Observer – The unlikely career of America’s most attractive character actor
Aaron Eckhart wants to show me some skin. We’re tucked away in the back of L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills in the early afternoon, where Eckhart is nursing a Diet Coke, despite engaging the sommelier for a good 10 minutes in fluent French. The 48-year-old actor—known for his roles as charming if morally ambiguous characters, like Harvey Dent (or Two-Face) in The Dark Knight, a slick tobacco lobbyist in Thank You for Smoking and the sociopathic Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men—sticks his arm out for me to inspect. He’s smiling in a way that underlines the basic premise of his appeal: With that cleft chin, that matinee idol swoosh of blond hair, the rugged stubble, who could resist taking Eckhart up on the chance to touch him?
“My skin has been stretched out as I’m getting older,” he says as he pinches and pulls a couple centimeters off his forearm, not unlike a batwing. This isn’t just a statement about his age, by the way, but also an example of why he’s getting too old for the Christian Bale school of acting. In his latest film, the biopic Bleed for This, opening at the Toronto Film Festival next month, Eckhart plays the failed boxer Kevin Rooney, an overweight, balding alcoholic who is grudgingly roped into training Vinny Paz (Miles Teller) after a car accident leaves him with severe injuries. Eckhart tripled his body fat percentage for the film…and it’s not the first time he’s done so for a role.
“A lot of guys do it,” he says of his packing on the pounds. “Obviously, it’s helped Christian [Bale], and Nick Cage when he did Leaving Las Vegas. But you just can’t help but feel bad about yourself.” Eckhart withdraws his arm but then leans forward, conspiratorially. There is no trace of the bloat he carried around during Bleed for This’ production on his currently lean frame. He tells me that halfway through the shoot, he’d noticed one of his co-stars (he won’t say which) was wearing a fat suit. Eckhart was stunned. “[Director Ben Younger] let you wear a fat suit?” he exclaimed. “Son of a bitch!
I’m a good little soldier,” Eckhart continues. “If somebody tells me to get fat, I get fat. If somebody tells me to lose weight, I’ll lose weight. I never think of things like that.” I ask him if he feels like he gets typecast because of his—and there is no getting around this—general handsomeness.
I do have a handsome face,” Aaron Eckhart admits. “But I have not used it well.”
Is he being self-deprecating or boastful? It’s hard to tell: When you are as conventionally good-looking and suave as Eckhart is, matters of modesty and sincerity tend to be transmitted with an undercurrent of irony. It’s truly hard, in other words, to take the man solely at face value.
“Aaron Eckhart’s got a leading man’s face, but he’s really a character actor,” says longtime friend and collaborator, Neil LaBute. “He really is adept at kind of getting into somebody else’s skin.” The playwright, director and filmmaker—calling from Vancouver, where he’s the showrunner for the upcoming SyFy series Van Helsing—recalled that for his 1998 film, Your Friends and Neighbors, Eckhart gained close to 40 pounds. “He poured on weight. It got to the point where he was really unhappy and telling me, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never been out of breath before, walking upstairs.”
“I do feel like more of a character actor in that way,” Eckhart says about LaBute’s comments. “Even when you’re looking good, you’re still doing a character. I never felt comfortable doing—because I’m not…I don’t have a…” Eckhart shrugs, a little frustrated or embarrassed to have to put his good looks into words. He ends up shrugging it off. “I’m not what the quintessential guy is, out there showing off.”
Now at 48—as he keeps reminding me—Eckhart seems to suffer from what is known, in medical communities, as “Impostor Syndrome”: high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Though it may be too glib to assume that every actor may thrive somewhat off that sense of unreality, it’s especially notable in Eckhart, who refuses to believe that his celebrity is in any way related to the fact that he looks like a celebrity. He’s entered the Clooney phase of his career but doesn’t seem to know it yet.
But, maybe it’s all just modesty, which would fit with his Mormon upbringing: To say Eckhart had an unusual journey to box-office presidency (he plays POTUS in both Olympus Has Fallen and its London sequel) implies there are any normal origin stories in Hollywood. But Eckhart’s history is particularly unusual because it, like several of his notable characters, plays against his all-American, star-quarterback good looks.
Born in California, Eckhart spent most of his childhood abroad in countries like England, France and Australia, traveling with his Mormon missionary parents.
“It’s truly an American religion,” he says of his parents’ ideology, which he followed all the way to his father’s alma mater at Brigham Young University. “There’s a lot of common terms in the faith about family as a unit, about taking care of each other, about keeping it alive, about community. They’re very, very good people.” He pauses, Hollywood-inscrutable. (Is he thinking or mimicking the behavior of someone lost in thought?) “That’s probably why I’m a total mess right now. Just ‘cause I no longer have anything to do with them.” In fact, his mother is the only member of his family who still goes to church. “We try to support her,” Eckhart says.
It wasn’t religion that Eckhart found at BYU; it was Neil LaBute. The director and playwright was a graduate student when he met the undergrad Eckhart, and the two struck up an unlikely friendship.
“He seemed like a smart guy but always had a perpetual smile on his face,” LaBute recollects. “He certainly proved that he knew what he liked in terms of film and theater and all that but also was interested in theater, so I took him more seriously. He acted in a couple of my productions, and we became closer and closer.”
As mind-melting as it is to imagine Neil LaBute and Aaron Eckhart toiling away together on Joseph Smith-approved productions at a Mormon black box theater, it’s even more boggling to think of the duo producing an early version of In the Company of Men on the BYU campus. The plot focuses on two misogynists—an alpha named Chad and his beta sidekick, Howard—making a bet over a deaf girl with the intention of screwing her over…something that is hard to imagine Utah’s conservative religious element clamoring for.
“I spent a lot of clandestine time rehearsing and putting shows on, that ultimately [the administration was] not too happy with and asked me to stop doing,” LaBute remembers. “Even then I was certainly trying to do things that were less provocative than I did later, because I knew that that was sort of the mandate of the school, but it didn’t stop me from trying a few things. I knew what the game was, and as a student, you always sort of push things as far as you can.”
Eckhart recalls things slightly differently. When I ask him how they were able to pull of the production, he throws up his hands and grins: “You tell me!”
Eckhart is all fired up now, both exasperated and giddy to share. In the original version of In the Company of Men, he played the doofy and resentful Howard, not the swaggering Chad he’d go on to play in the film. “You tell me…How do you think the school reacted when they got wind of what this show was going to be about?”
“Not…well?” I hazard.
“We rehearsed the thing for three months,” he says. “They found out, and they shut us down. I got a call the night before we were supposed to open, and it’s Neil saying, ‘Get to the theater. Call your friends. We’re putting it on at 8 in the morning.’ They locked up the light box. We did the play once at 8 in the morning. One time at 8 in the frickin’ morning. And there was like maybe 10 people there.”
Now, Eckhart’s in full swing, both pissed and Zen, his tone the equivalent of a Cali shrug. “We’re hated [at BYU] today. Listen to this: ‘Neil LaBute: playwright extraordinaire, filmmaker extraordinaire. And Aaron Eckhart: He’s had an O.K. career. They have never been invited back to Brigham Young.’ Not to do a symposium, to teach a class, to give a speech, to show a movie…ever. Not nothing. We are personae non grata. Neil and I have legitimate real-life experience in this business.”
Now, slightly embarrassed, he leans back and shrugs. “I’ve always regretted that for the students.”
It was the film version of In the Company of Men that took Eckhart from out-of-work waiter living in New York to acting as a full-time career, though for years his bio dovetailed almost exclusively with his college pal: He appeared in LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty, Possession and even a small role in The Wicker Man. In between these gigs, he won our hearts in Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, though that scruffy beard rendered him all but unrecognizable from his earlier work.
“I felt like it was important early on to establish that I was willing to do character parts, that I was more interested in the story as a whole, rather than me as a sparkling part of the story. I’m trying to fit in. I’m not trying to exploit my own self, you know—I’m trying to tell the story. I mean, when you’re an actor, you have to fulfill the author’s intent and the director’s intent and the story of the movie. And so I always feel like I have to fit in, and no, I do feel like that has probably inhibited my career. I’m not looking at ways of popping: I’m looking at ways of melting in and being not even seen.”
In 2006, Jason Reitman tapped Eckhart to play the charmingly amoral tobacco spokesman (and Chad “type”) Nick Naylor in his adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s novel Thank You for Smoking. In it, Eckhart looks very much himself: attractive, slightly menacing behind the 100-watt smile of the ultimately privileged. A “Sultan of Spin,” Naylor tells audiences in a voice-over, “Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. Everyone has a talent.” Unlike Chad, however, Nick Naylor is not soulless; he’s just a guru who happens to work in a ghoulishly soul-sucking profession. It may seem like a quibbling detail for a character, but according to the director, it made all the difference.
“Aaron has unusual access to his own emotional depth, which we don’t usually associate with such handsome mugs,” says director Jason Reitman. “We don’t often ask our leading men to dive that deep, but Aaron was built to swim in those heavy waters. So much so that it confuses him when we all want to see his smile.”
“Aaron has unusual access to his own emotional depth, which we don’t usually associate with such handsome mugs,” says Reitman. “We don’t often ask our leading men to dive that deep, but Aaron was built to swim in those heavy waters. So much so that it confuses him when we all want to see his smile.”
After Thank You for Smoking, Christopher Nolan cast Eckhart in a role that seemed, even then, a little on the nose: Two-Face, a.k.a. Harvey Dent, the avenging prosecutor who works with, and then against, Batman in The Dark Knight. Toward the end of the film, Dent has half his face burned off with acid, in a blatant and ungainly use of the period’s CGI effects. But who could forget those “I Believe in Harvey Dent” posters that leaked in viral marketing leading up to the film, Eckhart beaming at us with a politician’s practiced smile?
He tells me about a scene he did with Heath Ledger, who played the Joker—one of the last the doomed actor would participate in. “It was the hospital scene, where I was in the bed, and Heath came in…He was talking to the wall for a while. Eventually he sat down and looked at me, and I just looked at him. He’d get up, walk around my bed, ranting and staring at me, and I was staring back. This went on for about an hour. Eventually, he put his hand out to touch me, and I just…whap!”
Eckhart gestures, grabbing a phantom man’s arm with insanely fast reflexes, never shifting his gaze. “This was my only scene with Heath, and it took about six hours. Afterwards, Heath and I were walking back, and he put his hand on my shoulder and he goes, ‘That’s what it’s all about.’ ”
But for Eckhart, who then followed up with more CGI-laden, comic-based duds, like I, Frankenstein as the leading man, he found his interests kept drifting away from top billing. “You know what I’m interested in is people who are older who come up with new ideas because of particular circumstances, like they lost everything or whatever it is and that they reinvent themselves. I really am into reinventing.”
There’s a scene in Bleed for This in which Eckhart’s Kevin Rooney is trying to convince his boxer to go out for a night on the town for his birthday. Vinny loves the strip clubs, and despite the screws still in his head and the neck brace that has all but guaranteed a Million Dollar Baby reboot should he ever get back in the ring, Rooney is determined to give his protégée one night of fun. Vinny demurs, sulking, until his overweight, paunchy coach forces a grin out of him with his own one-man Magic Mike performance. It’s a parody of a sexy dance—all hips and swivels and shimmying. If Eckhart had been playing to type, the scene wouldn’t be that funny. Where’s the visual gag in watching an attractive man dance seductively? But Eckhart-as-Rooney was howl-worthy: The undulating hips of an out-of-shape slob read as so obscene it’s hysterical.
This is why, ultimately, Eckhart doesn’t mind the pounds he packed on for the role. “It affects how you walk and how you talk, how you react and how people react to you.” He compares the bulk-up against CGI. “If you’re trying to react to something you can’t even see, because it’s all going to be done in post, you’re gonna have to use your imagination. Whenever you have to use your imagination while acting, you’re at a disadvantage, because it’s never as good as having the horrific image in your face, right there. And for audiences, whenever you look at green screens, it’s never as fulfilling an experience.”
So, Aaron Eckhart is only comfortable in his own skin when he’s uncomfortable in his own skin. “As a young actor you’re searching for your thing: where you’re supposed to be in this career, how you fit in, what kind of roles you’ll do best. There’s this idea that good roles go to the most attractive person, but the best roles aren’t written for those guys. Some actors are lucky, and they discover that young. Look at Jonah Hill.”
Eckhart is still looking for where a good-looking guy like him can fit in: the character actor burdened with the conventional good looks of a Hollywood version of POTUS. In the meantime, you can try to catch him the upcoming biopic, Sully, playing the co-pilot to Tom Hanks’ Captain Sullenberger. Though you might have to squint to recognize Eckhart in the role: He’s sporting a really bushy mustache.