My interview with a slightly odd but loveable Aaron Eckhart from last Friday's Day and Night magazine...
Who's that guy?
Friday October 09 2009
Aaron Eckhart is a pretty tough actor to pigeonhole. He's been a charming romantic foil for Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow and Catherine Zeta Jones, but he has also saved the earth from apocalypse, played a paedophile, a detective, a state attorney, a football coach and a Marine, an academic and a car dealer.
When I ask him how he pronounces his first name, he says amiably: "I don't mind. Call me anything you like. You're Irish. You'd say Aran, right?" So, Aran, like the jumper, it is for the rest of the interview, but it doesn't answer my question.
Eckhart, 41, prefers to keep it that way. He has based his career on being the director's flexible friend and cannot figure out why people keep proclaiming him as the next big romantic star when his roles have been so diverse to this point. "After every movie, from the Company of Men to Erin Brockovich, I've heard that I'm one of those leading men, that I have the physical aspect of it, but everything is a role. Leading man is also something to be acted," he says.
The movie he is promoting right now, the horribly named Love Happens, will do nothing to dispel the persistent rumour that he is leading-man material. His lantern-jawed good looks, piercing blue eyes and a masculine chin cleft to rival the Douglas clan, beg for a close-up. His co-star is Jennifer Aniston in full cutesy mode; Eckhart is the grieving widower who wins her heart.
Eckhart politely points out that he has moved on already from that shoot. "I have already made three movies since this one. I have a part in a movie based on a Hunter S Thompson book with Johnny Depp, I've done Rabbit Hole and I'm the leader of a platoon of Marines in an alien movie. I run the gamut from small independent movies to the big ones. I wouldn't be able to do one persona over and over."
When you're as chameleon a performer as Eckhart is, you don't have to act yourself into a box. For all that Heath Ledger's Joker stole the headlines in Dark Knight last year, it was Eckhart's performance that really touched me. His metamorphosis from crusading attorney Harvey Dent into the villainous Two Face was just stunning. Even at Two Face's most grotesque moments, Eckhart managed to dredge up some whisper of humanity.
"People are too quick to say that Two Face is a bad guy," he says cheerfully. "You see what happens to him. He's dealing with an incredible amount of loss and anger and bitterness. To me, the most interesting part of acting can be to humanise the bad guy."
Perhaps there is a common thread running through Eckhart's roles after all. His tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor in Thank You for Smoking three years ago delighted in conflicting the audience. The guy was the last word in amorality, but with Eckhart's handsome smile stretching across his face he seemed almost likeable. You could almost trust him.
"It's my job to put the audience in that position," says Eckhart. "No one wants to see a one-dimensional bad guy. I mean, is Hamlet a bad guy? And what about Macbeth? The guy who you feel sympathy for at the start of the play turns out to be the worst guy in the world."
There may be more to Eckhart's fluid career than his ability to empathise with any character. He's not very interested in inflicting his personality on the roles. In that sense, he's more of an actor's actor than a star, although he does note that he doesn't "shun success".
Take his thoughts on how he got into the mindspace of his character Burke Ryan in Love Happens. Ryan has written a self-help manual for the bereaved, although he is slow to take his own advice.
Eckhart comes across as a no-nonsense guy. Did he have to read a lot of advice books to be able to spout the inane catchphrases that are Ryan's stock-in-trade? "It's lucky that I'm a complete loser and a train wreck as a person," he says unexpectedly. "I have a lot of self-help books on my shelves."
I can't tell over the phone -- Eckhart is on the line from his publicist's office in LA -- if he's smirking or not. But he is sincere about his unease with the growing spotlight on him.
"You are on your way to a premiere, hyperventilating in the car. Most of the time you're terrified -- you have no idea what you are going to say. Then you get there, that door opens and you're hit with fans and flashbulbs and you feed off that energy."
He brought that experience to a potent scene in Love Happens. Burke, self-medicating with vodka and denial, is gripped by panic as he waits outside a conference room to address fans of his self-help book. But when his name is called, he bursts through the double doors, high-fiving the aisle seats as he strides purposefully to the stage.
"A great thing that director did was he stacked that room with lots of actors and extras that I could riff off. But to want that all the time, it's disingenuous or self-servicing or vanity and I'm not into that."
Californian-born Eckhart was brought up in the Mormon faith, although he has said that he doesn't necessarily adhere to the conservative tenets of the religion. Still there is a modesty about him that feels deep-seated. The American premiere for Love Happens was the night before we speak. I'm impressed that he's so sparky at eight o'clock in the morning. "I went home early," he says.
But there is only so much attention that Eckhart can resist as his profile builds and builds. It has been a growing sport in the gossip sheets to link him with his female co-stars, most recently with Jennifer Aniston.
"I've come to accept that it happens," he says. "But I'm in a good place with my family and friends because I sat them down a long time ago and they know what's going on. So it's not confusing to them when I am linked to Jennifer Aniston or Nicole Kidman, because they don't take any notice. Neither does the girl I go out with."
There is a chance that Aaron Eckhart could be the next Brad Pitt. But whether or not he wants to be is highly debatable.
PANEL: From Batman villain to Julia Roberts’s love interest, the sheer diversity of Aaron Eckhart’s roles so far means he is not always recognised on the street. “I’m a photographer and when I was in London I walked the city. I just walked and walked and no-one noticed,” he says. Here are some of those chameleon roles…
In The Company of Men (1997): Playing vile misogynist Chad allows Eckhart to try out the bad bastard role for size.
Erin Brockovich (2000): A thoroughly likeable Eckhart comes up for air as Julia Roberts’s long-haired biker lover George.
Possession (2002): His raffish academic manages to melt Gwyneth Paltrow’s epic reserve.
The Core (2003): Science fiction yarn in which Eckhart saves the Earth. Every actor should have one on their CV.
Suspect Zero (2004): Although the movie was panned, Eckhart manages to deliver a rare portrayal of an FBI agent with complexity.
Thank You For Smoking (2006): The bad guy never looked so good as Nick Naylor, the amoral tobacco industry lobbyist with the vulpine grin.
No Reservations (2007): Catherine Zeta Jones gets a taste of his charming chef, and a career as a romantic lead is Eckhart’s for the taking.
The Dark Knight (2008): Forget Christian Bale’s Batman, the film’s conflicted anti-hero award goes to Eckhart for the humanity he invests in Harvey Dent/Two Face.