Eric Bana, the Aussie actor best known for his serious, interior performance as an Israeli covert operative in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, is an unlikely writing partner for Judd Apatow, widely considered to be a genius of lowbrow comedy. But in Apatow’s new movie, Funny People, Bana took it upon himself to make a key—and ultimately brilliant—change to the script.
“My character was originally American,” says Bana in Beverly Hills the day of the Los Angeles premiere of Star Trek, in which he’s almost unrecognizable as the tattooed space thug Nero. “I just thought I could make it funnier if I were Australian.”
In Funny People Bana’s Clarke is a loudmouthed member of the transglobal corporate ruling class. He lives in a fancy San Francisco suburb with his lovely wife (played by Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann) and their overachieving young daughters (the girls speak Mandarin at the dinner table), but sees no problem with getting a massage-parlor “rub and tug” while traveling on business in Asia. The character is, deliciously, a Grade-A jerk with a megaphone voice, and Bana plays him broader than the Australian outback.
“I read the script, and my brain went crazy,” says Bana, who at 41 has gray streaks at his temples and is easing into midlife like a hunkier Richard Gere. “I know these guys. I know exactly how they work. I know how they behave. And I know how loud they are.”
In a scene that threatens to steal the movie from star Adam Sandler—his character is a stand-up comedian who believes that he’s dying of cancer and tries to reconnect with Mann, a former flame—Clarke shows the glum American and his joke writer and assistant (Seth Rogen) how Australian extroverts indulge their national passion for televised “footy,” or Australian Rules football, with hilariously exuberant demonstrations of physical aggression.
“There is a half-hour version of that scene where I don’t draw breath,” says Bana, who is considerably more subdued in person. “We went through 3,000 feet [of film]. It was me just going insane, tackling them and showing them how to kick. I just went absolutely off my head.”
“At one point, he was also singing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ because the [St. Kilda] Saints are his team,” recalls Apatow during a break from postproduction on the film, which opens July 31. “It made us laugh so hard. I need to turn it into a 10-minute DVD extra.”
While Bana, who lives in his native Melbourne with his wife and their two children, is milder than Clarke, he was still a favorite on the set, says the director. He’s the affable jock who can also scrimmage with the nerdy Apatow bunch on their own turf: off-the-cuff comedy. “We were all depressed when he left,” says Apatow. “He isn’t working from the emotional life of an insecure, neurotic comic. He’s more comfortable in his skin than any of us, but he still has a wicked sense of humor.”