Born Eric Banadinovich, the son of a Croatian father who worked for an American tractor company and a German hairdresser mom, the young Australian first became interested in showbiz after discovering Richard Pryor. And it was the American comic’s stand-up routines which inspired Eric to develop his own repertoire of impressions and voices.
Dismissing the idea of formal training, the self-taught actor began his career as a stand-up comic. In the early 1990s, he cut his teeth in the industry by performing in bars and clubs across Australia. “I didn’t study in the traditional sense, but I studied in a much harder way – I learned everything that I had to learn on the job, and in public, standing up in front of 200 strangers every night in a different town,” he says. “I’ll never forget those days – they were really exciting. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re on the road, and going through gig after gig after gig.”
Eric scored early successes thanks in large part to his keen wit, with the popularity of his stand-up routines paving the way for a series of TV roles in sketch programmes. He proved a natural, and his prowess led to him landing his own comedy show in 1997. Soon being touted as Australia’s next big thing, Eric had to bide his time, however, before breaking out as a leading man on the big screen.
It was during this period that Eric met and married Rebecca Gleeson, a former publicist who had worked at the same broadcasting network as the actor. The couple have two children, son Klaus, who was born in 1999 and daughter Sophia, who arrived in 2002.
After a series of smaller roles the Aussie hunk finally scored a break-out hit as the notorious thug Mark “Chopper” Read in the 2000 indie film adaptation of Mark’s best-selling memoir, Chopper. To pack on the 30lbs he needed to play the rotund criminal, Eric went on a four-week junk-food diet. His commitment was rewarded. In addition to earning critical praise for his portrayal of the criminal, he also received an Australian Film Institute nomination for Best Actor.
By then a household name in his homeland, Eric began to set his sights on establishing himself on the international stage. The opportunity arose when Ridley Scott offered him the role of an American sergeant in Black Hawk Down, the 2001 Oscar-nominated film detailing a near-disastrous US military mission in Somalia.
But it was 2003 which turned out to be the real “banner” year for Eric, with the 6ft 4in actor becoming an international sensation after director Ang Lee cast him as Dr Bruce Banner in a big screen adaptation of Marvel Comics’ The Hulk. The film’s success led to him being offered the role of Hector opposite Brad Pitt in the 2004 summer smash Troy.
Despite his meteoric ascent to international stardom, the proud father of two has not forgotten his roots and is still based in Australia. Home for the Bana family is the southern city of Melbourne, where, when not filming, Eric pursues his passion – racing bikes and cars. The self-professed “rev-head” takes his sport seriously, making his motor-sport debut in 1996’s Targa Tasmania and participating in the 2002 and 2003 Classic Adelaide competitions.
Eric is “like the old-time movie stars,” says his Lucky You director Curtis Hanson. “He’s grounded in an adult way. He loves his home, his family, his motorcyles and cars. He’s a man.” The talented thespian, often described as “humble” by his co-stars, consciously avoids Hollywood. “I deliberately fly in and out of LA for as small a time as humanly possible,” he admits.
Home really is where Eric’s heart lies. “When I go on the plane to fly home, I’m literally capable of forgetting what I do for a job,” he says. “That also comes about because I choose to take massive breaks between projects, and because I choose to do this ridiculous thing of keeping home, home.”