One more movie.
Aaron Eckhart has been hearing those three little words since he started making films 10 years ago. “They said it before Erin Brockovich,” the actor says, shaking his head with a bemused laugh, “before Nurse Betty, before The Core and No Reservations. Before everything, really.” He slips into his best cigar-chomping Hollywood fat-cat voice: “‘One more movie, Eckhart, and you’ll be able to write your ticket.’” So could the fat cats actually be right this time? Eckhart is the star of this month’s eagerly awaited Batman sequel, The Dark Knight, a grand and grim spectacle already notorious for being one of the final roles in which Heath Ledger, who plays the Joker, will appear onscreen. So big is the movie that it has its own new roller coaster ride at Six Flags theme parks, not to mention an anime DVD feature and a viral marketing campaign that centers on Eckhart’s role as Gotham City’s duplicitous district attorney, Harvey Dent (see www.ibelieveinharveydent.com). As every Batman fan knows, Dent’s fate (and face) changes when he’s doused with acid, possibly by the Joker. Harvey Two-Face, as Dent’s alter ego is called, is an iconic, scene-stealing, crowd-pleasing part.
Combine that with a lightning-rod role as a conflicted pedophile in the September film Towelhead by director Alan Ball (Six Feet Under), and it’s easy to imagine Eckhart’s burbling success surging into a raging fountain of fame.This may explain why Eckhart, 40, is expecting absolutely nothing to change. “I’m finally old enough and wise enough to know even if movies are successful, you have to just keep going your way,” he says over lunch at a quiet restaurant near his home in Los Angeles. The never-married actor (and onetime Mormon missionary), dressed in jeans and a worn leather jacket, has a week’s worth of blond stubble that somehow only improves his golden good looks. “I honestly can’t imagine or even want to wake up one morning saying, ‘Holy shit, they were right. This was the one.’” Time will tell. Either way, Eckhart already has one of the most enviable acting careers going. Since his breakout role as the misogynist coworker from hell in Neil LaBute’s 1997 film In the Company of Men, Eckhart has mostly sidestepped the sorts of roles normally foisted upon actors with faces like his in favor of headier, more nuanced parts. From the conniving tobacco lobbyist he played in Thank You for Smoking to his forthcoming role in Ball’s film, Eckhart is generally expected to do whatever’s least expected.
“I think Aaron’s predecessor as an actor is really Cary Grant and his closest contemporary probably George Clooney,” says LaBute, who’s known Eckhart since he was the actor’s T.A. at Brigham Young University in 1991. They’ve made six movies together. “The leading-man looks are just a cover for Aaron. He’s a guy who’s happiest pushing against the impression of who he is. He likes a daunting challenge. If you tell Aaron he can’t do something, you can bet that’s exactly what he’s going to do.” The challenge was certainly there with Batman, a franchise with an established universe of which Eckhart was only dimly aware. Instead of reading comic books, the actor spent the majority of his teenage years playing guitar and writing songs. He lost all his songwriting notebooks during one of his family’s many moves. “I wasn’t a Batman geek,” he says. “It’s odd when you enter a world like this, because the most unlikely characters come up and tell me their history with Two-Face. There are people out there—a lot of them—who know every detail about this character. The cosmic well for Batman… It runs very deep.”
There’s not much Eckhart can reveal about the plot. As per the usual CIA-like lock on movies like these, The Dark Knight is a project shrouded in secrecy. (“It wasn’t that we had to sign confidentiality agreements,” he says. “It was basically, ‘Say something and you’ll never work again.’”) But there’s one subject that’s unavoidable in any discussion of the movie—the death this year of Eckhart’s costar, Ledger. “When I heard the news, I was in a hotel in Vancouver, and it was my day off,” he says. “There it was on television in the restaurant. I still can’t believe it.” When talking about Ledger, Eckhart refers to him in the present tense: “He’s a great guy and an exceptional actor. You get the sense he’s a complicated person but I had no idea the depth of what was going on. I just see him as someone with this storehouse of imagination. I’ve never seen anyone put more of themselves into a character, who plays up the deliciousness of the part, the way Heath does in this film.” Eckhart isn’t exactly a slouch himself. The actor’s performance in In the Company of Men left a strong impression on Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan. “It was riveting to watch such a vile character seem so charming and likeable,” Nolan says.
“I talked to Aaron about doing Memento, but it didn’t work out. Luckily, he was available when we were casting The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent’s fall from grace requires the depiction of a man who starts off righteous and heroic, but winds up Demented and depraved. Aaron has a knack for portraying this kind of duality in a person.” Eckhart handles praise like that judiciously. “It’s seductive when everybody’s saying nice things about you,” he says. “But you can’t let it in. People think if you’re an actor you want to be a star, but what does that mean, ‘star’? I don’t think there’s a destination in a profession like mine. To me, the destination is you keep working, and if Batman helps continue to make that happen, that’s the most seductive thing of all.” One thing about the slow-burn type of career: It gives you time to sort out your priorities. Eckhart says he can’t imagine what his life would have been like had his career taken off when he was, say, in his early 20s. At that age, Eckhart was barely holding down full-time employment as a sometime waiter and aspiring actor in New York City.
Even that was more stable than his previous occupation: surfer bum.
The youngest of three brothers, Eckhart was born in Cupertino in Northern California, but he traveled frequently during childhood as his father, Jim, often relocated for jobs in the computer industry. (Eckhart’s mother, Mary, a former children’s book writer, is now a docent at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.) After living with his family in England and Sydney, Eckhart went directly from high school to surfing full-time in Australia and Hawaii.
“I still look at those days on the beach as the ultimate time of freedom,” he says. “But what happens is, you get to be a certain age, and you’re still wearing board shorts and talking about hitting the gnarliest spots. It starts to look a little weird.” Then again, Eckhart never really cared about appearing different.
Raised a Mormon, he spent two years, from ages 19 to 21, as a missionary, suiting up to knock on doors in France and Switzerland in the name of Latter-day Saints. “I was good at it,” he says, “but it wasn’t easy work. Catholicism in those countries is deeply entrenched, so you go into it knowing people aren’t going to want to talk to you, and that was true. Doors slammed on my face. I was spit on. The whole thing. That didn’t matter to me. I didn’t take it personally.” As for his faith now, all Eckhart will say is, “It’s not something I want to discuss in an article, but I do my own thing.” Returning to the U.S., Eckhart enrolled at Brigham Young, then moved to Manhattan to take a shot at the big time. His first break after years of auditions was a role as Samson in a 1993 CBS special, Ancient Secrets of the Bible, Part II. Says Eckhart, “All I remember is the loincloth and the wig. But it was a job. I got paid $1,000, and that was an unimaginable amount of money for me.”
These days, money is simply a means for Eckhart to indulge his passions and maintain his sanity. The actor owns two ranches: one in Hollister, a mogul-meets-surfer-dude enclave just north of Santa Barbara where neighbors include director James Cameron and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard; the other on 1,200 acres outside Yellowstone National Park in Montana. The Hollister property is being converted into his dream house. The plans call for a post-and-beam barn mixing stone, brick, metal and adobe, with wide door openings and 50-foot-high ceilings. Eckhart is considering buying barn siding from an old railroad submerged under a lake in Idaho.
As he describes the place, it’s clear that Eckhart isn’t someone who aspires to the Bel-Air mansion and Malibu getaway the way many Hollywood people do. Though he maintains a home in Los Angeles, a small, 1960s flat-roof country house in Coldwater Canyon, Eckhart would rather spend less and less time here. “My model is Robert Redford,” he says. “The way he uses the land, the way he’s created a retreat for himself—that’s very much the way I would like to live.” He already does. The Montana property is set against three mountain ranges, and sometimes Eckhart will “fly out there just to stare at things,” as he puts it. “I have bear on the ranch and elk, deer, moose, snakes. Seeing that stuff reminds me it’s not just all about Sunset Boulevard. To me, being on the land is a form of meditation and of prayer.” It helps that his family often comes with him. Eckhart is very close with his parents and brothers. “There is truth to the idea that nobody knows you better than the people you grew up with, and I think that becomes more apparent to me as the shape of my life has changed,” he says.
Perhaps the most striking detail about Eckhart’s family is that the brothers, all good-looking and in their 40s, are all single and without children. Eckhart really seems to think about it when asked why that is. The actor was once engaged to his In the Company of Men costar, Emily Cline, and later dated country-music singer Kristin Osborn. He’s currently dating Ashley Wick, a leggy, NYC-based publicist for British handbag and accessories label Anya Hindmarch. But Eckhart acknowledges he suffers from a classic strain of commitmentitis. “I do think it’s old-fashioned male phobia of losing your freedom,” he says. “All three of us brothers, for some reason, have an insane streak of independence. We’re at our best when we’re charting our own courses.” Whether he likes it or not, Eckhart’s course right now has him edging toward Hollywood’s A list. He just wrapped a big romantic comedy, Traveling, opposite Jennifer Aniston, and Towelhead is likely to be one of his most controversial roles yet. In the latter, he plays a Texas good ol’ boy and Army reservist who finds himself attracted to the main character, a 13-year-old Arab American girl who lives next door. In one powerful scene, Eckhart’s character has not-exactly-consensual sex with her on her living- room floor. “It was awkward, absolutely, but I felt it was necessary,” he says of the scene. “Getting into the behavior and psychology of why a character like this guy would do something that horrible is the most interesting part of acting for me.”
Equally interesting is what impact The Dark Knight will have on his career. He understands it has a chance of tapping the zeitgeist. “I think the movie speaks to where the world is,” Eckhart says. “Batman is ultimately a movie about quality of life and how we can continue to do what we love—spend time with our family, feel safe in our homes—even as crazy things happen around us.” Eckhart smiles that matinee-idol smile of his. “Plus, there are just a lot of cool explosions and chase scenes.” You heard it here first: After this one, Eckhart will definitely be able to write his own ticket.