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Certain cinephiles got their first glimpse of Eric Bana nearly 10 years ago as Mark Read, the tattooed, potbellied titular convict in Chopper. His handlebar mustache, craggy teeth, and pasty rolls of fat were a far cry from the dimpled grin and Aussie swagger he’d ride to international fame only a few years later. In Ang Lee’s Hulk, Bana was the tightly coiled research scientist Bruce Banner, at odds with the after-effects of unchecked anger. But it was his portrayal of Avner, quietly meditating on the morality of vengeance in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, that was uniformly praised and marked the arrival of the next great serious actor from Down Under. That role opened the way for a series of others, as spoiled king Henry Tudor in The Other Boleyn Girl, the villain Nero in the new Star Trek reboot film, and the titular time traveler in the upcoming book adaptation The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Anyone surprised that Bana grabs some of the most memorable laugh lines in Judd Apatow’s Funny People isn’t from Melbourne. Bana started out on the Australian comedy circuit and rose to national prominence on sketch-comedy shows. As Clarke in Funny People, he’s come full circle. As the befuddled but good-natured husband of a woman (Leslie Mann) caught up in the crossfire of her past relationship with a comedian (Adam Sandler), Bana more than holds his own, stealing scenes and looking perfectly at ease. In a recent visit with The A.V. Club, Bana talked about his beloved Ford Falcon Coupe, the joys of “footie,” and the secret misery of comedians.
The A.V. Club: Funny People explores how comedians work to avoid the unhappy aspects of their actual lives. Are a lot of comedians secretly miserable?
Eric Bana: I guess so. Just from my own experience, a lot of the people I used to work with were. I think you need to be able to see a lot of negative in things in order to extract material, so there’s probably something to that. A lot of the people I used to work with were very, very, very unfunny offstage, so that’s a pretty common thing. I feel like the characters in this film are probably not quite as dark. I think in real life, they may be a little darker.
AVC: Is that why you originally started out on the comedy circuit? Were you coping with some personal darkness?
EB: No. Look, honestly, for me it was a combination of desperation and the fact that it was something I could do. I sort of meandered and really had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had a go at stand-up, and I was sort of okay at it. I’d say I’m the opposite of someone that has the urge to stand in front of strangers and make them laugh, but the idea of getting up and telling a story and people finding it amusing always appealed to me. So I’d say it was probably more about that than anything. But at the same time, when I stopped, I was about 30, and I probably didn’t get the full benefit of my adult brain. So I always felt like I never fully kept up my adult material.
AVC: A lot of your success seems to have happened by accident. Have you always avoided making plans?
EB: Well, no. I think obviously this stuff takes a bit of planning, but I’ve always been someone that sets achievable short-term goals. I’ve never been someone that’s had a five-year plan, or a three-year plan. That just seems to lead to a lot of disappointment, and doesn’t give you the chance to be flexible. So I’ve just always been someone that’s sort of reassessed where I’m at, and set goals that are realistic. And luckily, I’ve had plenty of chances to recalibrate and adjust, and good fortune’s come my way.
AVC: You recently produced, directed, and appeared in a documentary called Love The Beast, which chronicles your lifelong passion for your 1973 Ford Falcon Coupe. Do you have filmmaking aspirations, or was this just a one-off tribute to your car?
EB: No, I guess I was getting back to storytelling. I’ve had frustrated storytelling juices that have been lying dormant for a long time, and I guess the documentary was a way of me telling a story that I felt most qualified to tell. And I loved it, and I’d love to do something else someday, probably more narrative-based. But I’m in no rush. I love doing what I’m doing now. We had a great theatrical run for the documentary back in Australia, and we’ve just come out here on DVD. We’ll hopefully find a relative place for it here in the States as well.
AVC: When you were cast as the lead in Chopper, were you daunted by the subject matter? It’s one thing to move away from comedy gradually, but this was a clean break.
EB: Well, I felt like I was getting a chance to do what I’ve always wanted to do, so when the opportunity opened up, I didn’t look back. I just went for it. And you know, 10 years have passed, and I haven’t done anything remotely close to comedy. So Funny People was a really unique chance. It’s also the first time I’ve read something that I thought was relevant to something I could do. Like, I don’t often watch broad comedies and think, “Oh well, I could have been a part of that.” It’s usually the opposite. I usually watch them, enjoy them, admire them, and think, “You know, I really have nothing to contribute to that.” But in this case, I did feel like the character was well suited to me, and I wanted a stab at it.
AVC: Did Judd Apatow write the character with you in mind? He’s Australian, after all.
EB: No, the character was originally American, and I asked Judd if I could make him Australian.
AVC: Your character is obsessed with Australian Rules Football. Did you write the Australian-related material?
EB: No, no, no, all that footie stuff, he just let me loose. It was like I was the unofficial Australian Rules football advisor on the film. It was all stuff I wanted to do, and all the other references were—you know, I was more than happy for them to use it for the piece.
AVC: On the surface, Clarke can be taken as an average clueless, insensitive guy. But over a short period, the audience has to be repulsed and eventually sympathetic to him. Was that difficult to pull off?
EB: I took that part of it very seriously. I wanted to contribute as much as I possibly could dramatically, because it was very difficult. On the surface, the guy’s a bit of a maniac. But you know, I love the fact that for the film to work, you had to believe that Leslie and I were genuinely in love. And there is absolutely no material traditionally that enables you to establish that. So it’s a huge challenge. It’s the opposite of what you normally get in a film, where there’s all these romantic scenes to give the audience all the cues that you love each other. In this case, those cues are me telling her how much I want to sleep with Cameron Diaz. It’s the exact opposite of what you are normally given. But somehow toward the end, we have to believe that they love each other. So that was an interesting thing to map out and try and do in some convincing form. I tried to address that as well as I could.
AVC: Looking back over the work you’ve done, there’s almost no cohesive arc to follow. Are you happy with the path you’ve taken? Do you wish there was more consistency to the roles you’ve been offered?
EB: No, it only seems jarring when you look back on it. I think if you had to map that out at the beginning and you said, “Right, sit down, this is what you’re going to be doing,” you’d probably freak out. But I’m someone who really enjoys not being himself. So if you consider that, then it all sort of makes sense. You know? And I just think that’s the job of an actor. I guess that’s the variation that you’re talking about. It’s probably a byproduct of just constantly looking for something different, because that’s what I feel like I’m supposed to do.
AVC: Having avoided working in comedy for so long, what was it like to jump back into it with accomplished comedic writers and actors like Apatow, Sandler, and Seth Rogen?
EB: It was very intimidating at first. It’s the comedy mafia. I’m a huge fan of Judd’s, and also of Adam. Well, of all of them, really. It was very intimidating. I didn’t know what to expect, and I’ve never worked with any of them before. They were just amazing, and made me feel not only very welcome, but also very relevant straightaway. They made me feel like ideas were to be explored and valued and so forth. It made me feel like a contributor, and I love that process. I was in awe of them. Adam’s someone who’s a similar age, and I’ve watched his career and loved his work. You know, to get the chance to meet and hang out and work with him was just a real joy. It was a great crew to work with. And I think Leslie’s absolutely hilarious. I struggled to keep a straight face through a lot of it. So it was a good time.
AVC: Will it be hard to go back to some somber dramatic set with a bunch of brooding Method actors? Did you rediscover how much you miss being on the set with fellow comedians?
EB: I think it really depends on the director. I think quite often, it’s not what you expect. The most serious film can be the most fun. The one that’s supposed to be fun can be the most serious. I don’t think there are any hard-and-fast rules. I just think it really depends on your director and what the general vibe is. But this film was a hell of a lot of fun.