As I’m about to leave the hotel room where I’ve been chatting to Eric Bana about his latest film, Deliver Us From Evil, I mention that I’ve just read the Los Angeles Times review that has appeared that morning, and it’s as close to a rave as you could hope for.
‘‘Really?’’ he says, excitedly. ‘‘It was good? Oh, that’s great.’’
For a brief moment, he is relaxed, off duty. But while he’s far too polite to say so, I suspect Bana finds being interviewed a bit of a chore (though his time on Seven’s comedies in the ’90s and his marriage to former TV publicist Rebecca Gleeson have surely taught him the necessity of this particular evil).
A second later, a head appears from around a door frame in an adjoining room; it’s his American agent. ‘‘Yeah, it was good,’’ he says. I had no idea the guy was even there, presumably listening in on every word of our utterly innocuous chat. Such is life on the publicity trail for a Hollywood star, even one who still calls Australia home.
More reviews for Deliver Us From Evil have flowed in since then, and they’ve been a little more mixed. Which is a bit of a shame, as it’s a genuinely scary piece of work. An odd and oddly compelling mash-up of Seven and The Exorcist, it stars Bana as a cop in the Bronx who stumbles onto the case of a serial killer with satanic connections. Bizarrely, it claims to be based on a true story.
Bana is as solidly likeable and believable as ever as the cop, Ralph Sarchie, who wrote the book on which the film is based and acted as a consultant on the production.
How was it meeting the guy you were playing?
‘‘There was that delicate dance we did with each other,’’ he says. ‘‘We got along like a house on fire so it was never really a problem, but it was awkward in the beginning – it’s always awkward when you meet the real person.’’
Sarchie’s story asks the audience to take an enormous leap of faith, to believe that a ‘‘portal’’ to a realm of pure evil could exist, could be opened up through satanic possession, and could be closed down again by the rites of a Catholic exorcism.
Bana says he was raised Catholic-‘‘ish’’, but insists he was in unexplored territory with this arcane subject matter. ‘‘Like for most people, the only touchstone I had for exorcism was horror movies.’’
Ralph Sarchie is drawn into a showdown with the dark side because he harbours a secret in his past, an act of badness for which he has not atoned. And that, says Bana, is the thing that most attracted him to the story.
‘‘I love the kind of redemptive tale, I love Ralph’s journey and this whole notion that we don’t really get away with anything,’’ he says.
The day we talk, the verdict in the Rolf Harris case has been handed down, and though he doesn’t mention Harris by name, it’s clear this is on Bana’s mind.
‘‘You see people in life – we see it played out in a very large canvas right now with a lot of things that are occurring, without going into specifics – this notion that people think they’ve gotten away with something because they’ve actually ‘gotten away with it’. Well, you may have gotten away with it at the time, but you may pay for that eventually. That’s a huge part of the subtext of this film and I really enjoyed that. I felt it was a horror film that really had an opportunity to be something different for those people who wouldn’t ordinarily go and see horror, such as myself.’’
Bana is no stranger to picking roles that suit him, even if they don’t necessarily seem to suit others quite so well. American film writer Joe Queenan noted a couple of years ago that the actor had a tendency to be ‘‘consistently cast in roles in which he doesn’t get the girl, doesn’t finish the job, doesn’t save his planet, and usually winds up six feet under by the time the credits run’’.
It was a plea for a change of direction from the often-contentious Queenan – ‘‘don’t get me wrong: I like and respect Bana,’’ he said – but, the subject of this devotional text insists, it was utterly misguided.
‘‘He was fundamentally wrong in many areas, but I was extremely flattered by the fact that someone had taken the time to pay that much attention to my career,’’ says Bana, who has read the piece. But Queenan gets ‘‘a special pass’’ from Bana, because back when he was on Full Frontal, the American singled him out in a piece on Australia’s entertainment industry as “someone that may ... end up working in America’’.
That much he nailed. Since making his film debut in The Castle in 1997 and catching the eye in a major way in his second feature role, 2000’s Chopper, Bana has primarily plied his trade out of Hollywood. Yet he’s resolutely stayed wedded to Melbourne, where he lives by the beach with his wife and kids, rides his single-speed bike to his office in Port Melbourne (which he shares with filmmaker Robert Connolly), and potters around with his cars and bikes when not working. ‘‘Which,’’ he adds, ‘‘is a considerable amount of time.’’
He doesn’t take jobs just for the money, he insists, nor to simply keep the momentum up. ‘‘I decided many years ago not to buy into that paranoid panic of ‘It’s all going to end tomorrow’. If it ends tomorrow, it ends tomorrow; I don’t want to waste 20 years of anxiety.’’
Besides, taking a job for the sake of it ‘‘is how you miss out on the good stuff,’’ he says. ‘‘History has taught me to be patient because you always find something, and the thing you find is always better than the thing that in another lifetime might have tempted you.’’
Which is not to say he’s leaving it all to fate. Back in 2009, Bana tried his hand at directing for the first time, with the documentary Love the Beast, about his passion for cars (specifically the 1974 XB Falcon he had lovingly restored, and a few years ago wrapped around a tree during a race; he has since restored it again, but has retired it from competition because there’s ‘‘too much heartbreak there’’). He’d direct again, he says, but it would need to be ‘‘material I’ve written myself or co-written or developed’’.
Does he miss the old stand-up days?
‘‘Occasionally,’’ he says. ‘‘I don’t miss the anxiety side of it, but making people laugh is a good feeling. I miss sketch more than I miss comedy because my brain still works like that. I still see the world in 10 sketch comedy segments a day. That hasn’t really changed.’’
Deliver Us From Evil opens on Thursday July 24.