Bana inks deal with option to star in two sequels

NEW YORK — Eric Bana will play the title role in Ang Lee’s “The Incredible Hulk,” Universal’s big-budget adaptation of the Marvel Comics franchise. Bana’s emergence as the favorite for a much-coveted job was first revealed by Daily Variety (Sept. 18). The film is on track for a March start.

Like all actors who sign up for superhero duty in Marvel fare, Bana has inked to star in the film, with option deals on two sequels. U will start him out with a seven-figure salary and dish out rapidly escalating amounts of green if Bana makes multiple appearances as the scientist who morphs into the green-skinned muscle-bound hero.

David Hayter did the latest draft of the script, which is now being rewritten by Lee’s collaborator James Schamus, who will also produce with Gale Anne Hurd and Marvel Studios president Avi Arad. ILM has just come aboard to handle special effects.

Many young actors in Hollywood chased the Hulk role after Lee decided to make the pic his followup to the celebrated “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Bana’s emergence as the front-runner was a surprise, given the relative brevity of his film career. The Australian-born thesp began as a comedian and television host. While burly, he was not the go-to guy for macho roles until the killer Mark “Chopper” Reid personally endorsed Bana to play him in a feature film that was being prepped in Australia. Bana auditioned and got the role; the film became a critical sensation Down Under.

Bana popped up on Hollywood’s radar when “Chopper” debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, and every agent in Hollywood tried to sign him. WMA’s John Fogelman got the nod, and the agency quickly got Jerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott aboard the Bana bandwagon, as he was cast as a co-lead in the Scott-directed ensemble drama “Black Hawk Down,” which also stars Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor.

Bana then flew himself to Gotham to meet Lee and Schamus when they signed on for “Hulk” duty. At the same time, he’d met with Marvel’s Arad for the lead role in “Ghost Rider,” which went to Nicolas Cage.

“He’d heard (Nicolas Cage) might get the job, but wanted to meet anyway because he’s a professional biker,” Arad said. “He was immensely appealing, and we are lucky to have him to be Bruce Banner. He’s a fresh face, but he’s a veteran performer who has a unique combination of great strength and the most soulful eyes. That is a difficult combination to find.”

Bana’s casting comes as Fox and New Regency near a deal with Ben Affleck to play the title character in “Daredevil,” the Mark Steven Johnson-directed drama also based on a signature Marvel Comics series.

Fox also is on course to start production next year on its “X-Men” sequel. Original scribe Hayter and director Bryan Singer are nearly done with a script, and the entire cast is poised to reprise.

Marvel is also eyeing a 2002 production start for the Artisan-based “Iron Fist,” directed by Kirk Wong and starring martial artist Ray Park.

And with Sony’s “Spider-Man” wrapped for a summer 2002 release, the studio and director Sam Raimi have begun making preparations to fast-track a sequel. Stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst have option deals for two sequels.

Bana is repped by WMA and the Australia-based Lauren Bergman Management.

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