Hollywood ‘hulk’ Eric Bana gets candid about returning to comedy

Exclusive interview: An audacious comedy sees radio journalist Eric Bana fake a trip to war-torn Ecuador

Steven Bond

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It used to be a death sentence for a movie not to premiere at the cinema. That’s simply no longer the case. For actor-director Ricky Gervais, movies are about creativity and freedom, which is why his latest flick is being released via online streaming platform, Netflix.

The audacious comedy sees radio journalist Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) and his technician (Ricky Gervais) fake a trip to war-torn Ecuador with, shall we say, unforeseen consequences. We spoke to "Hulk" actor Bana himself about the joys (and challenges) of working with Ricky, his return to comedy and what we can expect from the movie.

How did the idea come about to work with Ricky – did he know about your comedy background?
Fortunately for me, he just wanted to cast me to play Frank but then I found out he didn’t know about my comedy background, which was great because there was even less pressure. In order for the comedy to work, I had to play Frank straight in order for the comedy to be funny. It was the opposite… I thought Ricky would be worried about me trying to be funny. We then hit it off and created a whole dynamic between the two characters.

Did your chemistry allow for much improvisation during the filming?
That was every day. Ricky creates a very loose performance-driven environment and it’s the opposite of having to stick to the script. We’d always have it there as a base but once we’d shot two takes of what was on the page, it was time to muck around. We shot with two cameras, which was good and bad… if something is really funny then you just can’t hide your laughter because there’s a camera on you. So we just had to keep going and going until there was a take where neither of us were laughing.

Ricky’s laugh is certainly very distinctive! I heard you reference classic double acts, such as Laurel and Hardy, but was that a something you talked about before or during filming or just a reflection?
Actually no we didn’t and I’m glad, because it meant we were able to find our own dynamic naturally, rather than it be forced. We didn’t talk much about comedy when we met, we just talked in general and he just wanted everything to feel real, which is why I’m such a big fan of his work. So we didn’t talk about being overly conscious of that stuff so it was only afterwards we said it reminded us of Laurel and Hardy.

You’ve spoken about the freedom to improvise and move away from the script, but were there times he behaved like a “normal” director and reined you in?
The only time we had to behave was when we were on set doing the radio scenes. We had to stick to the script, which had key information for the plot so it had to make sense. So that was the only time he put his grown up hat on, otherwise, there was a lot of mucking around.

Why did Ricky get to keep his British accent while you had to talk like an American? Was that a comedic device?
No, it was frustrating! At one stage I was wondering if I could get away with playing an Australian – there are loads of Australian journalists on CNN, BBC and everywhere, so it would’ve been totally believable. But it would’ve been another conversation for [Ricky] to have to say there’s yet another non-American character in the movie. But it actually worked for Frank to be from New York, it made sense for the character and I’m so used to not being able to play Australians. I’ll wait for another day!

It’s strange because there are so many great Australian actors (that most people assume are American) so have you heard that discussion, about a lack of roles for the Aussies?
I do think about it sometimes because I do think it’s ridiculous. There are Australian people everywhere in the world… go to London and try and get a cup of coffee without hearing an Australian accent. So I think we’re underrepresented in films but certainly present in Hollywood. In Funny People (2009) my character was originally American but I gave my reasons why he should be Australian and I got my way, so I would do that again if I thought it was appropriate but generally I don’t ask. It wouldn’t have worked for Hector… (in Troy, 2004).

Directors and producers have talked about the “Netflix effect” when it comes to creative freedom. What’s your perspective as an actor?
I think it will have a very positive impact on actors, directors and writers. For writer-directors like Ricky, it’s great because it’s about original ideas, which are harder and harder to make in the traditional studio system, which is relying on huge, non-original movies. Writers are always writing great stuff that studios just can’t do anything with, so there’s now a space where quality will rule.

Will we see you on the other side of the camera, producing or directing some of these great scripts and ideas?
Potentially, yeah. It hasn’t been on my radar for a while. I directed a documentary a few years back (Love the Beast, 2009) and I learnt a lot doing that and I’d like to do a narrative some day and as my kids get older that becomes more feasible. I’d never say never and if I had a piece of material that I could either develop or write myself then I’d be tempted. I tend not to read scripts and think, “oh, I wanna direct this”, I have to be really, really passionate about it, I’m too lazy to take something on. I’d have to be obsessed with it.

Speaking of passions and comedy, will we ever see you return to stand-up comedy?
I think I’m too lazy. I miss the purity of it but I don’t miss the reality of it. I muck around with mates and come up with ideas at home, and if I can make my 17-year-old son laugh, who’s the hardest audience in the world, it’s as good as a thousand-seat venue for me. So that part of my brain is still ticking away but the thought of going on the road and being in a different town every day, it’s a different thing.

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