Mean Green Superhero

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These days, movie superheroes come in two models: the burly and the boyish. Hugh Jackman in X-Men is the butch type, slathered in testosterone, ready to pick a fight with the world. Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man is the fretful schoolboy, high-strung as a bluegrass fiddle, aching for the hormones to kick in.

Can anyone in the Marvel-movie field reconcile yang and yin? In The Hulk, Eric Bana deftly does. He's the strongman - a 193-cm, lifeguard-handsome Aussie - who plays it nerdy and needy, a strapping scientist with a troubled little boy inside. Suddenly you notice that the lantern jaw has a weak chin, that this paragon is all too roilingly human. It's the engaging fallibility that marks Bana as more than just an element in a huge marketing campaign. Ang Lee's big green monster movie may not be a smash (it already has flies buzzing around it), but Bana looks likely to become a star.

That's what he wants to be too - but not the overnight variety. "I want people to think I'm an interesting actor," says the intriguing guy du jour. "I just hope they slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly discover that over the next 10 years." It may be too late for a gradual buildup. He has already made an impression on Hollywood. A featured role in Black Hawk Down led to The Hulk. Now he is shooting Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, in which he plays Hector to Brad Pitt's Achilles - and that role could make Bana next year's June pinup as well as this year's.

But predictions of stardom are old news to Bana, 34. Back home, the working-class boy from Melbourne has been driving up the entry ramp to movie fame for more than a decade.

In the early 1990s, he was a star on the TV sketch-comedy series Full Frontal, in which he honed his gift for impersonation. Bana jokes that those who knew him then will say, "How dare you be internationally known as a dramatic actor, when here you were just into comedy?" Soon he pursued movie work, and locals figured he would be the next Mel Gibson. But that job fell to Russell Crowe, Jackman and half the rest of the male population of Australia. Bana made one homegrown film that caused heads to swivel, the grimly comic Chopper, based on the life of Mark (Chopper) Read, a spiky, unregenerate murderer who became a best-selling memoirist. "People were expecting a lighthearted romp through the criminal world," he says, "and they didn't get that." Bana, who put on layers of flesh and a scurvy, sociopathic smile for the role, won the Australian Film Institute's Best Actor award.

His Hulk character could be Chopper Read's mild-mannered cousin, a mess of rage and repression. Understand that Bana does not play the Hulk, that mean green machine. He is Bruce Banner, the sweet, troubled scientist who, when his anger starts to bubble, hands the heavy lifting, mauling and rock smashing to a computer-generated, volatile giant. (Think Shrek, off his meds.) Bana's Banner is a Clark Kent who never gets to be Superman - which means the actor had to Act. "He exists on his own as a confused, complicated character," says Bana. "Ang basically said, ‘There's light and shade, and you're the shade.'"

In that sense, The Hulk was made in the shade. Tempers frayed as the budget soared to $150 million, and the director's painful attention to detail and insistence on retakes drove his cast nuts. (Not for nothing do actors call him Angst Lee.) "It wasn't a set full of conflict," Bana says carefully. "It was a set full of tension. I think Ang boiled over only once, and I boiled over only once." Looking back, he says, making the movie "was satisfying the way running a marathon is satisfying. At the end, the person feels pretty good. But if you ask how he's feeling at the 20th mile, he probably won't be able to answer." Troy, by contrast, offers blessed relief. "It's like going to the acting doctor and hearing him say, ‘This is exactly what you need.' I've never had so much fun on a shoot before."

Bana gives every indication of being a genial fellow who loves his wife Rebecca and their two young children ("I have absolutely no interest in mindlessly pursuing my career at the expense of my marriage - life's too short"), his mates ("Eighty percent of my friends are guys I've known since preteens") and his 1970s-era muscle cars ("I was the boy who was crazy on cars. I'd had a car since I was 14 - an Aussie-made Ford coupe. People back home still ask, ‘Have you still got that huge, white, thumping car?'").

On the Troy set, he is riding a horse bareback - and galloping toward celebrity. He says of his Hulkdom, "I'm very mindful of being thrust upon the public." But for the moment, no one recognizes him poolside in Malta. He seems to cherish this last phase of anonymity. When asked what he would like fans to know about him, he says with a laugh, "As little as humanly possible."

So if The Hulk lands with a thud as the big green guy does in the desert, the former barman won't be crying in his beer. "What's the worst thing that could happen to me?" he asks. "That no one ever wants to hire me again. So I go back to Melbourne. There's no downside." He smiles broadly as he considers his options: "I'd like to work in the motor-racing industry. Acting is my professional identity; it has never been a part of my self-identity. So there's absolutely nothing to be fearful of."

Snarly heroes, sensitive ones and Eric Bana: a decent bloke who seems to have his values on straight. In Hollywood, that's a marvel. - Reported by Jeff Chu/ Malta