Published Date: 04 October 2009
By JAMES MOTTRAM
Scotland on Sunday
AARON Eckhart came to a realisation recently. “I like characters that move forward in a movie,” he says. “That’s where I’m at my best: characters that are like a shark. They’re not looking behind them. They have to move to live.”
While he may be talking in narrative terms here, it’s not hard to think of Eckhart’s range of roles in the same way. From the vicious executive in his breakthrough role in Neil LaBute’s In The Company Of Men, to his tobacco lobbyist in Thank You For Smoking, and even his recent take on Harvey “Two-Face” Dent in the mega-grossing Batman sequel The Dark Knight, they all have a shark-like quality about them.
So you might wonder then what on earth Eckhart is doing in a film with a title like Love Happens. The poster has him embracing co-star Jennifer Aniston, their foreheads touching, looking all doe-eyed.
Does this mean he wants to become a romantic lead? He has already, he argues. “Look at Erin Brockovich or No Reservations… it’s out there. But I don’t have any plans on trying to convince anybody that I’m one way or another.”
The trouble is, neither comparison really works. Erin Brockovich, in which he played the leather-clad biker neighbour to Julia Roberts’ tenacious legal secretary, was not ostensibly a romance. And the less said about the Catherine Zeta-Jones culinary-set cock-up No Reservations the better.
Indeed, Eckhart could even have added Possession, the fourth film he did with college friend LaBute, to this list. An adaptation of AS Byatt’s novel, it saw him and Gwyneth Paltrow play a pair of academics who fall in love as they investigate an affair between two Victorian poets. The shark in Eckhart looked more like a beached whale – totally out of place in this lame love story. Which is strange, for with his sandy blond hair and 6ft-tall physique, the 41-year-old certainly boasts the requisite looks to play the Hollywood leading man. “I’m interested in doing it. I think it’s well within my range,” he counters. “I’m an actor. I love to act. And I’m always looking to stretch myself as an actor.”
At least Love Happens isn’t quite what you’d expect from its title. As Eckhart puts it, “There’s a little bit of depth here. The movie revolves around loss and grief, and is therefore not your standard romantic comedy.”
He plays Dr Burke Ryan, a widower who has turned his grief into something positive, re-launching himself as a successful self-help guru with the hit book A-Okay! While on a gig in Seattle, Burke falls for local florist Eloise Chandler (Aniston), but not before he is forced to deal with the crippling emotional baggage left over from the loss of his spouse.
Admittedly, the Eckhart of old might well have played Burke as another shark-like figure. “I was very interested in not portraying this guy as a car salesman,” he explains. “And that’s how he was originally portrayed. They wanted him to be a little bit more slick, slimy and duplicitous. I felt like we’d seen that. People get into self-help probably for the right reasons the majority of the time. There’s always going to be 10 per cent who don’t. But I think it’s more interesting if the guy is emotionally conflicted. He’s challenged by his emotions and is not out for the materialism at all. And he hates himself for it. I thought that was more interesting.”
As part of his preparation, Eckhart attended real-life grief-therapy sessions, which he admits were “very hard to watch”. He also met a variety of motivational speakers. “The tricky part about those guys is the power. It’s like rock stars, y’know? They really are influential. People put their lives in their hands. In America, we have the televangelists. I don’t know any of those, but you have to hope that they genuinely want to help people. But I think we tend to look at the ones who take advantage, who are wholly false. That’s where I think the (bad] rap comes from.”
So does he read self-help books himself? He nods. “I’m always looking at self-improvement! I have a terrible personality and I’m a total loser, so they help me a lot!”
It’s this George Clooney-like insouciance that is Eckhart’s way of modestly handling all the attention he regularly gets. He’s much the same with his love life. Formerly engaged to actress Emily Cline, who he met during the filming of In The Company Of Men, he has since dated country music group SHeDAISY’s Kristyn Osborn, but is very cagey when it comes to talking about the prospect of settling down. Inevitably, this leads to gossip. When shooting Love Happens, “there were rumours going around” about him and Aniston, something she seems to get on every film set, he says. “When you know it goes with the territory, the upside of that is that people are more likely to go see her films.”
Despite coming on as a laid-back West Coast lad, the Californian-born Eckhart spent his “formative years” in England. His father is a computer executive, whose work brought him to the UK. Arriving in 1981, Eckhart and his two older brothers, James and Adam, were shipped out to sleepy Surrey, where he spent four years living in Walton-on-Thames, attending the American Community School. “Oh my God – I thought I was going to Mars, if Mars was a prison!” he laughs. “That’s a 13-year-old’s view of going anywhere but California. I was being raised in the surf culture and in girls and the beach, and then to be taken away from that. In the beginning it was torturous, because I thought I was being taken away from the centre of the universe.”
What it did foster was a love for travel. Having been raised as a Mormon in his youth, in his late teens he spent two years in France and Switzerland on a “mission”. After a sojourn to Australia and Hawaii, where he spent his time surfing, he wound up at Brigham Young University in Mormon capital Utah, even appearing in the Mormon-themed film Godly Sorrow. Eckhart has previously admitted that he doesn’t know if he’s a Mormon any more; still, it would be interesting to discover what his fellow Mormons thought of his next film, an adaptation of the notorious gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson’s The Rum Diary.
Co-starring Johnny Depp, it’s being directed by the creator of the legendary cult film Withnail And I, Bruce Robinson, his first directorial outing in 17 years. The mind boggles at the thought of just how booze-fuelled the shoot must have been. “There were some interesting goings-on,” says Eckhart, evasively. And how was Robinson? “He himself is as interesting as his movies. He’s a cross between Richard E Grant and Mick Jagger. Bruce has this worldly rock’n'roll quality. And he’s totally invested in his movies. I think he did a great job on The Rum Diary. He and Johnny are really on the same page. I could see that Johnny really admires Bruce.”
Eckhart also stars in Rabbit Hole, another grief-stricken domestic drama in which he and Nicole Kidman play parents who have lost their child. “The thing about Rabbit Hole is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything but what it is – it’s basically just a gut-wrenching movie,” he says. By contrast, he’s just finishing off Battle: Los Angeles, in which he plays a marine helping to combat an alien invasion. “When the opportunity to do the movie was brought to me, I said, ‘I don’t want to do an alien movie. I want to do a war movie. And I want the war movie to be authentic. I don’t care who the foe is in it.’”
It’s not the first time he’s starred in a big summer movie. The Dark Knight aside, he’s also been in less successful efforts like The Core and Paycheck. “Not everything clicked on those movies and they weren’t as fascinating as they could have been,” he admits. Since The Dark Knight became the second biggest film of all time, however, he’s welcomed “the teenage demographic” into his life. “This business is just that – a business,” he says. “And movies are really geared towards that demographic, and you need that to really move along and get to do the movies you want to do.” Maybe there’s some of that shark in Aaron Eckhart after all. v