Film acting is a tricky thing. The actors who grab our imaginations the most fervently are those who can make larger-than-life look real. People generally don't go around showing all their thoughts or grappling with passions. But great actors can pull off that transparency and intensity and make it seem not just true, but truer.
Movie stars can do this, too - and without necessarily being great actors. You would never put, say, Harrison Ford or Sandra Bullock on an acting par with Sean Penn, but they do compel us to look, and keep us from looking away.
Then there are the actors who play against everything I just said. Reliable presences who work steadily - and well - and prefer it when their off-screen personalities are impossible to detect. They want to disappear into roles, and they gravitate toward characters who are themselves withholders. Before I spoke to Eric Bana by phone this week, I would have put him in this category. Now I think he's the poster boy for it.
Bana's latest role, in the thriller Hanna (it opened Friday), is a perfect example. He plays a covert CIA operative, Erik, who trains his daughter (Saoirse Ronan) from birth to be an assassin. The early scenes deliberately tell us nothing about him, and by the end we have learned little more. (Canadian-content alert: Hanna, directed by Joe Wright and co-starring Cate Blanchett, was written by Nanaimo, B.C.-born Seth Lochhead, originally as his final project at the Vancouver Film School.)
As a man of few words and much action in murky circumstances, Erik joins a slew of other Bana characters with the same traits: a no-nonsense soldier in Black Hawk Down, a troubled scientist with a secret split personality in The Hulk, a human killing machine in Troy, a poker player who holds love at arm's length in Lucky You, an isolated king in The Other Boleyn Girl. Bana's most expressive roles were in Munich and The Time Traveler's Wife, but even then, what they revealed was the anguish of a man who can't be at peace, because he can't ever really be where he is.
"Oh no! There's a pattern I wasn't aware of," Bana said. He said it as he said everything: cheerily, in a roisterous Aussie accent. (He was raised in Melbourne and lives there still, with his wife, Rebecca Gleason, a publicist whose father was the Australian High Court chief justice, and their two children, Klaus, 11, and Sophia, 9.) Then he said - nothing.
So I asked him a follow-up question: What does he think about that pattern? Again, he replied readily, but evasively: "It's interesting to hear," he said. "I'm not fully aware of it."
That dynamic continued throughout our interview. I'd ask Bana something. He'd respond immediately, but generically. I'd prod. He'd gamely offer something else vague. For example, Bana collects and races cars. I asked him how many he owns right now. "I've got a few," he said. How many is a few? "Well under a dozen," he said. Hmm.
I asked him which role was most like him (a question I usually avoid, but thought might be useful here). "That's a tricky one," he said. "I'd have to think long and hard about that." Really? "I'd like to say none of them," he said. It was all very genial, but elusive.
Bana was much more comfortable discussing concrete things, such as the skills he'd acquired for roles: weapons training for Black Hawk Down, bareback horse riding for Troy, hand-to-hand combat for Hanna. "I'm sure my wife would like me to play a cook one day," he joshed. "I should play Gordon Ramsey."
He also volunteered that his car obsession started early. "All my baby photos are me holding Matchbox cars," he said. "My dad" - Ivan, a Croatian immigrant and manager for Caterpillar, Inc.; Bana's mom, Eleanor, was a hairdresser - "would get up and his car wouldn't start because I'd been fiddling with it the night before secretly in the garage. It's just something I've always done. I was lucky I was born in an age where you could pull a carburetor off your parents' car. If you did it now you'd just about self-destruct."
Still, I kept pushing for psychological insight. By his own admission, Bana's led a split life. For the first half of his career, in Australia, he was an award-winning comedian. He did impressions (including Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger), stand-up, and worked on sketch shows, two of which he headlined, Eric and The Eric Bana Show Live. But it was his one serious role, as a notorious Australian criminal in Chopper (2000), that became his calling card in Hollywood.
"It is bizarre," Bana agreed. "After Chopper, I was offered this slew of dramatic stuff, and I was a kid in a candy store, because I was completely burnt out on comedy. So I've had an inverse career, where no one at home took me seriously and no one overseas could ever see that I could be funny. I live somewhere in the middle, in outer space."
Bana has made one American comedy, Funny People. He plays the straight man. "It was the first time I'd read something where I felt I could contribute," he said. "I've never seen a broad American comedy and felt like there's a role I should have played. I have a different style. Curb Your Enthusiasm is my favourite show, so that gives you an example of how difficult it would be for me to find something in American comedic films." Indeed, in his sketches, which are on YouTube, Bana's comedic instincts are a lot like his dramatic ones: His comedy is subtle, character-based, relying on tiny observations rather than broad yuks.
There's another way Bana is split: His real last name is Banadinovich. That's the name he uses at home; it's his parents' and children's name. "I haven't changed my name," he said. "I just use a different name for work, and always have. It was the family nickname for both me and my [older]brother, so when I started doing stand-up it was easier, and it just kind of stuck."
Naturally, I prodded: Are there any implications to working under one name and living under another? "It's not something that I was overly psychological about," Bana responded. "But it's nice for me to have. It's kind of like a mask, I guess."
Aha! I went for one last poke: "You do keep a lot in reserve," I said.
"I think that's an essential part of my job, I really do," Bana replied. "My job is to not allow the audience to know too much about me. That's what I enjoy."
Job well done.