The hunk who plays 'The Hulk'

There's nothing particularly menacing about Eric Bana, who
LOS ANGELES — You wouldn't want to see him angry. Oh, wait — that's Bruce Banner who threatens to "Hulk out" when ticked off.

There's nothing particularly menacing about Eric Bana, who plays the alter-ego scientist role in one of the summer's biggest movies, although the Australian actor is tall, dark, quiet and muscular.

"I can be introverted and silent, or I can let off steam in the more traditional means," he says, only a hint of a smile showing.

Bana, sitting in a quiet hotel restaurant as he contemplates The Hulk experience, may be on the verge of becoming a very big star. The film opens June 20.

Following the paths of Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman, the Australian, 34, is trying to translate his Down Under popularity into Hollywood success.

Already known for his TV work and several movies in his own country, Bana was introduced to American audiences two years ago in the war epic Black Hawk Down, when, playing Norm "Hoot" Gibson, he stole scenes from Ewan McGregor and Josh Hartnett.

Now the question is: Will the cartoony-monster film be a jolly green giant hit or joke? And will Bana, as Banner, steal the show again?

Director Ang Lee wanted an unknown, someone who wouldn't distract from the real star of the movie, the monster.

But Hulk producer Gale Anne Hurd describes Bana as "amazing. He has that quality that Tom Hanks has. No matter what he plays, you relate to him."

Bana touched a chord when he gained 30 pounds and played a prisoner in a 2000 movie called Chopper. He has regaled Australians with his stand-up and sketch comedy. And he's also the voice of Anchor in the current hit Finding Nemo.

Now, he's here on a break from filming in Malta, where he is playing Hector, leader of the Trojan forces battling Brad Pitt's Achilles, in next year's epic film, Troy.

He doesn't have a sense, he says, of all the Hulk hype that's about to hit. "There isn't even a poster for The Matrix in Malta. It's as far removed from where we are right now as is humanly possible."

And just this morning for the first time, he saw The Hulk. One word came to his mind, he says: "Beautiful."

Though it may not be the expected word used to describe a comic-book movie, it's not a surprise coming from Lee, known for the artistic sensibilities he brought to The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

"I feel like I've watched an old classic," Bana says. "You never feel like you're watching a special-effects-laden film. You never feel like you're in the comic book world."

He says Universal Studios has been wise to show the Hulk in all his computer-generated green glory, ripping and smashing away in the previews.

"People are expecting nothing but this CGI thing. It's clever because it's almost like that's out of the way and people going to see the film can concentrate on all the other elements."

The other elements are the emotions of the story, which Bana says revolve around relationships and forgiveness, particularly with Jennifer Connelly, who plays his wife, and Nick Nolte, his father. His role as the tortured scientist Banner required that Bana constantly battle himself to keep his character's pressure-cooker temper under check.

While most actors will say everything and everyone was wonderful on the set, Bana says this shoot was different.

"The Hulk is definitely what I would categorize as un-fun. I don't think it always needs to be fun. It doesn't always need to be one big happy family. Everyone got along, but it was a difficult, hard shoot. And I think you see every ounce of sweat on the screen."

Why? What did he have to do as the Hulk? "Nothing," he says, "I just do Bruce."

And it was the harder role. "There's a painful process (Banner) goes through to get from Bruce to Hulk. I acted the initial parts of the transformation. Ang said, 'Just do it, and at some point, we will take over.'"

The rest was, of course, computer graphics. Only a rendering of the Hulk's head on a telescoping pole — he was affectionately called Elvis — gave the cast something to act against in a scene.

For Bana, working himself into a rage from nothing was not easy.

"Essentially, there's probably no more uncomfortable thing to perform because you can't fake it. I don't know how to fake a character. I know how to be a character. That's why this role was particularly stressful and demanding: He's always under stress."

And so how do you do it?

"You just have to do it, and you do it and do it and do it over again. You do it 100 times."

The process was grueling.

"It's tiring because you know it's for the purpose of coverage, not for the purpose of performance. It's not like you're doing 10 takes to get it right; you're doing 100 takes because it's required — required to give Ang the kind of cutting choices he wanted."

After awhile, says Bana, who believed he landed the role by telling Lee he wasn't afraid of hard work, "You just turn up to the set expecting to do 70 takes."

He even found it somewhat therapeutic. "At least Bruce is allowed to turn into the Hulk. We're not granted that primal outlet. People would get along so much better if they could just 'Hulk out' every now and then. Then jump back into their bodies refreshed. And no collateral damage."

He still won't say that he ever "Hulks out" in real life. And when asked how friends might describe him, Bana groans. "Oh, God. Probably very boring."

Bana, who says he always wanted to be an actor — or a race car driver — would charm his teachers with impersonations. "It helped me get through school — being a cheeky bastard." After deciding a college education wasn't for him, Bana used the mimicry gift to develop a stand-up act. It was the usual, tough start of a career.

He moved on to television. Eventually, he landed his own TV series, Eric, and met Rebecca Gleeson, a publicist for the network.

They married in 1997 and now have two children: Klaus, 4 and Sophie, 1. Her job is taking the children along to Bana's shoots.

But his off-screen passion remains cars. "I guess most people back home would know me as being a hopeless — what we call back home — petrol-head. You guys call it a motor-head. I've been playing with cars and racing cars for a long, long time."

Ask him how many cars he owns, and he won't say.

"I own a few. If I tell you, that means I have to tell my wife."

More than 10?

"Less than 10," he confirms. Then adds, "Less than eight."

He laughs and says, "She's fine with it." And, he says, "She recognized that it wasn't something that anyone was going to change."

The only thing that slowed him down — happily slowed him down — was having kids. For nine months after The Hulk wrapped
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