Eric Bana and the next big (green) thing

On what could be one of his last days of an
On what could be one of his last days of anonymity, comedian-turned-actor Eric Bana, Hollywood's latest discovery, who plays second banana opposite the not-so-jolly green giant The Hulk, is on the Universal Studios lot to promote Marvel Comics' latest event action flick.

"Yeah, people keep telling me I'm the next big thing, but I'm in denial about it," he says, sounding vaguely irritated. Bana, 34, appears bored with the local boy makes good scenario. He's heard it all before, first with the success of the surprise hit Chopper, and again after the Ridley Scott war epic Black Hawk Down.

"I'm shooting another movie right now on the other side of the world where there isn't even a poster for The Matrix, so I'm not faced with this yet," he says, gesturing towards an array of publicists, journalists and studio marketing teams, all doing their bit to thrust Bana into the dubious world of Hollywood hyperbole.

Jet-lagged but upbeat, Bana arrived in Los Angeles the day before from Malta, where he is shooting the Trojan classic Troy, in which he stars as the noble Hector opposite Brad Pitt's Achilles.

"It'll be a bit of a bummer if the day comes that I get off the plane in America and I'm not completely invisible. I guess I'll deal with that issue when and if it happens. But as for now, I leave for Malta again tomorrow, where I'll go back to my cave," he jokes.

But outside of Malta it's impossible to ignore the impending release of this US$150 million ($262 million) action juggernaut. Directed by Ang Lee, renowned for the Academy award winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Wedding Banquet, the high-brow period romance Sense and Sensibility, and the thought-provoking, dark drama The Ice Storm.

Lee has taken the 1962 comic series, which spawned a TV series from 1977 to 1982, and infused an edgier element to the otherwise cheesy television show.

The bar has been raised for comicbook adaptations since Spiderman and the X-Men movies, both critically and commercially received worldwide.

Says Lee: "If the movie sucks, it'll be my fault. I will feel very responsible if it doesn't do well."

Lee says he had a great experience working on the production. "The studio was very supportive and the actors were great. Generally, you either get money on a blockbuster movie or you get freedom if you're doing an independent movie. This time I got both. You cannot generally do expensive art, but I looked at the story of The Hulk as a Greek tragedy and I also saw comparisons to the Frankenstein tale. That's how I approached it."

Interestingly, with so much at risk, Lee chose unknown Bana, who has only been seen in the US as an anonymous Delta commando in Black Hawk Down. Allegedly, Bana beat Hollywood heavyweights Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jeff Goldblum and David Duchovny for the role.

"He was my best choice. The most expensive star is the green guy himself, so we weren't going to have one of the top five box office actors to star with him," Lee explains.

"I needed an actor with a certain melancholy demeanour and Eric has that. I saw that in him when I watched Chopper. And the camera is friendly to Bana as a leading man, too. That always helps."

The Hulk, a lot darker and more mature than the other Marvel-inspired movies, boasts an impressive cast: Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly, who plays Bana's love interest, and two-time nominee Nick Nolte, who stars as Bana's morally corrupt father and cause of his son's genetic disposition.

"The character had some meaty background because of the emotional father-son theme. I knew it would be a big challenge to get it right," says Bana.

More familiar with the television show than the comicbook, he adds, "Being a kid of the 70s, I watched the TV show, but I was never a big comicbook reader. My parents used to let me watch quite a bit of late-night television, so I'd watch The Night Stalker, The Hulk, Petrocelli, Starsky and Hutch, Columbo. I was a big fan of The Incredible Hulk."

Unlike other actors in his enviable position, Bana is not milking it for all its worth. "After Black Hawk Down I was offered some tempting projects but I was determined to go home for a big slab of time, and I'll do the same when I finish Troy.

"Then when I'm home I'll decide what to do next. I realise that working this way isn't the conventional thing to do, but I don't ever want to work back-to-back. I have a couple of kids and it's really important to me that they spend time at home and that I spend time at home. That's where I live my life. I want to indulge in my life, my family and my friends. I want to indulge in my hobbies - tinkering with the car, motor racing and motorcycles."

The ruggedly handsome, 1.9m actor hails from the Melbourne working class suburb of Tullamarine. His father, Ivan, is a Croatian-born logistics manager at Caterpillar Tractors, and his mother, Eleanor, is a retired hairdresser. He has one older brother, Anthony.

Although Bana resides in the upscale Melbourne suburb of Brighton, he has bought a A$4 million ($4.58 million) home in Sydney. Married to Rebecca, the daughter of High Court Chief Justice Murray Gleeson, since 1997, the couple have two children, Klaus, 4, and Sophia, 1.

"I'm trying to keep Klaus sheltered from The Hulk. God forbid, I hope it's a long time before he actually sees me transform from [mild-mannered scientist] Bruce Banner to The Hulk. Unfortunately, he's already seen a glimpse of the trailer and he was very confused about how and why my eye was green," he recalls, laughing.

"He's definitely inherited the ear for mimicry and can imitate anyone at the drop of a hat."

Bana's former career as a comedian/stand-up comic was very successful, having starred in The Castle and television's Full Frontal. During his six-year-run performing sketch TV shows, he toured Australia. "Do I miss it?" he pauses. "The sketch comedy I miss but I don't miss the stand-up. But, it's funny. That part of your brain never stops. You're still thinking of characters all the time, but I've stopped jotting the ideas down because what am I going to do with them? I'm not going to write a sketch tomorrow and have it go to air the following week.

"I miss the release and the immediacy of that kind of work, but certainly not enough to turn my back on the wonderful opportunities which are happening for me now. And, like anything, it's part of the cost of wanting to go in a different direction."

For now, Bana has to examine the pros and cons of movie stardom. Bracing himself for the inevitable media backlash in Australia, he says, "Australia's t
0 Yes
0 No
The New Zealand Herald