All the rage

Eric Bana used to make people laugh for a living; now he's starring as the Hulk in the summer's biggest blockbuster. It's not funny, he tells Ryan Gilbey. In fact, acting makes him sick . . .
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It is possible that the sudden success of the Australian comic-turned-actor Eric Bana has taken those closest to him by surprise. Even so, it's a shock to find that the website of his Melbourne management company is still offering to hire him out to private functions, presumably just as they always did before he became the star of Ang Lee's Hulk. There he is, alongside other luminaries such as Trevor Marmalade (I'm betting that's not what it says on his passport), and Ian "Molly" Meldrum, whose claims to fame include trying to shake Paul McCartney's hand while holding a knife, and upsetting a drink over John Lennon. Simply specify the dates on which you require Bana, and presumably his lively presence will make that birthday shindig, or village fête, the envy of all your friends.

This is not an altogether implausible concept. It was only recently that Bana, a 34-year-old born to a Croatian father and German mother, stopped being accosted in the street by strangers imploring him to join them for a jar. He has that stereotypical chumminess with which many young Australian men seem to be blessed. So it's doubly intriguing that his film work to date has been characterised by portrayals of outlaws and outcasts united in their volatility. There have been exceptions: he had a small role in the gentle 1998 comedy The Castle, while disgruntlement would not have been an appropriate timbre for his voice work as a fish in the forthcoming Finding Nemo.

But his performances in Hulk, Black Hawk Down and his breakthrough movie Chopper depend for much of their potency on the tension between calm and fury. His lovely work in Hulk, as the withdrawn scientist Bruce Banner whose repressed anger unleashes the raging green colossus, even acknowledges the pleasure in anti-social behaviour. "What worries me," says Bruce after an especially destructive Hulk high, "is that when it comes over me, when I totally lose control - I like it."

"That's an interesting line, isn't it?" says Bana. "You're taking on a lot by saying it. We tried it a few different ways. In one take, I had a bit more fun with the idea, but in the end Ang chose a more subdued reading. I guess you don't want to get a sense of him enjoying it too much."

In the film, Bana replaces his lolling Melbourne tones with a clipped American accent; beyond that he maintains there was little adjustment required. "I just had to stay away from the gym, lose my muscle tone." He makes it sound like skipping a manicure, but what a difference it made. In person, he could be any casually macho dude that you might see drilling the road. He wears his slightly kinked brown hair long and swept back, and is sporting a thick beard that he has grown for his role as Hector opposite Brad Pitt's Achilles in Troy, currently shooting in Malta. Sprawling on the sofa, or lunging forward to stir his gloopy cappuccino, Bana radiates relaxed confidence, whereas in Hulk he looks like his own nerdy kid brother. The lips are always subtly pursed, perhaps in the task of maintaining that accent, while the ears protrude just enough to signal a gentle goofiness. A further contradictory note is introduced by his matinee idol eyes.

"Bruce was difficult to prepare for," he says. "There was nothing that you could singularly hang your hat on. 'I know - I'll find the correct microscope, or the right laptop, and then I'll have the character'" He scoffs at the idea of it.

"There was only his level of angst to hold on to. And the fact that he's not a complete person. Ang discussed the notion that Bruce is actually the Hulk living in a human body, while the Hulk should be Bruce at his most comfortable, only he just happens to be inside the body of a monster. I felt we should never fully know him. That's kind of scary because - how can I put this? - you have to really know the character well to be able to play him like he doesn't know himself. Does that make sense?"

It soon becomes apparent that the question is not rhetorical. He waits while I bounce back his explanation in my own words, then he nods vigorously. Message understood. But his description of the problem as "scary" doesn't ring any truer than his repeated use of the phrase "on the page" to describe harmonious experiences with collaborators. His blokeyness is so persuasive that the merest detour into actorly vernacular can have the ring of affectation.

If Bruce was indeed "scary", it may have been because the part offered Bana few opportunities for the kind of metamorphosis that he prizes so much. "I love the transformation involved in acting," he raves. "That's what it's about for me. I don't believe in acting where people just walk through the film as themselves. I get quite resentful of that." At the most basic level, the business of performance has already altered him, since his screen surname is actually an abridged version of the less marquee-friendly Banadinovich. Whenever he appears in a role, he is, then, already partially removed from his real self.

In Hulk his big changes were put in the hands of Industrial Light and Magic, with the actor assigned to usher in the special effects and then disappear until the computer-generated monster had completed his latest rampage. None of which should diminish Bana's contribution. Oddly for a film that is being pitched as a superhero blockbuster, the action scenes are the least satisfying elements. The slightly ephemeral effects manage to be consistent with the bold comic-book style, without ever honouring fully the psychological gravitas that Bana brings to the movie.

But then it was always going to be a tough call making a film about a man whose ostensible super power results from his inability to handle traumatic memories, or to control the hostility that arises from that shortcoming. You would be hard-pressed to name many heroes less super than the Hulk.

We discuss how splendidly downbeat the movie has turned out. "If anything, the stuff we shot was even more serious than what's on screen," he reveals. "I was relieved that Ang softened a lot of it in the editing." Still, there are some things that seem to fly wilfully in the face of formula, such as the stubborn non-romance between Bana and his co-star Jennifer Connelly. When Hulk begins, they have just separated. "Yeah," he says with a naughty chuckle, "and they're not getting back together again, either."

Of course, fans of Bana might protest that he's been here before in Chopper - and that time he got to sink his teeth into the entire part, gaining weight to become a hulk himself rather than relinquishing those key moments to boffins in laboratory coats. It would not be an overstatement to say that Chopper changed his life and not only because it discouraged people from approaching him in public. Prior to landing the role of Mark "Chopper" Read, the real-life psychopath who described himself as "a bloody normal bloke who likes a bit of torture", Bana had graduated from stand-up to become a household name treasured for his work on the TV sketch show Full Frontal, and subsequently in Eric, his series of one-hour specials he likens to The Fast Show.

He developed and portrayed a clutch of regular characters, many of whom were based on people in the predominantly blue-collar suburbs of Melbourne where he was raised. One cherished creation, Peter, was lifted from that milieu. "He's an ocker. You know? A geezer." Like Dame Edna Everage before him, and Mrs Merton after him, Peter interviewed celebrities and politicians, asking the questions that couldn't be posed without the protective gauze of a comic façade. "If you came on the show, you had to crack a beer with Peter, and you had to down it, no matter who you were. He had John Wayne Bobbitt on the show one time. First thing Peter asked him was: 'When she chopped your dick off, did you chuck a spazz?'" We talk some more about Peter, but Bana, quite sweetly, never deviates from referring to him in the third person.

"Everything gelled when I was doing sketches. You see, it was acting, which is what I wanted to do all along. The mechanics are the same as in drama." He sounds like he pines for it. "Shit, yeah!" he roars. "I miss the fun-ness. I find film-making to be not as much fun as people imagine. You enjoy it, but do you go to work and laugh your head off each day? You definitely don't. I miss the release of doing sketches. That part of the brain doesn't stop. You still observe characters, you still come up with ideas. Only now there's no avenue for it all." He can't imagine returning to that breed of performing unless he got a call from Christopher Guest, the improvisational genius behind This Is Spinal Tap and Best In Show, whom he regards as something of a kindred spirit.

As film debuts go, Bana could not have wanted anything more revelatory or provocative than Chopper. It's fascinating to see it again now in light of Hulk; like Bruce Banner, "Chopper" Read becomes vulnerable and child-like during those moments when he represents the most extreme danger to those around him. In one scene, he stabs a fellow inmate in the neck before retreating into the corner of the cell, where he undergoes a bewildering transformation. First his face clenches like a fist. Then he cries. Then he crabwalks back toward his quarry and enquires tenderly after his well-being before offering him a cigarette. By the time the prison guards arrive to cart off the poor soul, "Chopper" has come full circle back to sadism, and is taunting his whimpering victim: "Whinge, whinge..."

A proud smile plays on Bana's lips when I enthuse about this scene, though he is reluctant to answer my questions about the character's posture and movement. "I guess I do what feels right," he says, sounding slightly embarrassed. "I never make notes in a script. Whatever I did physically would've just come naturally. That's why I didn't study acting, because you start breaking things down and..." His brown eyes search the room. "If you became aware of those things, you wouldn't be able to play the part."

That idea of surrendering yourself to instinct, of turning off the headlights and driving blind, is clearly integral to Bana's approach to acting. For one thing, it helps to explain the extreme anxiety attacks that descend on him whenever he is preparing for another film role. "I have a horrendous time in pre-production," he admits. "I've only recently learnt to go with it. At first I thought it was a sign I was in the wrong business. Now I see it's obviously some essential creative thing that I go through. I don't fight it anymore. I just literally go insane. It's probably to do with subconsciously wanting to feel so uncomfortable about the choices you make that you end up questioning everything. It gets to the point where you no longer realise why you're doing what you're doing, why you're playing that character, whether anything you're doing is right. It's awful. Nausea, insomnia, complete anxiety. My wife said to me recently: 'Hello? Haven't you noticed this is a pattern?'"

It sounds comforting, I say, like a sign that you've engaged with the task in hand. "I think so," he agrees. "I'd be worried now if it didn't happen. 'Oh, the nausea's here - thank God!'"

'Hulk' is released 18 July

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