We chat with Eric Bana about squaring off against Forest Whitaker in Roland Joffé’s latest historical thriller.
What is forgiveness? It is a concept that a lot of us struggle within an era of seemingly never-ending atrocity. Turn on the random TV channel, something new and awful has just occurred. How can we possibly deal with it all, let alone try to understand the human behavior behind this constant parade of monsters? If we’re ever to move beyond the horror, we must attempt some form of understanding.
With The Killing Fields and The Mission, director Roland Joffé has made a career out exploring human strength in the face of cruelty. He’s never met a topic too harsh or ugly to dissect. Based on Michael Ashton’s play, “The Archbishop and the Antichrist,” The Forgiven is a confrontation of wills between Forrest Whitaker’s Desmond Tutu and Eric Bana’s Piet Blomfeld. Here are two men attempting to navigate the politics and the emotions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the end of the Apartheid. Who will be the first to flinch on their convictions?
I spoke to Bana over the phone. He is incredibly proud and happy with what he achieved with Joffé and Whitaker. While he has tackled several different bad guys in the past, nothing had quite prepared him for the vile nature of Blomfeld. He knew that if he failed on his end, then The Forgiven would not work overall. We discussed the integrity that went into building the relationship between man and monster as well as the delicacy of a well-researched backstory. Below you’ll find a man hungry for work, and an actor who appreciates the rarity of worthy roles.
Here is our conversation in full:
A large appeal of the film is being trapped the room between your character and Forest Whitaker’s Desmond Tutu. That juxtaposition of good vs. evil. How do you go about establishing such a relationship?
I guess it was about really just trusting what was on the page. The script was so superb. I was able to imagine Forest as Tutu. When I read the script, he was already attached. So it was an incredible proposition for me. Collectively, the Director, Roland [Joffe], myself and Forest decided to not specifically rehearse the scenes. Which I was so excited about because this is the sort of film that you read and you imagine actors spending weeks and weeks and weeks agonizing over every word.
Roland really trusted the two of us and kind of left it up to us. We had a rehearsal period as such, but it was more of an informal rehearsal period. And when it came down to it, do we run these scenes or do we just save it for when they’re together? We decided to go with that energy.
And it was so exciting. I can’t tell you, and he also gave us the option to split those very long scenes into sections, which we both rejected. We ran them top to tail like a play in each instance, which gave it its own unique feel and energy.
You inhabit a truly monstrous character. You’ve played bad guys in the past, but not like this. This is a skin that I would think would be very hard to wear.
It was easily the most challenging role I’ve ever had. Easily. I knew for Tutu’s character to work, and for the film to work, that we had to believe every single word that came out of Blomfeld’s mouth. And that would require enormous commitment and somewhat of an understanding of where he was coming from. So, the biggest hurdle for me was just throwing myself into the deep end in terms of South African history. To try and get a handle on the warped sense of purpose behind Blomfeld.
And that took time. Because while I do remember that period, being in school, we didn’t learn a whole lot about the Apartheid era. We certainly didn’t learn about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I was learning about a lot of that stuff fresh. And that was the key to the character, was just understanding the history, the backstory, to be able to commit to his warped sense of his own version of history.
So, you did a fair amount of research into the history of the country and the Apartheid, and into Blomfeld himself?
Well, Blomfeld is an amalgam of people; he’s not an actual person, which gave me some license, thank God. But there were plenty of examples of people like him to draw upon. But you’re right; it is a huge challenge. And the film doesn’t work without that portrayal feeling genuine.
It’s interesting how as the film goes along and you get more backstory into how he became the human that he became. You certainly empathize if not sympathize with the character. Was there an anxiety of selling the humanity and the horror of such a creature?
I think in that instance it really comes down to the director and the tone. And, if I had read this exact same script with a … if this was a 20-year-old director that was trying to make a name for themselves and they were being a bit careless, there’s just no way. There’s just no possible way that I would have taken on the material.
A lot of that freedom comes from the safety net of knowing that there is an intellect and a level of understanding and concern from the filmmaker to be able to handle that subject matter eloquently. And I always felt like I was in the greatest possible hands with Roland. And when you hear him articulate his thoughts about this subject matter in the film, it is such a treat. And so that for me was the backbone.
Joffe is a storyteller who often tackles these epic insights into human atrocity. What were your conversations like with him?
Well, it was more about what was at the core of the character and the humanity of the characters themselves. And the notion that these two people are so far apart and yet, one is able to move the other, even if it’s a couple of degrees. That can be a monumental shift.
And we don’t realize that Tutu’s had that effect until after Blomfeld’s death. It’s not even in the living that we get a sense of him yielding. Or barely. Only that brief moment at the end when he gets on the phone, but there’s not a whole lot of redemption available to the character in present form.
But obviously knowing that very, very morsel of humanity becomes available at the end helps for sure. Helps you take the dive because otherwise, it would just be too hard I think.
Watching The Forgiven in 2018, it’s impossible not to see how Mandela handled the Apartheid and this whole idea of admitting your sins to allow your country to heal, and not think of how our American sins have been allowed to fester. How do you expect contemporary audiences to relate to the film when the credits roll?
If nothing else, it’s a beautiful history lesson. Mandela’s idea of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the fact that it was as much about people being heard and people’s stories being told, as a part of the healing process. It wasn’t necessarily just about bringing retribution to people who had wronged. That was there as well, but in many cases, those people could be pardoned, which was incredible.
But it was deemed necessary as part of the healing process that the more was spoken, the more dirty laundry that was aired, the more able as a nation they would be, to be able to move forward. Just that notion itself is incredibly moving. I was floored by it when I was doing my research and when I read some of the transcripts of some of the TRC cases. I mean, it’s unbelievable. It’s so horrific and moving, and you have no point of reference for it, really. But, it’s a great example of how far people can move forward.
I was looking through your Twitter feed a few minutes ago, and I caught your comment praising The Post as a Holy Trinity of Director, Cinematographer and Camera Operator. Also, you’re a champion of 35mm. You still have the ability to geek out over film.
Oh, absolutely. When I see something as beautiful and as effortless as what I was watching that day, yes it’s like my insides explode. Absolutely. Yeah.
Having worked with that team and just knowing exactly the level of cohesion that comes from them having done so many movies together. And it’s so subtle, it’s so subtle, the stuff that I’m talking about that Mitch Dubin is doing with the camera and that’s a direct relation of Janusz Kaminski’s work and Stephen’s work with Janusz. And it’s like they’re joined; there’s a vein running between them as well as a focus puller. It’s just so incredible.
Narratively, I thought a lot about Munich while I was watching The Forgiven. That’s the cycle of violence-.
What’s driving your passion these days? What’s getting you to pursue the next role?
Patience, man! It’s so hard these days to find these projects and thank God for hobbies because you need ’em. They’re harder to find; they take longer to get up, so I’m finding it harder, to be honest. I’m finding it more frustrating. But there are massive victories when you get there. I remember the first day of filming on this film. I literally couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think we were gonna get the film up and so I think as you get older you appreciate it more and more.
And this is the sort of thing I strive for. Working with these amazing filmmakers, and to be opposite someone like Forest and have these words by Michael Ashton. It’s a gift, it really is. And so, to continue to try and find this sort of stuff is what I live for in terms of work.
The Forgiven hits theaters on March 9th with a theatrical expansion and on VOD and Digital HD to continue on March 16th.