In Deliver Us from Evil, the war on terror brings horror to the Bronx and a New York cop who becomes a holy crusader. For millennia, artists have imagined combat between good and evil in ways both grand and banal. In The Exorcist (1973), feminine adolescence was transformed into a contest over the soul of a 13-year-old girl. In this new feature from Scott Derrickson, who is no stranger to horror or the ways of the devil in cinematic form having directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), three US forces combat troopers have a close encounter with something evil while serving in Iraq. Once they return to New York the trio form a little paint company and create havoc. At first, no one takes this seriously, amongst them tough cop Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana). Before too long he is seeing signs of sinister cosmic intervention within the film’s catalogue of domestic violence: when a baby is thrown to lions in the Bronx Zoo, Ralph becomes haunted by his own misdeeds.
The movie is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, an imprimatur that should give sensitive souls some warning as to what awaits for them inside this crypt of solemn myth-making, big bangs, and shrieking violence. Still, Bana attacks the role with typical gusto. He gets good support from Édgar Ramírez (who plays a priest with sex appeal), but it’s Bana’s movie and he emerges from the horror with dignity.
The film is based on the real Sarchie’s memoir, Beware the Night (co-authored with Lisa Collier Cool). Now retired from the police, Sarchie is the co-founder of something called the New England Society for Psychic Research. These days he is engaged in dealing with cases of demonic possession and their treatment through exorcism. Amongst his favourite movies is The Exorcist.
SBS Movies spoke with Eric Bana at a hotel in Sydney during the film’s publicity junket and found this most versatile of actors relaxed, funny and candid.
I imagine you get a lot of offers. Why did you take this role?
I was fascinated by Ralph Sarchie. I had an instinctive reaction. I loved the character, the story, the dark part of his story that is buried which is part of the evil that is coming back at him. I loved all the redemptive qualities. I responded to all that on a human level as an actor.
There’s a lot of guilt there. There was a lot of guilt in Munich too. But then, we’re all guilty.
[Laughs] I think it all comes down to the material and how well something is written and how well formed something can become in your mind. There should always be room for that. It’s your job as an actor to create these [characters] and fill in the gaps, but in this case I was intrigued by [the character’s] violent past… it was something that was very real and interesting.
Let’s talk about your process. I saw on some recent panel show that someone called you a method actor?
[Pulls a face] I don’t even know what a method actor is! How do you define that? Is a method actor someone who refuses to talk as themselves at lunch-time? If it’s that simple, it’s pretty easy to do. I think the option for me is that I would have to kill a lot of people in order to make it as a method actor… I would be causing carnage everywhere I went if I was a method actor. So I must not be since I haven’t been charged with a serious crime. I would lean to say that I am not a method actor.
I think people look at the detail and conviction in the performances – your facility with accents, your physicality… The Mossad agent in Munich (2005), the special ops soldier in Black Hawk Down (2001)… In Chopper (2000), for instance, your performance was not seen as mimicry, nor is it quite imitative, but let’s say that when they say saw the movie they felt like they were meeting the real Chopper?
Right. That I agree with. I’ve never taken on a role where I felt that I couldn’t fully immerse myself in it. I enjoy that.
What about Troy (2004) and The Hulk (2003)? Are they equally immersive to say something like Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)?
They are but in a different way. You always have to be immersive otherwise you don’t believe it and if I don’t believe it than I can’t expect you to believe it. That’s the only ‘method’ I have and it’s the one that I enjoy.
Some people have raised the fact that on the event of Mark "Chopper" Read’s death you were asked to make a comment – as is the custom when someone dies – and you were circumspect and have remained so. What I wanted to ask you about was your response to this kind of invasive style of questioning? It is, of course, part of the celebrity culture, but I’m wondering where that leaves you?
Here’s what I think: I feel more than comfortable sticking up for myself. If I can make someone think differently about how and why they ask certain questions, I think that’s okay. I’m not going to be offended by it, and I’m going to get angry about it for asking that of me but I just expect them to respect my non-contribution. At the end of the day, it’s an immensely personal thing playing real people. In the same way, I could talk about the real Ralph Sarchie. But there are plenty of things that I won’t discuss about that. I won’t talk about some of that out of respect for the relationship that we have. I think that’s more than okay [for me to do that].
Sarchie in life and in the film takes himself seriously, which makes the part vulnerable. He has quirks that might play as unintentionally funny; the thick New Jersey accent where ‘shirt’ becomes ‘shoit’, the fondness for trapping emotion in jargon-speak, the assertiveness that would seem like bullying were it not for the fact he’s wearing a badge.
Yeah. [The acting] is about taking someone who is like that and not making them a caricature and making the audience believe in him.
You take this character and put him in the middle of a genre film with demons, blood, and an ear-splitting soundtrack and all of a sudden there is a fine line between gravitas and kitsch, or worse, camp?
Yeah. That’s right. Scott Derrickson and I were very careful and very particular about how we mapped Ralph’s journey. In a movie like this you have to take it seriously, and if you and the director have wrongly calibrated the characters journey through the film, it doesn’t work. If you play Ralph as not sceptical enough on day 17 of 40, and too sceptical on day 1 – you are fucked. In terms of levels (of emotion, if you want to call it that), it’s extremely important and it comes down to knowing what you are doing. And by that I mean knowing your character, knowing how they’re going to respond to different things at different times. It’s important to have a good dialogue with the director. Occasionally you catch each other out; you get to the end of the take and you go, “You know what? I think we better bag one where he’s a little more of this, or that…”
How much are your own feelings about life, about values, do you allow to intrude on any part? I mean in Deliver Us from Evil, the movie says that there is such a thing as demons. So as to your own values and thoughts, well do they have any relevance in your process, or must you ask yourself to think about this sort of stuff, so to speak, for the first time?
[Whether or not there were demons] never had much relevance to me up to this point in my life. But working on this film was an education and it always is. Learning about the reality of the subject matter in terms of people truly suffering, in terms of religious, historical, cultural elements, to exorcisms. That was an eye opener. For most of us, the point of reference for this sort of thing is horror films. There are places, for instance, in the world, where talking about exorcisms is like talking about football: it’s part of the culture. Scott Derrickson I would have employed as my personal researcher had he not already been my director.
Were you obliged to do the research?
No! You do it because you’ve got the time and it’s intriguing. At the end of the day, did I really need it for my character? Yeah, maybe a little bit, but you do it as a human being because it’s interesting.
Were you a sceptic on the question of evil spirits, so to speak?
On a scale of 1-10, I was a 9 as a sceptic. And now I’m a 6.
In 2009 you starred in, produced and directed Love The Beast, a documentary about one of the ‘loves’ of your life, your first car, a 1974 Ford Falcon XB. You still race cars and compete. Any plans to combine cars and filmmaking again?
[Laughs] My ideal goal is to keep them well separate. It’s far more fun to do it (car racing) for real and keep the cameras away. I can imagine nothing worse. I enjoy racing and not having a camera crew follow you around is fun. The idea of trying to do a film about cars and racing where you hardly get to do any driving – it doesn’t appeal to me at all. I raced again this year and did the 12-Hour race in February and we did really well – we came in 13th out of 55. And we were the first non-professional time home [across the finish line]. I’ve always raced and driven and ridden and that was going to be my job, I was going to be a mechanic and now I just do it because I got the time to do it.
Deliver Us From Evil is in cinemas from 24 July. Watch the trailer below: