Best mate

Best mate

Navigating a friendship from school days to fatherhood, award-winning actor, Eric Bana and award-winning vigneron, Tony Ramunno have two feet firmly on the ground, one over the clutch and another on the accelerator.

 

Published Selector Winter 2007

Eric Bana and Tony Ramunno race cars together. Their next race is the Targa Tasmania, described by organisers as “a genuine red-blooded motor sport competition.” They’ll be racing in Eric’s Ford Falcon XB GT Coupe, which he’s been the proud owner of for 23 years, about as long as the two have been friends. Eric is the driver and Tony the navigator, and they have around 2000km of road from Launceston to Hobart to cover over six days.

Trust between the two is paramount, as they’ll depend on each other’s skills to get them around in one piece. Tony admits he wouldn’t get in the car with anyone else as he’s “a driver and the driver doesn’t usually get in the passenger seat. (Eric’s) the only bloke (he’d) trust behind the wheel because he’s not an idiot…and he’s fairly good, which makes a difference”.

I’ve met up with the two at Tony’s winery, Witchmount Estate in Rockbank, Victoria just before they’re about to go on a “reccy” of the Tasmanian course. They’re talking what sounds like a foreign language of race speak with phrases like “one to tens” and “a 3er is an 8 or 9”. Given they haven’t entered the Targa since 1996, when they came third in their class, their excitement is obvious.

The other great love they share is motorbikes. Eric arrived at Tony’s on his Ducati, while Tony has a much flashier Harley. The photographer has chosen a stack of boulders as the backdrop for the shoot and the two relish the opportunity to ride their bikes together. There’s a friendly rivalry between them about their choice of bikes and once the photographer starts, Eric makes it clear that he won’t be shot anywhere near Tony’s Harley, preferring to stick near his “real” bike.

Being in front of a camera is second nature to a man who’s starred in blockbusters like Munich, Troy, Black Hawk Down, The Hulk and Chopper. But for vigneron Tony, it’s a far less familiar scenario. To ease the tension, Eric makes a joke of the situation, taking the piss out of the two of them posing.

Once back at the winery they relax with a bottle of 04 Witchmount Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and a cigar each. This was a habit they used to enjoy every Monday night but their busy schedules have reduced it to more like every month or so.

After a bit more racing chat, I manage to steer the conversation around to their friendship. They’ve known each other since they were about 13, but it was the death of a mutual close friend when they were 18 and 19  that brought them really close.

At school, the comedian in Eric found its opportunity to shine and Tony remembers one of his early performances. “At the end of year 12, Eric stood up and did a routine about every school teacher and every principal we’d ever had. I wasn’t there because I’d finished the year before, but it was recorded and we’ve watched it a few times afterwards and it is always hilarious.”

Since then, of course, Eric has gone on to become one of Australia’s most successful actors. He first appeared on our screens in Steve Vizard’s Tonight Live before scoring a regular spot on Full Frontal. This led to his own comedy sketch series, The Eric Bana Show for which he won a Logie in 1997. His film debut came the same year in The Castle, but it was after 2000’s Chopper that his career really took off. This memorable role won him an AFI award and since then his list of achievements has continued to grow. This year will see the release of three more films, Lucky You; Romulus, My Father and The Other Boleyn Girl.

A lot of friendships wouldn’t survive such a dramatic rise to stardom, but both men are adamant that while life around them has changed, their connection hasn’t. As Tony explains, “I don’t think it’s any different to anyone else in that we grew up, got married, had kids, went through all those trials and tribulations of life and trying to establish a career and a livelihood. The only thing that’s different with us now is when I ring Bana it’s like, ‘Hang on. I’ve just got to put the kids to bed. I’ll ring you back.’ ”

Eric adds, “we have a good mutual understanding as to how busy things can get so we’ll just call up and plug into the diary the whole family getting together without worrying about having tractors and stuff going in the background or getting called out of your trailer on a film set.”

How they earn a living has meant being open to public scrutiny for both Eric and Tony, but feedback from each other generally remains positive. Eric has learnt most of what he knows about wine from Tony and is keen to let him know when he’s opened a cracker bottle. “If I open something that I think is really, really good, I’ll just call him and go, ‘Mate, this stuff has cellared so well’. Obviously I’m not overly qualified but you know I get to drink a lot of great wine, I travel a lot and I know how well his stuff stacks up.”

Eric’s really proud of what Tony and his family have achieved at Witchmount and has made his wine a talking point among the Hollywood elite. In fact, when Tony visited Eric while he was doing post production on Munich, he found himself face-to-face with one of Tinseltown’s biggest. As the story goes, Eric had to go back to the studio and casually said to Tony, “Oh, you might meet Steven”, to which Tony replied, “Steven who?” and Eric said, “Spielberg”. Eric had already told Spielberg all about Tony so he introduced him as, “Tony the wine guy” and according to Eric, “all he was interested in was talking to Tony about his wine.”

When it comes to feedback on Eric’s films, Tony avoids criticism as he believes it’s too close to home. “You can’t go, ‘Oh mate – that was crap’, or ‘Gee that was good’, because you know the hardships they go through and how long he’s been away from the family.”

Favourites he’s more than happy to talk about, but it’s sometimes hard to lose yourself in something that stars your best mate. “I find his best movies are the ones where I go to the cinema and I don’t see Eric. Amazingly, a lot of times when I go to see Eric’s films not once through that film will I say, ‘Oh there’s Eric’. It’s just a character and I find that amazing. If he can do that and convince me, I think he’s done a really good job.”

Eric keeps in touch via email during film shoots, which means Tony’s privy to a lot of what goes on behind the scenes. “You get emails every week going, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but Brad Pitt’s come in on a walking cane and he reckons he’s busted his Achilles’ and it was just a big joke but it turned out to be true and the whole shoot got put back until he came good.”

Obviously, being mates with a movie star means you see firsthand public reactions, but Tony’s always surprised at other people’s awe. “It’s really strange when you go out and people are all googly eyed, you know even today getting coffee, Eric walked out to the car and they were like, (in a whispered voice) ‘so, is he not filming at the moment?’ ”

Eric is fairly oblivious to the extra attention but learnt early in his career that people will do anything to get close to a star. “I had a really bad experience when I first started doing stand-up. I was on the road touring with Jimeoin, who was quite famous around Australia, and I got to taste firsthand the potential for rudeness by the general public. We’d be trying to have a beer after the show or have a meal or something and people would come in and just literally rugby tackle me out of the way to get to Jimeoin. However, gone are the days where I’d judge people on how they treat me, I lost that years ago. But I absolutely judge people on how they treat other people or my friends or family when they don’t know who they are. I always find that’s a really good gauge.”

This is partly the reason why Eric has chosen to stay in Melbourne. “Melbourne is definitely the easiest city in the world for me, without a doubt. I can go to the same café every day and relax among the same faces I’ve seen for the last ten years. Occasionally there’ll be a blow-in, someone who hasn’t been there before and it’ll suddenly hit me, I’ll just feel a different vibe. But for most of the time living in Melbourne I can completely forget what I do for a living.”

Keeping his success in perspective is imperative to Eric’s career and he’s taken guidance from one of the best. “One of the most inspiring people I’ve met in the last 10 years, I got to work with him the year before last, was Robert Duvall. He’s probably one of the only people I’ve met, with the exception of Spielberg, who has a lot of interests and is a big family guy as well. I talked to Duvall about the 60s and the 70s and how he managed to circumnavigate all the stuff that was a trap for everybody else. He said something really great to me that really rang true: ‘You gotta have hobbies. When everyone was doing coke, I was riding horses!’ I feel like he’s a great model for me because my interests have always had a very big influence in my life.”

Inspirations for Tony are found a lot closer to home. Witchmount’s Chief Winemaker, Stephen Goodwin has been in the industry for over 35 years and was chief sparkling winemaker at Seppelt. To Tony, “having him around is like having a personal uni lecturer…all day, every day”. Stephen has helped take the Witchmount brand from strength to strength by adding his expertise to the mixing pot. As Tony describes, “Imagine if you had the best kitchen set-up and also the luxury to use only the best ingredients to make the best dish. Well when it comes to wine, we’ve got that available to us here. We’ve got an excellent growing climate with soil type, the right variety, the right people and the best equipment.”

Having reached such heady levels of success, neither can believe how far they’ve come since they spent their days mucking around with cars. Eric certainly didn’t have lofty aspirations, “I guess I saw Tony and myself being mechanics. Never what I’m doing now, no way.”

For Tony, no level of winemaking success can match what he’s achieved in his personal life. “I think what’s more amazing is that we ended up being in fantastic relationships and having our own children that you just look at and think, ‘wow, that’s something I did that’s amazing, more so than my career’. I don’t know whether Bana feels the same, but I think that’s more of an achievement than making a really good wine.”

Eric agrees and is willing to make fewer movies if it means maintaining relationships with his family and friends. “I refuse. I refuse to lose it, I really do. That’s one of the reasons why my wife and I decided to stay in Australia because it is, it’s too much to give up. I don’t think success or money or any of those things really amounts to much of anything if you’re living in Florida and not seeing anyone that you know or love…life’s too short, I don’t want 100 movies and no mates.”

Future satisfaction for both men also revolves around spending quality time with family and friends. For Tony that means retiring as soon as possible, “I’m going to be retired in seven years, 45 is my plan. But being a multi-millionaire doesn’t really mean much to me. It’s not about possessions. It’s about what you’ve done. And that means being able to enjoy having a normal family as well as a good circle of friends. I look at my parents and my wife’s parents who came from Italy as teenagers. They made lives for themselves, are now retired and have a great life. They might not have everything that other people have, but they’ve got five children and 20 grandchildren around the dinner table on a Friday night and that’s pretty fantastic.”

Eric on the other hand, plans to be on the big screen for a long time yet and returns to the example of Duvall. “He’s someone who has not burnt himself out, he’s well into his 70s now and he’s still very prolific. He’s probably my favourite actor in the world in terms of quality, but he’s still youthful and he’s still capable of being on the step and doing really great work. I don’t know that I’ll be as prolific as him but I’d still definitely like to be working. I don’t have a short term vision for my career, I don’t want to retire at 50. I want to be able to pace myself so I will still have the drive to keep acting and be involved in the industry because I love it, I love the film industry.”

At the end of our chat, Eric has to rush off to pick his children up from school. But he can’t let the day end without having one last go at his mate, “Tony, aren’t you going to do what you normally do and stand and cry at the side of the road?!”

There’s nothing profound about what these two share, after all mateship is at the heart of the Aussie bloke. But what’s refreshing is that while Hollywood steers the decisions of so many, Eric Bana is still in the driving seat, controlling his personal race with his navigator firmly by his side.

 

Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.

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