Eric Bana’s favourite activity is cruising around Australian country towns. 2020 has given him the opportunity to work in regional Australia, and the result is The Dry, the movie adaption of the highly successful novel of the same name.
‘You gotta have a hobby’
Eric Bana has no truck with modern cars. Bluetooth connections, touchscreen controls, auto parking and push-button handbrakes; all the beeping and flashing leaves him cold. The best driving experience swaps out complex electronics for an electric thrill of soul, the kind you only find in a vintage ride. “I guess it’s like comparing an old friend with someone you’ve just met,” says the star of blockbusters Hulk, Troy, Black Hawk Down and Munich. “I mean there’s no comparison, right? There’s history, there’s story, there’s character. They draw you in, they require something of you. They soak up your time and emotion.”
Classic cars, dirt bikes, motor-racing: the holy trinity. Steer Bana on to any of these subjects and his speech revs with enthusiasm. Peak torque. Vroom! Three on the tree. Opposite lock steering. Vroom! Vroom! This is a man who can pull apart and rebuild an engine as readily as he can step into the role of a Trojan prince, an American platoon sergeant or a green-skinned superhero.
He’s contested three Bathurst 12-hour races at Mount Panorama, as well as the Porsche GT3 challenge and two Targa Tasmania rallies. He has a nine-car garage attached to the Melbourne home he shares with wife Rebecca Gleeson and their children Klaus, 21, and Sofia, 18. He runs a production company called Pick Up Truck Pictures. In 2009, he filmed a feature-length love letter to his car.
Bana, 52, is one of Hollywood’s go-to leading men, a marquee movie star, but he’s also a deadset petrolhead, happiest when he’s up to his elbows in gear oil or opening up the throttle on a rural back road, far from the beeping and flashing of Tinseltown. “If you were an actor with nothing to do but act you would go insane,” he says. Robert Duvall taught him that. Bana worked with the 89-year-old screen legend – “one of my acting heroes” – on the 2007 poker drama Lucky You. “I remember asking him one day how he managed to survive the crazy period of his life when so many of his peers had either passed or gone down a pretty destructive route,” Bana says. “He said, ‘Horses, man. You gotta have a hobby’. I could relate to that.”
Bana still laps the odd circuit and always enjoys popping the bonnet on one of the classics in his vintage car collection: the powder-blue 1954 Ford F-100 pick-up, maybe, or the Porsche 356 Speedster. But lately a hankering for solitude and access to roads less travelled has seen him leaning toward two-wheeled pursuits. “Motorsport is not cheap and I get as much if not more enjoyment by myself riding a motorbike in the bush as I do driving a race car around at considerably more cost,” he says.
At least one day a week, Bana heads out of Melbourne astride his BMW R1200 Adventure, a heavyweight touring bike that lets him hit the 4WD trails “and get off the road away from traffic and people”. West to the Otway Ranges, up through the pastoral expanses of country Victoria, across to Gippsland and the high country: it’s here the off-duty movie star finds true wind-in-his-hair freedom. “It’s a big part of how I relate to the world and myself, really,” he says. “I’m a city slicker, I have no intention of moving, but I enjoy spending a lot of time out there. I love nothing more than finding a sneaky place to have breakfast first thing in the morning in the main street of a small country town. I think it’s one of life’s true pleasures.”
Mid last year, Bana’s two worlds didn’t so much collide as agreeably overlap. The role of loner cop Aaron Falk for his new film The Dry took him 300km past the outskirts of Melbourne, along dirt tracks, through unforgiving terrain and drought-ravaged farmland, for a three-month shoot on the vast plains of the Wimmera, where Hollywood’s most unpretentious star felt very much at home.
Warracknabeal (pop: 2400) is a hardscrabble wheatbelt community four hours north-west of Melbourne. Rising out of a flat, exhausted landscape, on the gum-lined banks of Yarriambiack Creek, the town is best known for its annual Vintage Machinery Rally and for being the birthplace of goth-rock idol Nick Cave.
From March to June last year, the production team for The Dry used it as a base while filming on working farms and homesteads across 15 of the region’s townships. Any one of these parched settlements could have been Kiewarra, the fictional setting of Jane Harper’s bestselling murder-mystery upon which the film is based. Cast and crew lived and worked in Warracknabeal, locals were cast as extras, and everybody ate their body weight in special-of-the-day chicken schnitzel (“the local pub was our official caterer,” Bana laughs). The film’s authenticity hinges on a sincere understanding of country folk and the rhythms of the regions. “It was a deliberate attempt to depict a small country town realistically, in a way that people from a small country town would identify with, as opposed to a kind of generic depiction that fulfils the category in the eyes of a foreigner,” Bana says.
Harper’s propulsively plotted novel sees city cop Aaron Falk return to his remote home town to investigate a murder-suicide involving a childhood friend. The book has sold more than a million copies worldwide, with the manuscript optioned by Hollywood before publication. Bana had already read and loved the book when long-time friend Robert Connolly, the Australian director and producer behind Balibo, The Boys and Paper Planes, approached him for the lead. “You’re used to being moved and transported by literature but maybe because [Harper] was talking about a landscape I knew so well, I had a really strong emotional reaction to the book very, very quickly,” says Bana. “Setting is such an essential character in the story; it contributes to the drama and tension and suffering of the characters who have remained in that town.”
Striding purposefully through the film, all cheekbones and glittering black eyes, Bana belongs to the ruggedly handsome landscape in a way the book’s Aaron Falk does not. “Pale from birth with close-cropped white-blond hair and invisible eyelashes”, the literary Falk bears little superficial resemblance to the actor. But this is no teeny-Tom Cruise-as-man-mountain-Jack-Reacher casting debacle. Take it from Harper herself: “I love this adaptation, and for me, having Eric Bana play Aaron Falk was inspired casting,” she says. “It was so important to have a really strong Australian actor for the role, but also someone that viewers would naturally warm to in the same way they engaged with the character in the book. I can’t think of anyone better.”
Bana and Connolly met while working as actor and producer respectively on the 2007 drama Romulus, My Father, which was also shot in country Victoria. Their world views aligned and in 2010 they moved their individual production companies into shared office space in a Port Melbourne warehouse, where “we have this perfect creative marriage”, Bana says, “feeding off each other, supporting each other and counselling each other on the couch”.
The Dry is Connolly’s first time directing his mate. “What Eric does really well as an actor is he puts all the focus on the work itself,” says Connolly, who also co-wrote the screenplay. “All the trappings around film, the celebrity, all the other stuff around the sides is really funnelling into that time on set and he creates a sense of priority around that. He drives himself out there, lives in the town with all of us, goes to the local pub. There’s nothing precious about it.” Bana, whose films have collectively grossed more than a billion dollars, made a single concession to his inner urbanite: he brought along his own coffee machine.
The actor was born Eric Banadinovich to Croatian and German immigrant parents. He grew up under the flight path in the blue-collar Melbourne suburb of Tullamarine, listening to Aussie pub rock and working on his first project car. The 1974 Ford Falcon XB GT coupe he bought for $1000 at age 15 was a once-virile muscle car atrophied by neglect. Pretty shithouse was the general verdict on its condition.
But Bana and his mates subscribed to the revhead’s mantra – That’ll buff right out – and they spent hours, days, weeks and then years around the spiritual campfire of the Falcon XB, tinkering under the hood. In 2007, Bana drove the overhauled machine in the notoriously treacherous tarmac rally Targa Tasmania; a head-on crash four days in, which totalled his beloved car, forms the central storyline of his 2009 documentary Love the Beast. “In motorsport terms, it wasn’t all that bad,” he says now. “It was just a pain-in-the-arse crash.” It certainly didn’t put him off racing. “I know this sounds ridiculous, but I don’t find it dangerous at all,” he says. “I’m in far more danger riding my bicycle, which is my chosen exercise, than I am racing round a track. I’m fully aware of the danger profiles and where the riskier activities rank. To put it into context, I no longer rollerblade. And I do have a skateboard that I refuse to get on. OK? So I’m not stupid.” The Beast has proved a faithful companion. Rehabilitated after that crash, more than 35 years on from its purchase, “it gets regularly driven and it enjoys its time on the road,” he says. “It’s in fantastic nick.”
The young Bana had dreams of being a motor mechanic but his father, Ivan, warned against making his hobby his job and insisted he complete Year 12. The pathway to Hollywood’s A-list has been a series of baby steps from there, beginning with a brave-or-foolish foray into stand-up comedy in his mid-20s. He’d been “sort of a shy class clown” at school and enjoyed doing impressions. “I guess it was a combination of ‘Why not?’ and it feeling remotely accessible,” he says. “If you’d have said, ‘Would you consider going to drama school?’ it just didn’t seem possible; that pathway was not one that felt like it was open. Back then, Richard Pryor was one of my heroes and I used to love watching stand-up comedians. When you’re young and stupid, things seem possible.”
As with his instinctive approach to acting, he didn’t overthink it. “I just did a try-out spot, it went well, I did a few more try-outs, thought, ‘Maybe I can get the $30 spot, maybe I can get the $60 spot and if I’m really lucky I’ll get the $120 spot one day’. I didn’t have world domination in my sights. It was a pretty simple step-by-step plan.”
In 1993, he began his TV career on the sketch-comedy show Full Frontal, where his mullet-haired bogan, Poida, became a fan favourite. Bana was always more of a storyteller than a punchline guy; his stand-up act involved a loose collection of anecdotes in which he’d act out all the parts. Sketch comedy fit him like a glove and, after four seasons, he was given his own show. Thanks to YouTube, The Eric Bana Show has bequeathed a gift to be savoured in perpetuity: Bana as helmet-haired Ray Martin in an excruciatingly banal exchange of dialogue with Bana as Tom Cruise, which culminates, unexpectedly, in a make-out session on the couch.
The actor’s gift for mimicry in these sketches is obvious, but there’s a canniness beneath the broad humour that foreshadows the power of performances to follow. Something about the eyes. “There’s a great subtlety about his acting; an intelligence and humility,” says Connolly. “He lets you in.”
In 2000, Bana exploded onto the big screen in the Australian biopic Chopper, playing hopped-up psychopath Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read. He was charismatic. He was witty. He was reckless. He was chilling. “He has a quality no acting school can teach and few actors can match,” wrote US film critic Roger Ebert of that performance. “You cannot look away from him.”
Naivete may have been Bana’s best friend; his first dramatic role, to him, was simply another character. “It didn’t feel like a jump to go to Chopper,” he says. “I could have thought, ‘This is for someone out of drama school who’s had years to hone their craft’ but if I’d have got into my head in that way I would never have done the role. I was just going by instinct and was happy to be guided by the rest. I just stood where I was meant to stand and went for it.”
Hollywood’s top tier was enthralled by this fresh new talent: in quick succession, Ridley Scott cast him in Black Hawk Down, Ang Lee in Hulk and, in 2005, Steven Spielberg gave him the lead in Munich, a career highlight Bana describes as “just the greatest thing imaginable”. A determination to be “light on his feet” has seen him duck and weave through an eclectic array of roles: from the romance of The Time Traveler’s Wife to Finding Nemo to last year’s true-crime Netflix series Dirty John. And he’s particular about the roles he accepts, limiting himself to one a year. “There’s a danger in feeling you must go from one project to another and never stop,” he says. “That can be a way of filling the void and then you end up saying yes to a bunch of work you shouldn’t do. I couldn’t do that because” – he laughs pleasantly – “I always wanted to get back to the garage.”
We’re talking on a red-letter day for Melbourne: Bunnings has just announced it will bring back the sausage sizzle, nearly three weeks after Victorian premier Dan Andrews ended 15 weeks of Covid-19 lockdown. In a TV interview, Bana joked that he’d celebrated freedom by “not having a drink, just to change it up”.
At least he’d spent lockdown at home with his family, “each person doing their thing in various nooks and crannies”, in a city he’s never felt the urge to leave. “I don’t think I’m ridiculously patriotic – if I had to move I would have moved – but there just never really was a need,” he says. “I know that might sound unusual but I think with a job like mine, the rhythm is that you’re away for a couple of months in some foreign country, never the same place twice, and then you’ve got eight months of twiddling your thumbs. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to be home?”
Bana can’t see himself back on set – anywhere – any time soon. “I felt when this [pandemic] started that it wouldn’t be until at least the end of 2021 and I still think that’s probably right,” he says. “What can you do but try and be realistic about it rather than super hopeful because then you just get disappointed.” Meanwhile, he’s lent his voice to an anti-shark-net documentary, Envoy: Shark Cull (“If you can get the hammerhead shark from Finding Nemo, that’s who you go to,” he quips). And he’s writing the script for his next project: a film about motorcycling legend Mike “The Bike” Hailwood, which he’ll also star in and co-direct with Robert Connolly. “We’re not making a biopic,” Bana says. “Ours is concentrating on Mike’s comeback out of retirement after being away from the sport for 10 years.”
Bana’s back on the bike, too, at home on the open road, kicking up dust, tackling the bends with composure. Happy to be there after so long cooped up. “Those 5km restrictions during lockdown – I felt like a bird in a cage,” he says. A guy like Bana, brave, bold and restless, has a pretty big wingspan. But, he points out, there’s plenty of wide brown land to go round. With the nation’s borders shut, he expects to see many more of his countrymen exploring the limits of a vast backyard that suddenly looks like Shangri-La. “There’s so much out there,” he says. “The little towns are all very, very different and I can’t believe how many there are, it goes on and on and on. It’s incredible.”