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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2006


Bana steps up to the plate

Director Steven Spielberg has avoided the usual press tour for his new film, "Munich," and who can blame him? The film speaks for itself, and anything he said could have pinned him down fatally when this film requires a certain ambiguity to work. And you can imagine the questions he would have gotten: "Mr. Spielberg, do you consider yourself a self-hating Jew?," or, "Mr. Spielberg, isn't Jewish Hollywood biased against Arabs?''

Running interference for Spielberg this time is his star, Eric Bana, who must have been pleased to find that his Tokyo news conference comprised nothing but softball questions. Bana, 36, is yet another Australian actor who has made good in Hollywood. His career started in comedy, both stand-up and television sketches, and he rode that line for 12 years, before finally making a memorable dramatic debut in the Ozzie indie "Chopper" (2000), where he had a maniacal, Travis Bickle-like role to make his mark with. (This went straight-to-video here, but is well worth tracking down.) The Hollywood roles followed, first as a pumped-up Delta Force operator in "Black Hawk Down," then the lead in Ang Lee's "Hulk," and the chance to duel Brad Pitt as Hector in "Troy."

Avner is easily his most challenging role yet, a father-to-be who likes to cook, but also a man who's capable of gunning down an unarmed man at point-blank range; a selfless man who'll do anything for his country, but one who eventually resents what he's been asked to do. Bana is mostly low-key, never showy, so its unlikely he'll be getting an Oscar this year, but it's a fine, compelling performance. In Tokyo, the actor described how surprisingly easy it is to work with Steven Spielberg.

On his own memories of the Munich massacre:

When it occurred I was only 4, so I don't have any direct recollection, but growing up I remember having sort of subliminal memories of the news footage, of the masked gunmen on the balcony. But three years ago when I was approached to play the role, that's when I really started to learn what happened at the Munich Olympics and after that.

On working with Spielberg:

He's an incredible director and person. One of the most thrilling things to me, working on this project with Steven, was that we were able to get together nearly two years before we started filming, and we were in constant dialogue the whole time the script was being developed, talking about Avner and his journey. . . . He encouraged me to perform instinctively, and he's very interested in what the cast have to say and their ideas. As a result, you end up in a wonderful relationship with the director where you're prepared to do anything he asks.

On Spielberg's directing style:

Steven has an interesting way of approaching a scene, he doesn't want you to rehearse it too much, or talk about it too much, he wants to shoot it. He wants to allow whatever ideas everyone has to occur on-camera, on-screen, in the first few takes. And then he starts to play with it; sometimes he won't touch it at all, sometimes he'll get very involved in changing things. I think it's what makes him unique -- a lot of directors want to control every single element, and rehearse and rehearse. But Steven has this wonderful childlike side of him, where he's very interested in watching something happen for the first time on film, because he's very aware of the fact that it can never be re-created.

On building his character:

Having a chance to meet the real person on which my character was based was very helpful, because it allowed us to incorporate very small anecdotal things -- like during the first assassination, where the gun gets stuck coming out of my trousers. It gives it a more realistic feel.

On the scene where Avner meets Ali, a Palestinian gunman:

The scene on the stairwell between [Avner] and the Palestinian terrorist was always a very important scene, in terms of the content of that conversation. I knew it was one of the points in the movie where my character's nationalistic motivation gets amplified by what he's hearing this Palestinian gentleman say. So I guess from [Avner's] point of view, it's the point at which he becomes more calculating and more driven by his mission. When I saw the movie as an audience member, I actually felt quite sad at that moment, because I felt [Avner] connected with him in some way.

On whether the movie has made him more politically aware:

It most definitely affects you. It was a similar case for me after finishing "Black Hawk Down." The news has never been the same for me since. Every time I hear about a helicopter that's been shot down somewhere in the world, I have a completely different reaction. In this case, I learned as much as I could about the Middle East, its politics and history, because it wasn't something that I was particularly familiar with growing up in Australia. So, now my thoughts are different. I don't have strong political views myself, but I find it a lot harder to feel detached now.

On the use of flashbacks in the film:

It serves two purposes. It's very conflicting for the audience, because every time we see [Avner's] group doing things that we disagree with or feel uncomfortable with, we're then reminded why they're on this mission and why they want to continue this bloodlust. It's a difficult thing, because these images [of flashbacks] make you want to encourage them to keep going. The minute you start to think "I wish they would stop now," then the flashbacks make you realize, yes, they have to do something, because this was a terrible atrocity.

The use of it at the very, very end . . . the thinking there was simply: Here you have a man who's been through this terrible journey. He had finally been re-united with his wife, and he's in his most intimate moment with her, and even at that point, he was completely unable to clear his mind of the things that were haunting him.

The other part of that scene, and to me it's just as important, is about the husband and the wife, and her nonjudgmental acceptance of what he's done. The shot of that woman playing my wife, Ayelet Zurer, at the end of that scene, to me, was probably the most powerful part of the film.

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