Eric Bana looks a little abashed when I tell him how I’d spotted him prior to our interview, hoodie pulled over his head, skateboard slung casually over his shoulder, slipping unnoticed into a ritzy Beverly Hills hotel. “Aaah, you saw that,” he grins. “Nobody else noticed.”
It’s actually a testament to how the Australian actor has successfully conducted a high-profile career – highlights of which include flashy roles in Munich, Hanna and Star Trek – while staying beneath the radar.
In a world where most celebrities conduct interviews in this one particular five-star Beverly Hills hotel, under paparazzi surveillance 24-hours-a-day, Bana chuckles at his ability to go undercover. “I’ve never really sought the attention,” says the actor, who has thus far avoided the spotlight by remaining in his Melbourne birthplace with his wife, Rebecca, and their two teenage children.
Bana, 46, is among an elite group of Aussies who can pull off a Brit accent. Having taken on Henry VII in The Other Boleyn Girl eight years ago, last year he tackled a British barrister in the crime drama Closed Circuit. “I’d be in serious trouble if I got those wrong,” he laughs. “I could have been hanged.”
He also tries to lie low in London. “It’s easily my favourite city outside of Australia. Unlike the other great cities – New York, Berlin, Sydney, Paris – I think it’s very easy to get a taste of what it’s like to be a part of the city. You don’t have to be connected and you don’t have to be rich to get a sense of the city. It’s a walking, living, breathing museum. I feel like a local when I’m there. London is probably one of the easiest cities in the world in which to embed yourself.”
You might even catch him in your local pub. “I don’t support any of the English teams, so it’s very relaxing for me to sit in the pub and watch everyone else get worked up. I’m the annoying guy in the corner with a pint of cold lager, cheering for both or cheering for neither of them and just enjoying the game.”
Born to a Croatian father and a German mother, he came into the world surrounded by different accents. “I had a girlfriend who once told me, ‘Your parents have got really unique accents,’ and I was like, ‘but they don’t have any accents. They’ve got Australian accents.’ It was only when I moved out of home I realised, ‘Holy shit, they’ve got accents!’”
The actor’s passport bears the name Eric Banadinovic. “It’s still my name,” he asserts. “I've never changed it. Bana was my nickname back when I was doing stand-up and then I thought, ‘That’s kind of handy having a name that no one knows’. So if I get mail addressed to ‘Bana’ I can throw it away – and if I get mail that’s addressed to me, it’s for me! Fortunately my agent knows the difference.”
He’s using a Bronx accent for his portrayal of real-life NYPD cop Sergeant Ralph Sarchie in the supernatural thriller Deliver Us from Evil. A muscle-bound 6ft 3in, Bana’s not a man who scares easily, having embodied some of the toughest men on the big screen – from his 2000 debut in Chopper as the notorious Australian underworld figure Mark “Chopper” Read to an elite US soldier in Black Hawk Down and angry comic-book icon the Hulk.
But, in portraying Sarchie, he saw things he wished he’d never seen. In an era where pretty much everything is available on YouTube, he was privy to private video recordings of real-life exorcisms that changed his views on the nature of evil forever.
Starring in this movie, described by the legendary Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer as “The Exorcist meets Serpico”, he found himself unable to sleep for weeks. He regrets that Deliver Us From Evil’s writer/director, Scott Derrickson, even showed him the real-life archived footage. “I was a little bit pissed off, because when he put this particular material in front of us, I found myself watching something I really didn’t want to see. It really affected me. I saw something I immediately identified as not being faked and something I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get out of my head. It was like, ‘OK, I can’t un-see what I just saw’. It was enough to give me a very uncomfortable few weeks when I barely slept.”
Indeed, while discussing whether or not the devil exists, in the relative luxury of his hotel suite, the air conditioning inexplicably shuts off. Unperturbed, he says, “The same thing just happened in the other room I was in.”
The filming of Deliver Us from Evil took place last year over the course of 30 night-shoots on the streets of the South Bronx – the 46th Precinct once dubbed the toughest neighbourhood in the US. “The set was pretty gnarly and the crew were on edge most of the time,” he recalls. “I tried to blinker myself to what was going on because I saw enough in pre-production to have the desired effect of freaking me out – so, in order to do my job, I tried to block a lot of that out.”
In replicating some of the horrific real-life exorcisms in which Sarchie participated, he says, “I think a lot of it is about what frequency you choose to tune into – and I guess the bigger question is, ‘Does the frequency choose you or do you chose the frequency?’ I believe there are some people who are more attuned to living on that frequency than others.
“There’s no doubt that if you’ve actually ever been really, really scared – if you’ve felt that something’s over your shoulder, say, or you catch something on the edge of your frame that’s not there – I think that’s an example of when you’ve chosen to tune into that frequency.”
Bana began his career in stand-up comedy, impersonating the likes of Sly Stallone, Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger – yet he’s had few awkward run-ins with his former targets. “I’ve only met a few of them. It’s been a well-kept secret for the most part.” These days he rarely frequents comedy clubs. “I guess because I’ve done so much of it, I find stand-up difficult to watch,” he says. “I love stand-up when it’s really good and I find it very uncomfortable if it’s not very good – just because I know what that feels like.”
As a boy, it was Mel Gibson’s Mad Max that inspired him to think big. Many years later, he finally met his idol. “It was a real treat and also very bizarre to actually meet someone who you idolized as a kid. What a lot of us Australians saw in Mel Gibson’s career was that you could, in fact, become an actor. It was a bit of a breaking down of the door. Mad Max was a seminal film, my favourite film of all time.”
He met his wife, the Australian TV publicist Rebecca Gleeson, when they were both employed at the same network. “The network was going through a renaissance and I have spectacular memories of that time in my life. We met in the middle of all that. We both had partners and we were friends, and then both found ourselves single – and the rest is history. And, by the way, her name is my name – her name is not Gleeson. She’s Rebecca Banadinovic. She made that choice.”
Proud parent to son Klaus, 15, and daughter, Sophia, 13, he cautions, “There’s no way my kids are going to see this film until they’re much older. I wish I could forget some of the things I’ve seen.”
'Deliver Us from Evil’ is released on 20 August