Call it a Bana role.

In a major bit of casting news, Ang Lee has enlisted virtually unknown Australian actor Eric Bana to play Dr. Bruce Banner in the big-screen adaptation of Marvel Comics' The Incredible Hulk.

According to trade reports, Bana has signed a seven-figure deal--including options for two sequels--to play the scientist who transforms into the not so jolly green giant superhero after getting pelted with gamma rays.

Hulk will be helmed by Lee, who directed the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's being produced for Universal Pictures by Gale Anne Hurd (Aliens), Marvel Studios president Avi Arad and Lee's collaborator James Schamus, who is also rewriting the latest draft from screenwriter David Hayter.

Comic-book fans are undoubtedly asking "Eric who?" But Bana is poised for Hollywood stardom after a breakout performance in the Aussie flick Chopper. That film, which premiered to good notices at last month's Toronto Film Festival, earned Bana a featured role alongside Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor in Ridley Scott's upcoming Black Hawk Down and caught the attention of Lee, who selected Bana over a bevy of other up-and-coming actors vying for the part.

The brawny Bana, who got his start Down Under as a comedian and television host, starred in Chopper as real-life killer Mark "Chopper" Reid. He was apparently so convincing, that the real Reid praised the performance. Bana immediately signed on for Black Hawk Down, about the failed U.S. mission in Somalia. That's when the Hulk team came calling.

"We were looking for someone who is a great dramatic actor, and after seeing Chopper and a bit of Black Hawk Down, it was clear that Eric had a very strong screen presence," Arad tells the Hollywood Reporter. "He also has these soulful eyes and an intelligence--and Banner happens to be a very intelligent and soulful guy. We needed a lead who could carry a myriad of emotions, and Eric is a talented individual with that right combination."

Bana has become so in-demand, that he was actually up for two superhero roles. At the same time Bana was being considered by Lee to play the Hulk, he was also in talks with Arad to essay the lead in another Marvel adaptation, Ghost Rider. That part ultimately went to Nicolas Cage.

The Hulk plot follows research scientist Bruce Banner, whose own genetic experiments cause him to morph into the misunderstood superhero (it's not easy being green) whenever he gets angry. Even though he's unappreciated--and hunted by the military--he still finds time to fight a group of evildoing mutants.

The CG-heavy film, which starts shooting next spring, is expected to join 20th Century Fox's X-Men sequel as one of the studio's blockbuster entries in summer 2003. It's among several classic Marvel properties in development. In addition to Spider-Man and the X-Men sequel, Daredevil (with Ben Affleck in talks to star), The Fantastic Four and Iron Man have also been greenlighted.

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