Now Playing

Photography by John Russo

The Next Big Thing

by By Elina Fuhrman | Men's Book Chicago magazine | March 11, 2011

 “Every single day I thought I was going to die,” Aaron Eckhart says of the challenges filming this month’s eagerly anticipated Battle: Los Angeles. The picture, set in Santa Monica, might have been a big-budget studio film, but the actor recognized that his part—a marine fighting an alien invasion—was a gritty role. “People would say, ‘Aaron, it’s a popcorn movie, why are you so intense?’ and I’d be like, ‘No, it’s not a popcorn movie, I’m at war! It’s life and death!,’” he says. He looks around the Santa Monica coffee shop where we’re chatting, a few hundred yards from where the Battle: Los Angeles alien invaders rise out of the ocean. “It was the hardest movie I ever did, both physically and mentally.”

Eckhart is beyond serious about acting and exceptionally single-minded about his work. “It’s the storytelling aspect, trying to be real under imaginary circumstances, what happens when there is energy between actors,” he says. “I’m addicted to the chase of that. It’s a feeling like no other; it’s addictive and exhilarating, and it happens rarely.”   Looking for roles that will take him there has become a requirement for the 43-year-old. “When I was doing Battle: Los Angeles, I thought I was at war,” he says, sipping his coffee. “I think people were like, ‘This dude thinks he’s a real marine.’”   Sitting at a small table in the Zen-like garden, unrecognized, dressed in a plaid shirt and cargo pants, Eckhart looks like nothing so much as one of the guy’s guys he’s made a career of portraying.   He played the biker boyfriend of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, the tobacco industry lobbyist who struggles to make his son proud of him in Thank You for Smoking, Gotham City’s district attorney Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ paramour in the romantic comedy No Reservations, among other memorable man’s man roles. That kind of strong character seems to be what appeals to Eckhart, who cites Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem as actors he admires.   Also scheduled for release this year is Rabbit Hole, a gut-wrenching story of a grieving couple who lose their child, starring Eckhart and Nicole Kidman as the parents. “This is one of those movies that you wait your whole life for, in the sense that it’s a great challenge,” says Eckhart. Even as he shines in the early glow of critics’ accolades for his portrayal of a heartbroken father, Eckhart shows humility and realism about the ambitions required to succeed in Hollywood.    “Everybody who looks at my career right now thinks that I’m doing pretty good, but I’m thinking it’s the worst time of my life,” he jokes. He catches himself and laughs. “I still feel that my career is an embryo. I still feel that my great roles are ahead of me, I still search for them, I still have the angst.”   Eckhart tells the story of how it all began at age 14. Between playing rugby, basketball and soccer in high school in England, he auditioned for the school musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. “I don’t know why I went to audition for it,” he says. “Nobody else auditioned for Charlie Brown, so I got Charlie Brown.” In some ways acting chose him. It wasn’t until that play that Eckhart realized this might be his future. “I mean, I’m a sports guy, but from that day on, I was an actor,” he says excitedly, as if the realization is still brand-new after all these years.   The California-born Eckhart spent his teenage years in Europe after his dad’s work took the family to the UK. The move also fostered Eckhart’s love for travel. “We’d jump in the car and drive from London to Algiers. We’ve seen every cathedral and every castle in Europe. I’d go with my friends and ski the Alps twice a year, which was insane,” he says of his formative years. Raised as a Mormon, he spent two years in his late teens in France and Switzerland on a mission. After trips to Australia and Hawaii, where he spent his time surfing, he wound up at Brigham Young University in Utah. “I went to college, but I never thought about going to college,” he says. “I never thought about going into business—I was an actor.”   Did he have any doubts? “Nooo,” says Eckhart. “I knew something was burning inside of me, and I was young enough not to be discouraged.”   He spent his twenties, like many actors in New York, auditioning for everything. “I went on thousands of auditions, but [he started making progress] when Neil [LaBute], my friend I went to school with, called me up and we did a movie called In The Company of Men,” he says. “It changed my life. From absolute nothing, not even able to get an agent for film—I could only get a commercial agent—to Sean Penn calling me on the phone the next day. It was insane. And it’s been a ride ever since.” The ultra-low-budget film noir (“The movie was made for $25,000,” says Eckhart) about conniving chauvinism in the workplace caught fire at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997 and gave Eckhart instant momentum and credibility.   More than a decade later, it’s a large dose of self-assurance that helps Eckhart win the roles he’s passionate about. He even seems proud to say he didn’t work in 2010. “I want to do a particular type of film right now. I just wait for that movie to come along that gets me excited,” he says. “My tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older.”   He looks forward to playing a CIA agent who flees assassins with his daughter in Expatriate, set to start filming in Europe shortly, and is already on a strict diet. “Whenever I do a movie, I tend to get in shape,” he says. Another movie, The Rum Diary, with Johnny Depp, is awaiting its release date.   Navigating your future in Hollywood is a tricky business these days, and much of it is out of your control. “As long as you’re willing to come at it in a different way, there’s no telling [what will happen], because you are telling a truthful story,” says Eckhart. He’s also not too shy to admit that reinvention is a normal part of an actor’s journey, and that he’s reinvented himself “two or three times.”   After another pause, Eckhart lets loose with one last observation. “I’ve never been, in my career, the ‘next big thing.’ I’ve never been that guy.” Well, until now.   Eckhart spent seven months in and out of Chicago filming The Dark Knight in 2007. He recalls his stay in town.   When you were in Chicago, where did you stay? What were some of the things you enjoyed doing?   I lived at the Sofitel; it was very close to the beach. I ran every day along the lakefront, swam in the lake. Special places? The lakefront path mainly, near the beach area, because we were there in the summer. I’m not good with names, but I kind of went everywhere around there.   What did you think of Chicago?   Whenever anyone talks about Chicago, the first thing they mention is cold and wind. And I didn’t have an appreciation for the city. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it is and how young it is and how active it is… the volleyball on the beach, the kids and the swimming and the runners and bikers, every day it just blew me away. The beauty and the skyline. I love Chicago.   The Chicago of The Dark Knight is quite gritty and Gotham-ish. How did that contrast with the real city?   Chicago has all the buildings and all that sort of stuff, but the Chicago I was living in was very sunny and bright and cheerful, and it’s a great place to take walks. I’m a photographer, so I like to wander around with my camera, and I wandered for miles east, west and everywhere with my camera. I thought it was a very happy place.   Filmmakers often rave about how easy the city makes their work. What was your experience?  

We felt like we owned the city. I remember being in a scene on a skyscraper one night and seeing lights miles away. And I thought, ‘That’s nice, that’ll be good for the shot.’ And [director] Chris [Nolan] said, ‘Oh, [they did that for] us.’ So we had shut down the whole town. They gave us access to the air, the sea and the land. Very nice.