“It’s an interesting morning in my country,” Eric Bana is telling me over Zoom from Melbourne, Australia. It’s late May, and he’s just learned that the state of Victoria (where he resides) will be entering another heavy COVID-19 lockdown. Melbourne is where pandemic restrictions primarily hit Australia throughout 2020, and this setback is clearly very frustrating. “We’re all a bit scarred,” he says. “You know how in WWE, when they tag team and someone just keeps getting jumped on from the top turnbuckle, and then they bounce them off the rope and then the next guy elbows him in the face, and then someone launches off the thing and just body-slams him? That’s how it feels today. We feel like one of those dudes on the mat who is just lying down going like this,” he says, his head swiveling as if looking around in a daze.
That may seem like an odd comparison for a guy like Eric Bana — who, after all, rose to fame in the 2000s through a series of serious roles in serious films like Hulk, Troy, Munich, Hanna, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The Other Boleyn Girl — to make, but talking to him, one is struck both by his pop-cultural eclecticism and his fondness for mimicry. Indeed, it was his talent for impressions that set him on the road to showbiz: He started working as a stand-up comic in the 1990s, making his way up to the popular Aussie sketch-comedy show Full Frontal, before getting his very own show, Eric — right before making the leap to dramatic roles. His startling, physically transformational turn as the lead role in the crime drama Chopper put him on Hollywood’s radar, and the next thing he knew, he was being airlifted onto the set of Ridley Scott’s 2002 war epic Black Hawk Down. Not long after that, he was cast as Bruce Banner in Ang Lee’s Hulk, a film that got a tepid response at the time but is now seen as the rare case of an actual auteur imposing his will on a Marvel property instead of vice versa. This is actually a common thread in Eric Bana’s films, be they Hulk, or Troy, or Hanna, or Munich: an understated initial response, followed by greater appreciation years later.
His performances have certainly helped: Over and over again over the past two decades, in both lead and supporting parts, Eric Bana has proven himself to be one of the most intense actors of his generation — the kind of performer who can convey a world of conflict and emotion with a single glance. That talent is in fine evidence in his latest, The Dry, an Aussie hit film about a federal agent investigating a grisly murder-suicide in his old hometown. Bana’s character is one of his most fascinating — a seemingly calm lawman with a vengeful, even sadistic gleam in his eye. The role afforded him the opportunity to challenge himself with a project in his home country, a rare opportunity in his career, which we discussed at length during our conversation, touching on his early “idiot” years in sketch comedy, the legacy of Munich’s “bold” sex scene, and what Ang Lee saw in him for Hulk.
How does one get the lead role in a Steven Spielberg movie like Munich? Does he, like, call you? Do you audition?
I was in L.A. at the time and got a phone call saying, “Steven would like to meet with you. He’s shooting a film out in the desert.” He was shooting The Terminal with Tom Hanks and I drove out there. I had some intel that there were a few different projects that he was working on. But no one knew what the specifics were. Fortunately, by sheer coincidence, I had read Vengeance. I got to the desert and I’m sitting there having lunch with Steven, and he starts talking about the Munich Olympics, and I’m like, “This is a book that I’ve read!” So I was able to respond and tell him how much I knew about the events and the story. At the end of it he’s like, “I’d love you to come and join me and play Avner.”
I was trying to keep cool and absorb the information. I remember driving back to the city — it was a two- or three-hour drive — and being on the phone to my agent, who said, “Tell me exactly what was said.” And I said, “I think he asked me to be in the film! I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.” Just that moment of pure elation when it was verified that yes, that was Steven asking you to be in the film. And then it was quite a while. The film eventually got put into turnaround the following year. I ended up doing Lucky You in that period, and then I went literally straight from Lucky You onto the set of Munich. They flew me from L.A. straight to Malta. I got off the plane, I went into makeup, they gave me a haircut, and they put me on the balcony and I had to do a scene which is a precursor to me blowing up the guy with the lamp.
The sex scene in Munich was much talked about. Some found it dramatic, some found it ridiculous. What went through your mind as you filmed it?
There was no manipulation involved in terms of, “You just do this and I’m not going to tell what we’re going to be cutting away to.” I just understood it as a metaphor for a lot of things. I actually found it quite beautiful. It’s the reaction by Avner’s wife that really got me when I saw the film — this understanding and acceptance of the horror of what he’s experienced and gone through. I understood what [Spielberg] was trying to do, but I knew it was out there a little bit and I was a little bit surprised. Was I surprised by people’s reaction to it? I don’t know. The film is pretty full-on all the way through, so it’s not like suddenly we have a scene that’s challenging to watch in a film that’s very easy to watch. It was a really bold choice. It certainly sets it apart from a lot of other films. I was just completely trusting of Steven.
There’s an interesting formal journey in the film. In early scenes, you guys are out in the sun and it’s warm and collegial. Then the film gradually changes style, so that by the end you’re sleeping in dark, crowded dens with the very people you’re pursuing. It’s an interesting way of showing …
Yeah. Was the film shot in sequence? Were you aware that was happening as you’re shooting?
It can’t have been too close to being in sequence just because of the location jumps. But it never felt jarring to me, so maybe it was relatively sympathetic. I remember them always putting on makeup to make me look haunted and tired and stuff. I remember coming home from work one day and going into the bathroom and going, “Shit, I forgot to take my makeup off.” I’ve got the face washer and I’ve gone to remove all the eye makeup and there was just nothing on the face washer. I’m like, “Where’s the black …? Oh, I’m him. I’ve become him. This is where we’re at now.” So there must have been some kind of chronological, gradual wearing down. Even though I always had tons of energy on that shoot, I remember not sleeping well, which was, I think, part of the character.
It was quite a controversial film. Did you get to witness any of that?
I was pretty much protected. The film was released so late in the awards-season timeline and Steven had basically decided that there would be no campaigning, so I was really separated from everything. I was back here in Australia. I think I flew out once for a screening we had at the Academy Theater, and that was kind of it. I was aware of the amount of turbulence in terms of the way people were reporting on the film. But I just felt like this was a whole lot of film journalists who were enjoying having a moment to express or show how much they know about world politics and about this issue. That was a little frustrating because I felt the film was being overlooked.
Had Daniel Craig already gotten Bond by that point?
No, he was considering it whilst we were shooting. Steven and I were right in his ear about, “You’ve got to do it, man. You’re crazy if you don’t.” He was really, really on the fence. He was trying to get his head around it.
What was he concerned about? Was it just giving over his life to a franchise?
Yeah, he’s a very private person. My reading of it was exactly that. It was grappling with the enormity of, what does this mean to your life when you take on that sort of role? I’m assuming that’s what he was coming to terms with. I love Daniel. He’s a really smart, funny guy. He’s got a great sense of humor. I don’t think it fully comes out in his Bond roles.
You’ve always been very good at conveying thought onscreen. Whether it’s Avner in Munich, Hector in Troy, or even Bruce Banner in Hulk, your parts don’t always have a ton of dialogue. You’re often observing and reacting, which a lot of actors could get lost with, because it might feel too passive. Is that something you’re conscious of, or look for, in your work?
That’s difficult for me to answer. The only thing that I can think of is that I’ve never been one to make a ton of notes on a script. One of the things that intimidated me when I switched over from sketch comedy into drama was being surrounded by film actors and people that had gone through drama schools and the copious amount of notes on the side of their pages. My script was just white with black type and hardly any ballpoint pen. I think the main reason for that was — and this is just for me — the minute I wrote an idea down, I felt like I was wholly committed to that. I hate the idea of being locked into one specific idea. That works fantastic for theater, so I understand that process, but I really want to not try and anticipate what the other actor is going to say or how they’re going to say it. I think it may come from my sketch-comedy background. You can’t turn up to a sketch having decided exactly how you’re going to deliver every line.
What led you into comedy?
Necessity! Necessity is the mother of all invention, right? When I was 21, 22, we were going through a really bad recession here in Australia. Our interest rates were 17 percent. Unemployment was high. I emerged from high school with just passing grades and had no intention of going to university. I really loved mechanics and I had wanted to leave school at an early age to get my apprenticeship, which I wasn’t allowed to do. I didn’t have a clear pathway. I worked at a one-hour photo-developing place, I worked at a soft-yogurt place, I worked at a supermarket stacking shelves, I worked at a supermarket collecting trolleys from the car park. I was a car washer, I was a barman, I was a glass boy, I was a document runner for a shipping company, I was a sales rep for a shipping company. Folded clothes in my parents’ jeans store.
A friend took me to a stand-up comedy gig and said, “I think you need to see this.” Because I was working at a bar and making the staff laugh doing impressions and fucking around after work. I’d never been to see live stand-up. I just thought everyone had to be like Richard Pryor; I thought that was the standard of every comedian. I went one night, and there was one guy who was good, and three or four that were really average. I’m like, “Give me some of that! I’m picking up glasses and carting around 25 kilo bags of plastic during the day, and these guys are getting like 120 bucks for like a 20-minute spot!” I gave myself two years to make a dent and that was it. If in two years, I’m still having to bang down the door for a ten-minute spot, I’ve got too much self-respect to make this my life. I don’t want to be that guy.
You progressed fairly quickly in your comedy career. Do you recall one bit that just absolutely killed?
I had about a five-minute bit about pornos that always went really well, unless I was doing a corporate function. It was just observation about German porn stars versus American porn stars versus what it would ever be like if we had an Australian porn star. It would take us out of the moment to hear an Australian accent in the middle of a porn. A guy getting really, really excited that he was in the porn — he couldn’t believe his luck.
My stand-up style was storytelling, incorporating characters. I just found the audiences really pay attention the minute you become a character. I was not into that aggressive heckler bullshit backwards and forwards stuff. That’s not writing; that’s just relying on an idiot to get you through the night. Some people did that really well. I was trying to come up with structures that were like five or ten minutes long that would hold. I had to really concentrate. If I had to get myself out of a hole, if I had to pull a joke out when things were going bad, I was dead. I would be dead if there was a joke-telling competition. I had none, man.
I got really lucky with my timing. Early nineties, a lot of the pub scene here in Victoria was geared around live entertainment, bands. We didn’t have poker machines back then. They were illegal. You drew people [to venues] with entertainment — with guitarists, with duos, with stand-up comedy. But then it all changed. The laws around slot machines changed. The venues started to disappear.
Do you remember the worst set that you did?
I do remember my first real death, which was quite cathartic, in front of a big, rowdy, drunk crowd in a country town. These people did not pay their money exclusively to come and see a stand-up comedian. They came to get laid, they came to get drunk, and they found themselves having to listen to a stand-up! Once they murmur, once they stop listening, you’re not getting them back. There’s 300 of them and they’ve all had half a dozen beers. I was supposed to do like 15 or 20 minutes and I was three minutes in, and they’re yelling, “Get off!”
It was a great lesson because it made me aware that my style didn’t suit every room. I think it’s a really great experience to go through, in terms of breaking down scripts, or trying to identify when something’s working or not, or understanding what might be your strength or what might be your weakness. And going, “Well, it’s okay to say no to stuff that you think you might be really bad at.”
You noted that you were good at impressions, and you started doing them at a very young age. What prompted you to start impersonating people?
I just came from family gatherings and doing impressions of different people, trying to mimic people off the television that were from different countries and trying to do accents. And being indulged by my grandparents who thought it was hilarious. It was like, “Oh, this feels good, making my grandparents laugh and making my uncles and aunties laugh.” And then in a school setting, it would occasionally get you out of trouble, or help you endear yourself to someone.
I always had a pretty vivid imagination. I did grow up in an unusual urban area, because it was on an industrial fringe. One side of my street was houses that were built in the ’70s. And then at the end of my street were factories. I would ride my bike through these paddocks and fields that went forever, around all these factories and so forth. And then I had the international airport there. I spent a lot of time riding around on my BMX through all that, either by myself or with my mates. There was a real sense of freedom and a lot of time spent alone, just dreaming about and imagining things. I was always outdoors, always wanting to go somewhere.
I read somewhere that you were really into CB Radio as a kid.
I was, yeah. I would come up with different personas and get on and talk to people, a different person each week, and muck around. I think that was my first foray into playing with voices, and learning that you could make your voice sound very different, and become someone else in this fantasy world. Because they couldn’t see you, they didn’t know where you were.
It sounds like the leap to sketch comedy was fairly organic for you. How did you make the leap to drama? Chopper feels like such a huge risk for a relatively new actor — the part is so dramatic and so central to whether that picture will work or not.
Yeah. I did a little film called The Castle before Chopper, which was a very gentle kind of pathos comedy — not broad slapstick. As small as my part was in that, I took it really seriously.
I didn’t really see the leap as being as dramatic as it was. In sketch comedy, I was surrounded by a lot of serious actors. There were a few of us that were stand-ups, but a lot of the cast were theater actors who were awesome at playing their roles. They’d never laugh. They’d come in and just nail it. And [Full Frontal] was a great sketch-comedy show at a really high standard. It’s what we did well in Australia. We weren’t great at sitcoms, but we were really good at sketch comedy. I don’t know that I could have made the leap from stand-up to acting. But [after] five years of many, many hours of sketch comedy, it was like someone showing you how the trick works.
Still, Chopper requires so much of you. You’re going full De Niro in Raging Bull, with the weight gain and everything. Many actors work an entire career and don’t get a part like that.
I wasn’t naïve about that. I did understand that it was a rare opportunity. Because he was so unique. When’s another character like that going to come around for anyone? So it was a case of just, “Well shit, I’d better be good. I better be as real as possible, otherwise that’s it from me. I’ll never work again.” You have to remember, I thought 100 people would see [Chopper]. And it took a long, long time for a number of people to see it. I was working on other things by the time the film was released. I was working on a serial drama at the ABC here in Australia playing a farmer. My wife was pregnant, we had our first child, and I was still surviving off touring as a stand-up comedian. I think I might even have still done a gig after Black Hawk Down, a corporate gig at a casino in Melbourne. I had just come back from Morocco. I remember thinking, This might be my last gig for a while.
What do you think Ang Lee saw in you for Hulk?
I don’t know. I’m not sure. I met with Ang and a few people from the production in New York. It was a sort of a slow burn. It wasn’t like, one phone call. You go from Black Hawk Down where you’re shooting mainly daytime, exteriors, natural light. Boom: out in the world. To suddenly, I’m playing a scientist and I’m in a lab or a house, indoors. There’s this other movie going on with green screen that I have nothing to do with, because that’s the Hulk. It’s the other actors that are playing in that space. So in some ways it felt like a tiny movie because the reality for me was every day was interior, studio, one room, very few big scenes. Lots of dialogue. I don’t like working indoors. I don’t like the sound of the bell in the studio and you don’t know what time it is outside. From an energy point of view, it’s not the sort of stuff I like to do. I love natural light. I love the energy that comes from, “Sun’s up and we’ve got from now until that hits the deck to get everything done.”
It sounds like Hulk was a difficult shoot for you.
It was always going to be a frustrating character to play. The challenge is to convey all that pent-up, repressed energy, emotion. It’s one reason why I was excited to do it, but it’s not the most expressive character to portray because that job is for the alter ego; you’re meant to feel euphoric when he finally turns into the Hulk. I convinced myself that I was just part of a family drama and that the green guy was the star, so I tried not to let the pressure get to me. But I was aware that it was going to challenge people.
I assumed you were signed on to do sequels, so your career could have gone very differently. Somebody like Robert Downey Jr. now seems like he’s become almost entirely defined by Iron Man.
In some ways I’m lucky because the thing that I love more than anything is having choice and freedom. I’ve been able to bounce around and do different things and choose different pathways. I’m a commitment-phobe — that’s the reason why up until now I haven’t done series television, because work security doesn’t speak to me. I like work insecurity. So it’s never been a huge carrot for me for someone to say, “If you do this, there’s a good chance that there’ll be this and this,” I just look at that and I go, “Does that mean that I won’t to be able to ride my motorcycle for three years? Is that what that actually means? Does that mean that if something happens and I need to get home I can’t?” I’m very happy to say no to stuff. I don’t have regrets about stuff that I’ve said no to that’s worked. A friend of mine gave me a really great piece of advice one day. “What’s the best possible thing that can come out of this if you say yes? And if the answer is you’re going to keep getting offered things that you don’t want to do, what’s the point?”
You never moved to L.A. Is what you call the commitment-phobia part of that, because you want to make sure there’s an end point to everything so you can go home to Australia?
It’s not just about going home. I think it’s the creative thing. At the time that I did Chopper, I had a really great opportunity to enter a very handsome contract with the television network that I had done my sketch-comedy show with, and I turned it down. And this was before I’d even made the film. When I started doing stand-up, one of the things I loved about the industry was that you had some control over what you were going to do. That was part of the appeal of not doing a nine-to-five job. So I’ve always erred towards wanting to feel free.
Troy disappointed some at the time, but it’s a phenomenal film.
I had the time of my life on that film! It was the most intense deep dive into physical prep for a film I’d ever done, but I absolutely loved it. I’d never done any sword fighting before. I’d ridden a horse, but not really, and suddenly I’m bareback and I’m galloping on sand. By the time I got my skirt on, I felt like I was Hector. It was like the final piece of the puzzle. The shoot was long but it was terrific — my favorite kind of shoot, again, outdoor, exterior 95 percent of the time. And Hector! Hector of Troy! Come on!
Again, so much of the performance is in your reactions. There’s something both noble and relatable in the way Hector watches all these peacocks like Achilles and Paris who make such irrational decisions. He’s so practical.
A lot of it is just intrinsic in the character. I remember when I first met [director] Wolfgang [Petersen], and he’s like, [adopts a German accent] “So, what do you think? And who is it you’ll most like to play?” And I was like, “Dude, I want Hector. All day long. I love him.” And he’s like, “That’s amazing, because every young actor that comes in here wants to play Achilles and it’s good that you want to play Hector because Brad is playing Achilles.”
How did you and Brad Pitt work on your fight scenes?
[To prepare], we worked a lot with our stunt doubles because it was so technical that he was better off working with my double and I was better off working with his double so that we could raise our game. Then, when we got to a certain level, they brought us together. At the end of the day, I remember being able to do that entire fight, beginning to end, without stopping. I knew every move. We ended up shutting down the production because just a day before we were due to start filming that fight we had a hurricane, and the wall of Troy got destroyed. So I had to fly back to Australia and wait for the set to be rebuilt. I remember being at the local park with a stick just practicing and practicing and practicing this fight scene. I can’t believe no one called the cops, because I was chasing this invisible person, just doing all these crazy moves. It was just like it was in my body, it had been months and months and months.
Curtis Hanson’s Lucky You, which was filmed after Troy and right before Munich, wasn’t well-liked and was out of theaters pretty quickly. Do you ever do an autopsy after a film and think, What worked, what didn’t?
For sure. I’m able to be quite forensic and honest. In some cases, there are things that are within my control and other cases [where things] are out of control. In that case, there were a lot of things that I knew weren’t working really well, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I felt like people were overestimating how interesting poker was. It’s always a massive mistake, whenever you’re dealing with a subject matter that you think is hot and everyone’s into. Not everyone’s into it. There’s just this really small percentage of people that are into it and if you don’t make it interesting for everyone else, it’s going to die.
What’s the takeaway? I really believe if something’s not on the page, it’s not on the page. And if it’s not on the page, it’s not going to be in the film. It’s just not. I think it’s really dangerous to think that everyone is going to come along and elevate something a certain percentage. I’ve learnt that it’s only a tiny percentage that can be elevated from the page. The times when I’ve felt most frustrated as an actor is when I’ve had the aerial drone view of what’s going on and knowing that there’s not a lot that I can do about it. Maybe because of my stand-up background, I’m always forensically looking at things from above, like, “Is this working? Is this a bit slow? Is this as interesting as we think it is?”
Was there ever a time where you were surprised by how well something worked?
Surprise probably isn’t the correct word, but on Hanna, because there was so much of the film that I’m not in, I was just so completely blown away by the experience of sitting in the cinema and watching it. And that’s because the director had such a specific tone and style that could only be there in the final cut. You could see it in camera as we were filming, but by the time he put the Chemical Brothers in and did his grade and did his cut … That’s probably the film that’s most different when you see it to how it looks when you’re filming. It was fantastic. That was a real buzz.
To me, Hanna is one of those movies that should have been a massive hit. Saoirse Ronan, Joe Wright, the score, the visuals. How is that not one of the great female-driven characters in cinema?
How does Saoirse Ronan compare to Brad Pitt as a fight partner?
They’re both pretty good. [Laughs.] The thing I remember about Saoirse was she’s got quite long arms and I would nearly get caught out with the sticks and stuff with Saoirse. I did get a backhand to the face from Brad during one portion of the fight and cut my nose open, which Saoirse never did.
With Hulk and Troy and Munich, I would say you have these three films that are released pretty much back-to-back, and each of them has had more of a reputation subsequently. At the time, were you at all concerned that these films weren’t quite meeting financial and critical expectations?
No, because the thing you’re referring to is not something I’m pursuing. I’m pursuing the work and I’m pinching myself every day that I’m doing it. The thing about stand-up is your mental well-being is at the mercy of how people respond to your material. So, once you escape that trap, [you’re thinking,] That’s not going to happen with acting. I have to do the work I want to do, do the best work that I can and feel good about that. I didn’t want to be in a position where someone would say to me, “You’ve done this, you’ve done this, and you’re doing this, and you’re doing this … but you know what, you should feel like it’s incomplete.” “Hey, so-and-so has got a bigger career than you!” No, no, no, no, no, no. We’re not going down that road. It’s a really unfair, brutal message to send to people who are starting out in this industry, that someone who’s been lucky enough to get to here should feel unfulfilled. Are you crazy? You know how lucky you have to be to be in any film? Because I’d much rather be in a position where you’re talking now about, “Oh, upon reflection, that film was better than I thought it was.” I think that’s the preferred model.
Also around that time, the industry seemed to change. Your star starts rising at a time when star-driven studio movies, dramas and comedies, are on the wane, and everything is becoming focused on IP, on franchises and tentpoles. You hit right around that pivot point. I imagine that adds another challenge.
It’s only gotten harder the last ten years for all of us, for sure. How does young talent get discovered now? How does a young, amazing actor go on a run now, which is why I’m going to come back to Saoirse Ronan — because not only do I love her as a person, she is the No. 1 standout of a young talent making the most incredible career choices. Her pathway is the hardest one to choose. I don’t just have respect for it because it’s difficult, I have respect for it because she kills it every time. That’s hard, man. You just look at all the films that she’s made post-Hanna and you could chart another trajectory for her that’s completely different, and it’s nowhere near as interesting as the one that she’s chosen. So when something comes along — to work with Jim Sheridan on Secret Scripture or Roland Joffé on The Forgiven, it’s hard to find those projects. It’s harder now than it’s ever been. And it’s harder for those films to be seen. You hope that people find them through streaming services and so forth. But they’re certainly not finding them when they’ve been originally released. Unless a bunch of people really take it upon themselves to yell and scream from the rooftops.
Are you surprised you haven’t done more films in Australia?
Not really. I don’t have this “Aussie quota” that I feel I have to meet. I live here, I pay my taxes, I raised my children here. I will do something when I find something great to do. I hope I get to do more things here. I hope the pool gets bigger, hope there’s more things like this to choose from. But I’m not shocked that it’s taken us 11 or 12 years to go from Romulus, My Father to The Dry because those pieces of material are really rare.
A lot of people were surprised that you did Star Trek. Not just that you were unrecognizable, but that you were the villain, and it was a supporting part at a time when everyone still thought of you as a leading man. What was going through your mind in deciding to do that?
It was pretty simple. I had met J.J. [Abrams], who’s a mutual friend through my agent, and I just thought he had a great sense of humor. He reached out and said, “Would you consider playing Nero?” And I think I was actually shooting Time Traveler’s Wife at the time. At first I was like, “I can’t get my head around that.” Then I was like, “Just let me read it.” I had a sense that the film was going to have a really fun energy and it wasn’t taking itself too seriously. It’s very liberating to do supporting roles. I think it’s super-dangerous to go, “Well, I will only play this kind of character.” Or, “It must be this size role.” I always felt like I’m a character actor. If I can’t find a character in the lead, I’m happy to play a character. The only time I’d been closed off was when I first started, the door to comedy was closed. When I’m doing Black Hawk Down and these opportunities are coming along in America, there was no way I was going to do a romantic comedy. That’s the only time where I’ve been super-strategic. I think you have to keep being open as your career goes on so you don’t repeat yourself. It gets harder and harder as you get older and you do more parts.
You were avoiding romantic comedies, but over the years you’ve gone back to comedy in a couple of films. Would you ever consider going back to doing stand-up?
I usually think about it when I’m with other comics, with stand-up mates or when I’m talking with someone who has a comedic background. It’s like, “Oh, I’m back at the frat house.” That part of my brain is still active. It’s not like it just died. I do sometimes think of the world in sketches and do bits. But it’s just my wife that gets to listen to it and no one else. I’m usually at my funniest when I’m a bit pissed off. It comes more out of annoyance and observations of people being dicks. I don’t think it’s a sustainable model.
I couldn’t find any of your stand-up bits online, but I did go back and find some of the sketch comedy. Years ago, when I first heard that you were on a sketch show, I assumed you would be the one doing the straight-man parts. Then I saw some clips and was shocked to discover that you were the ham. You were the guy doing all these crazy, over-the-top impressions.
I was an idiot. I was an idiot.
I was impressed with the level of the mimicry. And surprised, because I think of you as a very subtle actor.
Right. It was never about just doing an impression and ripping off that movie. It was, “Okay, let’s take Tom Cruise and let’s do this. Let’s take them out of their setting and have them in a different setting and have fun with that.”
Can you name some of your favorite bits that you did?
There was a really, really bizarre character I did, I think only once, and he’s got a Hawaiian shirt on and thick glasses and he’s telling someone that they have to go and see Chelsea Brown, who is this cabaret performer. It was based on a real person, my dad’s best friend: I was on holiday once and I was lounging around on the couch in Queensland and there was a casino there and he was telling this 21-year-old that he should really go and see Chelsea Brown. He wouldn’t stop trying to sell me this idea of seeing Chelsea Brown, and he would go on and on and on. And that it was not going to cost me a cent and he would go through all the logistics of how easy it would be for me to go and see Chelsea Brown. You’ve got to be insane to try and do that in a sketch, but that was the luxury that I had. So one of my favorite sketches, and one of the favorite sketches amongst my crew that used to write, is this sketch that was a one-off of me playing this guy who is haranguing one of the other cast members to go and see Chelsea Brown at the casino. It’s the most bizarre sketch. I remember when we performed it on the day, the crew just didn’t get it all. And then on the live night when we played the reel — because we played to the audience stuff that we’d shot during the week — I was so nervous, I was sick about whether this Chelsea Brown character was going to work. And people just got it. I just wanted to get the essence of this character who will not stop trying to sell Chelsea fucking Brown.
I saw your Columbo spoof. You do an incredible Columbo impression.
Yeah, a good makeup department too. Sometimes I’d be doing four of those characters in a day. My face would just be wrecked. You’d be tearing off a nose, ripping off a bald cap, and then switching on the next thing. We had the most brilliant technical department on that show.
What was it about The Dry that appealed to you?
As an actor, you’re always selfishly looking for those roles that are going to be interesting and challenging, and it’s not often I find that in Australia. I had a bit of a slew there where I had Secret Scripture in Ireland, and The Forgiven in South Africa, which was probably my best opportunity for a while at that sort of role. You’re just looking for that hook that will make you say to yourself, I really want to play this guy. When I read the book [of The Dry] and the scenes between Aaron and Gretchen, I felt like there were possibilities there to have something more emotional. That scene when he goes to the farmhouse, and they have a conversation that’s full of so much promise — that was what made me want to play Aaron. You really feel like there might be a possibility for them to be together. We’re so used to that structure where they end up together. But then there’s this fricking challenge that he throws down, which goes down like a lead balloon. It’s heartbreaking.
What is your fondest memory of a shoot?
That’s a tricky one. I had a special time on The Dry because of the location and the fact that I was working with Robert [Connolly], who’s a dear friend. I don’t like being around a lot of people, so being remote means there are no visitors to the set and all that stuff.
Munich was such a visual extravaganza every day and it’s the sort of film I want to go and see: ’70s, thriller, drama, great locations, great action. It’s just got everything. You never felt like you were just going to work. Every day was like, “Holy shit.” Because of the way Steven moves the camera in that film, everything felt like everyone had to be perfect or the shot wasn’t going to work. It felt like ice hockey every day, you know what I mean? It was like, Pass, pass, pass, pass, bang. Everything was in motion, everything had to be in sync. So that was probably the most thrilling experience.
That and not being attacked by prison guard dogs in The Forgiven is the other one. [We’re shooting in a] maximum-security prison in Cape Town. I remember one day, in between shots, walking down the corridor and one of the handlers said, [adopts an Afrikaaner accent] “Please, when you go back to the start of the scene, don’t get so close to the dog. He doesn’t know you’re an actor.” Of course he doesn’t! I’m in a fucking orange jumpsuit like everybody else! It was gnarly.
When did you become such a gearhead?
I just always loved wheels. From the moment I was born, I just loved bikes, bicycles, cars. Still to this day — I know it sounds ridiculous, I’m 52. I still get the same feeling riding my bicycle as I did when I was 6 or 8. I do it for fun. I ride motorcycles, because they just make me feel that freaking good. Never needed drugs. It’s just been an integral part of my life. And then as I got older, I started working on cars and building things. I had friends that did the same. It was very suburban. Without a car, you were kind of lost. There wasn’t a great public-transport system where I grew up. You needed a car and a license, or you just weren’t going out.
I can’t remember who says it, but there’s a great line in Love the Beast, your documentary about the Ford Falcon you’ve had since your teen years, about the idea of these vintage cars as “imperfect machines,” which runs counter to our concept of what machines are supposed to be like. Everything around us is increasingly automated and so much more “perfect.” It does feel like our relationship to machines has changed in so many ways.
And there’s been a load of studies to prove that men who work with their hands have a higher base happiness level than people that don’t. We have devalued, to a large extent, manual labor and trades over white-collar jobs for years and years. It’s a bit different down here in Australia. The plumber, the electrician, the tradesmen, they’re all pretty expensive down here. They work hard, they work with their hands, but they’re well-paid. It’s respected. I think it’s more respected now than it was 20 years ago.
And I think that’s really essential, because when I was at school, the last thing you wanted to be doing is going to a building site or ending up in a factory. And maybe that was because my parents were migrants: They wanted something that was perceivably better and more comfortable. But there is no doubt that the more we do with our hands, our general well-being benefits. As society progresses and everything becomes throwaway, our ability to perform those tasks gets reduced, which is why you see people getting into gardening and getting into cooking, because it’s some of the last things left. And I’ve not beaten myself up, but I do feel like the real me is one of those people that probably was born to do something with his hands, and I’m not. So I find that outlet in my hobbies. “You gotta have hobbies!” I learnt that off Robert Duvall, man.
He’s got the ranch, right?
Yeah. So for him, it’s horses and stuff. I enjoyed picking his brain on Lucky You. I was intrigued by how he survived that period when a lot of other actors were going off the rails, and that was his word of advice, “Man, you gotta have hobbies. You gotta have hobbies.”
There’s a current that runs through The Dry and Love the Beast and a number of your films — this idea of reconnecting with childhood, whether it’s a wonderful or traumatic one. You always return to the world of childhood a changed person. Your character has changed, or the world has changed. The Dry is all about that: The river has dried up and is now just a wasteland. You’ve said that when you’re on your bike, it’s like you’re a kid again. But what has changed?
Maybe that’s part of the attraction, because it largely doesn’t feel any different. That’s why I find it so addictive, because it’s freeing. It can be think time, but it can also be just empty-thought time. It’s always been a really nice neutralizer and a nice constant. I guess it’s like sucking a dummy, man. [Laughs.] So I don’t know, I don’t know. I do know that when I get in the Beast, and look through the windshield, it’s a very “mother’s womb” kind of feeling. It brings back a lot of memories. But it’s not like a nostalgia machine. It’s an acting thing as well. It’s still giving me a lot of love, and it’s still providing great experiences. Most of my old things don’t have radios and stereos and stuff. I don’t listen to music when I’m riding. There’s no buttons to play with. There’s no choices to make. It’s just off you go.