For someone who got his start as a funnyman on much-loved Aussie show Full Frontal, Eric Bana has done surprisingly few comedy films over the course of his career. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to name one: Chopper, Black Hawk Down, Romulus My Father and his latest work, supernatural thriller Deliver Us From Evil, aren't exactly laugh-fests.
"It's not my fault," Bana chuckles down the line from his hometown of Melbourne. "Sorry. Look, I'm always open to the idea of doing a comedy, and I'd never say never. The serious pile is definitely higher than the comedy pile. If I found something that I felt would be a lot of fun and interesting, I'd do it in a heartbeat."
In the meantime, Deliver Us From Evil is about the darkest thing Bana has done since his portrayal of Mark "Chopper" Read gained him international attention. Directed by supernatural specialist Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister), it centres on real-life New York City cop and paranormal specialist Ralph Sarchie, who finds himself investigating what seems to be a case of demonic possession.
Sarchie is a lapsed Catholic who doesn't believe in anything he can't see with his own eyes, or that good old-fashioned investigative police work can't explain. But when he meets an unconventional priest, Mendoza (a smouldering Edgar Ramirez), he is drawn into a world that is both malevolent and deeply disturbing (prepare yourself for one of the most terrifying exorcism scenes ever committed to the screen).
"I loved the central character of Ralph Sarchie, I loved Scott's previous work and he has this amazing ability to ground horror in reality," Bana says of his decision to take on a genre film.
"Probably 80 per cent of the things that you jump at when watching this film are real things, as opposed to paranormal things. Scott has this great ability to kind of let you off as a sceptical audience member whilst at the same time scaring you silly. It's a really unique quality and he really seeks to elevate the genre. It's not a film I would have done with a first-time filmmaker, to be honest, but I knew Scott's work and we had great conversations about the potential for this film which really excited me."
Bana says he found himself becoming increasingly intrigued by the film's subject matter during the pre-production process.
"Some of the interviews I've done already, the first question is: 'so, Eric, believe or not believe'," he observes. "I'm a sceptical person, and I came in not knowing much about the subject matter other than, of course, what I'd seen in horror films. So to actually research it properly and the religious, historical and cultural context of it, was way more interesting than just putting it on one side of the fence or another."
During that initial research period, a number of cast members were privy to actual case footage of ritual exorcisms. Speaking at a press conference in California in April, Bana admitted he'd had trouble sleeping after seeing the footage.
"It's stuff that is pretty much under lock and key," Bana says. "You'll never see it on YouTube, thank God. It was very disturbing to watch and it definitely affected my sleep for a while. Once I'd finished the film it took me a while to shake all that off. It's not something that you can 'un-see'; it's sort of imprinted in the memory."
Having said that, Bana admits that one of the things he loves most about his job is the inability to know exactly where making a film will take him. He suggests the not-knowing is part of the contract you sign when accepting a role.
"It is one of the joys of the job to have the time to immerse yourself slowly in your character during the pre-production process, when you are researching your character or the story. You never know what you are going to come across, and you meet fascinating people that under any other circumstances you'd never have the opportunity to meet. It's a great job in that sense."
Bana says he had a good rapport on set with Derrickson, whom he describes as "a really normal, fun-loving guy for someone who directs such dark, twisted material".
(Derrickson was recently announced as the director of the next Marvel film, Doctor Strange, a gig he secured on the strength of Deliver Us From Evil).
"He's an incredibly intelligent filmmaker who could probably be at film school teaching horror," Bana says.
"He just knows so much about the genre. He loves actors - he's not one of those directors who treats actors as a tool to tell the story. He really loves getting in there and discussing things in detail. Most of our conversations had nothing to do with the film, actually. We'd more often be having these philosophical conversations about life and society in general."
The real Ralph Sarchie was also on set as a police advisor, although Bana says he wasn't there "to get in my ear".
"There was that awkward dance that you initially do when you meet the person you're playing in the film," he explains. "It's hard, because you're usually working with people who have never been involved in the film industry before, so you want to make them feel relaxed. You're holding their hand through that process a little bit but at the end of the day you've got to be selfish and find your own version of the character and put it to the screen. I probably pick-pocketed him a little bit because he's one of the most intense guys I've ever met. I didn't grill him for a lot of stories; I took the approach that I'm better off letting him be himself and I'll pick up on a lot of things about him by osmosis."
I ask Bana if there's any genre he wouldn't touch. As an actor deep into his career - Bana is now 45 - is there any particular film tradition he would turn his nose up at?
"The only genre that's safe from me is musicals," he laughs. "Unless you need a character who actually can't sing - then I'm your man."
'It is one of the joys of the job to have the time to immerse yourself slowly in your character during the pre- production process, when you are researching.'
Deliver Us From Evil opens on July 24.