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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After seeing the Australian actor Eric Bana's riveting performance as a brutal criminal in the film "Chopper," I was astonished to learn that he was famous in his country as a comic. He did sketch comedy and had his own TV series in Australia.

Bana went on to costar in Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down." He starred in Steven Spielberg's film "Munich" and in Ang Lee's "The Hulk," and he played the villain, Nero, in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek."

Bana stars in the film adaptation of the novel, "The Time Traveler's Wife," which opens next month, and starting this Friday you can see him in the new film "Funny People." It stars Adam Sandler as George, a comic who has been diagnosed with a rare blood disease that is usually terminal. As he reflects on his life, he realizes that he still loves the woman he was in love with when he was young, but now she's married with two children.

Eric Bana plays Clarke, her overbearing, philandering husband. During one of Clarke's many business trips to China, George and his assistant, played by Seth Rogen, pay a visit to the old girlfriend, played by Leslie Mann, but Clarke has cut his business trip short and surprises everyone by returning early, which leads to a very awkward pizza dinner with the whole family. Seth Rogen speaks first.

(Soundbite of movie, "Funny People")

Mr. SETH ROGEN (Actor): (As Ira Wright): This is really good pizza. You know, they say, like, New York has the best pizza, and I always thought pizza in L.A. was only okay, but who'd have thought, you know, Marin County is really hiding the good pizza pies.

Ms. LESLIE MANN (Actor): (As Laura) Clarke speaks fluent Chinese.

Mr. ROGEN: (As Ira) Really? Does he speak Cantonese or Mandarin?

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Oh, well played, Ira.

Mr. ERIC BANA (Actor): (As Clarke) Mandarin.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Well gayed(ph), Ira.

Mr. BANA: (As Clarke) It's a bloody odd language, though, George, geeze. (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified People and Mr. BANA(Actors): (As characters) (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. ROGEN: (As Ira) Sounds like a scene from "Deer Hunter."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Eric Bana, welcome to FRESH AIR. What are some of the things that make your character likeable and unlikeable?

Mr. BANA: There's quite a lot to make him unlikeable. I think he's quite misogynistic. He's almost a tiny bit racist as well, and he's one of those people that just sucks the energy out of the room. He's, you know, not - he's the one that you may kind of laugh at but at the same time be a little bit repulsed by, but can't help but love his honesty.

GROSS: Now, you know, it's interesting. The cast of "Funny People" is something of the Judd Apatow repertory company. Seth Rogen has worked with him a lot. Jonah Hill has worked with Seth Rogen a lot. Adam Sandler was Judd Apatow's roommate when they were starting out. So your character is kind of like the outsider in the movie, and in a way you are the outsider on the set because, like, you're not part of that whole group that's made a lot of movies together.

Mr. BANA: That's right. You know, I was definitely the odd man out in the film, which you know, to me was a lot of fun. I'm a huge fan of everyone involved in the film, and particularly of Judd's work as a director.

So when I got the call to be involved potentially, it was, you know, a very, very exciting thing for me because my background in Australia, for many, many years, before I started in movies, was stand-up comedy and sketch comedy.

So I was initially just really excited about the subject matter, you know, and the idea that he was delving into the working life of a stand-up comedian and the struggling, you know, starting out stand-up comedian, and Judd had done some homework on me and found some old comedy material that I'd done and was, like, why have you not done this overseas? Why have you not done a comedy?

And I said to him, I said, well, I just never found anything remotely relevant to what I used to do. And I mean, no - I don't have that urge in me to prove a kind of funny side. It just doesn't bother me at all. And he said, well, I think this character would be great. Have a read, and I read it and just loved it immediately.

GROSS: So in addition to being in "Funny People," you are also in a new movie that opens a little later in the summer, called "The Time Traveler's Wife," and give us a sense of the story of that.

Mr. BANA: Yeah, well, it's based on a great, very popular novel of the same name, and it's basically about a couple, a married couple. The husband suffers from a disease, which means he involuntarily travels through time, and interestingly enough, when he travels through time, he always visits his wife as she's growing as a person.

So you know, it starts out he visits her when she's about six years old and then progressively visits her at various stages of her life, right through until adulthood, and it poses a lot of really interesting themes and questions and was quite beloved by a lot of women in particular.

GROSS: I first saw you in the Australian independent film, "Chopper," in which you play a real character, who is an Australian criminal, and I'd like - since most Americans aren't familiar with him, I'd like you to describe the character that you play, the real person who you portrayed.

Mr. BANA: You know, it's based on a real person by the name of Mark Brandon Read, who was quite a well-known criminal, a very violent criminal in Australia, and he was most famous for the fact that he had severed his own ears off himself in order to get released from a particular wing of the prison. And he was a stand-over man, basically someone who stood over drug dealers for cash and for money and preyed on them in order to make a living. But he had a very, very violent past, you know, an unbelievably tragically violent life, and in the end he was released from prison.

The film was very controversial because he was a free person at the time that we made the film, and he's an unbelievably gregarious and funny person and had written books whilst in prison on his life that became bestsellers in Australia, and we then made a film about a portion of his life.

GROSS: I want to play a clip from the film. This is from toward the end of the movie, and you know, he's become a celebrity by writing this memoir while in prison, and so in this scene a camera crew and a TV interviewer have come to interview him in prison.

(Soundbite of movie, "Chopper")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) So how would you describe yourself now?

Mr. BANA: (As Mark Brandon Read) Just a bloke. Just a good bloke down on his luck.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) Well, you don't seem out of luck to me. You've written a bestseller.

Mr. BANA: (As Read) Yeah, I know, and I can't even bloody spell. What about those poor, bloody academics, those college graduates, battling their guts out to write some airy-fairy piece of exaggerated artwork, and here's a bloke sitting in a cell who can't spell, and he's written a bestseller. It sold 250,000 copies, and it's still selling, and he's writing another one, and I can't even spell. I'm semi-bloody-illiterate. They must hate my guts, eh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I think you get a little sense in there about how this character is, like, as you said, really gregarious. He's kind of charming in his own way, when he wants to be, and he's really sick. And you met with Chopper. You met with this guy for, like, two days at his home, and…

Mr. BANA: I did, yeah. At the time, he was released from prison, was living in his home state of Tasmania. So Andrew Dominik, the director, and I went down to hang out and spend some time with him, which was, you know, it was so valuable for me to just be in his presence. It was quite incredible and definitely really helped me with the portrayal, for sure.

GROSS: He recommended you for the part because he'd seen you in sketch comedy, and do you know why he recommended you, and did it make you wonder what kind of vibe are you giving off that you don't even know about that this absolutely crazy criminal thinks, yeah, he's the guy to play me?

Mr. BANA: Yeah, it's a good question. He saw me when he was in jail, working on a sketch comedy program that I was working on at the time called "Full Frontal," back in Australia, and you know, I used to play, you know, a pretty wide range of characters.

Some of them were pretty crazy, and he apparently one night was watching the show and said, I reckon he'd make a good Chopper and recommended me to one of the producers and, in fact, the casting agent, and luckily for me, Andrew, our director, had not seen any of my work, so had no kind of preconceived notion as to what I could or couldn't do and just screen-tested me, and that's how I got the part.

GROSS: My guest is Eric Bana. He costars in "Funny People," which opens Friday, and he stars in "The Time Traveler's Wife," which opens next month. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Bana, and he has two movies coming out this summer: "Funny People," the new Judd Apatow movie, which opens very soon; and then "The Time Traveler's Wife," which opens in August.

One of the films that you're known for in America is "Munich," which is Steven Spielberg's movie in which you play a Mossad agent on a team assigned to assassinate the leaders of the attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Let's hear a scene from Munich, and during this mission, in which you're assassinating people who Israeli intelligence suspects are the leaders of the attack that killed the Israeli athletes at the Olympics, you're starting to have doubts about whether the men you're killing really are the people responsible for the attacks and if by killing these people you're really accomplishing something or whether you're maybe doing something that's morally wrong, and your doubts just keep increasing.

You end up moving your wife and infant son to Brooklyn for their protection and also so that you could safely visit them because you feel like everybody's after you now, and in Brooklyn one of your bosses from the Mossad shows up and meets you on a bridge, and you have a conversation. He speaks first.

(Soundbite of movie, "Munich")

Mr. GEOFFREY RUSH (Actor): (As Ephraim) You did well, but you're unhappy.

Mr. BANA: (As Avner) I killed seven men.

Mr. RUSH: (As Ephraim) (Foreign language spoken) We'll get him, of course. You think you were the only team? It's a big operation. You were only a part. Does that assuage your guilt?

Mr. BANA: (As Avner) Did we accomplish anything at all? Every man we killed has been replaced by worse.

Mr. RUSH: (As Ephraim) Why cut my fingernails? They'll grow back.

Mr. BANA: (As Avner) Did we kill to replace the terrorist leadership or the Palestinian leadership? You tell me what we've done.

Mr. RUSH: (As Ephraim) You killed them for the sake of a country you now choose to abandon, the country your mother and father built, that you were born into. You killed them for Munich, for the future, for peace.

Mr. BANA: (As Avner) There's no peace at the end of this, no matter what you believe. You know this is true.

Mr. RUSH: (As Ephraim) Here's what I know. Your father is sick. Your mother will be alone. You're Sabra. Your wife and daughter are Sabras. What I came to say is this: Come home.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BANA: (As Avner) Come to my house for dinner tonight. Come on, you're a Jew. You're a stranger. It's written someplace right over the mantle. I ask you to come and break bread with me, so break bread with me, Ephraim.

Mr. RUSH: (As Ephraim) No.

GROSS: That's my guest, Eric Bana, in a scene from "Munich." Now, you're Australian, but, you know, you often do movies as people from other countries, and you have to use accents, like an Israeli accent in "Munich," an American accent in some of your American films. And I guess, was it hard to get the Israeli accent?

Mr. BANA: It was, and it wasn't. At first, I was like how the hell am I going to do this? Then the more I studied it, and I have a wonderful coach that I work with, Susan Haggerty, who is great at research and had sent me a lot of materials, and fortunately for me, when the film was in pre-production, it got pushed, and we sort of went 12 months later, and so kind of like with "Chopper," a similar thing happened. You just end up with about a year's more prep than you thought you were going to get.

So you just use that time. So I sat with an Israeli accent for a very, very long time. It wasn't like an accelerated preparation. I probably, in the end, had a good 18 months at least to get up to speed with it.

And you know, my parents are of European background. My father is Croatian, my mother's German, and it's not completely similar to them in sounds, but I think having an ear for European sounds I think definitely helps.

GROSS: You know, Americans don't think of themselves as having an accent. We think of ourselves as being, like, the default setting, and you know, British people have accents, Australian people have accents, but we don't, you know?

So when you hear, like, American speech, what do you consider some of the defining characteristics?

Mr. BANA: See, I think you speak very well. I mean, I think there's two kinds of American speakers, as well as there's two kind of Australian speakers. I mean, Australians can speak very lazilly, you know, and just kind of, you know, not really articulate things and have a very lazy mouth, and Americans can do the same thing, where they, like, talk through their nose and, like, sort of whine a little bit and all that kind of thing.

Then there's that very articulate version, you know, the opposite version of both, which is very sort of succinct and clipped, and so I guess you're sort of always paying attention to those things.

It does get easier over time. Obviously, I find it a lot easier now doing an American accent than I did 10 years ago. You sort of get more and more practice in each film when you're sitting down with your coach. You've got, you know, a different level of reference points and stuff to go on.

GROSS: How did you develop your ear for mimicry and for accents and dialects?

Mr. BANA: I'm not sure that I was overly conscious of developing it. It was something that was there when I was a child, I mean, impersonating my grandparents as a kid and making my grandfather laugh and thinking, wow, that's really cool.

And then Sundays, when our family would get together, I would then, you know, stalk down the hallway with his walking stick and come in and do this weird breathing that he used to do and say a couple of words, and everyone would just, you know, just be in hysterics. I was thinking, well, this is a pretty good way to get popular. This is pretty easy, and I could probably get out of a fair bit of trouble with this. And then I literally did the same thing at school.

I used to impersonate teachers and students and would have teachers pull me aside in the corridor and say, you know, I hear you do Mr. Walker, would you mind giving me a sample?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BANA: And I would do that teacher, and then the other teacher would grab another teacher and say, have you seen Eric do Mr. So-and-So, and go on, do it, do it, do it.

So there was a currency. You know, there was a currency in it, and I guess I sort of - there was some sort of comfort level in being able to do it, perhaps.

GROSS: How did you start doing comedy?

Mr. BANA: I think out of desperation: desperation, curiosity, necessity, arrogance. It was the early '90s back in Australia, and there was a recession, and I was fresh out of school with no desire whatsoever to go on to college and, you know, seek tertiary education. I wanted to go and work on cars, and I really wanted to be an actor, and I had absolutely no idea how to go about it, and someone said I should try stand-up, and I thought it was a ridiculous idea because I wasn't the sort of person that, you know, felt a compulsion to make strangers laugh at all, but I did enjoy telling a story and, you know, was a huge admirer of Richard Pryor as a kid and really idolized him.

So someone took me to a stand-up comedy venue, and I just assumed that everyone would be as good as Richard Pryor. So I went along, and one of the performers was pretty good, and the other three or four were absolutely dreadful, and my friend turned to me and said, see, it's not what you think. And I was like: Are these people actually getting paid?

So I went away and a week later came back with five minutes of material and jumped up on stage and had a really good first gig, and I just started booking tryout spots around Melbourne, and it was a very, very vibrant stand-up comedy scene at the time, and it just kind of snowballed and just kept going and going, and then I reached that moment where you have to really decide if that's what you want to do, and I threw in my day job and my part-time job and decided to have a crack and just, you know, spent my time writing material and developing my act and did that for about 10 years before I started acting.

GROSS: So it sounds like you were never, you know, trained as an actor. You never went to acting school or studied acting. Is that right?

Mr. BANA: That's true, yes.

GROSS: So what's it like for you when you're on the set with actors who have studied acting, and they have more of a technique that they're using, and you're - what you're doing is more, it sounds, instinctive? Do you find that you ever clash because you're doing what you do, and they're applying, like, a technique that they've learned?

Mr. BANA: It's interesting. I was always very fascinated when I first started acting because the differences were probably greater then because I would arrive onto a set or on to rehearsal and see copious amounts of notes in people's scripts, and it used to freak me out, as someone who was always bad at doing his homework and preparing for exams. And so I would then observe that method and find that quite often those notes were kind of crippling people and not enabling them to give up on an idea or a thought or try something new, and I always found that the minute I made a note on my script, that I was signing off on an idea, and it used to scare the hell out of me.

So I never made notes on my scripts, and still today I make very few. When I finish a film and I have my shooting script and I look through it, there's very, very, very little written in my script. So I guess that's probably the biggest difference that I noticed initially and probably now.

GROSS: Well, Eric Bana, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BANA: Thanks, Terry. It was a pleasure.

GROSS: Eric Bana costars in "Funny People," which opens Friday, and he stars in "The Time Traveler's Wife," which opens next month. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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