Why 'The Dry' Star Eric Bana Loves Playing Subtle Characters [Interview]

Eric Bana's performance in The Dry is one of those reminders that less is more. Sometimes more is more, yes, but in the case of the hit Australian crime mystery, silence speaks loudly. Bana stars as Aaron, a man investigating a murder-suicide involving his old friend back home, where he is not welcomed with open arms. Similar to the cast of colorful supporting characters in director Robert Connolly's depiction of rural Australia, as an audience, you're suspicious of Aaron because Bana gives everyone so little.

It's a mystery Bana sells in the patient but a propulsive thriller, based on Jane Harper's novel. Harper's hit book hooked the actor, who's returned to Australian cinema with a bang. "It was a book that I loved and that our director Rob Connolly loved," he told us, "and we tried to honor the book and try to elevate it as much as we could from a cinematic perspective and felt like it had the potential to really pack a punch."

As usual in The Dry, Bana doesn't use bells and whistles as a performer. When we think of his most well-regarded roles, he never goes for the wild transformations always bound to generate headlines. Instead, Bana's work is more natural and, to the actor, more relatable as a result. During our interview with Bana, he told us why he's drawn to subtle characters, as well as his fondness for his breakout film, Chopper.

Characters either have an inherent trust or distrust of Aaron, and for the first hour, you don't quite know how to feel about him, either. What choices did you want to make to create that uncertainty? 

There's an inherent level of uncomfortableness for Aaron because he's returning to a town that he left 20, 25 years ago under the worst circumstances to come back to for the funeral of his best friend, who's been involved in potentially a murder-suicide. And when I read the book, I had this feeling of like, it's almost like the school reunion that you really don't want to return to, that sense of dread and emotional baggage that comes from it. So, the raw ingredients have so much angst and emotional edge to them for Aaron and for the audience because everyone can relate to it. Then we discovered that there is a crime to be solved, both in the past and in the present, and no one is off the hook, including my character, Aaron. And so the lens shifts, we experience the story through his eyes, but everyone has a level of suspicion cast upon them. So, that really helped.

His sense of stillness creates that feeling as well. Was that in the book?

Well, it's there in the book and I think because the landscape is such a big character in the film, it gives you the ability to anchor the story in a very real way because you want the audience to feel like they're in this town, this drought-stricken town. And I think it helps the emotional experience of the audience that we have those moments of quietness and it draws you in and makes you feel you're a part of that landscape, but it was a very deliberate thing. Rob, the director, and I worked really hard on Aaron from an emotional perspective. And in terms of the twists and turns in the storyline and the edit, where does it shift and who are we suspecting it at what point is most definitely deliberate.

Speaking of the landscape, Victoria, are there nuances in the movie about that community that maybe I wouldn't know, but to you, those little things resonate? 

I think they're intrinsically international. When I read the book, I felt emotionally connected to it because it's the landscape of my home state, Victoria. I live here in Melbourne, but that countryside is only three, four, five hours away so, that's where we shot. It's a rural part of Australia that I really identify with. In fact, this depiction of a regional country Australian town is probably the most deliberately accurate depiction of Australia that we've seen on screen for a long time.

Quite often, our films do pick the outback and there's a lot of caricatures. This is the opposite. This is the Australia that most of us relate to, these little towns that we spend time in or that we travel through in order to get somewhere. Australians recognize this version of Australia very, very well, so the pressure was on us to make sure that the picture was highly accurate with the casting and with the way that we shot it. But I can't wait to hear Americans' reaction because you can't travel right now, but you couldn't feel more like you're in Australia than when you watch this film.

We shot at the beginning of 2019, which was the height of the drought. And I think for any person that's part of a rural landscape where you're weather affected, you can relate to it. We were just so lucky that Jane Harper's novel was set in this particular landscape because of the toughness that comes from this drought and that landscape definitely adds to the tension in the film.

There's a very haunting use of "Under The Milky Way" by The Church that creates tension, as well. In the movie, it's played as one of those songs that bring you back to your youth. Is that one of those songs for you? What other Australian bands do that for you?

Yeah, absolutely. And for me, most of those musical references are intrinsically Australian because I grew up with those local bands and so forth. But yeah, that version of "Under The Milky Way" by The Church is sung beautifully by young BeBe Bettencourt. It was something that we replied with on the set. And initially, there was actually a different song that she sung and we had to do another version and she's just got a great, beautiful voice and it was a great song choice. We could have had a more recognizable song, but in this case, it's something very Australian and it's great. And as you say, there's a haunting quality to both the song and her version of it. But yeah, Australian Crawl, Midnight Oil, and all Australian bands are the ones that take me right back to that period of my life.

Aaron is one of those challenging roles that don't get talked about enough. There's no major transformation. No prosthetics. Yet, you still disappear. Is a role or disappearing, in general, trickier when there is no drastic transformation involved? 

Yep. You're right. They're the sort of characters that tend not to get the same level of focus in some ways because it's less flashy. They usually only make a deal about big flashy roles, whereas I'm really attracted to those subtle characters. I love the internal work that goes into them. And you need to work with filmmakers who are confident in that style of character because you need to sit with them. You need to sit with those performances. But I do feel like they're very immersive as well because we can relate to them and it's quieter and that definitely Aaron's character, and I love doing them.

Since this is your first Australian movie in a while, I couldn't help but think of Chopper, in which you did get to transform and go big. Is that a role you have a lot of nostalgia for?

Yeah, I guess I had my hands full at the time. It was very enjoyable. We shot the film in two halves. The first half was quite stressful, the second half was a lot of fun. And I do have a lot of affection for the film and the people I worked with, with honor. It wasn't a huge hit at the time and it's just been reflected upon. It took a long time to find an audience along the way, particularly overseas, so I'm thrilled with the reaction it still gets this many years on. It felt special at the time. Those characters are super rare. You're lucky to come across one in your career if you're lucky. To get one so early, I felt very, very fortunate.


The Dry is now in theaters.