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BANA, ERIC: THE NUGGET

THE WIFE AND KIDS STAY IN THE PICTURE
He plays the unlucky Lotto in The Nugget, but Eric Bana’s career is bulking up with the upcoming starring role as The Hulk in Ang Lee’s much awaited film. Moving from The Nugget’s Mudgee to The Hulk’s Los Angeles was no big dislocation for Bana – because his family went with him, as he explains to Andrew L. Urban.


Eric Bana is a trim, taut and terrific actor who is also a very together guy. He not only has tons of talent, but he knows how to make use of it without throwing his private life in the dustbin in the process. His wife and two kids stay in the picture. They travel with him when he’s shooting The Hulk for director Ang Lee in Los Angeles, say, and they are often at the back of his mind when choosing a role. The role of Lotto in The Nugget is a case in point.

“One of the main reasons I wanted to do the film,” he explains, “was I wanted to do be able to have a film my son could see before he started driving a car. I thought wouldn’t it be awful to never be able to show my kids what dad does. And I felt this film had a level of intelligence and subtlety that I could show my son at 7 or 8 and again at 12 and at 16 and he’ll pick up different things. It was a big factor in me choosing to take it.”

"It was an easy choice for me"

It began when Bill Bennett sent him the script. “I read it just before Chopper was released, and just loved it, straight away. It was an easy choice for me.

“Having come from a background of doing my own writing, it enabled me to have respect for how it was written. It’s funny on many levels and also the language is just right. The characters were so well described through the language…I remember ringing Bill at one stage and saying ‘you’ve taken quite a bit of the work out for us’. There was so much there on the page. My god, how much work can I put into this character, so much is already there.”

Lotto’s a country town council labourer, pretty much locked into a way of life, “within the social context of his job and surroundings and not unhappy with that. He’s not desperate to change his surroundings….he likes to gamble and so on but only to take the pressure off his financial situation,” Bana says. “That was important for the character, that he shouldn’t come across as someone having to make it big. The nugget thing is almost a by-the-by kind of thing. I wanted it to be that way.”

Although it seemed to be all on the page, in reality, “a role like this stretches you in ways you can’t imagine when you first read the script,” Bana says now. “It’s not the sort of role where people will say ‘he’s the most amazing actor in the world…’ The subtleties are greater than in most dramatic roles, so in many ways it’s harder. It’s not obvious when you read it, but when you get to play it you realise there are a million choices here. That’s another reason I was attracted to it…there’s more to it than there’s on the surface.”

Working with Stephen Curry and Dave O’Neil, actors he knew and had worked with before was a great Bennett idea. “We’d worked together on sketch comedy…so we all knew our capabilities, our individual timing and style. So a walk up start for the film. I wanted to capture that …at no stage was there any fighting over a scene. We’re not precious about who gets the laugh. It just has to happen. I was thrilled they were in the film.”

Then there was Peter Moon, riotous disc jockey from radio. “Peter brings a unique aspect to the film,” says Bana. “His character of a wrecker’s yard owner is eccentric but believable. I grew up restoring cars and I know wrecking yards and what the characters who work there can be like and he’s pretty close. He’s scarily close in a lot of ways! There’s a madness to Peter people’ll remember from Fast Forward that just sits perfectly with that character. But a straightness to it as well, which makes it even funnier.”

"a fable with comic moments"

But Bennett wasn’t after a simple comedy: he wrote a fable with comic moments. “Maybe,” says Bana, “the idea was that our confidence in being comedians and in the funny material we’ll play down, so as to enable the film to achieve that objective of playing real. We don’t ham it up – it’s delivered pretty straight – and we can do that because the material is good enough.”

Almost as soon as the shoot in Mudgee, NSW, on The Nugget was finished, Bana and his family flew to Los Angeles, to begin filming The Hulk – Ang Lee’s version of the tv series about a man whose fury at injustices turns him into a powerful giant – all the better to mete out justice. But Bana warns us not to expect the expected; Ang Lee wasn’t remaking a clicheed tv series. (The Hulk is in post production and is scheduled for release in June 2003.)

“I think Ang’s very specific vision [for The Hulk] is buried deep in his head,” says Bana. “It was fascinating to work on because all you could do was have complete and utter confidence in what he was wanting . . . just surrender yourself to it, and that’s what I loved about it. It’s a stylised piece of work with elements that are obviously extremely deep, and deeper again because a lot of it is in his head – and not all of it is he able to communicate to you – or would want to. So it’s a very scary and thrilling experience; you have to relinquish all your control to this auteur. But the man is a genius…”

Bana went into the production knowing he’d be pushed, stretched and that it would be tough. "I knew it would have a lot more elements than people would be expecting. So in that sense I wasn’t surprised. You had to work extremely hard in every facet. Ang’s a perfectionist and he has a very determined vision. We all worked hard – not just hours, everyone works long hours, but in intensity. The level of intensity was extreme. He made me dig deep and go places that I found pretty uncomfortable – but I’m weirdly attracted to that, so that as fine by me.”

And before The Hulk there was Bana the US soldier t in Black Hawk Down. Based on the October 1993 mission to Somalia by elite US soldiers as part of a UN peacekeeping force to kidnap two Somali warlords in an effort to quell the civil war that had precipitated a famine - a mission that went wrong. But the film didn’t; and Bana, one of the large ensemble cast, was ‘noticed’ – this time on the international stage.

"The benefits [of success] is having a lot of choices"

“The benefits [of success] is having a lot of choices, but you’d be surprised how quickly those choices get narrowed down. I’ve read lots and lots of script – the more you read the more you realise there are many average ones and few special ones. It’s a privilege to get to read more than most - and scripts like this [The Nugget] become blindingly obvious.”

As for a career plan, it’s minimal: “I do think about it, but only to the extent that I want to remain very picky. I take it very seriously and I think it’s important to –because that’s how I have fun with it. If I wasn’t serious about it I wouldn’t be working hard enough at it and then I would beat myself up over it.”

His simple plan is to try and do no more than maybe one film every year, “and the challenge there is to be really, really careful about what you do.” And from who does he take advice on these matters? “My stomach.”

Published October 17, 2002

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