Based on the popular Australian novel by Jane Harper, The Dry tells the story of a small town tragedy that unearths long-buried secrets from the past. Directed by Robert Connolly, the film stars Eric Bana as Aaron Falk, a Federal Agent who must return to the hometown he left behind in his teenage years after his friend Ellie died under suspicious circumstances. It’s a brooding mystery thriller that benefits from the rich texture and specificity of the region while also centering the many interesting characters within this community.
For Bana, it marks a return to working in Australia, something that he relished as it allowed him to take on the role of both producer and actor for a project that he felt a great deal of protectiveness over. That passion shows in one of the finest performances of a 20+ year career. This isn’t the performance that a new actor fresh to the scene would make. Bana calibrates the role perfectly, knowing exactly the right level of stoicism and inner turmoil to bring to a character who is struggling with questions of his past while dealing with the mystery of the present.
After exploding internationally with his breakthrough role in Andrew Dominik’s 2000 debut feature Chopper, Bana was quickly positioned as a new Hollywood leading man. It made sense, as he was the right age with disarming looks, remarkable screen presence, and genuine acting chops that added authenticity to any role he took on, whether that was the warrior Hector in 2004’s Troy or the lead of Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture-nominated Munich. As quickly as Bana ascended to the ranks of Hollywood’s most in-demand leading men, he seemed to retreat from that spotlight, choosing to focus on different projects like the Australian indie Romulus, My Father, and taking on supporting roles in films like Funny People and Hanna.
This career trajectory is something that Bana and I discussed as we sat down to speak about The Dry, a welcome return to the screen for a tremendous actor doing some of his very best work. In our conversation Bana talks about his desire to never be too committed to anything, always wanting to have the freedom to choose his projects rather than have them be chosen for him. We also dig into his collaboration with director Robert Connolly, working with his co-star Genevieve O’Reilly (who plays Aaron’s childhood friend Gretchen), and being a part of one of the most successful Australian films in the country’s history.
Read on for my interview with Eric Bana:
Mitchell Beaupre: You seem to be a rather selective actor when it comes to the projects that you want to take on. You’re not someone who feels the need to be in three or four films a year, so it really stands out when you do appear in something. What is it that draws you in when you’re reading a part?
Eric Bana: I’m looking for an involuntary response to the material, rather than an intellectual one. First and foremost, I’m looking for something that I’d be really happy to pay money to go and see myself. I want a character that I fall in love with, that I feel a sense of ownership for, where my ego kicks in and says “you are the person for this role”. There’s always other people, but if I read something and I can imagine 50 other people I can see in that role, then I’ll just move on. Whether it’s a big film or small or a supporting role or whatever, essentially what I need is to feel that sense of ownership over the part when I’m reading it.
MB: Your career has taken an interesting trajectory, where you broke out in the early 2000s and went on this run with Hulk then Troy and then Munich right after. It felt almost like Hollywood was trying to force you into this specific box as “the next big leading man”, and then you retreated away from that and focused on movies like Romulus, My Father instead, or a supporting role in something like Hanna. Was that a conscious choice for you to move away from that box and broaden your horizons for your career?
EB: I really appreciate that angle on it. I think it’s a bit of a yes and no. In many ways I felt I was still doing that anyway, but what I had to be careful of was making sure I didn’t get lured towards the large films and being stuck there. The thing that I love the most is not having commitments. I love being free to choose what I do, and to not be confined, so once that opportunity presented itself I wanted to protect that. The minute I feel like I wouldn’t have a choice anymore, or that I felt the pressure to do one kind of thing, I would have gotten bored really quickly. In some ways, I was just doing what I had always done, but you’re right that it was something I was conscious of wanting to protect.
MB: Speaking of choice, for The Dry you took on the role of producer as well as actor. What motivated that decision for you to wear both hats on this one?
EB: There were two things. For one, I feel really attached to the source material and very protective of it. Second, I had known the people involved for a very long time. I knew [producer] Bruna Papandrea, and my dear friend Rob Connolly had also known Bruna for a long time, so I knew this team was really solid. From a practical level we were making the film in my backyard here in Australia, in rural Victoria, so that presented me the opportunity to do more in that space than I normally would. I was able to be involved in all of the pre-production and the post-production, whereas on another film I’m here in Australia at a distance from it all, so it was great this time around to be able to be here and working with Rob on all of it.
MB: I live in America, but even speaking to my Australian friends they’ve remarked how much this film is an authentically Australian picture. Was that something that appealed about the project to you, that sort of specificity of making an Australian film in Australia, where it wasn’t trying to morph itself to appeal to Hollywood?
EB: We felt really confident that the Australian-ness of the film wouldn’t make it exclusive. In this day and age people like being immersed in different environments. The worst thing we could have done was taken this story and put it somewhere else, because there were so many things that were uniquely contributing to the true drama of the story that Jane Harper had written that were specific to the region – the small town, the fact that it’s drought stricken. Sure, we could have put that in Texas, but at the same time we knew that we know this land better than we do Texas. We always felt that the best chance we had internationally was first and foremost working in Australia, and that you guys would be more likely to take notice of the film if it were a huge hit here first. We did feel some pressure to get those elements right, but at the same time we felt confident as well.
MB: The title The Dry refers to that drought hitting the region while also working as a metaphor for the characters. How do we see that idea represented in the way that the tension in this community is reaching its boiling point?
EB: We shot the film at the beginning of 2019, at the height of the drought, so we were able to capitalize on that visually, but it’s very specific in Jane’s writing the way that the drought is having an impact on this community. It adds to the palpable tension of the story, and it makes you feel trapped as if you’re living in one of these towns. You’re experiencing it as if you’re in that food belt, you’re a crop farmer with no way to escape the cycle of this family business, no escape from the weather and the elements. It adds to the physical, emotional, financial drama and tension for all of the characters – that sense of being trapped.
MB: The story is told through two parallel timelines, with us not knowing the full truth of the past until late in the film. As an actor, how was it for you to have to embody the experience of your character’s past in the present day before the audience understands everything that happened to him back then?
EB: It was very, very specific, and we had to be very careful about how we calibrated that. Luckily, I had the gift of knowing that the audience was getting to have the emotional experience from the other actor in the past. I had to make sure I didn’t underestimate how much emotion was being brought into the scene already because the audience had already come with the character to where I’m at in the present moment. I didn’t need to slap too much over the top of this because they’re already there, they’ve already seen what happened, so I was being mindful of that and it gave me the confidence to bring that sparseness and stillness to my performance. We shot those scenes in the past first, so I was aware of what was going on in that space with young Joe Klocek playing my younger self, so the reality was that my performance was already being added to by what was happening in those scenes. It’s absolutely something I was conscious of and calibrating for.
MB: Even Aaron doesn’t know all of the answers of what happened in the past when he first comes back into his hometown. How much of him trying to solve this mystery in the present day is about him trying to solve the past for himself? How did that inform your process of getting into his headspace?
EB: It touches on that idea that you can’t really deal with the present until you deal with things that have happened to you in the past. I think that’s one of the unique traits for the book structurally. It sets this dynamic, and so it’s adding to the intrigue of solving the crime as much as it does to the sense of relief or non-relief emotionally for the main characters, of both Aaron and Gretchen. I knew that I wanted to do the film when I read the book and I got to the scene where Aaron goes to Gretchen’s farm and we have that long 10-12 minutes where it’s the two of them together. We feel the potential of those two, and then something big happens in that moment that sparked it for me and made me know that I wanted to play Aaron. I wanted to be the actor that is in that scene.
MB: That relationship between Aaron and Gretchen does serve as the core of the movie in a lot of ways, and again it gets into that idea of developing the story in the present that is based so much on what happened in the past. What was it like for you and Genevieve O’Reilly building that relationship of these two characters with such a long, complicated history?
EB: Genevieve was absolutely incredible. I loved working with her. We felt at ease immediately which was so fortunate as we were playing characters in the present that are meant to have this immense history together. I don’t know how we would have manufactured that if we didn’t sort of instinctively feel it right away like that. A lot of it is there in the writing, but she was just amazing to work with. Genevieve has this lightness to her that is so remarkable. That character could have been very dour and heavy, and there is this kind of stillness and tragedy to her, but there’s also a spunkiness and a lightness there. Gretchen and Aaron go straight back into the banter they would have had when they were little. It’s such a layered relationship.
MB: I read that the movie had the highest opening weekend ever in Australia for an Australian independent film. Especially after the last year of theaters being shut down in most places, how did that feel for you to have people show up in your home country where this movie was made and make it such a success?
EB: It felt surreal and amazing. I’ve been a part of a lot of films that upon reflection are successful, or upon reflection people find interesting, but it’s not often that you’re in a film that just has this BOOM right away. Being appreciated in the present, being celebrated in the present felt really unique, and I haven’t had many of those moments, so to have it here so overwhelmingly was beyond our wildest dreams. It wasn’t even marginal, the film did such crazy business here for so many months which is so unusual in Australia, and the people just really got it and championed it. That felt really special, especially because I got to share it with Rob, who’s one of my closest friends. Sometimes you’re in a film and you’re happy for its success, but this one meant a lot because I got to be happy for my friend as well, and it felt so good to do this job together. The making of the film was such a joy. Usually you get one or the other, you enjoy making it or it’s financially successful, but to be able to have it all be so joyful has been such a great feeling.
The Dry will be available in theaters and on VOD starting May 21st
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]