Man at His Best

ESQ&A With Eric Bana

Eric Bana’s new film, Special Correspondents, out now on Netflix, sees him returning to his comedy roots. Esquire speaks with him in Melbourne.

BY LESTARI HAIRUL | Jun 30, 2016 | Film & TV

Danny Harrison / Flickr

ESQUIRE: I’ve got a copy of an old interview that you did with us.

ERIC BANA: Oh, I remember that! Yeah! That would’ve been… how many years ago is that? 2013, okay.

ESQ: Yeah, about three. Do you remember doing the interview?

EB: If I read the first bit of it, I might remember. Ah! Was it in Singapore? When I was over there, maybe for Bulgari or something? Yes. Okay, I do remember that.

ESQ: Well, this time around, it’s for the Funny Issue. Oh, that’s for you. Could we take a picture of you with it? Would that be possible?

EB: Yes, we can.

ESQ: How did you go from doing comedy to doing more serious roles?

EB: I got very lucky because there was a movie that I did here called Chopper, which was my first dramatic role, and that went to a lot of film festivals. I was completely unknown outside of Australia. I ended up getting an agent because I was new and the film was doing well in the festival circuit. It just sort of went from there, and then I just kept doing dramas for a long, long time.

ESQ: Do you prefer it to comedy?

EB: I just like working on great material, so I’m always open to whatever’s the best thing. When this came along last year, it was the best thing that I read, and it was a very easy thing to say yes to. I’m a huge fan of Ricky [Gervais], so to get a chance to be in a movie with him was like too good to be true. I don’t have any hard or fast rules. When I first started, I may have concentrated on drama, but that was more because I’d already done 10 to 12 years of comedy and was ready to do something different. But generally, I’m open; I read everything and just choose what I think is the best.

ESQ: In this particular film, you play more of the straight guy. How different is it from being the funny guy?

EB: That suited me because I have a very dry sense of humour. I enjoy watching broad comedies, but they’re not things that I’m attracted to as a performer. This was a unique film because it’s essentially two straight characters. The comedy comes out of the situation that they’re in, and I really love that. It wasn’t like a wacky comedy. It was more like a normal movie that turns into a comedy, and I found that really appealing.

ESQ: Did you have input in making Frank Bonneville up?

EB: It was very well-written, and then we played a lot in every scene. The more Ricky and I worked together, the more we came up with different dynamics—like he wasn’t as mean in the script as he is in the film. We made him a lot meaner because we thought it was funnier. Like when he gets really angry at Finch, and when he’s really derogatory and says terrible things to him. Ricky thought that was hilarious. He loves being put down. He loves people abusing characters. That was something we sort of discovered just through mucking around. So yeah, it was very, very loose. We’d always get a few takes of a written scene, and then we’d have a bit of a play.

ESQ: Do you put yourself in it?

EB: There’s always a bit of you somewhere in a character!

ESQ: So probably which parts of it if you could...

EB: Ooh, that’s a secret.

ESQ: Fair enough. Do you read reviews?

EB: No. It’s kind of become irrelevant in the last five years or so.

ESQ: Yeah?

EB: Yeah, I think so. It’s not like 10 to 15 years ago when critics had a lot more influence. So it’s been a long, long time since I’ve paid much attention. I enjoy reading stuff from film people. Film magazines, for example, tend to have a different perspective, but I don’t spend time reading reviews. I don’t like reading reviews of films that I’m not in, even, actually. I have a sense of what interests me in a movie, and I’m not really interested in what someone else thinks about it.

ESQ: Do you watch comedy?

EB: Yes.

ESQ: What types do you like?

EB: I like a good television comedy. I’m a huge Larry Sanders fan. Curb Your Enthusiasm I absolutely loved. Back in the day, early Gary Schelling was just genius. When I was a kid, Richard Pryor was one of my heroes. Barry Humphries is a huge influence. So, yeah, quite an eclectic mix.

ESQ: Would you do stuff like that in the future? Or do you already have any in the pipeline?

EB: You mean more comedy?

ESQ: Yep.

ESQ: Ah! If I found something else like this or something that I was attracted to, yeah. Obviously, I get sent more dramas than I do comedy, but I read everything and choose whatever I’m in the mood for.

ESQ: Is it more difficult to do comedy or drama?

EB: It comes down to material. Well-written material is very easy to do. And sometimes, to be honest, the stuff that you think is going to be really easy turns out to be difficult. And the stuff that reads like it’s going to be really difficult ends up being really easy. It’s quite often hard to predict. You don’t really know until you get to it on the day, but there was nothing in this that was difficult. This was just nothing but fun every single day.

ESQ: What about trying to be funny? Is there any pressure in that?

EB: I think people trying to be funny if they’re not, or don’t know how to be, is dangerous. This film’s unique because it’s the situations that the characters are in that are funny, and the escalation of the lie is where the comedy comes from. So I didn’t really feel a lot of pressure to be the funny guy in this film. It was almost the opposite—the straighter you played the character, the funnier the movie became.

ESQ: Do people still ask you to do Poida?

EB: [chuckles] In Australia? It’s funny because it’s so long ago, different generations of people relate to you in different ways. My son who’s 16 has a lot of friends who didn’t have a clue that I came from comedy, because from the time they were born onwards, it’s all been nothing but drama, and they’re kind of scared of you. Then you meet them again two weeks later, and suddenly, they’re giggling because they’ve gone and looked at some of your stuff on the Internet. It’s always funny when you’ve been as lucky as I have to have done different kinds of things. Some people want to talk to you about your comedy background; others want to talk to you about Munich, or your car, or Troy. When someone walks up to you in an airport, you can never predict what it is that they’re gonna want to talk to you about.

ESQ: Do you still do Poida sometimes?

EB: No.

ESQ: Will you do it now?

EB: No.

ESQ: Okay. What about stand-up? Do you ever want to go back to it or do it for fun?

EB: I sometimes get tempted. I probably miss the sketch comedy more than the stand-up. My brain still works in exactly the same way so I still write material. I still think of things in chunks of three-minute sketches. When I meet someone and make an observation, I go home and tell my wife and son about it. I still live out the fantasy in my head. But the problem is that I keep getting really great projects and I get lazy so I just go and do them. Am I tempted to one day go and do stand-up again? Maybe. I get more tempted each year, hanging around with other comedians like Ricky reinvigorates that part of your brain, but we’ll see. I’m in no great rush.

ESQ: Is there anything from stand-up that is translatable to the rest of your career?

EB: That’s a good question. I think you develop a very thick skin. The greatest thing about coming from a stand-up background is that you’re self-generating material. The biggest adjustment to make as an actor is realising how little your opinion matters. If you’re a stand-up, you write your material, no one edits it, no one has a say in it. You go on stage, and you live or die. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, you’re to blame. As an actor, you’re always speaking someone else’s words. You might have a play with it here or there, but you’re the messenger. Your job is to interpret someone else’s work and deliver it. You’re a delivery service to the story. It’s very different. Initially, the adjustment for me was going from being able to make every choice to someone who’s only able to make a very limited number of choices. So I missed that more than I missed the performing of stand-up—if that makes sense. I miss the purity of…

ESQ: …Of being autonomous?

EB: Um… yes... And it’s not about being in control; it’s about telling a story in a very free way or the immediacy. Stand-up is one of the most pure performances really, because you’re by yourself, you have no tools apart from a microphone. There’s no cheating.

ESQ: How did you use to come up with material?

EB: Oddly enough, most of my material used to come to me when I was driving. I lived 30 to 40 minutes out of the city so I’d think of a lot of material while driving. I even kept a Dictaphone because I couldn’t write things down.

ESQ: What kind of stories did you use to tell?

EB: Um, god. I had a lot of longform structured stand-up. I wasn’t a joke-teller. Most of it was five-minute beats or seven minute, you know what I mean? Barry Humphries and Richard Pryor would have been the biggest influence on my stand-up. I love the way they would inhabit characters or tell stories that made them feel completely real. I wasn’t good at telling the fast [snaps fingers] joke of the day. That was never my thing. It was always longer observational stuff, and even in my sketch comedy, I much preferred coming up with characters who I kept revisiting, rather than the political joke of the day. That was never really how my brain worked in comedy. It was more subtle observations of people, characters I’d then expand and exaggerate. 

ESQ: What do you prefer to expand and exaggerate? What type of characters?

EB: It’s really odd things. It’s things either no one else is picking up on, or things that I find funny or sad. I’ve always liked making observations that don’t necessarily have a tagline because I’ve always trusted the audience would understand it. And you see this with shows like Saturday Night Live where the sketch is funnier than the tag. If you come up with a great character, the tag will never live up to the character. Almost never. And so I always trust that the audience understands the observation and enjoys the character more than some tagline. If you start deliberately structuring a sketch to build towards a tagline that’s funnier than the rest of it, you’re in trouble. I’d much rather people enjoy it and get laughs along the way without the pressure of needing a beat [badumtish makes drums crashing sound].

ESQ: Oh, you meant a punchline?

EB: Yeah, a tag/punchline, yeah, sorry.

ESQ: What makes good comedy?

EB: It’s a very personal thing. I think the best comedy comes from people who are delivering what they think is truly funny, not what the audience thinks is funny. If you look at, for example David Brent, Ricky’s character from The Office, I’ve heard him explain how if you had tried to sell the idea of David Brent to someone, the show would never have been made. These were his words: “Man sits in office says something unfunny, wiggles tie, nobody laughs.” Right? That’s essentially David Brent. He said he actually went and shot versions of The Office to show people what it was. The point that I’m making is that I think the funniest stuff comes from comedians or writers who have a vision. They aren’t necessarily trying to cater to an audience, but they think something’s funny and are true to that. So I think the best comedy comes from people who are true to their idea of what they think is funny, rather than comedy by… what do you call it?

ESQ: Pandering?

EB: No, well, focus group.

ESQ: Comedy by focus group.

EB: I can’t imagine what it’d be like for someone who has to make a comedy where it’s taken to a test screening and focus groups and changes are made. You gotta trust the director or the person in charge because it’s their taste that’s gonna make something funny.

ESQ: What do you think is the role of comedy?

EB: Well, obviously, it’s to make us laugh. I think comedy is at its best when it makes us think a little as well. Sometimes, comedy can be more moving than a drama. I’ll give you an example. I watched Daddy’s Home on a plane recently. Have you seen that?

ESQ: No.

EB: It’s just a crazy, hilarious comedy, a Will Ferrell movie. He plays this stepfather who is desperate for his two stepkids to love with him and they just treat him like absolute crap. And Mark Wahlberg plays the father who comes to visit. It’s a straight-out broad comedy, but it ends up being quite moving in a way that if it were a drama, it’d just be too on the nose and melodramatic. Sometimes, when comedy’s great, it can also be a little bit affecting. It can make you feel a little bit uncomfortable or make you look at things in a different way. I think comedy can have the potential to be quite smart as well.

ESQ: What more would you like to do?

EB: I don’t know. I never know what I’m going to do next until I read it, and then it becomes really obvious. At the end of the day, you don’t really have much say. Something overtakes you and says to you, No, this is what you need to be doing. This is what is appealing. It’s always a very instinctual reaction. I’ve never made a decision to do something. I’ve always responded to how I feel about a piece of material.

ESQ: What about directing? Are you going to go down that route?

EB: I enjoyed directing my documentary, and I’d like to do something again one day. I tend not to read other people’s scripts with an eye to direct. If I were going to direct something, it’d be something that would come from myself.

ESQ: Comedy stuff or more cars?

EB: I don’t know, I don’t know. I’ve to wait and see.