. This led to an invitation to join the Full Frontal team, a comedy troupe with a very popular TV sketch series. Eric's impressions of Columbo, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ray Martin, Sylvester Stallone, John Farnham, Tom Cruise and Warwick Copper would make him one of the show's most popular turns. He'd also invent characters, one being Peter from Melbourne (pronounced Poida from Melben), a keen kid with a Megadeth teeshirt and dreadful mullet, who'd bring a very new style to interviewing such celebrities as John Wayne Bobbitt. When he finally left in 1996 - by which time he had toured Australia's club circuit with Full Frontal and was a stand-up star in his own right - he produced, wrote and starred in a solo special, simply called Eric, for Channel Seven. It was such a success that it led his own series, The Eric Bana Show Live, which saw him interviewing star guests, performing skits and, unusually, sat in his car hilariously setting the world to rights.
Unfortunately, The Eric Bana Show Live was not a ratings success and was not given a second series, despite Eric being named Most Popular Comedian at the Logies and hosting a Comic Relief special that raised $380,000 for Community Aid Abroad. Yet this made no odds to Bana who'd already set his sights on an acting career. Inevitably, given his meteoric rise, when he made his screen debut in 1997 it was in one of Australia's biggest ever hits, The Castle. This took him right back to his roots as it featured the working-class Kerrigan family, living right beside the airport. A little band of Candides they believe everything is right in their world, despite the constant thundering of aircraft, then are forced to protect their lowly abode when airport expansion results in a compulsory purchase order. Eric's role, as the daughter's kickboxing accountant husband, was small, but it was a great start. The movie was a major sleeper hit. Filmed in eleven days for just $19,000, it was bought by Miramax for $6 million.
Having married Rebecca Gleeson, daughter of the Australian High Court Chief Justice Murray Gleeson and former publicist for the Seven Network (she'd give birth to son Klaus in 1997, then daughter Sophia in 2002), Bana moved on to what would be his breakthrough role. This was in Chopper, a fictionalised biopic of Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read, one of Australia's most notorious criminals, who claimed to have killed 19 people and cut off his own ears in prison to avoid being whacked by enemies. Having turned to writing about his exploits, he'd become a best-selling author and a master of (often unbelievable) self-publicity.
Director Andrew Dominik had been working on the project for some five years and was having real trouble casting the titular lead. Russell Crowe was a favourite, particularly due to his brutal turn as Hando in Romper Stomper, but now had bigger fish to fry. Eventually, Read himself suggested that they audition Bana, having seen him perform a skit about Broadmeadow yobs on TV. Dominik was against the idea, but was persuaded by producer Greg Apps. Eric was called by his agent and thoroughly nonplussed by the idea. Besides, he was about to depart on honeymoon and couldn't race to Sydney for the screen-test. Happily, they were prepared to wait two weeks and, some two months later, Dominik and Apps had cast a comedian as their country's most brutal serial murderer. It was a huge risk, like casting Alistair MacGowan as Fred West - but what an inspired choice it turned out to be.
To play the role, Bana shaved his head and put on 30 pounds, mostly by gorging on cinnamon doughnuts. He also spent two days with Read himself, to perfect his mimicry. He'd arrive on set at 4 each morning, spending five hours in makeup (Read is covered in distinctive tattoos). And, incredibly, he was superb. Appearing in nearly every shot, he was menacing, paranoid, egomaniacal, clueless, manipulative, unpredictable and thoroughly weird. It was a rare test for an actor, Read suffering from uncontrollable mood swings that would turn him from an eager-to-please teddy bear to a raving psycho in an instant, and then back again. In one scene he stabs a guy repeatedly in the neck then, as he's dying in a pool of blood, asks "Are you OK?" and offers him a cigarette. Elsewhere he shoots a drug dealer then drives him to hospital. Read was massively complex - funny and homicidal, gregarious and utterly distant - a man who would kill purely so he could boast about killing. Bana could easily have done a Pacino and completely overblown it. He didn't, he was brilliantly believable.
This was a starring debut of some force. US critic Roger Ebert said of Eric "He has a quality no acting school can teach you and few actors can match. You cannot look away from him". With typically aggressive humour Read commented "a top fella, but get your ears off, mate... whatever happened to Method Acting?" The film, refusing to glorify or condemn Read's behaviour, began a Natural Born Killers-style controversy and went to Number One in Australia, managing to dislodge The Patriot, starring Oz's favourite adopted son, in the process.
Bana spent months touring the festival circuit with Chopper, where his performance was often compared to that of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. High praise indeed, and it made Bana think even harder about his career. He knew that his next role had better be "bloody good" or it was all over. At the time he'd taken the part of Joe Sabatini in a new soap opera, Something In The Air, concerning the small town dramas of Emu Springs, a community dominated by its local radio station and Rules Football team. Sabatini was a good old boy, dedicated to his farm, wife and mates. Of Italian immigrant stock, he was prone to boil over, made execrable wine and had a (bad) poem for every occasion. For Bana, this was good experience but easy work, hardly challenging for a man who'd won Best Actor from the Australian Film Institute and the Stockholm Film Festival for Chopper. He needed a step up, and fast.
Thankfully, he now had an American agent and, with Chopper serving as an impressive audition tape, he won the part of Norm "Hoot" Hooten in Black Hawk Down, his US film debut. This was a true story concerning 123 elite troops from the US Rangers and Delta Force, who are air-dropped into Somalia to take out the top henchmen of a warlord who's ripping off Red Cross funds and causing the starvation of hundreds of thousands. Preparing with a 2-week Special Forces boot camp at Fort Bragg, Bana threw himself into the role of the super-sniper and military legend taking it to the enemy when the US troops discover they've severely underestimated the warlord's fire-power. Most reviews would pick out his performance over those of Ewan McGregor and Josh Hartnett.
Leaving Something In The Air far behind, and having briefly returned to the Melbourne stand-up scene with his Standing In The Corner show, now he was on his way. He returned to Oz to film The Nugget, a comedy based on John Steinbeck's The Pearl, where three road workers who go prospecting at weekends (as an excuse to gab and get drunk) stumble upon a boulder-sized hunk of gold. Naturally, this changes things, particularly when the nugget is stolen, and the happy-go-lucky trio are forced to re-examine their value systems. It was a semi-successful feel-good effort with Bana coasting as the excruciatingly unlucky Lotto, the smart but uneducated leader of the gang, who at one point loses a scratch-card down a drain and spends days digging up the whole street looking for it. It wasn't what he was used to, after Chopper and Black Hawk Down, but he took it anyway because the script made him laugh, reminded him of his suburban Melbourne home and would be suitable for his own children.
Bana was now much in demand in the US. Indeed, he'd turned down the lead in xXx to take The Nugget (Vin Diesel stepping in instead). Eric's next action epic would be far more ambitious - he took on The Hulk. Ordinarily, he wouldn't have been interested but was keen to work with director Ang Lee who he admired for The Ice Storm. He liked Lee's ideas for The Hulk who, like Chopper, was a character suffering from loss of self-control. This would be no standard super-hero picture with CGI monsters and effects. Bana's face would be superimposed over that of the green giant - he would be acting throughout. So, there he was as Bruce Banner, an arrogant student brought onto a top secret military project to build the cell-altering Gammasphere. Naturally, things go hideously wrong and, despite the efforts of the compassionate Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) Banner's inner demons come to exhibit themselves in a big, green, angry way.
Following The Hulk would be another major picture, Wolfgang Petersen's Troy. Here Bana, after only five films, found himself playing Hector, ordered by his father King Priam (Peter O'Toole) to protect the city against the invading Greeks, led into battle by Brad Pitt's Achilles. Though the movie was clearly designed to show Pitt as a mythical hero, Bana brought a depth to Hector that would elevate the entire film. He was not only a noble warrior but also a caring husband and father, dutiful son and protective brother and citizen. An inordinately large percentage of the film's emotional content would be displayed upon his face alone.
Bana's efforts were duly noted by the powers that be as he would next be cast by Steven Spielberg in Munich, which explored the murderous tracking of those who slaughtered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Bana would play a former bodyguard of Golda Meir, who leads the secret revenge squad assigned to hunt down and eliminate the killers and becomes ever more paranoid and disillusioned as the movie digs into the political, moral and historical ramifications of terrorism.
Munich was written by Eric Roth, as would be Bana's next picture, 2006's Lucky You, where he'd go head-to-head with old master Robert Duvall. Here he'd play a hot-shot poker player, on the table an all-in kind of guy but playing safe in life and love. He would be forced to change, though, when he falls for Bakersfield singer Drew Barrymore and must take on his despised father Duvall at the Poker World Series. Following this would be Romulus, My Father, an Australian production directed by Aussie theatre legend Richard Roxburgh. Set in 1961, this would be an emotional heavy-hitter, involving affliction, madness, suicide and betrayal, as well as doses of comedy, the movie exploring the hugely problematic relationship between intense Romanian immigrant Bana, his disturbed and faithless wife Franka Potente, and their young son Raimond. The Australian Film Institute would name Bana as Best Actor for his efforts.
Bana's single release of 2008 would be The Other Boleyn Girl, a sumptuous historical drama based on the novel by Philippa Gregory. Here he'd play Henry VIII as handsome, manly and desperate for an heir his wife is unable to give him. Recognising an opportunity to further their fortunes, the Boleyn family invite him to stay and parade their daughter Anne, played by Natalie Portman, before him. Instead, Bana is taken by Portman's sister, Scarlett Johansson, and makes her his mistress, prompting Portman to jealously up the ante in her romantic plotting, her machinations leading only to disaster and death. Bana would do well as Henry, his monarch being swaggering and ruthless, but also easily manipulated, more human than the brutish portrayals of the past.
Ordinarily, Bana would restrict his film output to one an year. This allowed him to spend time with his family and his cars, and also to concentrate fully on each role he chose to take. Due to scheduling, though, and Bana's taking several small parts, 2009 would see a glut of releases. First would come the extraordinary claymation feature Mary And Max, directed by the Oscar-winning Adam Elliot. Here an 8-year-old girl from Melbourne would become pen-pals with a obese Asperger's sufferer from New York, the film following them over 20 years as they experience alienation, loneliness and some degree of acceptance. Philip Seymour Hoffman would be superb as the older New Yorker with Toni Collette playing the grown girl, Bana popping up as her gay neighbour Damien, a man for whom she painfully and uselessly falls. On top of this, Bana would make his directorial debut with Love The Beast, a documentary showing how he'd transformed his old Ford Falcon into a mean machine capable of competing in Tasmania's 5-day Targa rally in 2007, Bana unfortunately wrapping it round a tree on Day 3.
Bana's other releases of 2009 would be far more high-profile. First of these would be JJ Abrams blockbusting Star Trek, which rebooted the franchise by visiting the main protagonists in their youth, as they pass through Starfleet Academy and on to their maiden voyage on the Enterprise. Bana would appear, heavily-made up, as the Romulan commander Nero, who blames Spock for the destruction of his planet and has brought his giant spaceship back through time, first to destroy James Kirk's father, then to wipe out Vulcan and all the other Federation planets, including Earth. Of course, Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Scotty and the rest set out to stop him, with ever-more spectacular results. Bana would attempt to bring some depth to Nero, something beyond his snarling anger and genocidal revenge, but the film was eventually about action, rather than character.
Bana's next effort would be far more emotionally driven. This was The Time Traveller's Wife, based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger. Here he'd play an adventurous librarian with a genetic mutation that causes him to flit back and forth through time, landing naked in each new place and era. Often he arrives behind the house of a young girl who over the years befriends him, helps him, hides him and, as Rachel McAdams, falls for him, as he falls for her. Having been in her future, he knows things about her he cannot tell, but she learns more of him as they move towards meeting and marrying in real time, their love forever tested as he uncontrollably comes and goes. It was a beautiful story, inspirational, and wonderfully played.
Surprisingly, as it starred arch goof Adam Sandler, his next film would also carry some emotional weight. This would be Funny People, where Sandler would play a comedian who's risen from the stand-up circuit to cinematic stardom, losing his decency, friends and lover Leslie Mann along the way. Informed that he's suffering a terminal condition, he softens, takes stock of his mistakes, takes rookie performer Seth Rogen under his wing, and attempts a reconciliation with Mann, now seemingly happily married to Bana. When Sandler discovers that he's not actually dying he tries to win Mann back and must fearlessly take on Bana, a no-nonsense Australian whose advanced machismo makes him a supremely aggressive competitor.
As a hugely compelling and convincing performer, Eric Bana is now up there with fellow Antipodeans Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, and Toni Collette. However, he would still consider himself a rev-head comedian from Tullamarine and, above all, a family man, his family, of course, benefiting enormously from his decision to limit his screen appearances. Cinema audiences would be the ones to miss out. Still, his total concentration on single roles would mean that Bana was always, always worth watching.