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LONE SURVIVOR’s Eric Bana on Working with Peter Berg, Improv, and more

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by on January 10, 2014

Military movies are nothing new at America’s movie theaters, but few films have managed to depict the powerful brotherhood forged in the heat of battle or the grim realities of war like Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, which opens in theaters this Friday. Based on retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell‘s memoir of the same name, Lone Survivor recounts the events of “Operation Red Wing”, an aborted Navy SEAL reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province that resulted in the single largest loss of loss of life for Naval Special Warfare forces since World War II. It is, by turns, a harrowing and inspiring story, anchored by a tremendous cast including Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, and Eric Bana. Recently, I was able to speak with Bana, who plays the pivotal role of field commander Eric Kristensen, over the phone to discuss what attracted him to the project, how he researched his role, and what’s on the horizon for the Australian actor.

Nerdist: I want to say I really enjoyed the film. I kind of knew what I was in for with the trailer, but when you’re actually in the theater, it’s just a powerful, very affecting film. Job well done!

Eric Bana: Oh, thanks.

N: I’ve read that you’ve wanted to work with Peter Berg for quite some time. I’m wondering what it was about him specifically that attracted you to this project, and what was the experience like now that you’ve actually done it?

EB: It was a couple of things. Pete and I nearly worked together many, many years ago. He had a project in development at Universal — I’m going to say 13 years ago, maybe 14 years ago, before anyone out here knew who I was, and was really keen on me to play the lead, actually. The project never got off the ground, and I was a fan of Pete’s work as an actor and really enjoyed meeting with him, and we kept in touch over the years. Then through these various films, I’ve just really enjoyed his work, in particular on The Kingdom — I just thought it was one of the best films I’ve seen for a long time.

I knew he was developing this project. I had already read Marcus’s book, independent of that, and loved it. So when he called me up to see if I would consider playing Commander Kristensen, I jumped at the chance.

N: When you have someone with an acting background who transitions to more of a directorial role, do you find that’s more helpful to you as an actor, since they understand maybe more of what you guys are going through?

EB: Yeah, it makes it more interesting to some degree, and it makes it more instinctual. Pete really was happy to throw things away if they weren’t working, and then completely change tack, and that was fantastic. I love being in an environment where things are changing, where you have the ability to change things slightly, and recognize when things aren’t working. He has a great instinct for that. He shoots very fast. He covered the scenes extremely well and it meant you would do things a lot of times and then you could really pour yourself into it. It was a great experience. I loved working with him.

N: One of the things I enjoyed, especially in those first scenes on the military base, there was such a palpable camaraderie, and it felt very improvisational and of the moment, so I was wondering if that was all scripted, or if they gave you some sort of guidelines and you guys got to feel it out from there?

EB: Yeah — no, a lot of it was improvised, and he would just say, “Okay, let’s try this: Eric, you get up and say this and sit down again.” A lot of that was improvised, just to make things feel organic and real and keep the energy up.

N: You mentioned that you read Marcus’s book. I’m curious as to what sort of research and prep you did for this role? Were you actually able to speak with Marcus at all? I’m not sure how involved he was with the production.

EB: He was very involved. I did my research from afar. I was at home in Australia when I got the call, and I did my prep from afar, and arrived at the shoot well and truly half-way into filming. So my job was to really concentrate on what Erik’s role was within the story, and just the processes of the chain of command and ranking and the logistics of the operation. So I concentrated my time into that area and I was unable to meet Erik Kristensen — I was in Australia, so I wasn’t able to meet family and friends, so I did my work from afar, and then off we went.

N: This is not your first military, based-on-a-true-story-type affair, back with Black Hawk Down as well. Is there something about this sort of story in particular that you find yourself drawn to?

EB: Most definitely. I knew it was going to be a special experience, and I knew that it would be a similar experience in respect of working with the Special Forces community on a project — it’s a really wonderful opportunity for an actor. It can be quite life-changing, in some ways. I knew that this film would have a similar tone, in terms of their hands-on involvement, and it was exactly the case. In fact, there were some people that I worked with on this film who worked on Black Hawk Down with me years ago, and like I say, being a fan of Marcus’s book, and really intrigued by the role that Special Forces play in warfare, it’s something that I’m always intrigued by and interested in. It’s just a joy.

N: Very nice. Do you read a lot of military histories and things like that?

EB: Yeah, I do occasionally pick up the ones that interest me — for sure.

Lone Survivor

N: Shifting gears slightly, with a film like this, any time there’s a military film, you always run the risk that it could be really easy to portray the enemy, in this case the Taliban, or even the Afghani people, as sort of a monolithic evil. I thought the film toed that line very well, not making them just sort of menacing cardboard cut-out enemies, but more like real people with motivations of their own. But I’m wondering, coming from an outsider perspective, given your Australian heritage, did that help you remove yourself from some of the politics of the story? I imagine that might make it a bit easier to just sort of take it at face value.

EB: Well, I knew that Pete wasn’t going to make a political film, so it was never really a concern. I had complete trust and faith in what Peter was intending to make, and so I never really thought of it. And obviously the fact that the book, as well as the script, shows some cultural facts that aren’t always explored in those situations that are enlightening, and hopefully somewhat educational. So by saying the way Marcus was treated by the villagers and so forth, and the reasons behind that, it’s very fascinating. It was fascinating to read the book, and it’s fascinating in the film, and so I never really had any concerns about that.

N: Yeah, I thought he also contextualized it nicely by bookending it with the real-life footage of the Navy SEALs, and giving you a little bit of background on what you’re in for, or what you’ve just seen. Stepping back just a moment, you mentioned that you’ve worked with some of these Special Forces guys before. Is there any cool factoid or something interesting that you learned about military service, or life in the military, that normal folks like us civilians might not know?

EB: Well, obviously, you get put in a very unique position where, in some cases, you become friends with these guys, and they’re obviously going to tell you things in private that they could never reveal publicly. And that’s not necessarily from a classified information point of view, it’s just in terms of how they feel about their friendship with you, and so you get to hear stories that most definitely put things into a very clear perspective, and make you think very differently about the level to which behaviors are questioned and rules are made and so forth. So it does, most definitely, open your eyes to a lot of things.

N: Looking towards the future, I know that you have a film, Beware the Night, coming up next. Is there anything else you can tell us about that, or anything coming up on the horizon that we can look forward to?

EB: Besides Beware the Night? No, I was here shooting that this summer, and it’s been brought forward to summer of 2014, so that will be the next film out there for me, so I’m just reading a bunch of scripts now to try and work out what to do next. So beyond Beware the Night, who knows? [chuckles]

N: [laughs] Well, that’s nice too, to not have everything set in stone. A world of potential unfolding before you.

EB: Yeah, right. That’s the best thing about the job.

N: Exactly. I’ve just got one last question for you, and it’s a bit of an odd ball, so please bear with me. What would be inside your ideal burrito?

EB: Wow.

N: Yeah. The question you’ve been waiting for.

EB: I couldn’t even begin to think of a good answer to that. [chuckles] They’re not very common down under. We’re not big on burritos, so I guess as long as it was tasty, I couldn’t tell ya.

N: That’s all you can really ask for at the end of the day.

EB: [chuckles]

N: Eric, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it, again. I really enjoyed the film.

EB: Great, thank you. Appreciate it.