September 05, 2008
By Jenelle Riley
Aaron Eckhart says he’s “living in a cocoon.” How else to explain how he’s managed to avoid the controversy surrounding his latest movie, Towelhead? Adapted from the autobiographical novel by Alicia Erian and written and directed by Oscar-winning American Beautyscreenwriter Alan Ball, the film explores the sexual awakening of 13-year-old Jasira (newcomer Summer Bishil), who is sent to live with her Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi) in Houston in the early 1990s. Eckhart takes a supporting role as Mr. Vuoso, the flag-flying Army reservist neighbor who develops a sexual relationship with Jasira. The film is an unflinching — and frequently hilarious — look at infidelity, racism, and sexuality.
And not everyone is a fan. After the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Fox News ran the headline “Kiddie Porn Movie Rocks Toronto as ‘Feel-Awful’ Film of the Year” and reviewer Roger Fridman went on to label the movie “odious” and “unacceptable.” But all this is news to Eckhart. “Really?” he responds with a combination of shock and amusement. “I had no idea. I tend to stay so far away from that stuff just because it gets into my psyche. I’m not really in touch with the outside world.”
Eckhart was an unknown when his college friend Neil LaBute asked him to play the misanthropic yet charming womanizer Chad in the 1997 film In the Company of Men. Shot in 11 days and on a $25,000 budget, the film launched both of their careers and began a collaboration that would spawn other films, including Your Friends & Neighbors and Nurse Betty. Soon, the actor was starring opposite Al Pacino (Any Given Sunday) and Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich). Eckhart tried his hand at effects-laden would-be blockbusters such as The Core and Paycheck but seemed more at home in quirky indies. Thank You for Smoking features his breathtaking turn as slick cigarette lobbyist Nick Naylor, and in this year’s little-seen Meet Bill, he believably transformed into a pudgy loser.
With his all-American good looks and laconic charm, Eckhart can breeze through leading-man roles, but he has also chosen character roles. Yet even his more ardent admirers might not be prepared for Towelhead, in which his Mr. Vuoso is by turns despicable and heartbreaking. It’s garnering Eckhart some of the best notices of his career, but he hesitated to take the role. “Aaron said he wasn’t sure he wanted to play a pedophile,” Ball reveals. “And I explained that I didn’t really see him that way. He makes horrible choices, there is no doubt. But he is not a cardboard villain. And Aaron said, ‘Good.’ And he took some time to think about it, and he came back and said he would do it. And the way Aaron plays it, he’s a tragic character. His performance is so brave.” Eckhart spoke to Back Stage on the eve of the film’s release about humanizing a monster, the agony of auditions, and the movies that changed his life.
Back Stage: After much deliberation, why did you finally accept the role in Towelhead?
Aaron Eckhart: Choosing a role like this is not a no-brainer. You have to think about it and the ramifications. Aside from the sexuality, I don’t like to be in movies where racial slurs are thrown around. I took my time; I talked to my agent about it. I really had to think about the places I would have to go. I come from a very religious family, and for me to go play a devil worshipper or serial killer or something and live with that, it’s not something I want to do. I’m very judicious about what I’ll do. I think the reason I did it finally was I have a huge respect for Alan and I welcomed the challenge as an actor.
Back Stage: How did he approach you for the role?
Eckhart: Alan and I met at the Beverly Hills Hotel to have eggs and coffee and talk about the movie. He was talking about how he was going to shoot the sex scenes. At 8 in the morning. I was like, “My God, I just want to do a romantic comedy.”
Back Stage: What did he say about the sex scenes?
Eckhart: He had written something in the script saying how he was going to treat it sensitively and the camera would not go beyond a certain area. He didn’t want anyone to read the script thinking it was going to be egregious or aggressive. He was very detailed about the touching, where the camera would be. Obviously, this has to be on your mind if you’re a sensitive person at all.
Back Stage: Towelhead portrays a lot of horrible events, but there is also a wicked sense of humor in the film. Some audience members almost seem unsure whether to laugh. Did you worry about playing the comedy in these situations?
Eckhart: The humor is like In the Company of Men: It can be uncomfortable. I don’t know that they should know whether or not to laugh. When I read the book, I was surprised by how humorous it was. She never made fun of herself, but she saw the humor in it. And I think Alan picked that up really well. That’s why I think the movie works. Plus the fact that my character is actually falling in love with her. Which I think is important. Alan and I had those discussions; I didn’t want to be a monster who premeditatively preyed on women. I wanted him to have a heart. You see in that relationship what he’s missing in his life with his wife and his expectations and dreams that weren’t realized. He’s a man who is hurting and finds love and hope through her inner and outer beauty and can’t help himself.
Back Stage: In fact, while he makes horrible decisions, your character is shockingly sympathetic. Did you ever worry you were making him too likable?
Eckhart: I never said to Alan, “How can we make this guy more sympathetic?” I had a job to do. My job was to play this character. If I was going to commit to this movie, I wasn’t going to soften it up. But I did feel it was incumbent on me to find the humanness in him. And you can’t say that this stuff doesn’t happen.
Back Stage: You’re a stalwart presence in so many great independent films. Were you hesitant to step into a blockbuster franchise like Batman, knowing how it would change your life?
Eckhart: I’ve been hearing that for 10 years: “Are you ready for your life to change?” And that’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a workman. I go to do my job. My life hasn’t changed. I think kids might know me a little bit more, and I love talking to them in the street. I like talking to people, and I like answering my mail. I’ve been working professionally for 11 or 12 years now, and I feel like I’ve paid my dues. I feel like I’ve done big movies and small movies and good movies and bad movies, but I’ve always tried to be the best that I can be and get better at what I do.
Back Stage: And you’ve done big movies before, films like The Core —
Eckhart: I’ll give you the three movies that I did that changed my life: The Core, Suspect Zero, and Paycheck changed my life.
Back Stage: How so?
Eckhart: [Long pause.] To be fair to all those movies and the filmmakers — they pushed me in another direction. [Laughs.] I’m not saying I dislike these movies. I just felt I had to go back towards the movies I wanted to do, like Thank You and Conversations With Other Women, and that’s when I went and did Oleanna on stage. I felt like I had been going through the motions and doing things more for other people than myself. I had a few years of serious examination about who I am and what I want to do. I feel like I’ve worked really hard in the last four years to be where I’m making the movies I want to make.
Back Stage: When you set out to be an actor, what was the path you saw for yourself?
Eckhart: Every actor has their own journey, and they’ll do it the way they do it. But I think what’s important to some young actors was never important to me. Sometimes they’re concerned about getting to that place — getting an agent, starring in a movie — and it’s not the most important thing. It’s more important that you’re good at your craft and you know it and you’re facile with it and when you get the job you can perform well enough to be asked back. And that’s through studying and doing theatre. When I graduated from Brigham Young, everyone was going to Los Angeles, and I went right to New York. Of course I wanted an agent and I wanted to make money, but I must have gone on thousands of auditions and I never got one. I did some commercials; that’s how I lived. But in four years, I did one play professionally and then I did one line on a bad television show.
Back Stage: Why did you struggle with auditions?
Eckhart: I was never good at auditioning and continue not to be to this day. I hear about some actors who go in and kill it. I was never one of those people, and I have never gotten a job off an audition. I tell young actors, “You don’t have to be a great auditioner. What’s more important is relationships.” Because more likely than not, a relationship will get you a job before an audition does. But be ready when you do get that job. Because I didn’t have to audition for In the Company of Men, I prepared for it.
Back Stage: You’ve worked with so many amazing directors, including several making their debuts, such as Jason Reitman and Neil LaBute. What do you hope for in a director?
Eckhart: Trust. That’s the main thing. And confidence, of course. That he’s a good general with the respect of his crew. That he knows the material. That he can tell a good story, which is the most important thing. Lighting and cinematography can all be B-level, but if you tell a good story, people will go see your movie. That he appreciates actors and takes feedback, and how he gives direction. I’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors, and a lot of times you have to school them about how to give you direction, because a lot of directors will not know how to approach you or they will command you. So I think there has to be a coming together and you have to be collaborators.
Back Stage: How do you handle it when the director doesn’t have your trust or if the set is just a bad atmosphere?
Eckhart: I’ve handled it differently over the years. I’ve learned that most of an actor’s anxiety on set is self-imposed. In Your Friends & Neighbors, I was so intimidated by the great actors I was working with. I would have so much torment and angst in not being confident that I was doing the best I could. Over the course of gaining more experience, if I see a set that’s out of control or unfriendly, I know how to quiet myself and do my job. And that’s what I’ve taught myself to do. I can be self-sufficient and professional in that way and focus in on what I need to do.
Back Stage: How did you find that confidence?
Eckhart: Watching and learning. I’ve worked with some of the most amazing actors in the world, from Pacino to Nicholson to Jessica Lange, and I was watching all of them. I was so scared in the beginning; I didn’t want to be a problem or be in the way. And it made me tense. I watched what other actors do and how they prepare and get into character and then how it looks on film.
Back Stage: You’ve mentioned technique. Is there a particular method you subscribe to?
Eckhart: There’s always a method; that’s the beautiful thing about this. As in music or painting, you have to have a technique to have an interesting career. And you have to learn technique because that’s what you fall back on in the hard times. The times you don’t have a great director, the times when a director asks you to flip your emotions in a scene — you have to know how to do that. If you don’t, you’re going to act up. That’s when all the bad behavior on a set happens, when an actor doesn’t have the confidence that he can do what he’s asked to do. All the drinking, all that shit, all the acting up, is because that actor’s scared. When I hear an actor doesn’t like to rehearse, it’s because they don’t know how to rehearse. And that’s all technique. It can all be learned.
Reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.