Eric Bana on making Aussie thriller "The Dry" in his hometown and escaping "the comedy straitjacket"

The actor appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss shooting the hit indie film amid the drought & his career trajectory

Published June 9, 2021 6:25PM (EDT)

Eric Bana and Genevieve O'Reilly in "The Dry" (IFC Films)
Eric Bana and Genevieve O'Reilly in "The Dry" (IFC Films)

It was 8:30 a.m. or so in actor Eric Bana's home town of Melbourne, Australia, where he, like so many, has mostly been hunkered down during the pandemic. He graciously appeared on "Salon Talks" before his morning coffee to discuss his starring role in the engrossing new thriller "The Dry." Bana was a producer on the film as well and worked closely with his friend Robert Connolly, who directed the film. 

In "The Dry," Bana plays Aaron Falk, a federal agent living in Melbourne, Australia, as he returns to the small town of Kiewarra to attend his childhood best friend's funeral in the small town he left 20 years ago under suspicion for the murder of his then-girlfriend. It's a fine, Australian-sourced and produced whodunit that will leave you questioning everyone.

Based on the international best seller of the same name by novelist Jane Harper, "The Dry" clearly made sense to be adapted as a film, and Harper told press she was excited to hear that the book had been optioned so early, years ago, especially given it was not yet in print. Bana learned about the project over lunch with director Connolly, with whom he shares office space but has not worked with for over a decade. He liked the idea of playing Aaron, a complex character who leaves the audience guessing about whether he was actually involved in the unsolved murder or not.  

For those who have eagerly followed Bana's career since his early days in Australia as a stand-up comedian and actor, saw him in Judd Apatow's "Funny People" in 2007, and wonder why he seldom does comedic roles anymore, Bana shrugs. "I started getting offered these really cool dramatic parts, and I figured I'd done this other stuff for the last 10 years, so I wasn't about to spoil the party," he recalls. "I think early on, that was the only rule I had when I started doing work overseas, was 'Don't stuff this up! Don't start doing comedies now!'," Bana laughed.  "I had just gotten out of the comedy straitjacket, and I didn't even know I had it on!" 

You can watch the "Salon Talks" interview here or read a transcript of it below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So we're talking about "The Dry." You're not only starring in the film, but also you have been integral, as I understand, to the production process. What attracted you to this script and the original book that was a best seller and to your title character of Aaron?

I just really loved Jane Harper's book, "The Dry." It was a wonderful page-turning whodunit thriller, but it had this incredible cinematic presence to it in the sense that she had located the story in a fictitious town of Kiewarra here in Victoria, where I live. And she'd just done the most incredible job of painting the landscape and the kind of characters that inhabit that part of the world really well. So I felt an emotional connection to the story straight away. I just felt like, "Oh, this is the land that I'm from. I understand this country and the characters within it." And I really love the story of Aaron Falk and felt that there was a really good cinematic opportunity to expand on his character and to elevate the story as much as we could using the tools of cinema.

And then of course, my dear friend, Robert Connolly was attached to direct it. And Bruna Papandrea was our producer who had acquired the source material. And it all came together quite quickly as a result of that shared energy that we had for the project.

Now, when were you in production? This was pre-COVID, I assume?

It was. So we shot here at the beginning of 2019, which was the height of the drought here in Australia, pre-COVID just as the terrible season of bush fires was getting underway. And yeah, it was extremely dry out there as you see in the film. Fortunately for that area, they did get some rain after we left that winter, middle of that year. They did get a pretty good season, but yeah, it really affects the characters, it affects the landscape, and it affects the psychology, I think, of the people in that region, those long running droughts.

Is there a lot of discussion, I assume, after the widespread wildfires that continually happen and how many people and animals have been displaced about climate change and how to address it in your very specific part of the world?

There is. Look all over Australia. There's a lot of hate on a lot of political parties here in Australia to do more. And they're trying to strike that difficult balance between jobs and climate. And yeah, it's a very contentious – no, not contentious. It's a very hot topic down here for sure.

Aaron is really complicated, your character. We see him returning to his hometown where he's still widely sort of reviled by many for committing a crime he says he didn't commit and was exonerated four years prior. The movie lets us wonder a bit, did he do it or didn't he – like any whodunit. So how do you approach playing characters with this kind of duality?

I was quite happy for Aaron to never really be let off the hook with the audience, even though he becomes our kind of writer, for want of a better term, in terms of how we follow the story and whose eyes we view it through. At the same time, every main character, at some point, has suspicion cast upon them. And I really enjoyed that structure. And that enabled me to, I guess, leave room for Aaron to be a bit of a mystery as well for the audience. And it was fun just from a structural point of view, knowing that at any point we could kind of swing the lens in a particular direction, particularly when it came time for the edit, to highlight one character over another and play with the audience's point of view in terms of who they thought the person may or may not be. And Aaron doesn't escape that, nor does our other brilliant character of Gretchen played by Genevieve O'Reilly. And I think that's part of what makes the story unique, that our main characters are also not free of suspicion.

So "The Dry," which you're also a producer on, is the first film I understand that you've shot in your homeland in about a decade. Was it an intentional hiatus? Were you drawn elsewhere? And if so, why did you go back for this particular project?

No intentional hiatus. I actually live here. So the Australian scripts are on the same pile as all the other scripts. And I just shoot what I fall in love with. And obviously the pile is a lot smaller because of just in terms of the output of how many films we make. But Robert Connolly, the director and I, had worked together previously on "Romulus, My Father" about 11 years ago and have been looking since then to find another project. And in some ways I'm surprised it's taken us this long and in other ways, I'm not because both those projects are of such a standard that they just don't come along every couple of years. I mean, in any country.

So I have been looking actively. Obviously, I'd love to do more projects here. It was a novel thing to drive four or five hours to start and relocate for a few months, rather than fly 24 hours. I could get used to that. But yeah, I don't have a kind of hard and fast rule about that stuff. Every script has to compete with each other and whichever one's the best is the one I'll say yes to.

Well, it seems that you picked an excellent one here. It's, I understand, one of the top 15 grossing films of Australia already of all time. What do you think that success is owed to? For what reason do you think?

I think it's a combination of things. I think we really wanted to make sure that our depiction of regional Australia was truly authentic and didn't contain any caricature or archetypal portrayals, and a lot of Australian cinema that plays with the Outback can tend to be more broad in its themes. And that can be very entertaining and interesting, but we were really, really hyper specific to make this feel like you had just spent two hours in Kiewarra, and even though Kiewarra is a fictitious town, the area we shot in is real. This is how people from the city in Australia relate to the country. They relate to the country through these small regional towns. They don't necessarily always relate to the country by being in the middle of the Outback. It's a different kind of a thing. These are country towns that we drive through in order to get from A to B. They're places we spend time in growing up and we understand them.

And so I think there was a real sense of recognition of that by the Australian public, who both people from the bush and the city went, "This is us. This is the true country Australia." On top of that, we had this incredible story by Jane Harper. Like this film, this book would have worked incredibly well in any landscape around the world. We were just gifted the fact that Jane chose to set this story in a fictitious town in Victoria that we were able to create. So I think its hyper-specific nature helped it. And for whatever reason, that thing that you can't bottle or manufacture, they just took it under their wing and just went forward and championed the film and turned up in droves and tell 20 people afterwards. And the film just had a life of its own that we couldn't manufacture. So we're thrilled with the result. I think we're one of the three top grossing independent films here of all time. And yeah, we're just really excited by the energy and the goodwill around the film.

Now, your career has really covered a wide swath of types of roles, which I think, as an actor is a real blessing to have that opportunity to choose everything from sort of comedic, violent thrillers like "Chopper" and then to blockbusters like "Black Hawk Down" and "The Hulk." So how do you choose film roles from that pile? 

I have no rules, but I have rules in the sense that I didn't have a path mapped out for myself. So I don't have a strong adherence to, "Oh, it must be this size film, and it must be this kind of role." I really, I mean, essentially I'm a character actor and I'm looking for characters and they may be the lead. They may be a supporting part. They may be in a British film. They may be in a American film. I'm in search of that challenge and that thing that's going to interest me.

So I guess my career, as you reflect in terms of the eclectic nature of it, is probably a reflection of that. I don't have a strong sense of, "Oh, you must only be the leading man." I don't think in those terms, which gives me a lot of freedom, and it means that I can move around and hopefully be available to directors who might want to offer you different parts to the ones they think you might find appealing. And I think it just keeps my world interesting for myself. And it means that I'm open to more things hopefully.

I don't know how aware Americans are that you're really funny because a lot of the roles that we've seen you in, at least more widely available roles, are more serious or they're crime dramas or they're military dramas. And not a lot of people know you were known in some circles for your many impressions. Are you still known for impressions? Can you do any good ones?

In the household, I am, but you're right. I mean, stand-up comedy was my world for 10 years. And sketch comedy was how I cut my teeth and how a majority of Australians still will relate to me as the guy from the "Sketch Comedy Show," which was similar to "Saturday Night Live." And then I made the switch over to drama overseas and kind of never looked back and then sort of burnt out of the comedy side of things. And I never really felt a great sense of, "Well, I must now do American comedies because I must prove, I can't have these Americans not know that I have this comedic background." I was like, "Okay, well, whatever. They were offering me these really cool dramatic parts. I've done this other stuff for the last 10 years. I'm not about to go and spoil the party." I think early on, that was about the only rule I had when I started my career overseas was just like, "Don't go start doing comedies now."

I just got out of the comedy straitjacket. It took me 10 or 12 years, and I didn't even know you had that jacket on. Just keep it in the cupboard. So that was most definitely deliberate. And to this day, it doesn't really bother me that a lot of American audiences are unaware of that. It's like, "Okay. That's just the way it is." So I don't get offered a lot of comedies, obviously, because of my background, but occasionally I do, and I enjoy, I really enjoyed, like the Ricky Gervais comedy "Special Correspondents." I had an absolute ball doing that, and Ricky's one of my comedic heroes and I love the man. So that was a real treat. So there might be another one in the future.

Anything else you want to share about "The Dry," how people can find it, and what you're working on next?

Yeah. Well, I understand that we're in quite a few theaters around the country, but I guess for most of your audience, we're accessible pay-per-view and streaming services like iTunes and other avenues. So the film is there ready to be consumed. We're excited by that model. We have a wonderful partner in IFC who are distributing the film in the states, but this idea that people can access it so readily, so quickly really excites us. And we can say that people are going to the movie in really great numbers already, which is really exciting and exciting for us here to think that so many people are wanting to spend a couple hours in Kiewarra.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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