By KC Baker Dennis Passa Serena Kappes
December 15, 2005 06:00 AM

Age: 37
Hometown: Melbourne, Australia
Current gig: Playing an Israeli secret agent in the Steven Spielberg-directed drama Munich

Spielberg anointed him
Upon meeting Bana, director Steven Spielberg knew he was the right actor for the emotionally complex role of conflicted Israeli secret-service operative Avner Kauffman. “There is something about killing people at close range that is excruciating,” Spielberg told Time. “It’s bound to try a man’s soul, so it was very important to me to show Avner struggling to keep his soul intact.” In the film based on a true story, Bana leads a team assigned to kill the Palestinian terrorists held responsible for assassinating 11 Israel athletes at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics.

Bana’s name had actually been bandied about to play another secret-agent man – James Bond – before the role ultimately went to his Munich costar, Daniel Craig.

His son is a role model
Bana is well-acquainted with playing conflicted heroes: He starred as Dr. Bruce Banner and his green monster alter ego in 2003’s Hulk. The Aussie actor says he used his son Klaus, now 6, for inspiration (he also has a daughter, Sophia, with wife Rebecca). “I studied my son for this role because he was 2 1/2 when we were shooting,” he told PEOPLE at the time. “There’s the Hulk – a boy going through the terrible twos. He’s what adults would be like if we didn’t have political correctness or social restraints.”

He knows funny
Though he’s best known for his dramatic roles – a serial killer in his 2000 Aussie breakout film Chopper; a military man in 2001’s Black Hawk Down; and Brad Pitt’s nemesis Hector in 2004’s Troy – Bana was first known as a funnyman in his homeland. In 1992, after trying his hand at stand-up, he joined the cast of the Australian sketch-comedy TV show Full Frontal before getting his own comedy series, Eric, four years later.

Bana displayed his gift for mimicry early on. As a high-school senior at Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School, Bana – the son of Ivan, a Croatian-born logistics manager at a construction-equipment company, and Eleonare, a German-born former hairdresser – won the annual talent show by impersonating his teachers. “He had the mannerisms, the voices,” says former teacher Tony Larkin. “All this talent was there with Eric.”

He gets his motor running
When he’s not working (upcoming roles include a professional poker player in the drama Lucky You, alongside Drew Barrymore), Bana likes to hit the road. “I’ve always been a bit of a car freak,” he admits. At home in Melbourne, he’ll spend weekends with childhood pal Tony Romano tuning up his vehicles – including his 1974 Ford XB Coupe, which he’s owned since he was 15. “We get in the garage and tinker away,” says Romano. “He’s not one to pay someone to do something for him – he does it himself.”

Bana isn’t afraid to get down-and-dirty for his roles either: He and Troy costar Brad Pitt did all their own stunts for their deadly fight scenes in the epic film. “I got quite a few whacks,” says Bana. “I’ve got a little Brad Pitt scar – it’s tiny, but it’ll be there forever. It’s called a full-fledged backhand fist to the face.”

He’s a Down Under boy
Despite his growing presence in Hollywood films, Bana has no plans to move to Tinseltown. “It would make as much sense to move to London, really,” he explains. “There’s no real point in moving (to L.A.). It makes a lot of sense to stay where I am.”

And though he’s often a tough guy in his movie roles, with his family he’s a big softy. “He’s a great dad,” says wife Rebecca. “The kids have a second mom with him – they really do.”