Sympathetic Psycho got Bana Signed for Two Hulk Movie Sequels

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Los Angeles -- Anyone who's wondering why a relatively unknown actor named Eric Bana landed the lead in one of the summer's biggest popcorn movies can find the answer in one word: "Chopper." When asked the inevitable "why gamble on an obscure Australian" question, each member of the creative team behind "Hulk" replies, as if in unison: "Have you seen 'Chopper?' "

Not many people did. The fact-based indie film starred Bana as Mark Brandon Reid, a paranoid braggart given to stabbing friends, enemies and/or strangers with little or no provocation. Bana's hat trick: He made the psycho sympathetic.

Released in 2000, "Chopper" wowed critics on the festival circuit and caused the kind of stir among Hollywood powerbrokers that Edward Norton's audition tape for "Primal Fear" or Robert De Niro's revelatory "Mean Streets" performance had provoked decades before.

After screening "Chopper," Ridley Scott cast Bana as Hoot Gibson, the sardonic special forces soldier in "Blackhawk Down." Then "Hulk" producer Gale Anne Hurd ("Terminator," "Aliens") came calling. She was searching for a fresh face to play Hulk's alter ego, scientist Bruce Banner. Ignoring the romantic sparks of his lab colleague (Jennifer Connelly), the genetically altered Banner gets violent and "Hulks out" whenever the repressed rage he feels for his father (Nick Nolte) takes over. Hurd and director Ang Lee needed someone who could convey the neurosis fueling Hulk's earth-stomping tantrums.

"To me, Eric's performance in 'Chopper' was Oscar-worthy," she says. "He's a murderer but you feel sorry for him. For Bruce Banner, who's so repressed and has such a difficult time at personal relationships, it was absolutely critical to find an accessible actor in that role that people could relate to."

Accessible, yes. Also tall, dark and handsome enough to hold his own opposite Brad Pitt in the upcoming epic "Troy." Bana flew in from Malta, where he's currently filming that movie, to visit Los Angeles and talk about "Hulk."

Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, Bana stretched his 6-foot-4 frame around a patio table and explained that from his vantage point, making "Hulk" felt like an extraordinarily low-key acting exercise. "I used to go home and my wife would say, 'How'd it go today?' and I'd say, 'This is just the weirdest film in the world because I know it's the Hulk, and I know that it's going to come out in summer and it's big budget, but it's not that different from working back at home because most of my days were spent on a sound stage, usually with just one other actor, doing kind of conventional drama."

Bana says he simply concentrated on "being this guy who's forced to get in touch with all this emotional torment when he doesn't really want to. Bruce Banner is not trying to solve his problems -- he's saying to Betty Ross, 'Leave me the hell alone, I'm not interested!' So that little note has to be there at all times. It wasn't easy to do. It was exhausting."

The irony is that Bana, a consummately physical performer, had to pass the baton to a computer-generated superhero for all the action sequences. Unlike Peter Parker/Spider-Man and most other split-personality superheroes, Bana, as Banner, never gets a chance to vent because the visual effects experts at Industrial Light & Magic created the Hulk as an entirely digital character.

Missing out on the big cathartic moments must have felt rather odd. "It was, " agrees Bana, "because you're constantly getting to the very edge of emotional torment, but without the release. You never get that scene where you say what you really want to say, or do what you want to do. It's like you're in the depths, always performing up to the surface of the ocean, but never getting to punch through that into the air."

Which meant, for example, that when rival scientist Talbot (Josh Lucas) bloodies Bruce Banner in a brawl, Bana, the actor, had to absorb the blows while Hulk, the CG creature, got to wreak revenge.

"It's my aim in life to do a boxing film with Josh Lucas to try and get some revenge," Bana jokes. "Unfortunately, only the Hulk gets that satisfaction in the film."

The challenge for Bana had nothing to do with stunt work and everything to do with pleasing Ang Lee. It was the chance to work with the auteur behind "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Ice Storm" and "Sense and Sensibility" that most attracted Bana to "Hulk" in the first place.

But satisfying Lee, a visually meticulous director, was no picnic, Bana says. "Ang works from a very precise visual menu. It's not simply about nailing the performance. That's just a starting point. Then it's: 'Well, we want to capture that from roughly 40 different angles now.' "

Bana slips into Lee's Taiwanese accent to mimic one of the director's ritual greetings: "OK, I'm going to beat you up again today. A lot of takes. A lot of takes."

Reverting to his Australian accent, Bana continues, "I don't know that Ang is very much in tune with the concept of diminishing returns. I don't think that enters his mind for a second. As soon as he sees a correct take, it's like tying a pair of shoelaces: Why shouldn't you be able to do it 400 times? It was funny because at the end of the day, sometimes crew members would apologize: 'I'm sorry you had to do that, man.' But I'm a bit of a sucker for punishment, so I kind of enjoyed the arduous nature of the shoot."

All that angst, repetition and somber dysfunction would seem to play against Bana's training as a seat-of-the-pants sketch comedian. While tending bar at a Melbourne hotel in 1991, he began doing stand-up comedy and three years later joined the ensemble cast of the Australian TV show "Full Frontal," which Bana likens to "Saturday Night Live." By 1997 he had his own comedy series, "The Eric Bana Show Live."

But Bana says that churning out a flurry of character-based comedy bits on a weekly basis provided him with a priceless foundation, "purely and simply because you are forced to make unpretentious, unselfish choices a thousand times a day with a certain instinctive mess to it.

"You don't get bogged down in process," he continues. "It's almost like acting training on speed. Right? So then when you get the indulgence to spend months poring over a script and months and months preparing for a character, and months and months shooting it, it's almost like a joke. They give you re- writes and it's like, 'Sure you want to re-write the whole script, we'll do that too!' "

Bana, 34, who lives in Melbourne with his wife and two young children when he's not mak
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