Movie Stars: Bana, Eric–Why He Has Not Become Bona Fide Star?

When–if ever–will the gifted and handsome Aussie actor Eric Bana become a major Hollywood star?

Bana certainly possesses all the right attributes: strong physical appearance, charm, acting skills, and so on.  However, what he really needs is a commanding role in a popular film that would feature his unique qualities to an advantage.

I doubt whether Curtis Hanson’s Vegas-set poker saga, Lucky You, would do the trick.

Bana plays Huck Cheever, a poker player whose emotions at the table often undermine his exceptional skill, especially when he is heads up with his father, poker legend L.C. Cheever (Robert Duvall). There’s also romance in the picture: Huck falls for Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore), a young singer from Bakersfield with more heart than talent.

The one aptitude Billie and Huck seem to share is a knack for reading peoplethe difference is what they do with that gift. While Hucks instincts enable him to take advantage of his opponents at the poker table and expertly avoid both emotional connections and long-term commitments in his personal life, Billie uses her intuition to see the emotional truth of those around her and sympathize with their pain. When these two meet, the real game begins.

Screenwriter Eric Roth actually began writing the original script for Lucky You before the spike in pokers popularity. I wanted to create something different about gamblers and gambling because I think all great gambling movies are love stories at heart, about winning and losing and finding your way, he says.
Hanson adds, We set the story in 2003 because that was the year the world of poker dramatically changed. Three things came together to make that happen. Internet poker was exploding, allowing amateur players from all over the world to hone their card skills online. The hole card camera was introduced that year, which made the game much more popular on television because it allowed the audience at home to see the players hole cards and learn about the nuances of betting and bluffing from the top pros. And it was the year an unknown amateur internet player named Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker, making it possible for everyone to say, That could be me.

Casting Bana

Director Hanson says that the actor came with an uncompromising approach to his work that made him perfect for the role. Like Huck, Eric Bana is a blaster; he came at his part full out. During the rehearsal period, he not only worked on his scenes but immersed himself in learning the game of poker. He is a true chameleon. Unlike many actors who twist characters to fit their own personalities and characteristics, I think Eric looks at each part as an opportunity to truly become someone else.

Competitive Juices

Bana says that he developed an insight into what drives his character. I think Huck has competitive juices flying through his system so the world of poker really suits his personality and his lifestyle. He enjoys it; it gives him a sense of purpose, but hes so immersed in that world that, really, nothing else exists for him. I think other people believe he could be one of the great poker players if he could keep his head together, but Im not sure he knows himself what his true potential is. In a way, he was born to be a poker player, but he needs to sort out other elements in his life if he is going to take his game to the next level.

Realizing Potential

Hucks innate ability at the poker table and his seeming inability to reach his potential can both be traced back to one element in his life: his strained relationship with his father, L.C. Cheever, a maverick poker player in whose shadow Huck has always lived and played. Huck is haunted by his fathers reputation in the poker world, Bana comments. We see his behavior change when L.C. is around. Hes a much more secure player when his father is not around and becomes a little hotheaded when L.C. is present. It definitely has an effect on him.

Father and Son

Producer Denise Di Novi notes, The father-son relationship was always important to the story, but once Robert Duvall was cast, it became even more meaningful because hes such a brilliant actor and added so much dimension to it. To me, that aspect of the story is something every adult can relate to, because its about how you cant really move on with your life and have a successful relationship until you deal with the baggage that you carry from your parents, which we all must do.

Hucks romantic entanglements have been limited to brief flirtations and casual affairs with no promise, or even hope, of any long-term commitments. However, all that seems about to change with the arrival of an aspiring young singer named Billie Offer.

Drew Barrymore as Romantic Interest

Perhaps a little too open when it comes to Huck, Drew Barrymore acknowledges. Billie has been very reliable and old-fashioned in a sense, but the thing shes been the most frivolous with is her heart. She really intends to be careful from now on and try and find the right person, someone who is not going to hurt her. Then, of course, she meets Huck, who is a classic heartbreaker. I think she might sense that, but because of the small-town world she comes from, she has a certain lack of judgment about him. But when he crosses the line, she will not be bluffed or charmed like the other women in his life. She becomes an example to him of how to be honest and true to yourself, whether the stakes are small or highwhether they are personal or professional.

Huck sees something in Billie that he hasnt seen before in other women, Bana agrees. I think thats why he ultimately lowers his guard with her, which allows him to experience the first true relationship hes probably ever known.

Billies older sister, Suzanne, an old acquaintance of Hucks, warns Billie not to succumb to Hucks womanizing charms. But as Billie and Hucks relationship progresses, Suzanne begins to let go of her concerns. Suzanne is played by Debra Messing, who affirms, I think Suzanne sees that Billie has gotten to Huck, and there might actually be hope for something real for him. Curtis and I talked a lot about the differences between the two sisters. Billie is a romantic; she sees everything with hope and optimism, whereas Suzanne is a little more world-weary and a realist.

Bana’s Training

The first order of business was to teach Bana and Duvall how to play poker like seasoned pros. Robert Duvall and Eric Bana trained for months in order to play side-by-side with the poker professionals who appear in the film. Their goal was not to become expert players, per se, but to be able to sit at the table and handle their cards and their chips like the experts, explains Hanson.

Bana also benefited from time spent with some real-life poker pros, both on and off the set. It lifted our game because its impossible for it not to rub off, the actor says. For instance, a scene that might only be a minute onscreen could take us days to shoot, so thats hours and hours sitting around with these guys, and all youre doing between takes is talking poker. It definitely elevated my ability to sell my character as someone who knows his way around a poker table.

TV Rules

With millions of people watching poker on TV, it was vital to maintain the authenticity of not only the game but its players, states Hanson. To that end, Brunson, Lester and Savage were joined onscreen by some of todays most recognizable poker pros: Jack Binion, Johnny Chan, Hoyt Corkins, Antonio Esfandiari, Sam Farha, Chris Ferguson, Ted Forrest, Phil Hellmuth, Chau Giang, Barry Greenstein, Dan Harrington, Karina Jett, John Juanda, Erick Lindgren, Minh Ly, Mike Matusow, Daniel Negreanu, Erik Seidel, Mimi Tran, Cyndy Violette, Marsha Waggoner and Robert Williamson III.

Cards and Chips

To anyone who watches poker, the seemingly unconscious habit of shuffling stacks of chips is a definite indicator of long hours spent honing ones skill in live games. It seemed appropriate to Bana and the filmmakers that Huck would have such a tic. While on location in Las Vegas, Bana, Hanson and Fenelon spent an afternoon at the home of one of the games best chip handlers, Antonio Esfandiari. Esfandiari taught Bana a three-chip hand manipulation that the actor can be seen using throughout the movie.

The role of Huck Cheever required that Bana also master a completely different skill set. Eric not only had to learn to play poker, he also had to train to hit a golf ball like a player with a four handicap, Hanson offers, referring to a pivotal sequence in which Huck is forced to take on a physically demanding bet. He did that very well, too. Every golf shot in the movie is his.

Daunting Gold

But only after hours spent on the links of Australia, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Bana concedes. For me, the golf was the most daunting part of the making the film, because Id played very, very little golf, and my game had usually been of great comedic value to my friends. You could have nicknamed me The Slicer. But Curtis was very strict about it. He said, You have to swing like you have a four handicap, so get to work. So I did, and it really paid off. I dont know how many free golf lessons I had, but it was a lot, he smiles.

The golfing scene in Lucky You is no ordinary game; it is part of an elaborate proposition bet conceived by an inveterate gambler named Ready Eddie, who is played by popular comic actor Horatio Sanz. Eddie gambles that Huck cant run five miles and shoot 18 holes of golf in 78 strokes or under, all in three hours or less. If he can do it, Huck will win the $10,000 he needs to stake his entry into the World Series of Poker. If not, hell be another $10,000 in the hole.

Surrounded by poker pros and gamblers during filming, Bana realized that anything could spark a vigorous round of betting: “We were sitting at a poker table with these guys for weeks on end and they’re just betting on everything. They’d bet on how many takes we would do for that set-up, or how many times the camera would have to move for that scene–anything to get their juices flowing.”