The usual way a phone interview with an actor whose films have grossed over a billion dollars goes is like this: A publicist calls the journalist, then connects the star into the call. But for his phone interview with IndieWire, Eric Bana called himself, exactly two minutes before the scheduled time. “It’s the only way it works for me,” was his explanation, one which did not at all surprise his collaborators on the Bravo drama series “Dirty John.”
“It’s not that you would necessarily expect him to be this imperious famous person who just bosses everyone around,” showrunner Alexandra Cunningham said. “But he very much is just sort of like… he’s just a guy. For him it’s like, ‘Why wouldn’t I just call her? Why do I need somebody to connect me on a phone? I know how to use a phone.’ I don’t know if it’s an Australian thing or whatever. They’re just very much more down-to-earth than even your run of the mill down-to-earth person.”
Director Jeffrey Reiner added, “Eric is the least affected star I’ve ever worked with. He has no affectations at all. I mean, at all. He does what he says he’s gonna do. He’s hard-working, very diligent. And he’s just a smart and sweet guy.”
Bana has been a warrior. He’s been a sketch comedian. He’s been an assassin. He’s been a Hulk. For two decades now, Eric Bana has had legitimately one of Hollywood’s weirder careers — and he has no regrets.
“I never saw myself as ‘I want to be an actor because I want to be the guy,’” he said in our interview, and when he said “the guy,” it was very clear what he meant. After all, the concept of stardom, especially for an attractive white man who Hollywood quickly threw offers at following his discovery, is not hard to understand — and that’s exactly why Bana’s career has taken so many turns.
If you’re Australian, then Bana’s breakout role was probably as the star of his own 1990s sketch comedy show, before he landed the title role in the film “Chopper,” playing one of Australia’s most notorious and charismatic criminals.
For the vast majority of America, “Chopper” was likely not Bana’s breakthrough role, but within Hollywood, it marked him as a fresh new talent ripe for the spotlight. As Roger Ebert wrote in his 2001 review, “He has a quality no acting school can teach and few actors can match: You cannot look away from him.”
Bana said that at the time he had no idea “Chopper” would be what would make him a known quantity, because “I never think about that. I just think about whether or not the character’s really interesting… I never really envisaged the film being seen outside of my home state.”
“Chopper” did do something for him — make him a contender for dramatic work. “I was always interested in doing drama. I just really had no idea how to bridge the gap. You know what I mean?” he said. “I guess in some ways I allowed myself to think it would be interesting to play all kinds of different roles, and I didn’t really have a huge filter that, that would not be possible. I don’t know why. Naiveté early on is your best friend, there’s no doubt about it.”
That naiveté led to an eclectic array of opportunities, including Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” but he’s continued to pick his roles on his own terms, seeking out something different than being “the guy.” Which is why, just a few years after playing a Marvel superhero, he didn’t mind playing second banana to others in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” and J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek.”
“The attempt is to try to be lighter on your feet and be free to find different types of characters, or find something different within them,” he said. “And if that means sometimes playing a smaller role, or a bigger role, whatever, I think it’s important to be open to it.”
Bana noted that the concept of picking roles that involve new challenges “definitely gets harder as you go along. Because if you’re lucky enough and you’ve played a broad range of things, it’s inevitably harder to not repeat yourself.”
In “Dirty John,” based on the true-crime podcast, Bana embodies everyone’s worst nightmares about internet dating as a charming suitor to the vulnerable Debra (Connie Britton), whose dark side comes out in a horrifying series of events. The reason that “Dirty John” is Bana’s first major TV role outside of Australia has everything to do with his very specific requirements for taking on any particular project, based on two elements: Bana’s dedication to his family life in Melbourne, and his focus on picking the right characters.
“Always,” Bana said of his decision to focus on characters. “It doesn’t matter what. Every film I’ve done, that’s always been the guiding decision-making thing, for sure.”
This is because his perspective on the job of acting is that “you wanted to be an actor because you want to play interesting characters. So sometimes they’re gonna be in the background, sometimes they’re gonna be in the foreground. That’s kind of always been my priority.”
That said, the characters Bana’s played over the years don’t have a lot in common, except for perhaps one aspect: few of them have utilized his incredible range as a performer, able to shift from comedy to drama to flat-out horror in a beat. That’s why Cunningham wanted to work with him ever since her first viewing of “Chopper,” and why he was her first choice for “Dirty John” as soon as she took on the project.
“Dirty John,” Cunningham said, was the first time she wrote a script with actors in mind, though part of that was due to the production process, since Britton and Bana were on board before she wrote her first script for the series. (Her previous series, including “Prime Suspect,” came after she’d written pilots.)
“I had always wanted to cast Eric Bana in something,” she said. “But knowing from casting director friends of mine who had put him in other things, I knew that historically he had parameters for, besides being drawn to a character, about how a project needed to be set up.”
When it came to “Chopper” (a movie which is not currently available for streaming, a fact which Cunningham wants to make known in case some service might be able to fix that problem), her takeaway was that “he did everything in that movie. He was charming. He was scary. He was jokey. He was chilling. He was handsome. He like, everything. I just felt like well, this is an actor who can do anything and anything in the same character.”
Reiner’s reaction to the idea of casting Bana was simple: “It was like, can we get him? Why would he want to do TV? He’s always been incredibly select his whole life, so selective. So I was wondering why he would do it — but the first thing was yeah. Let’s get him. And lo and behold, he did it.”
For the record, Bana doesn’t feel that the characters of Chopper and Dirty John are all that similar. “Chopper was much more charming. Chopper was way more charming and way funnier, and way more likable in a really weird kind of a way.”
But the levels of duality in play made him an obvious choice, to Cunningham. “I don’t know that I’ve seen him play a character like that since [‘Chopper’]. He’s played a lot of fantastic characters and crushed it, but they didn’t necessarily have the humor or the charm or the scariness or all at the same time.”
Reiner noted that when he signed up to direct “Dirty John,” his first response was “wow, is there a better character right now in television than Dirty John? Because he is something different to everybody else, and he plays his cards so differently. I was thinking, this could be so much fun for somebody to play, because you have to lead with your charm, and then you have to show small little moments of evilness. You can’t lead with the evilness and you have to just start dishing it out little by little.”
Improvisation was a part of the filming experience, such as with a scene shot on the first day, which Reiner said they tried “maybe like 10 different ways. We made him angry, we made him funny, we made him jacked up on coke, and I made him strung out on dope. Every single take he did it differently. We didn’t do that every time but what we were doing was just trying to explore who the character was.”
This approach worked, he said, because from the beginning “he’s a very versatile actor, he can improvise if needed, he can stick to the script if needed. So, I guess we were moving so quick, sometimes we had to explore things. He pretty much was as versatile as I could have hoped for.”
“Dirty John” has been renewed for a second season, though the story will be totally different and Bana said he won’t be involved. “I’m just on this for the one season. It was never a consideration,” he said.
As for future TV work, he noted that “oh, God, well, it took me forever to find this one, so I wouldn’t hazard a guess to try and work out what the next thing will be. Absolutely no idea, no idea at all.”
That said, “it definitely hasn’t suited my lifestyle up until now. But who knows? I mean, I really believe in being open. I don’t like closing things off, so who knows?”
“All the choices he’s made, not only does he not regret them, but I think now he’s at an age and a point in his career where he chose his family and having a base like that and only picked projects he was excited about, and now he’s got a solid family who love him, who he’s been present for all these years,” Cunningham said. “Now they’re starting to have their own lives and his potential is like unlimited. Like, he’s still a great actor. He still looks fantastic. He’s still a wonderful person. The sky’s the limit right now.”
“Dirty John” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Bravo.