Aaron Eckhart is that rare Hollywood star: an actor who traverses from the miniscule budgeted indie to high profile blockbusters. Eckhart, whom I’ve been interviewing for several years, has always conceded that he still craves success in mainstream Hollywood.
About to open in the small but evocative Conversations with Other Women, we’ll be seeing the actor opposite Catherine Zeta Jones in Scott Hicks’ retelling of Mostly Martha, a romantic comedy/drama about cooking, Brian De Palma’s star-studded Black Dahlia, and a new comedy, Bill. And Aaron confirmed he’s set to topline the Untitled Alan Ball film co-starring Toni Collette. It’s full steam ahead for one of Hollywood’s busiest actors who talked all of the above exclusively with Paul Fischer.
Question: Do you do a film like Conversations with Other Women, because it reminds you of why you became an actor – in some ways – because it’s so dialogue and character driven?
Eckhart: Yes. Absolutely. I think when I read it, it must have played more as a play than it did a film. I don’t know that there were film directions and interiors/exteriors and all that sort of stuff. I read it and I had no intention of doing the movie. I was doing another movie and then I had Thank you for Smoking right afterwards – and this was right before the holidays, but when you read that material you can’t say no to it. You say I’m an actor and I have a responsibility to do this movie, especially when you put Helena [Bonham-Carter] in the mix, and I say, wait a sec, you’re asking me to take two weeks out of my life and work with Helena who is a fantastic actress saying these words – I cannot turn it down even though I really, really want to. [Laughter]. And I looked at it, I read it, they told me about the package and I said I don’t want to do it but I have to do it.
Question: When you first looked at the character as you were – let’s say you were on page 2 of the script, were you concerned at all that this was going to be another kind of… because when you first see him you assume he’s a bit of a sleazebag, he’s got a girlfriend and he’s picking up this girl who doesn’t really know anything about their relationship and you think, oh, he’s playing another one of these kinds of characters. Was that something that you looked at – and then you went to page… and then you were on page 10 and you realize, ah-ha, this is not what it’s about.
Eckhart: I think I’m more conscious of that now than I’ve ever been. If he had been that way the whole way through I would not have done the movie, because I’ve played that character, I don’t want to cement that character. But I found this guy to be romantic, charming, sensitive and vulnerable, and I think I show it in the film. I think that once you get to those parts you say, okay, I’m in, I want to do this, I want to show these colours to people who are going to see the movie, and I want to be in bed with Helena who’s smart, attractive. And for us to be together? Who puts Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter together in a movie? I thought it was really unusual for us… to pair us up together and to make that work, and I’m proud of the fact that we have chemistry and that we actually like each other and that we I think made a successful little movie together.
Question: Now when you work with somebody like De Palma, who is much more a visualist and it’s a much more cinematic experience, and you work on something like this where it’s so dialogue centred and there’s so little concentration on camera and angles and that kind of thing, does it reinforce your acting? Does it… does it reinvigorate it in some ways?
Eckhart: Oh, totally. There were times when I was making this movie that I looked at Helena and I said this is what we do, this is why we do it. This is it. Sometimes we would do scenes and I would say we’re making something special here. And I feel special. I feel like this is why I’m an actor. And after I made that film I said that’s why I want to do anything I can for this movie. I said to people around me, my family, I think I just made something special and I couldn’t have made it with another actress.
Question: And you do it for yourself more than you do it for an intended audience too don’t you; I mean you don’t really think to yourself, oh, this is going to be… because you know when you make a movie like this that it’s going to be seen by…
Eckhart: Three people.
Question: Right. Well maybe a bit more than that but, yeah, certainly, New York, L.A. and that’s basically… in art house cinemas.
Eckhart: Yeah. But as an actor you can hang your hat on something and say I did good work, I tried something different. It really counterbalances the big Hollywood movies, and I think it also gives you guys something to… it refreshes you guys for me…
Question: Right. Well you’ve been really lucky because Thank You for Smoking was something different yet again. It wasn’t a big movie. I’m sure that was never considered a big movie when it was being shot.
Question: And it was also a very scary movie because it dealt with so many thorny issues. But these two films seem to define who you are as an actor in that you can get away with the Hollywood film, the big Hollywood films and come back and do these movies and go back again.
Eckhart: Yean, but you know I still have to be successful in Hollywood movies. I want to be more successful in the big movies because it will afford me to do these movies and get better material. I think these movies are important… I think it’s important for Hollywood to see Helena do Conversations, to see me do Conversations, to say I’m still out there fighting, I’m here for my craft, I’m here for other things than money and fame – that’s not what I’m about, I’m about, doing things that are meaningful, and I think this film falls into that category, and experimental. This movie was shot on DV, on HD; it looks great. It was shot with $300,000. I mean it was shot in two weeks.
Question: It’s great that a film can be made for that amount of money these days.
Eckhart: Yeah, and that’s what got me into it. In the Company of Men was, virtually the same, and I’m proud of those movies. And obviously the bigger movies that I’ve done have not been as successful.
Question: But you know we’ve been talking for quite a number of years and we’ve talked when you were doing press for the big movies and for the small movies and I know you’ve felt a certain frustration about the fact that the big films didn’t quite… didn’t quite do as well as you intended. You have a couple of big films that are coming out now, although they’re very different kinds of big movies. Are you optimistic that could be the beginning of another phase again?
Eckhart: Well, yeah, I do because the one with Scott Hicks with Catherine Zeta-Jones…
Question: Untitled as yet apparently.
Eckhart: Well I think that they came up with No Reservations the last time I heard. I talked to Scott yesterday – I didn’t ask him about that – but I think that’s what they’re going with. But it’s a romantic film and it’s Scott who is a very good sensitive director and more lyrical. Whatever happens to the film, it’s still a credible film, and I think Black Dahlia the same, it’s a credible movie. First class actors and crews and… so I’m proud of all… I just finished a movie two days ago called Bill, which is another small movie, comedy…
Question: You play the title role in that right?
Eckhart: Yeah. And when you see that it’s a whole different thing. Nobody’s ever seen me do this before.
Question: for the Hicks movie did you have to learn to cook at all? What about you?
Eckhart: No, I’m in the same boat. But we learned to look like we could. I can sauté really well with both hands. Obviously you have experts there the whole time, and the great thing with Scott and the art director, boy, they made a set. They made this full kitchen on a set – it was a working kitchen – it was amazing. And I saw it yesterday because I looped for it and it looks great. But we were surrounded by top flight chefs so although I worked in restaurants in New York and Los Angeles. I hung out with chefs. I can chop any which way, know how to make gnocchi and spaghetti and all the sauces and all that sort of stuff, which was fun, and I think people will appreciate the film for that.
Question: Part of the fun of being an actor I would imagine would be the joy of being able to pretend to be these kinds of people that you would never in your wildest dreams imagine being, which is different I guess from Conversations where you’re playing a very real character. But do you like that sort of going back from kind of a more realistic or naturalistic milieu to something that is pretend?
Eckhart: Yeah. First of all you learn a new skill. Second of all you learn it from the best. So you’re… you’re talking about when you’re with a chef… And I like taking on the persona, when I’m in the kitchen I am a chef. I talk to the chefs. I say, chef, I’m doing this, chef, yeah, chef, that kind of stuff. I get to believe that I’m a chef. It makes life extremely interesting, especially when you start mixing your real life and movie life. for example I could go up to somebody and say, how did you poach this or how do you make a truffled egg or a soufflé, or whatever it is, and you get to deal in that kind of world. It just makes life a little bit more interesting.
Question: Which is harder than the internalizing of a character like in Conversations?
Eckhart: Well the mechanics are repetition. It’s all muscle memory. You have to, live with your pan, and get to know it and that sort of stuff. Obviously, as in Mostly Martha you still have to do all the emotional stuff. The great thing about movies, and I’ve learned this in my last ten years of making movies, is that the camera has to see you doing, probably for a movie two things, in a cooking movie that’ll let you pass. If I can flip once… if they can just pick it up and I’m just souffléing something or whatever it is, I have just got so much credibility with the audience, they say he can handle a pan. If I can break an egg, if I can stir, if I can taste, if I can do some sort of mechanical movement that’ll convince them that I’m a chef I don’t have to do anymore work on ‘chef’, now what I have to do is concentrate on the girl, and getting that right, getting the relationship right. That’s the thing that I’ve learned. If I have to be an astronaut, if I have to be… in my last movie Bill I played a banker.
Question: So did you talk to bank managers?
Eckhart: No. [Laughter]. Sorry. It’s like for Thank for Smoking I didn’t talk to lobbyists.
Question: You didn’t practice being a…
Eckhart: No. I didn’t have time to go be a lobbyist.
Question: No but if you talk to a publicist, I mean it’s the same similar sort of profession I would think.
Eckhart: I mean there are salesmen or whatever it is, how do you convince somebody to do anything….
Question: But Bill is a character drama too, right – I mean a character based drama.
Eckhart: He’s a character for sure. It’s a comedy drama. It’s such a good role. I’m very happy to have done the movie. I think comedy is something that I want to explore. I would be happier doing a comedy right now than I would a drama.
Question: When you’re working with De Palma about whom you hear various stories, what were your expectations and how different were they?
Eckhart: Well I didn’t have many expectations of Brian because I didn’t put any on him. But… I mean the whole thing was weird. I came into it late, we’re shooting in Bulgaria for 1947 Los Angeles. I was working on Thank You for Smoking at the time and I guess somebody had fallen out of the movie. I don’t know the particulars but it was kind of like, hey, Aaron, come to the Beverly Hills Hotel and meet Brian and let’s see if we can get this thing to work. And I did and we had a good meeting and I said yes. So I didn’t know too much about Brian. But let me tell you something, I love Brian. I had a lot of fun making the movie with him. I found him to be accessible, charming, knowledgeable, light hearted but yet disciplined and all the things that I like in a director. He was tough yet he was fun. I just can’t say enough about working with him and being happy around him.
Question: Was it beneficial to not have the preparation that you would normally have or did you have time to do any kind of period research?
Eckhart: I did as much research as I could. I will say that my opinion has changed on people who do back-to-back movies because I’d say why would somebody go out and do five movies in a row, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. But your juices are flowing. When your juices are flowing and when your energy or vibrations are at a certain creative level you don’t have to go far, whereas if you take six months break and then have to revamp all that energy and that creativity up to this level again, it takes a different amount of energy. But I think when you’re going like this, like jumping into movie after movie, and as long as your characters are different enough, I like doing that because it keeps you creative at all times. Like I just finished a movie two days ago. My next movie is in September and I feel like it’s a completely different thing. If I study that and I keep those juices flowing then I’ll just flow right into this next film.
Question: What is that next film?
Eckhart: It’s an untitled film that Alan Ball is directing.
Question: Oh, you’re in the Alan Ball untitled with Toni Collette? And she’s got a great role. She plays my next door neighbour. It’s based on a movie, or a book called Towelhead, which is a racially charged suburban American movie that is just very, very hard to get through.
Question: So do you think this is the most stimulated you’ve ever been in your career at this point?
Eckhart: Yeah, I think so. I think right now that what I’m doing and how I’m doing it is, is definitely the most creative and energized I’ve ever been.