It’s Afternoon Tea time in the chandeliered Living Room of the Peninsula Hotel when into this Beverly Hills bastion of precious English sophistication Aaron Eckhart purposefully strays, athletic physique comfortably bedraggled in a moth-worn t-shirt, scrub pants, and beat-up desert boots. Best known for his role as Harvey “Two Face” Dent in the record-setting international blockbuster Batman: The Dark Knight, the 42-year-old actor goes remarkably unchecked by the tuxedoed maitre d’, unnoticed by the well-healed gentlemen and elder ladies enjoying their own staccato banter.
Eckhart is notably excited, even giddy. This morning’s industry news brought with it confirmation of his official attachment to The Expatriate, a father-daughter CIA thriller set for release in 2013. “I absolutely love espionage films, like Three Days of The Condor or The Spy That Came Out Of The Cold and even Patriot Games,” he rattles off, sitting down before a quaint mahogany table. “The only thing with this action movie is that were making it in the dead of winter, in Montreal and Luxemburg,” says Eckhart, comically exasperated. “I mean, isn’t there any espionage in Los Angeles or Oahu?”
Contemplating the physical and mental requirements of such a production, Eckhart’s thoughts quickly turn to his own personal memories of the warfront, experiences gained during a brief USO tour in Afghanistan, accompanied by actors Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) and Dax Shepherd (Parenthood), and chaperoned by the United States Army.
“It was fascinating, man. We flew into Kandahar and from there we would take Huey helicopters to F.O.B.s, or far out bases. These trips could often be two hours by helicopter, and we’d land on top of a mountain occupied by forty marines stranded up there protecting a mountaintop, and we’d sign autographs, shake hands, eat with them, listen to their stories.
“I felt like I gained a better understanding of the overwhelming logistics of what it is to wage war,” continues Eckhart, “the string of command, the strategy, the morale, the time it takes. The boots on the ground are over there truly trying to help the Afghan people, putting themselves in harms way to deliver babies, help the wounded, help the townspeople, all that sort of stuff. So I was very impressed with the heart behind the operation.”
Clearly a supporter of the troops (though not necessarily the war) and elsewhere noted as a Mormon, by his own admission Eckhart is neither a particularly religious or political man. “I consider myself to be a commonsense person,” he clarifies. “I’m interested in the state of the economy, in our country and where we come from, but, I don’t know, I have a real problem with the corruptibility of leaders, and question whether I know the real reason something is happening on a local, state, national or global level.
“Personally, my feeling on the whole thing is: Work,” concludes Eckhart. “If a person has a damn job, that’s good enough for me. That’s where I come from, that’s my political stance. I think work is the key to happiness.”
Purposeful action quickly becomes a guiding motif of our conversation. Eckhart has himself kept busy with a recent spate of hectic globetrotting. He’s spent the last weeks attending film festivals and press junkets across the world, from Rome to Denver, in support of Rabbit Hole, the unconventional marital drama directed by John Cameron Crowe (Hedwig and The Angry Inch) and adapted from David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer prize-winning play of the same name.
“Rabbit Hole is a very different kind of movie,” says Eckhart, who plays a grieving and bewildered husband opposite Nicole Kidman, their relationship wounded by the accidental death of their young son. “It’s about love assimilating loss, as opposed to loss equates alcoholism, drug abuse, being outcast, etcetera. This movie goes the other way, and that’s what I like. It’s open ended.”
Eckhart was approached to join the cast in the Spring of 2009 while in Puerto Rico filming The Rum Diary, the long-awaited film featuring Johnny Depp, based on Hunter S. Thompson’s first novel. Having quickly read the script, he received a rare personal call from Kidman herself. “Afterwards, I said to my agent, how could I turn this down?,” says Eckhart. “John’s directing, David’s material is an actor’s dream, and I really respect Nicole and have always wanted to work with her. She’s talented, extremely driven, and she’s producing this movie, which means she has added incentive to get it right.”
Already receiving critical accolades and whispery speculations of Oscar nominations, Rabbit Hole’s theatrical release happens to overlap with the promotion of a different kind of Eckhart-helmed film, the stylishly hyped, big-budget alien-invasion action flick, Battlefield: Los Angeles. As the title implies, it’s the story of an epic battle for possession of Earth between ill-willed galactic interlopers and humanity’s last chance: a stronghold of marines in the City of Angels led by Eckhart. The obvious disparity between the two films couldn’t be more striking, and each demanded of the actor a distinct set of dramatic tools.
Himself unmarried and without child, Eckhart prepared for the former by obsessively watching daily blogs of people mourning loved ones. “I watched videos of mothers and fathers just sitting their tearing their hearts out, and I imagined the hurt, the despair, the loss, the disbelief, the extreme feelings, the nightmares, the sleeplessness, and so much more. And then I’d ask myself, how do I get to those places? How do I break each emotion down into the smallest pieces? That’s where the discipline and technique comes in.”
Conversely, research for his role as surly but sympathetic marine seargent capable of kicking alien ass required an altogether different regimen, consisting of weapons training and the study of Krav Maga, a hand-to-hand combat style developed for use by Israeli Special Forces. “I felt that was a good fighting style for that character,” says Eckhart, looking at the silver, three-tier serving tray at the center of the table piled neatly with scones, profiteroles, and delectable savory tea sandwiches.
“But that’s the fun stuff, you know, learning how to make bombs out of peanut butter and all that,” he says, pausing, leaning forward, eyes lighting up. “Heck, I can probably make a bomb out of that,” he says, pointing to a yellow chicken curry triangle and chuckling heartily, laugh lines wrinkling his eyes and brow, deepening his chiseled All-American physiognomy into an endearing portrait of good and bad times had.
The youngest of three brothers Born in Cupertino, California, Eckhart’s idyllic west coast adolescence was interrupted when his father, a computer scientist, moved the family to South East London. “As a 13 year old kid coming from California, you can imagine I wasn’t thrilled to go over there,” says Eckhart. “The first year was pretty bad. But my brothers and I were going to a great private school, skiing twice a year in the Alps, I was taking trips to Moscow, Tunisia, playing sports in Holland, Paris, Germany, and all of a sudden we realized, ‘This is good.’”
As Eckhart explains, his standing within the family hierarchy and his precocious worldliness would serve as unwitting foundation for his theatrical pursuits. “This is a generalization, though someone figured out a statistic on this, but actors are mostly the youngest child—which I am—and they’ve moved around a lot in their lives, which means they’re usually alone and have to use their imaginations to comfort themselves,” he says, sipping Earl Grey from a porcelain teacup.
“When I moved to England I was terrified at first, but then my ability to adapt quickly increased. And I came to an interesting realization about myself, it’s that I am not a club person. I do not belong to any group of people. I can go in and out of a religion, school, a bike club, whatever, but I never stick with it. I am always by myself.”
Eckhart lived in Australia briefly (where he had his first ever audition, for a Coca Cola commercial) before attending Brigham Young University, where he performed in the early plays of friend and burgeoning playwright Neil LaBute. Graduating with a film degree in 1994, Eckhart would spend the next several years languishing in New York City, living the stereotypically sparse life of an aspiring actor: getting small parts in small plays, working petty jobs for minimal pay, gallivanting with pretty girls, auditioning unsuccessfully for commercials and features, embracing the embarrassing necessities an inexperienced actor comes to endure.
“I remember one time,” he says, “I flew out to Los Angeles to audition for JAG, and I did the whole dumb-ass actor thing. I went out and rented a full white Navy captain suit, showed up, and all the other actors were like, ‘Dude!’ Then I walked into the audition and they were like, ‘Ohhhhh-kay.’ That was a horrifying moment, but I did it,” he says, grinning. “Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.”
But Eckhart’s luck (i.e. occupational status) would soon be changed by a fortuitous accident thousands of miles away, an event of time and circumstance that now exists as but another fragment of Hollywood lore. “I was sitting in my apartment one day and Neil [LaBute] called me up,” recalls Eckhart. “He said, ‘Two of my friends just got in a car crash and received $50k in compensation. They’re offering me $25k to make a movie, want to go make In The Company of Men?’ I hesitated at first, and then looked around. I was in an apartment about as big as this table, I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t have an agent. So I was like, ‘Sure.’
The film’s limited theatrical release in 1997 would not prevent it from becoming a critical success, winning Best First Film at the 63rd New York Film Critics Circle Award and later hailed as one of the 25 Most Dangerous Movies by Premier. For his portrayal of Chad, a loathsome chauvinist mad at love and intent at striking a blow against all of womanhood, the rookie Eckhart would earn an Independent Spirit Award, as well as critical recognition from the likes of The Washington Post. The actor would not have to worry about auditioning ever again.
Beginning in 1998, Eckhart would embark upon a seemingly non-stop schedule of filming, starring in 24 movies over the next twelve years, displaying a rigorous will to work that he both lightheartedly laments, (“Where did my 30s go? I mean, really, where did they go?”) and philosophically justifies. “I’ve come to the conclusion that happiness derives itself from creation,” says Eckhart. “I feel like, if you’re creating you’re living, if you’re not creating you’re dying, figuratively dying. That’s how I try to live my life.”
Loving the process of his labors and increasingly adept at his craft, Eckhart would star in three more of LaBute’s dark and clever concoctions (Your Friends & Neighbors, 1998; Nurse Betty, 2000; Possession, 2002), earn the affections of an ever-widening audience with his portrayal of Julia Roberts’ bearded bro-mantic love interest in Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), receive a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Nick Naylor, the smooth double-talking tobacco lobbyist in Thank You For Smoking (2006), and become a household name in the aforementioned Dark Knight.
Not to say that Eckhart’s resume isn’t peppered here and there with benign romantic dramas (No Reservations, Love Happens) and outright flops (The Core, Suspect Zero), but these are forgivable mishaps considering the actor’s overall breadth and the professional outlook that motivates it. “I asked myself early on,” says Eckhart, “do I want my filmography to be ten precious movies that I waited for, or do I want it to be like Jack Lemon’s 110 movies, where he had all these different experiences? And I thought, you know what, Id rather just go do movies and see what happens. Maybe some of them are good, some of them bad, but at least I went out there and worked.”
Indeed, in these times of downward economic spiraling, working in the film industry (or any other industry, for that matter) has become a difficult prerogative. Studios are reflexively more risk-adverse, indie films spar for scarce financing, and the viewing public has become increasingly wary of where and for what they open their wallets. It’s a confluence of conditions Eckhart feels is compounded by what he considers a crisis in content.
“I think films are succeeding right now, I just don’t think were making the kind of films that are creating excitement,” he explains. “People will always enjoy the ritual of going to the movies, despite the cost. They’ll always love the ritual of buying the tickets, smelling the popcorn, sitting in a dark room inundated by images and sound. But the only thing that’s going to get them to the theaters is giving them an offering that resonates with their universal soul. I think we’re getting away from what people universally want to see,” he continues, “archetypical stories, stories of the journey of life that answer questions in a non-pedantic way.”
Not that Eckhart dismisses the existence of good material, it’s just that he’s rather helplessly watched as their fruition becomes wholly dictated by the economics of play. “There are a lot of really good scripts out there,” Says Eckhart, “Its just about what Hollywood wants to make. I mean, I could name three scripts right now that I would die to do and that the audience would love to see. And it pisses me off because Hollywood just doesn’t want to make those movies right now because it’s too big of a risk.”
One movie that Hollywood is doing is the forthcoming Dark Knight Rises, the third of Christopher Nolan’s Batman epics. And though fan boards conveyed hope for the return of Two Face, its here that Eckhart happily puts rumors of his character’s extension to rest. “I saw Chris the other day and I said, ‘You know Chris, I’m getting a lot of questions as to what’s going on.’ And, you know, we decided I’m dead,” says Eckhart, laughing. “So I’m sorry to say but I think we’re moving on.”
Eckhart however is too grounded to be truly dismayed. Having spent all of 2009 filming The Rum Diary, Rabbit Hole, and Battlefield: Los Angeles, the actor spent the relatively inactive first half of 2010 expanding upon his own passions, purposefully digressing to surf, road cycle, and delight in photography, all the while developing for himself a bigger and more complete career picture.
Newly energized, Eckhart is now determined to direct features and continues to pursue producing. Most recently, he helped produce To Be Friends, directed by his brother Jim Eckhart and debuted last September at the Boston Film Festival, where it received the award for Best Cinematography. He also expresses a clear desire to return to his thespian roots. The actor’s last foray onto the stage was 2004 in London, starring opposite Julia Stiles in David Mamet’s Oleanna.
“I love to act, and I don’t do enough theater. But I’m coming to the place where I get jealous when I hear that Philip Seymour Hoffman and all these other guys have their theater companies in New York. It comes down to, “What’s life about.” Is life about sitting around here waiting for the perfect movie, or should I just get out there and act? So, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just going to be voracious about this.”
Eckhart’s hunger for expression and formidable work ethic has garnered him an eccentric spectrum of character-driven roles, from neighborly pedophile to cheating mustachioed husband; has seen him powerfully counter some of the most formidable talents of the big screen, from Jack Nicholson to Ben Kingsley to Gwyneth Paltrow; and has earned him the working respect of some of the industry’s most cherished filmmakers, from Soderbergh to Alan Ball, Nolan to Brian De Palma. Yet the actor continues to push himself, striving to find the material that can further stretch the public’s perception (and Eckhart’s) of what he’s capable of.
In doing so, life for Eckhart seems to have presently come full circle, and ardent fans will surely delight as he discloses for the first time the details of a future project with old friend and original co-conspirator, Neil LaBute, whom he has not worked with in nearly a decade.
“Neil and I always talk, have always been in communication,” begins Eckhart, “and we’ve just recently decided were going to do another movie together. I think right now it’s me and Ed Harris that’s attached. The movie takes place in Mexico and is about two down and out thieves who take advantage of three older schoolteachers. It’s classic, classic Neil, “ says Eckhart, laughing with genuine affection, his face reflecting colorfully in the table’s polished silverware.
“But this isn’t an announcement, “ he assures, looking around the bustling restaurant, “its just, well, that’s the plan.”