He’s one of cinema’s most intersting screen actors, mixing leading man and supporting roles and bringing a versatility to his choices that is rare.
Ever since his breakout performance as the notorious Australian criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Read in Chopper, Eric Bana has mixed it up, combining performances in blockbusters like Hulk and Troy with dramatic roles in films like Munich and Hanna.
He’s an actor who’s not afraid to take a gamble, so it comes as little surprise that when Jim Sheridan called him to star in an ambitious feature film based on a Sebastian Barry novel, Bana was quickly on board.
“Our first conversations were on the phone and were quite varied really,” he says of the initial contact from Sheridan. “We got into some specifics but I felt: ‘Oh my god, this guy would be incredible to work with’. I was always a huge fan. We really hit it off on the phone.
“I was chuffed; I was always going to say yes. We had a couple of phone calls and before I knew it I was here,” he says when we meet in Dublin in advance of the film’s Irish premiere at ADIFF.
The result is The Secret Scripture, a drama spanning two timeframes, about a woman (played by Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara) who has spent years incarcerated in a regional mental hospital. As the hospital faces demolition, Dr Grene (Bana) must decide if she is to be transferred or released into the community, partly by investigating the circumstances of why she ended up there in the first place.
Sheridan’s relaxed approach to directing was embraced by the actor, who worked in stand-up comedy before turning to film.
“I’m okay with that type of approach. I don’t feel freaked out about it at all with my stand-up background. I loved it, you would turn up, and each day would be different. There was no guarantee you would shoot exactly what you thought you were going to shoot.
“I guess it works both ways. You feel liberated by the stuff that you possibly don’t agree with because it’s about his vision and trusting. You can’t do it without trust, you can’t, and I wouldn’t do it with a first time director. No way.”
He’s an actor, he says, who likes plenty of time to prepare for a role. He did a good deal of research into Irish social and cultural history during the period and he takes on an Irish accent for the part.
“I don’t muck around when it comes to that stuff. I take it pretty seriously. I worked with someone. I had some good samples and different people to base it upon. I had a good amount of time, just the right amount of time to get my head around it. Being here helped, even though I’m not playing a Dublin accent, but being in Ireland helped.”
Getting the accent right is something that becomes commonplace when you’re an antipodean. “I don’t know any different. I’m not allowed to be Australian. Other actors are allowed go from movie to movie doing their own accent. They have no idea how easy they’ve got it. Very envious. Australians don’t exist in the world apparently,” he laughs, adding that they must be one of the most underrepresented nationalities in cinema. “I’d like to one day play an Australian sometime. The last film at home I was a Hungarian migrant. Even in my own country I can’t be an Australian!”
Migration was a foundation in his own life. Born Eric Banadinovic, he grew up in Melbourne, the proud son of a German mother and Croatian father, who moved to Australia for a new life. Like other children of migrants, he remembers being teased for his background at school, though he says he didn’t feel scarred by the experience.
“(It happened to) Anyone who had parents of European stock. ‘Wog’ was a word that was thrown around like nothing. I know that word means different things in other countries. In Australia it means your parents are of [Mediterranean] European background. It was initially used as a defamatory term. My kids would never use it. God yeah, I was a child of the ’70s,” he observes.
Still, it didn’t impact on him. “Australians have the most vicious sense of humour. I went to an all boy’s school that was one of a thousand words we used.”
As a teen, he’d watch Mel Gibson in Mad Max and dream about a career in cinema. He was into his twenties before he made the initial step, supplementing his stand-up with bar work.
In the years since, he has become a bona fide movie star, notching up acclaimed performances in everything from the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, to The Other Boleyn Girl, and a memorable turn in Steven Spielberg’s exceptional Munich.
Yet he’s affable and low-key when we meet, and there’s no evidence of the entourage that often surrounds such stars.
He remarks that he was able to walk around Dublin unnoticed, (“I’m a walker”) exploring the city in his free time from filming, and you get the sense he likes it that way.
“I never had any issue anywhere, Dublin was no different. I’m one of the lucky ones. People were super friendly in a genuine way. I just loved it. There’s an assumed similarity between Irish and Australians. It’s always been there. I don’t know where it comes from. Every Irish person I have worked with has been awesome so I was expecting that. I have always got along with Irish people so I was expecting that.”
One of those Irish people was actress Saoirse Ronan, who Bana worked closely with on the sci-fi thriller, Hanna.
“I actually visited her here when I was in Dublin,” he smiles.
“I was able to catch up with her which was lovely. She is growing up to do interesting work. Great respect for her. She was wonderful to work with.
“I worked with her at such a special time. She was 16 at the time. She is still very young. I dearly loved working with her. She is a sweetheart.”
As well as his talent and onscreen charisma, Bana’s great success seems to have been the sheer variety in terms of movies he has done.
While it’s not something he’s overtly conscious of, he’s glad to have had the opportunity to mix it up. “I am really lucky for that. And I make the most of that for sure. It’s definitely a privilege,” he remarks.
“I think it’s down again to choices, opportunity. I never had that fixed idea in my head as to how I wanted to be perceived. All I wanted was a long career like Robert Duvall, my hero, people that have an immense body of work that would last a long period of time. He is still there. He is still doing incredible work. That’s what I aspire to.”