Eric Bana cuts a swath through a wide array of film genres -- consider the sword and sandal epic "Troy," the comic book adaptation "Hulk," the historical dramas from old England ("The Other Boleyn Girl") and recent history ("Munich"). Stepping up the pace, Bana is now working a whole career's worth of variety into a single summer with three wildly different films out this season. He also worked on a fourth that covered some beloved old territory and might have killed him, but more on that later.
He started out in May as the Romulan renegade Nero in the blockbuster "Star Trek," went on to provide comedic support in "Funny People," which opened Friday, and plays an earnest lover in "The Time Traveler's Wife," which comes out Aug. 14. But the highlight of his summer is St. Kilda's winning streak of 16 games. The Australian rules football team, of which Bana is a devoted fan, has been doing well ever since he showed up on the set of "Funny People" wearing its jersey. He's not sure that's a coincidence.
Meeting recently in the lobby of a Beverly Hills hotel, he asks if an interview can be relocated outside. He's been cooped up in air-conditioned rooms for too long. Tall, broad-shouldered, wearing a white T-shirt, jeans and white canvas sneakers, he leads a tour around the roof, looking for a place to sit. He comfortably wears his dark good looks -- he's of Croatian and German descent, born Eric Banadinovich. People cooling off in the pool openly stare as he walks by, but he's apparently unaware of the waves he's making. Settling at a table, he's also oblivious to the heat wave temperature. "We could play tennis in this weather," declares the native Australian, after making sure his guest is comfortable. He then reviews his latest releases, with their attendant joys and challenges.
In "Star Trek," his tattoo-faced villain seeks vengeance for the destruction of his planet. "As crazy as it all seems, to be a Romulan and be on a spaceship and all that, you do have to take the time to tell yourself, 'Well, hang on, this doesn't work dramatically if I don't actually take him seriously,' " Bana explains. "You're in the middle of a completely ridiculous set trying to also give it the weight that it needs and deserves in the appropriate parts."
The next set was ridiculous in another way. In "Funny People," Leslie Mann plays Adam Sandler's first love, now married to Bana's character, Clarke. She suspects him of cheating on her and turns to Sandler when the opportunity comes up.
"I was expecting the 'Munich' guy," says Mann of her costar, but she got something else. On his first day, "He couldn't stop giggling during the takes, like a goofy little boy. It made me feel much more comfortable because I thought, Oh, he's not some hot Jewish murderer."
"Funny People" marks Bana's first foray into feature comedies, but it also returns him to his roots. Born and raised in Melbourne, he remembers seeing only American movies until "Mad Max" came out. "Suddenly, here was this movie that was shot in my own backyard, all about cars" -- Bana's first love -- "and there was this lead actor who was Australian. It had a really big impact on me."
He knew he wanted to act but had no idea how to get into it, so he wound up performing stand-up. Discovered quickly, he worked on sketch comedy television shows in Australia. After a few years he started feeling burned out, just at the time he was offered the lead role in the drama "Chopper," a film about Mark "Chopper" Read, a legendary criminal in Australia. His intense performance resounded thousands of miles away in Hollywood.
Now, 10 years after leaving comedy behind, Bana, 40, has circled back. In director Judd Apatow he recognized a kindred comedic spirit, open to anything. He even convinced Apatow to change Clarke's nationality. "The guy was obviously a nut case, and I felt I could make him slightly more of a nut case if he was Australian," he says. Not that he thinks wearing the St. Kilda shirt was crazy.
Bringing the improv
Apatow says that much of the material Bana generated in rehearsals ended up in the film, including one hilarious scene in which he tries to explain Aussie rules football to a baffled Sandler and Seth Rogen.
The actor's physique proved baffling as well. "I was noticing his arms, and all of the muscles that I've never seen before," Mann recalls in wonder, as if describing an alien. Her husband Apatow concurs. "It was different for us having an Adonis on the set. We've conditioned Leslie to think that people don't look like that."
And for all his movie star looks, it is perhaps surprising that this summer also brings his first lead romantic role in "The Time Traveler's Wife." In it, he plays Henry, a man who through some genetic anomaly can travel through time, or rather, has no choice but to do so. It's like a seizure, forcing him into another period of his own lifetime.
Although the film is an adaptation of a beloved novel, director Robert Schwentke tailored the role of Henry to some of his star's qualities. When he met the actor, he says, he "was struck by how grounded he was, how obviously honest, a straight shooter, a family guy." (Bana brings his wife and children along on location.) Based on that impression, "very early on we decided that Henry was somebody who was honest all the time, which is a curious choice to make when you have such a big secret to keep from everybody."
The director was convinced that Bana's personality would pay off in other ways. "You have a character who, for all intents and purposes, suffers from an affliction that defines him in a way, but I felt that Eric would never be regarded as a victim."
Bana was grateful for Schwentke's guidance and the weeks given to rehearsal. "It was a really difficult character and story line to keep mapped out," Bana notes. At the same time, he had a blast playing a man at so many points in his life. He adds that his costar, Rachel McAdams, was one of the greatest people he's ever worked with, and goes on to describe her as generous, kind, patient, old-fashioned, well-mannered and immensely talented.
Even though the film was shot two years ago, his memories of the shoot are vivid. He likens his roles to tattoos: "They all leave a little bit behind."
He says he employs no career strategy in choosing parts. "Just because I've been given the opportunity to play leading roles doesn't mean I have to feel the pressure to always take them," Bana says. He finds supporting roles like Nero and Clarke liberating. Working on a film for a short time is a much different ride than being on set every day.
His most recent project may not even be seen on these shores. He directed a documentary, "Love the Beast," about car racing. "It's my one vice, and it's unbelievably selfish and self-indulgent and brings an unreasonable amount of joy to my life," he says. He wanted to make a movie that spoke to the obsession or possession in people's lives that makes them who they are, the way "physical objects can transcend themselves." The Beast is Bana's GT Falcon, which he and a friend drove in the grueling Targa Tasmania rally, a six-day, 1,242-mile race in Australia. The film chronicles their adventure -- including their crash on Day 4 of the race in which, fortunately, no one was hurt.
The movie resonated with audiences back home. As he proudly notes, "It was the highest-grossing Australian documentary of all time." (When pressed, he mentions a possible cable or DVD release in the U.S.)
As for what's next, Bana states frankly that he has no work lined up. "I'm out of chips. They're all on the table at once," he jokes. "Which is fine, I think you've seen enough of me for a while."