Strolling along the Croisette the other day, I ran into a critic friend and we stopped for a gossip about Troy, which is showing out of competition in Cannes this year. We both agreed that Eric Bana, the Australian actor who plays noble Hector, prince of Troy, is the only lead who's any good in it.
Pug-faced Pitt may be touted everywhere in the film's publicity and effete Orlando Bloom splashed over all the posters, but it's Bana who steals the show with a finely understated performance that anchors the film. Apart from Peter O'Toole, Brian Cox and a handful of other old hands, Bana seems to be the only one who realises that he's in a period drama, or who comes off credibly as a royal warrior, c1300BC. The scene before he leaves the city to fight Achilles mano a mano, in which he takes leave of his wife and family, is heartrending, mostly because of Bana's projection of stiff-backed fortitude.
Bana is quietly proud of it himself. "From the time Hector leaves the gates of Troy to the time he finishes his dialogue with Achilles before the fight, you have to go from thinking, 'This is all over' to 'I think he's going to kick Achilles' ass,'" he explains. "Most of that is done without dialogue, and it's really important because a lot of the audience don't know who is going to come out on top. Peter O'Toole [who plays Hector's father, Priam] and I had a very long discussion about that scene, and in particular that line that he has, "Hector, no father ever had a better son." I said to him: 'When you read that on the page, it sounds like Hector is about to die,' but he said, 'That is not what I'm going to give you. I'm going to play it like a man talking to a bullfighter before he goes out to fight the bull. This could be their last time seeing each other, but by jingoes, they're going to go out there and kill the bull.' By the time I got to face Achilles I felt like I was going to win."
And what a fight: it's one of the film's true set pieces, for which both Bana and Pitt went into months of training. Both actors are in every shot, and according to Bana they really went for it. "We beat each other pretty bad," he says with a smile. "I got a pretty big cut on my nose that held us up for about half an hour, but you have to connect to make it look as real as it does. It's very satisfying to do, I've got to tell you." What, beating up Pitt or just fighting? Bana shrugs off the invitation to dish on a colleague, and discourses instead on "playing moments" for the character.
To be honest, Bana, 36, is not quite what I'd expected. I thought he'd be more jokey and casual, your classic Ocker bloke from a working-class immigrant background, especially since he began his performing career as a stand-up comic. His filmography would barely fill a page: after catching the indie world's attention playing the bloated, charismatic psychopath Mark Read in Chopper, he was cast as the lead in Ang Lee's Hulk, where he did a fine job of suggesting the not-so-jolly green violence coiled inside the genes of the scientist Bruce Banner.
Today, however, he sounds a little rehearsed and, possibly, a little too much in earnest about his craft. When I ask if not having gone to drama school might have been an advantage, he replies with pride: "Every emotion that's on my face in a movie is totally for real. What you're taught in a drama school is how to pretend to feel those things. I'm not interested in that."
He talks about playing the "good guy" for a change. After all, "Chopper" Read and the Hulk are more like angry Achilles than gentle Hector. "Yeah, that's true," he agrees. "It was a real challenge. We tend to recognise bad guys as bad guys immediately, but the shades of grey seem to be many and varied when you play 'good' characters. Where's the line between cheesy and believable?"
Bana seems to be aware that he himself can never go back to being just a regular guy, even though he tries to stay close to his roots by keeping a home in Melbourne, and bringing his wife and children with him wherever he works. "The most difficult thing was when we got hit by the hurricane that wiped out the set on Troy," he recalls. "We were sent home, and being home in Melbourne but still in production was hard. People were saying, 'Come on, let's go out,' and you'd go: 'You don't understand, I'm still Hector, I can't do this.'"
He almost wasn't Hector at all. According to Troy's director, Wolfgang Petersen, the studio tried to pressure him into casting a bigger name. He stuck with Bana, he says, because, "when he talked about the nobility of Hector and his love for the family, and how he loves his own family and never travels without them, I thought it was Hector talking right away."
Even though Bana is on autopilot, flashes of Hector's honesty still come through. When I ask if he has any plans to make a film in Australia, he says: "It would be almost too good to be true, but I'm pretty picky and I've found it hard to find something I'd love to do back there. I certainly don't see it as my duty. If anything, the opposite."
'Troy' goes on general release on 21 May