Aaron Eckhart has been around a while, and audiences may remember him playing many unsympathetic characters in early Neil La Bute films and last year’s Thank you for Smoking. But at last, with his new film No Reservations, the versatile actor gets to show off a genuine Mr Nice Guy, playing a chef who falls for the more blinkered and intense Catherine Zeta-Jones. But audiences will also see the actor in Alan Ball’s highly anticipated Nothing Is Private and next summer’s Batman sequel, The Dark Knight. In this exclusive and open interview, Eckhart talks Harvey Dent, fame and his latest film with Paul Fischer.
Question: We’ve been doing these interviews together now for a few years and it’s interesting to see the trajectory of your career throughout that period and I’m just wondering, first of all, when you accept something like No Reservations, do you do it from the perspective of ‘this is a really good story’ or do you also look at it from a career perspective, you need to get out of that sort of perception that you’re an indie actor?
Eckhart: Yeah well there’s that. I mean of course I look at it first and foremost about, ‘Will I have fun doing this part?’ When I read the script, can I feel myself doing this? Do I go through the motions in my head of doing the movie? When I read this I said ‘Yeah’. I liked the fact that Scott Hicks was directing, Catherine was in it and you’re going to be a cook and I liked the fact that my character’s charming, he’s breezy, he’s fun, he’s not tortured, he’s helping people. And I think there is a perception of me not so much as being an indie actor as being this sort ‘thank you for smoking’ kind of guy’, being very manipulative and calculating. It’s not so much for the audience as it is for my own self, I want to make movies that the family can go. Not all of my movies are like that because I’ve just recently made a movie that’s coming out that’s at Toronto that is not that at all.
Question: Which one is that?
Eckhart: It’s called Nothing is Private. And it’s anything but what I just described. And I think that you’ll find it very interesting. You’ll definitely hear about it, and I hope you see it.
Question: Based on that book but they didn’t use the same title.
Eckhart: Towelhead. Yeah.
Question: How is it?
Eckhart: Well I haven’t seen it. I think that they’re very proud of the movie and very excited about the movie. But you know what? This movie, No Reservations, I’m looking at it and I’m going ‘Yeah’. I want to be an adult. I want to be in an adult movie with issues and to change it up a bit. I feel like that’s more fun for me to do right now.
Question: And being a romantic leading man, is that something else that you get to do here.
Eckhart: Yeah, that’s definitely something. I like it when somebody comes out of your movie and wants to kiss you instead of kill you, so it’s a change of pace. When people came out of Thank You it’s like, you know, they were happy, smiling and I just thought that was cool. And I want to do more of that.
Question: Can you identify with a character like this guy in No Reservations?
Eckhart: Yeah. I can, in terms of the passion. I think he’s a good character to play because he has passion, he has compassion, but then he has a backbone too and that’s what I liked about the character most. In this situation, when you’re playing the boyfriend, or if an actress were saying ‘I’m playing the girlfriend’, usually you’re this pushover part that basically is there only to serve a certain function and when that function is served you’re pretty much toast. It’s a convention.
Question: This could have been the ‘girl’ role really, the part that you played.
Eckhart: Absolutely. It’s the same thing in Erin Brockovich. You know? But this had certain things going for it in terms of his flair, he has backbone, he also has an understanding, he’s wise. And thankfully Scott brought that out. And I think that this character helps the movie become the movie that it is.
Question: Did it give you a greater appreciation of food?
Eckhart: Totally. Chefs – I would say to be a good actor it takes a lifetime. It’s not me that says that, it’s well said. And I think to become a great chef it takes a lifetime. These guys are continuing studying. They have a passion for food. They know food with a deep understanding that I don’t have and it’s interesting to get into their heads. They’re incredibly under pressure to make a living in this business. They’re always in the kitchen, not appreciated. They want to be rock stars. They all want to own their own restaurants but some of them can’t financially handle that. They have to run a business, deal with employees, all that sort of stuff. I find that life to be incredibly interesting and it’s totally unregulated in terms of – other than this, how should I say, the French, you know, because cooking really comes out of the French way of cooking where you apprentice with a chef and you went through the different line in the kitchen. That’s all gone basically. And it’s hard to get good help and all that sort of stuff. So there’s a lot of challenges in being a chef just besides preparing great food.
Question: This need to be a great chef and to better oneself in that area, can you relate to that in terms of one’s need, your need to become a better actor?
Eckhart: Yeah, definitely. There’s a direct parallel. I mean, it’s funny, somebody asked Catherine out there in the press conference did she like her character and the ambition and that. And I thought, at some point you are like that. You have to be so laser sharp focussed and you want to get to the top. You hunger and thirst for it. And if you probably stood back and looked at your life objectively and said ‘Oh my gosh’. My friends are all in the business. I do this on a daily basis’, then you would see objectively that everything in your life is geared toward that one goal of becoming a great actor. But when you’re in it you don’t really know it.
Question: When they say ‘With greatness comes great responsibility’ to you, are you that as well? Are you aware that is going to happen, that it could happen?
Eckhart: Well I don’t know, what is an actor’s responsibility if they become great? I think it’s just to give great performances. I don’t think I’ve ever given a great performance and I think that people that have, I think it could consume them if they thought they had to get a great performance every single time. The person that comes to mind is – I think that’s the worry. The passion to be great will consume you. And I think your destructive habits will consume you and not the good thing. In other words, usually it’s the alcohol. It’s usually the drugs. It’s usually the sex. All those things that aren’t really about the very thing that you want. They’re just the peripheral things that come with it. The money, you know. Those are the dangers. It’s not letting yourself get into those and having those destroy you. Any bad behaviour usually stems from those things. It’s not from ‘I want to be a great actor’. Because to be a great actor means I practice my craft. I’m continually studying. I challenge myself with my material. I mean I look at actors like Ralph Fiennes, and he’s constantly doing Shakespeare and rep and so I ….
Question: And then he does Harry Potter.
Eckhart: Yeah. And then you’re like ‘Whoa man, who does that?’ That’s something to be admired.
Question: So when you decided that you wanted to do Batman, was that also a way to move up one extra echelon?
Eckhart: I’ve been in the movie business a little while now and done various types of movies with varying degrees of success. And one thing I know is this – if nobody sees your movies, nobody’s going to hire you. That’s the truth. The more people see your movies, the more people who are willing to hire you.
Question: But in that movie you’re hidden under makeup though right? So how does that work?
Eckhart: Well I will only say that in Batman I am both Harvey Dent and Harvey Two-Face.
Question: And you’re playing the same character that was once played by somebody else.
Question: That must be pretty tricky.
Eckhart: Well I see no connection between the two. And I’ve not had any discussions about that. That’s one thing about movies. What somebody else did is what somebody else did. In soap operas you’re willing to believe that a character can come back to life. Basically, you just want that guy on screen. You don’t care what happened before. It’s like balance. I mean J.R. could come back today and nobody would care. I mean nobody would care about the logistics of him coming back. So I don’t think people are going to get hung up on my performance versus Tommy Lee’s. It’s just two different things.
Question: Well the fun of Dark Knight is the fact that there’s this duality that you have to portray …
Question: … which must be the hook for you as an actor.
Eckhart: Well there’s several hooks for me, none of which I can talk about, but I will say that I like the character. I like playing this guy. This guy has likeable attributes, characteristics. And it really, as in this whole Batman going through it, it’s really a mirror of our times in a lot of ways. It’s a comment on what’s going on in the world today. And my character fits into that really nicely. And everybody’s character does from Lieutenant Gordon to the Joker. I guess Batman is just trying to make sense of what’s going on and trying to fight a fight that maybe he doesn’t totally understand.
Question: And the makeup is not too much of a pain in the ass?
Eckhart: No all that stuff helps – everything helps an actor.
Question: What was the difference between that character and the character you play in the Ball film?
Eckhart: Well I mean ….
Question: That’s why you become an actor isn’t it? So you can do a Harvey Dent on the one hand and the Alan Ball movie.
Eckhart: I feel no guilt about studio movies or independent movies. I feel no compunction to prove myself, that I’m not willing to do things because I continually do things that when I’m on the set I can’t believe I’m doing this. I just gained another 30-35 pounds for a role, Bill, a comedy that’s coming up. Doing this Nothing is Private, you know, the things that I have to do in this movie. It’s just like, it’s all fun. It’s all about being an actor. I really don’t associate it with me being in Batman or me being in No Reservations or whatever. To me it’s all about I’m going to go play a character and do this and it happens to be in this movie. I’m not getting hung up on what the genre is. If it’s interesting to me I’ll do it.
Question: Is there anything after Batman that you’re contemplating?
Eckhart: Yeah. And I can say it, it’s just in the trades. I’m going to do a movie called Travelling, which is a fantastic movie. It’s a movie about a grief counsellor who teaches people to manage their grief and yet he himself is grieving.
Question: Well that sounds like a cheerful little film.
Eckhart: No it is. I think it’s going to be a touching – it’s a touching romance.
Question: And how does Alan Ball shape up as a first time director?
Eckhart: Couldn’t have been better, on every level. He not only is a great writer but this deftness with actors and with the technical side of filmmaking, he’s really masterful. He really understands and has patience and knows how to talk to actors and how to get out of actors what he – I mean really, really wonderful.
Question: And with Batman are you prepared to face the onslaught of the comic book fans that are going to be scrutinising every facet of this?
Eckhart: I don’t think I understand what this entails.
Question: Good luck. That’s all I can say.
Eckhart: That’s what I’ve been hearing.
Question: I’ll see you at Comic con next year and you’ll be ‘Oh my god, what have I let myself in for?’
Eckhart: They didn’t pay me enough.
Question: Enjoy it while you can.
Eckhart: I will, I will. I can’t imagine. But you know what, I’m there with veterans, you know. I mean Christian’s been through it and Chris and I think Heath is going to take the brunt of it. Let me tell you. Heath is going to be spectacular in this movie.
Question: You’ve seen him in the makeup?
Eckhart: Yeah. Heath is going to be amazing.
Question: What about being on a Chris Nolan set?
Eckhart: More so than ever with Chris is that it feels like he’s just making a movie with the family, because everybody stays on set. It’s very mellow, he works with the same people all the time. So it’s very familiar.