Bursting onto the scene as the lead in cult-favourite Chopper back in 2000, Eric Bana has carved something of a niche for himself since as Hollywood’s go-to guy for grounded dramatic and action fare. Perhaps still best known for his breakout turn in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, the Australian actor has rarely shied away from more popcorn-friendly fare; with a villainous turn in 2009’s Star Trek reboot and a starring role in future Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson’s intriguing horror procedural Deliver Us From Evil among his more off-kilter projects.
What we often forget about Bana however, is that he began his career on Australian sketch show Full Frontal – becoming something of a cult figure in his native land as a result – and making his new role in Ricky Gervais’ Special Correspondents not so much another of these off-kilter choices, but more of an outright homecoming instead.
“I wasn’t just sort of selfishly looking for a comedy part,” he tells me; “If it wasn’t Ricky, I probably wouldn’t have done it.” Gervais’ stamp, to be fair, is present throughout the new Netflix feature; in which Bana’s sleazy radio journalist, Frank Bonneville, is forced to fake his own kidnapping to avoid public humiliation for missing a trip to cover an uprising in Ecuador. “The premise of this – and the lie getting bigger and bigger and bigger – excuses you from some of the places you go where you’re like ‘what? what happens in that scene?’” he explains, “and you hope that you get away with it because of the snowball effect of the lie that we’re talking along the way.”
“I’ve always been a huge fan of Ricky – since the early days,” reveals Bana of his co-star and director. “So when I got called about this, I couldn’t believe he knew who I was, for a start! ‘Really? Ricky wants me to read something?! Is it just the agency that’s sending me this or are you saying he actually wants me to read it?” So I was really flattered, and I read it and really loved the script, then I came through here on some other business so we got together and had lunch and met each other and stuff. It was an immediate yes. I’d seen the French version, which I thought was good but there was more room for a bit of humour. It was a big early yes, straight away.”
The Troy star marks but the latest in a long line of A-list talent lining up to work with Gervais, whose presence both in front of and behind the camera may seem ubiquitous to us on this side of the pond, yet is still something of a commodity to an industry which largely thrives on assigned roles. “I haven’t worked with an actor-director before – I’ve worked with a director who had been an actor but wasn’t acting on the movie – but this was the first time I’d been on set with an actor-director.”
Far from being daunting however, Bana instead found himself oddly protective of the man we still think of as the weasily and self-important David Brent. “You sort of feel protective as a co-star,” he details; “where you’re like ‘uh, someone’s about to ask him a question and we’re about to do a take – WAIT! Just give us thirty seconds…’ which he obviously can’t, cos he is the director but there were times where – as a mate – I felt like telling someone to go away.” He’s quick to add however that he may have indulged the temptation “a couple of times”
Yet while Gervais handling both character and camera may only be new to some, what’s still new to all is the increasing prominence of Netflix, the studio responsible for the Extras creator’s latest venture. “It’s a great model,” he explains, “especially now because there are so many ideas which don’t get picked up because they’re not massive ideas, y’know? The original idea is still the hardest one to make, so having places like Netflix is great for actors, writers, producers, for material which will take longer to get packaged and released to find a bigger audience.”
For the stars of today, Netflix is becoming an increasingly dominant force for the distribution of new material; largely due to the ease of its platforms accessibility – something Bana understands and embraces, despite the misconception of a film for Netflix being merely ‘a TV movie’. “It’s the first non-theatrical release that I’ve been involved with for a long, long time; and it’s nice – just sort of based on family and friend reactions – to go “you can watch it, it’s on Netflix!” and them say “oh cool, I’ll see it!” and have me be like “it’s that hard for you to go to the cinema now?!” but it is nice because one of the bummers of going off and working on theatrical stuff a lot of the time is that you don’t know how it’s going to be released, you don’t know how many screens it’s going to be on, you don’t know if it’s going to be released well – there’s just so much that comes into it. It’s rarer that they work than that they don’t work, so having something that’s just so accessible feels really nice.”
Known for producing features such as Beasts Of No Nation and the ill-fated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel Sword Of Destiny in recent months; the streaming giant makes its first foray into feature comedy with Special Correspondents – hanging an awful lot of stock on the back of both Bana and Gervais as its poster boys. Bana himself is steadfast however in championing the almost contradictory freedom that such a responsibility entailed, telling me: “It was a sense of freedom in that there was nobody looking over our shoulders; it was Ricky’s movie, he was the boss, and we were in Toronto shooting it, and it was as simple as that. That part of it, as an actor, I love; cos there’s nothing worse than having too many people on set who aren’t actively working on the film, so it just felt very free and independent.”
Par for the course with any project involving Ricky Gervais, naturally enough, is a solid supporting cast; and in this regard, Special Correspondents is no different. Bana may well, after all, be the biggest name above the title; but it doesn’t mean he himself wasn’t in for a shock or two at the hands of his castmates. “Kelly McDonald makes me laugh – everything she does in the film, even when she’s just rolling her eyes and looks like she’s pain! It’s so subtle and really funny, but Vera [Farmiga, who plays Gervais’ venomous wife in the film] – she was so convincing, she just never shied away from being an absolutely awful person. She’s just the most hideous character, which makes it all the more funny, y’know? It was great as well just talking to Kevin [Pollack] about comedy off-camera. Great guy.”
With his own comedy background, it’s almost expected that Bana would bring his own sensibilities to Special Correspondents; and, in particular, the role of Frank. As regards influences though; Frank, it seems, owes a debt to no man. “Radio’s big in Australia and I’ve always been a big AM listener,” he admits through laughter; “so there’s no doubt there’s probably elements of different people that I’ve heard over the years or seen on television, he’s probably a bit of an amalgam; but there’s no one person that he’s based on.”
Understandably, the media hardly gets an easy ride from Gervais’ script; and, why indeed, should it, given the numerous times pundits have taken the comic to task over the years? Far from a reactionary project however, Bana insists any prods the story takes at the media are light jabs at best. “There’s nothing more painful than someone that loves the sound of their own voice on television or radio,” he reveals; “so there’s a little bit of a poke at that with Frank. I also love how much it takes the air out of serious journalism being serious and sort of shows it for something else.”
It’s evident Bana carries a lot of respect for his director, doubly so for his co-starring to boot; but he’s quick to insist it’s not a dual-role he himself could ever take on. “I’ve had some experience with my own sketch comedy show back in the day, but no, I can’t see it happening anytime soon,” he admits; before adding that his hesitation is not down to a lack of interest or ability, merely being “too lazy, way too lazy” and laughing to himself.
Special Correspondents is available exclusively on Netflix from Friday, April 29th. Check out the trailer below.