Single Copies

Man At Work

By Brennen Matthews

Photographs: Rebecca Bana / Trunk Archive

Given the impressive body of dramatic work that Eric Bana has done in his career - Troy, Black Hawk Down, The Hulk, Munich, and The Time Traveler’s Wife - it’s hard to believe that the Australian born actor got his start as a stand-up comedian. That is, until you hear him talk about everything from his love of hitting the open road in his classic cars to how he chooses his roles, and then you see how versatile he can be. Eric Bana recently sat down with ROUTE to talk about his current project, Dirty John, the 2007 Targa Tasmanian motor rally crash, vintage automobiles, his 12,000 mile vehicle odyssey across America, and how the quintessential road trip differs between the United States and his home country of Australia.

You are well known to possess a deep passion for motorcycles and cars. Where did that originate?

It was just always there, I’d say. I was so young that I don’t remember there being a specific moment. I have a lot of specific memories about certain things like driving a car way too young (Laughs), about always wanting to be behind the wheel, and all of the kind of marker memories are there, but I was just always, always interested in anything mechanical, two wheels and four wheels. Right down to, I remember there was a friend of my grandparents who used to sometimes drive us to school in a truck, and it was one of the early style trucks that didn’t have indicators, but it had a hand that... he would pull a lever and the hand would pop up on the right-hand side. There was nothing more exciting to me than reaching across while he was driving and pulling the hand up. I was just always excited about anything to do with cars.

If a relative turned up with a car that was different, I would be climbing all through it and asking a million questions. I mean, I’m talking when I was really, really little, I’m not talking about eight or nine, I’m talking about two’s and three’s, so it was just always there.

Do you like vintage vehicles or racing machines?

I mainly prefer old stuff for sure. I’m in awe of modern engineering and what the latest cars can do, and how efficiently they can do them, but I do feel like we are heading into oblivion a little bit with some types of cars and super cars, and I think there is a really interesting conversation to be had about what electric cars are doing to design, and the elephant in the room being the fact that we basically sit in traffic to shuttle from A to B, and that design brief seems to be largely ignored by all but a few manufacturers. So, I appreciate the modern stuff in terms of their engineering, but I always, always hark back to wanting to jump into my old cars to get around for sure.

Is the Australian culture and love of vehicles and driving on par with what you have experienced in America?

I guess I have experienced it more through the eyes of being a parent, and now having a son who is nineteen, and I think the thing that I really notice is the massive disconnect between the younger generation and the automobile. I think it’s a massive thing. I believe that as real estate gets more expensive, and life becomes more expensive, they choose to value things differently to the way that we did. I’m seeing a massive shift. I mean, I know tons of 19-20 year olds who have absolutely no interest in owning a car, whereas when I was young, if you didn’t own a car, you just couldn’t get from point A to point B. It was just not a conversation to be had. So, that is the biggest shift I’m seeing. I’m seeing a lot of people not care as much about car ownership. There is a lot to be said for it I think.

You’ve spoken about a mental switch that must happen for you when you put on your helmet and are preparing to go ride on your motorcycle. What do you mean by that?

It’s something that I picked up early on in some advanced training which I thought was a really, really good notion; that you must make a mental decision to enter a different headspace, and that if you just continue whatever frame of mind that you are in, that you can kind of daydream and think about whatever you were thinking about before putting the helmet on, and you are probably not going to have a great day. I’m not saying you can’t relax while you are riding a motorcycle, I’m just saying that I think it was great piece of advice to treat the putting on of the helmet as the moment that everything changes in terms of your mindset.

If you had to choose, do you have a preference between riding a motorcycle or driving a car?

I’ll definitely ride.

How long have you been riding?

All my adult life, so since I was... I mean, I got to play with friends’ bikes when I was a teenager, but I never owned one, so, probably since the age of 20, so about 30 years.

Does Rebecca support you riding a motorcycle or is she a worried spouse?

(Laughs) No, she is... that’s a good question. It’s interesting. She never really worried about me racing cars, and I’d say that she probably worries about me riding. But she is quite good, like if I go to a track day with my race bike, I don’t think she is overly concerned. I think she is more concerned when I’m commuting, and she’s also a little bit concerned when I go away for multi-day rides on my adventure bike. But, I would say that probably commuting is the one that she would be most concerned about. She is able to identify where the real danger exists versus the ‘he might get banged up a little bit’ danger.

You just made me think about another famous rider from your neck of the woods – Burt Munro. The film, The World’s Fastest Indian really drew a lot of interest in the sport. Does Australia have anyone similar to him?

To Burt Munro? No. I mean, we have a history of producing good dirt track motorcyclists and grand prix riders, Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan and so forth, but no, that was more your single land speed stuff wasn’t it.

In 2007, you had a serious crash at the Targa Professional Road Rally and your car was destroyed. This was a vehicle that you loved and even did a documentary around (Love the Beast). Would you consider that incident to be the scariest moment you have ever had in racing or driving cars or motorcycles?

It wasn’t very scary; it was more the fact that I was just really, really, really disappointed that I was hurting the car, so I wasn’t overly scared, and I kind of knew it was coming a few seconds before we hit, but I’ve definitely had scarier moments than that.


The ironic thing about tarmac rallying is that the scariest moments are the ones where you don’t crash. The scariest moments are the ones you have just before the crash, where you thought you were going to crash but didn’t. The car breaking away slightly on a crest that is going a different direction than you thought, or a surface change halfway around a corner where you... I think that sometimes the near miss can actually be scarier than... the couple of small crashes I’ve had have been a lot less scary than the near misses I would say.

Being a father and a husband, did you find that after the Targa accident, or any of the near misses that did actually frighten you, that the way you viewed or embraced racing changed at all?

No, because after that Targa accident... after I repaired the car and got it back on the road and all that sort of stuff, I actually increased the amount of racing I did. I stopped doing the tarmac rallying and just really concentrated on the more serious GT3 sports car racing on circuits, so actually, my participation in competition went up after the period that was covered in that documentary. More recently, it’s sort of abated a little bit for various reasons but no, being a dad never really affected any of that in terms of how much I ride, what kind of riding I do, what kind of racing I did. It had no affect at all. I guess it’s probably because I’ve been doing all that stuff for so long that it never felt like an activity you took up later in life that you can drop because you’ve known different. Does that make sense? It would never occur to me not to ride a motorcycle. It would never, ever, ever occur to me to stop taking that risk. But if I had started riding at the age of 35, that would be a different conversation I think. Also, there is that side of you that says, ‘I’ve invested a hell of a lot in this. I’ve invested a lot of skill set. I’ve invested a lot of time. I’ve put myself at a lot of risk to learn a lot and I want to back that experience in and enjoy myself,’ you know?

Did you ever meet Paul Walker before he was killed?

Actually, by complete coincidence I did. I had a very lovely dinner at a Melbourne restaurant, a mutual friend was traveling with him and called me up and said, let’s go out to dinner, and it was just the one time.

His death was obviously very shocking. Such accidents don’t seem to happen often, but it always makes me wonder if it changes the way a person views the sport when it does.

Well, I guess the closest I came was as I started to get more serious about my circuit racing, I definitely made the decision to stop pursuing the tarmac rallying because I identified that there was a significant risk engaging in that form of motorsport, in kind of a haphazard way. And what I mean by that is, I never really had the time to really go and do extensive “reckies”, reconnaissance and pace notes for the tarmac rallies. We would just turn up and do them, and I think that when you combine a little bit of competitive spirit with some self-belief in your ability without being prepared, it’s a bit of a recipe for disaster. I could see that if I continued going down that road that - it bites - tarmac rallying bites. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when for most people. I’d seen a fair bit of carnage and decided to just concentrate of the circuit racing side of things.

How would you respond if Klaus [19-year-old son] or Sophia [16-year-old daughter] decided to take up riding a bike competitively or otherwise?

Yeah, that would be interesting. Neither of them are showing interest, thank God. It’s going to save them a fortune. They both have their own interests and I think that is also a generational thing as well. They really enjoy being in older vehicles. I can definitely see a change in anxiety levels, when you throw a teenager into a car that has no buttons and no Bluetooth and no choices. It's kind of beautiful actually. I think they have enjoyed that side of classic car ownership, but I don’t think that it’s in their stars.

When you were 21, you decided to head over and explore America, traveling for close to six months and over 12,000 miles in a ’79 Mustang. What inspired that trip? What made you choose to go find America, and was that your first time actually being in America?

I’d only been to America once before when I was a small child with my mum to visit some relatives on the East coast. I look back on it now and the thought of my kids doing that now... that was back when there were no cell phones, there was no internet, there were no emails. I would phone home every three or four weeks just to let my parents know that I was still alive. God knows what they were going through in the three or four weeks between each call.

It’s actually a pretty standard Australian psyche, that notion of doing extensive travel when young. We are a very traveled population. I think one of the most traveled, perhaps up there with the Germans, in terms of passport holders and people who do extensive travel. I don’t know if it comes from being so far away from everything that it’s a given that you must travel and just cop it and not see distance as an impediment to experience. I think part of that comes from growing up in a country that is so big and sparse, that it’s nothing for us to drive from Melbourne to Sydney; it’s eleven to twelve hours and I wouldn’t think twice about covering that distance, I do it four to five times a year. The thought of being on a plane for fourteen hours or twenty-two hours, I just don’t think we see that as a reason not to go somewhere. It’s culturally something that is engrained in us.


I don’t know what drove me to do that trip. It was extremely lonely, very, very lonely. I didn’t have a travel partner and was by myself for vast amounts of time, unless I hooked up with someone at a youth hostel and they got a lift with me to the next place or something like that. Generally, I was on my own and without the ability to communicate with back home.

Were there any key experiences or stories from that trip that made an impression on you?

Well, I drove all the way down the East coast, halfway back up, and then did a definite crisscross all the way to the west, then up to Seattle and then a little bit in-between. I look back on it now and I don’t even really know how I managed it. I remember having a small notebook with... mainly for budget reasons. I had to be really careful with how much I spent each day and each week, because I would have simply run out of cash. I met a lot of travelers and I did come to the conclusion, that it was in many ways... that it was financially cheaper to take the car route, because it meant that I was actually able to sleep in the car for a start, and secondly, it would give me the ability to move around and have more choice. Back then gas was really cheap, so that wasn’t a huge factor. Generally I had a good time, besides being really, really lonely, and there was a few times there where I recall traveling through some vast areas, and I look back now and I think, I [didn’t] have enough water, I had no spares, I didn’t have any tools with me, even though I was able to do some basic stuff. I wasn’t kitted up for such an adventure. A massive leap of faith in a very, very cheap automobile is what it was, and the car didn’t let me down. I think I got it serviced once in the middle of the country somewhere, I got an oil change out of sympathy for the thing. It just kept going and going.

I had one really scary moment in Washington, DC, where I got lost in the middle of the night and I think I was saved by the rain. I ended up in a very, very bad part of town. It was nighttime, and it was raining, and I had zero sense of direction and I just couldn’t get myself out of it. It didn’t matter which direction I turned, I just seemed to be ending up in a worse and worse part of town. It was bad enough that I was genuinely fearful, and like I said, I think the only thing that saved me was the rain, because there were a couple times that... I was running red lights deliberately trying to get pulled over so I could get directions, which wasn’t really helping and I think I ran one red light in full view of a cop car and not even the police car wanted to stop, so I just kept driving.

I think the weirdest thing that happened to me after that is when I finally got myself onto a freeway, I thought ‘I’m out of here, I just need to drive for a few hours to get away from here’, and I spent about three hours on the freeway, and I finally succumbed to checking into a cheap motel at whatever time of the morning it was, and when I checked in I asked the person at the desk where I was, because I figured, perhaps three hours out of Washington DC, I don’t even know where I am, and it was teeming with rain. I couldn’t really read the signs very well. [It turned out] that I was about 15 miles from Washington, DC. I’d been, I guess, on the circular route around the edge of the city. I had done a couple laps, kind of like Chevy Chase in Paris in European Vacation. I remember my shoulders dropping considerably for a couple of days and I don’t think I left the room actually for a couple of days. I think that was probably the low light of the trip.

But I met some great people. I thought the roads were fantastic, the highways back then were pretty great, and they didn’t feel crowded. I think that was one of the memories I had that I don’t recall anywhere being super crowded, and I’m sure that if I did the same route today, most places that I would stop would feel vastly different to what they did back then.

Have you ever been on Route 66?

No, I haven’t. I’m sure I must have been on it for a little bit during that trip, but I can’t remember. I would need to look at my old map that is marked up. I don’t think I covered much of Route 66 to be honest, because I approached California more from the south. I came up from Texas and I don’t think I hit much of Route 66 actually.

Is it a highway that you’d like to experience for yourself?

Oh for sure! I didn’t get up enough to the mid and upper states, so there is a lot that I would still like to see, and by road would be my preference.

Do you think that the concept of the road trip is realistic in Australian culture or is it more of an American phenomenon?

It’s definitely very popular at home as well. I think Americans are kind of spoiled though, because when you look at the map and you look at driving from point A to point B, there is a lot more in between point A and point B in the United States than there is at home. I mean, if we choose to drive from Melbourne to Perth, there are a lot of natural points along the way, but in terms of basing yourself out of towns and cities, there are very, very few. Whereas, if you are going to drive from the East coast to the West coast in America, your choices are infinite as to your route, which cities you are going to avoid, which cities you are going to see, what you are going to do... so yeah, Americans are amazingly fortunate and spoiled for choice in that regard.

But the road trip is definitely a part of the Australian culture that I grew up with.

Looking back on that trip, or subsequent periods of long trips alone, do you feel that you discovered anything about yourself that has stayed with you?

Well yeah, it’s kind of interesting that it ended up being a really handy experience for my professional life, because I guess something that most people won’t assume about the life of a working actor, if you’re fortunate enough to have a decent career, is that you end up spending vast amounts of time on your own. Most people wouldn’t think about that because they just see movies and they see the glitz and glamor of the movie business, but the reality is that you end up spending copious amounts of time on your own. That trip was kind of a bit of an entrée into that reality, and it definitely gave me tools for spending large amounts of time in my own company. I didn’t realize it at the time obviously, because I wasn’t working in the industry, but there are times when I look back and I think ‘yeah, that was an interesting little appetizer for how you would end [up] being on your own a lot with work.’

Have you ever turned down a project because you were going to have to be away for too long from Rebecca and the kids?

It’s definitely a consideration, [but] there haven’t been too many projects, if any, that I have had to turn down simply for that reason. But I guess I go through periods where my agent knows I’m not prepared to work. So, whatever is happening in that period, I don’t see it as a period where I’m actively turning down things, it’s just a period that I’m not available to work. I never go back to back [in projects]. I think that I’ve only gone back to back once in my life. I generally complete a long production and then I head back home and carve out a significant chunk of time where I don’t want to work, and it just works that way for me. There are some people that can do it, some people can go back to back and never stop. I identified early on that it doesn’t suit me and doesn’t suit my disposition. I would probably burn out and ride off into the sunset way too early. I guess I try to pace myself.

A lot of people may not know that you began your career doing stand-up comedy. However, you’ve chosen to generally focus your career on more serious or harder hitting roles that have created a very different understanding of Eric Bana. What appeals to you about the more serious roles?

I don’t know how many comedians you’ve met in your past. Most of them are pretty intense. (Laughs) The comedy... the acting is what really appealed to me and the comedy was something that I kind of fell into, and once I fell into it, I realized that it could be a kind of interesting alternative route to get to where I wanted to, but that certainly wasn’t my intention when I started doing stand-up.


I was encouraged by some of my coworkers to try it and I went and saw some comedy nights and decided that some people were good and some people weren’t very good, and the guys that weren’t very good were getting paid, and so the light went off in my head and I was like, ‘if they are getting paid I’m certainly going to have a crack at it.’ So, it became kind of a means to an end, and then I sort of started getting some traction. I realized that there was an opportunity to move in different directions. I got very lucky, I worked in the right parts of the business at the right times. I worked in television sketch comedy right when Australian sketch comedy was at its peak. I got out of it as that sort of production was on the decline and networks weren’t investing that kind of money on Australian expensive to produce comedy.

I rode the right waves at the right time and made the most of it, and when the opportunity came up to get into dramatic acting, I just went for it, and then when those roles kept coming up, at no point decided, ‘hey, hold on a second, I have to prove to everyone that I’m funny.’ I really didn’t care about showing that side of me at all, because I was sort of a bit burned out from it and I just didn’t care whether or not people from other countries knew that about me or didn’t. I wasn’t really preoccupied with it, I was more focused on making the most out of this sort of second career opportunity, so that’s why a lot of it was by design. Initially, when I got my breaks in America, I didn’t want to muddy the waters by trying to do comedy as well. I thought that would be a really bad idea. I’m sort of glad I did that because it’s hard to change people’s perception of what you do, and I ended up with these two really, completely different careers internationally and in Australia, and so I just had to make the most of that.

I was reading that Russell Crowe recommended you for Black Hawk Down, Brad Pitt requested you for Troy, and Steven Spielberg very much wanted you for Munich. You seemed to very quickly get on the radar of some very talented, respected, powerful people in the industry. What do you attribute that to?

I don’t really know. I tried not to intellectualize it or think about it too much at the time. I guess everyone has their moments in our business. It’s like there is a moment and you are either lucky enough to get on board or stay on board, or you miss the bus. I do know that if you miss the bus, it’s unlikely to come again. I do know that, and I’ve seen plenty of examples, the first few steps are pretty precarious, so I always just try to go with my gut and tried to choose what I thought was interesting, and not be too chess game about it. I wasn’t interested in a particular pathway, I wasn’t interested in where I was going to end up. I was just interested in what kind of work I was going to be doing, and that was always kind of my guiding principle and always has been.

You sort of end up where you end up, but you just have to make the most of the opportunities, and again, I feel like I was very lucky. I would not like to be in the position today that I was back then, because the same opportunities don’t exist in terms of the characters and acting roles. The size of movies we have today and the kind of roles that are being offered to young people on the rise are very, very different. I think it’s much harder for people to create a body of work that shows off what they can do.

Are you a romantic guy? Would you define yourself as a romantic?

Uh, somewhat maybe. (Laughs)

Time Traveler’s Wife was quite a romantic film. It had a sad ending, but it was a very romantic and powerful film. What drew you to that script?

I really enjoyed the story, I thought it was pretty unique. I’m a huge fan of Rachel’s [McAdams] and I knew that she was already attached, so that made the decision that much easier. I hadn’t done anything like that before, so it was also a unique challenge as well.

Do you think that doing that film and having it be such a big hit helped people see you in a fresh light? Maybe as a way to open new doors?

I didn’t really think of it that way. I tend to think of it more as, ‘Do I want to challenge myself? Do I want to do something different?’ I guess the conscious decision to never be in a box has probably been more a result of me wanting to challenge myself and do different things and for whatever reason, I’ve been really, really fortunate that people tend not to pigeon hole me, and directors and producers have been open to me doing different things, and constantly come to me for different things. I think that’s where I’ve been the most fortunate, that I’ve been able to indulge in that, rather that continually just do the same things. I think that sometimes people can end up being bigger stars if they do the same things over and over again, but if you want to do really different kinds of work, it’s a different sort of pathway.

Is it odd for you, as an Australian national who is obviously very at home in America, to see yourself regularly in these roles that are so ‘hyper American’ - The Hulk or special ops in Lone Survivor or Black Hawk Down - very quintessential American?

Not really, [though] I do occasionally think to myself, “It would just be so easy to be Australian,” because it is another element you are dealing with that other cast members who are American don’t have to deal with. I do think it’s another layer and it takes more work than the person who’s not pretending to be from another country, but I also don’t really know any differently. I’ve done just as many films in the UK as I have done here almost, and have to do a lot of British accents. I have a joke that Australians are everywhere, they just aren’t in films. For some reason we never put Australian characters in movies. I’ve only managed to shoehorn one of them and that was in Funny People.

[The character] was originally written as an American and I just couldn’t think of any reason why he couldn’t be Australian, and my big selling point to Judd [Apatow] was that I promised that he’d be funnier if he was Australian, and I think that’s what got it over the line. But sure, the thought of playing an Australian in an international film would be extremely attractive.

Do you feel that Aussies are viewed differently in the US now than they were during the Crocodile Dundee, Steve Irwin period?

Perhaps, although I think we would benefit from seeing some of us Australians in films not playing those types of characters for sure.


Do you have any films that you think get you more recognized or resonate more with people? Is there a character that you are most known for?

It’s very regional. So, it depends on where I am. If I’m in Europe, it’s Troy, it’s quite often Munich. If I’m in Australia it’s Chopper. If I’m in America sometimes it’s Chopper, sometimes it’s a mixture of almost everything else. There is definitely not one alone, it just depends on where I am and the environment. If I’m at a car show, it’s Love the Beast. If I’m with some women, it’s The Other Boleyn Girl or Time Traveler’s Wife.

At the moment you are working on a television mini-series, Dirty John. What is the premise around Dirty John?

It’s based on a true story. It’s a true crime that happened in Los Angeles, in Orange County only a couple years ago. One of the LA Times reporters, Christopher Goffard, turned it into a signature piece that he does where he does in-depth coverage of a particular crime that has some interesting characteristics to it. He did a podcast to go along with the articles and the podcast was extremely popular, so it garnered a lot of interest from people to develop it as an actual story.

We are doing an eight-part, stand-alone miniseries right now, and it’s essentially a tale of domestic abuse, and it’s kind of fascinating. It takes a couple of little twists and turns and [John] is not who he says he is, and it’s all about deception and lies and someone being a serial manipulator, and obviously he has some sociopathic qualities to him. He’s involved in a series of relationships and the most recent one is with a woman named Debra Newell, and they end up married, and the story follows their courtship and what happens after they get together.

In preparation for the role did you ever get to meet the real character?

Not possible... most people will know why that is the case, but I don’t want to ruin it for others.

Do you usually try to meet the real person in non-fiction roles?

It can go both ways. I’m not adverse to it. I have done it a couple times. If I do, I try to make it really, really clear to the person that the character that they are going to see on the screen is going to be a different version of them and it’s not going to be them. There is a definite responsibility there and sometimes it can be more awkward if you meet the real person. In some cases you don’t meet the person, you meet their family members, and it’s always something that has to be navigated.

Don’t forget to check out Eric Bana in Dirty John, airing on the Bravo network later in 2018.


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