Written and directed by Roland Joffé and co-written by Michael Ashton, who also wrote the play The Archbishop and The Antichrist, the intense thriller The Forgiven, based on real events, follows Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Forest Whitaker), whose work as President of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa led him into a maximum security prison to sit across from notorious murderer Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana). Seeking clemency, Blomfeld had so much bitterness and anger inside of him that it challenged Tutu to wonder whether maybe some people weren’t worthy of forgiveness and redemption.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Eric Bana talked about why he wanted to sign on for The Forgiven, why this was the most intimidating character he’s ever played, the experience of working with Forest Whitaker, shooting in a maximum security prison in South Africa, and leaving the prison jumpsuit behind. He also talked about trying to figure out what to do next, what he looks for in a project, and the possibility he might direct again.
Collider: When this came your way, did you read the script first, or did it start with a conversation with director Roland Joffé?
ERIC BANA: I read the script and loved it, and couldn’t believe that Roland was asking me to do it. At that stage, Forest [Whitaker] was already attached, so I was able to read it with him in that role. I was just beside myself that he was coming to me to play Piet. We had a couple of great long telephone calls and I said yes, straight away. It was such a rare thing. Every actor dreams of finding scripts like this, but they’re very hard to come across.
This seems like a very challenging, complex character to dig into. What was your way into finding your performance for this?
BANA: You’re right, this is probably the most intimidating character I’ve ever played. The key to the character, for me, was just throwing myself into South African history. There was so much about South African history that I needed to know, before I could stand any chance of understanding where Blomfeld’s warped sense of entitlement came from. It just made no sense to me, and I knew it was going to take a mountain of work. Oddly enough, that just came in the form of learning about the history of the Afrikaans and what had happened, and trying to understand how he could end up with so much hate. Obviously, Roland was very helpful, in terms of giving us enough to learn because you had to be convincing in your hate, in order to make that character work. It is a risk and it is a huge challenge. For Tutu to work, you have to believe everything that’s coming out of my mouth, and that’s a lot to take on. It was just one of those ones where you have to really jump into the deep end, and trying to learn and understand a lot of the history was the first step.
When you do something this dark and intense, did you also have to take extra care of yourself when you weren’t on set?
BANA: Yes and no. It was a very short shoot, so I just led a very, very simple existence for the month, or whatever, that we were shooting. I enjoy being quite monastic when I’m playing that sort of character. I don’t try to shake it off too much. I just try to sit with it, and then deal with it when it’s over. It was okay. It wasn’t a very long shoot and it was a very intense schedule, so that really helped. It’s not a character that I’d like to play, over a period of months.
Do you ultimately feel that Piet Blomfeld is someone who’s worthy of forgiveness and redemption, or are there some people who just aren’t worth forgiving?
BANA: I like the premise of having two people who are at polar opposites of something, that were forced to sit down and try to communicate their sides. They’re so far apart that it would appear as though middle ground would be completely impossible, in the course of their lifetime. The fact that Tutu was able to move the needle, even a tiny bit, was incredible. We see people holding their ground in arguments in 2018, where there just isn’t room to move. That’s politics, around the world. We’re constantly disillusioned because we see people so unwilling to yield or to listen or to mediate or to compromise. I thought the premise was a really interesting one. It’s only at the very end, after he’s dead, that we discover that Tutu had an effect on him and it’s only a very small amount that he yields. We do get a look at how he became what he became and how his own warped sense of history created this narrative. In a lot of ways, the way into the character was one of just total belligerence. It wasn’t a case of believing exactly what Blomfeld believed. It was playing someone who’s own sense of what they believed in was unmovable and they’re unflinching in their belief.
Obviously, working with Forest Whitaker would be a dream for any actor. What was that like for you?
BANA: It was unbelievable. It was incredibly intense because we were on a very tight schedule and we both had very, very intense characters to play, in our own way. I was very respectful of the amount of make-up time that Forest had and that his time on set was going to be extremely valuable. We threw ourselves into all of those things. The director gave us the option of breaking things up into sections, but we both decided to do every scene from start to finish. We were just ready to go, and there was no joking around or rehearsing or getting up to speed. We both got in that cell, cameras rolled and we just went for it.
Did you get any moments of levity, at all?
BANA: Not really. The fun comes out of the fact that you can’t believe you’re getting to do it. Sometimes you’re on a set and you can muck around. This was not that environment. We were in a maximum-security prison and time was ticking away, like a time bomb. We were just so grateful for the opportunity.
Were you just completely ready to leave behind the prison jumpsuit, once you could?
BANA: Yes, especially when you’ve got security guards around who don’t know that you’re on the call sheet. They just see the jumpsuit.
How did you find the experience of shooting in Cape Town, South Africa, especially knowing that the production had the blessing of Desmond Tutu?
BANA: That was hugely important. There would have been nothing worse than coming out with an end result that was either not endorsed or shunned. Having his blessing, so to speak, meant a lot to us. In terms of access and confidence, that made a huge difference. And shooting in a real maximum-security prison most definitely gave the production a sense of urgency and palpable reality that you just wouldn’t have gotten. It would have cost us a fortunate to recreate that on a set. We just couldn’t have done it. For me, whilst you’re very on edge and there are very real dangers, it was vital.
Do you have any idea what’s next for you, as an actor, or what you’d like to do next?
BANA: I’ve got a couple of ideas. There’s a couple of things I’m looking at, but I’m not 100% sure yet. I took last year off because my son was in his final year of high school and I deliberately didn’t want to be traveling. So, I’m just ramping back up now and looking at some stuff for this year. We’ll see. There’s a few things around, but trying to follow up this experience has been difficult.
At this point in your life and career, what gets you interested in a project?
BANA: It’s pretty instinctual. If you find films like [The Forgiven], it’s a no-brainer. That’s what most actors want to be doing. But they’re getting harder to find, they’re getting harder to fund, and they’re getting harder to get some air to promote. It’s really hard. It’s harder than it used to be, so it requires more and more patience. I think you’re frustrated more than you used to be.
Would you like to get behind the camera and try your hand at directing a feature film?
BANA: I’ve done it once (with the documentary Love the Beast) and I would like to do it again, if I found the right piece of material. I don’t read other people’s scripts with an eye to direct. I may or may not be working on stuff, in the background. It’s possible. It would have to be something I’ve written myself. I don’t think I could look at someone else’s work to direct.
The Forgiven is now in theaters and on-demand.