Aaron Eckhart: square of jaw, wide of range, two of face. The actor has become a big star by projecting anger and intensity in a staggering variety of roles. From his early work with Neil LaBute, he’s appeared in such films as Erin Brockovich, Paycheck, Thank You for Smoking, Battle: Los Angeles and The Dark Knight. In each one, he’s projected deep reservoirs of emotion, usually masking some hidden rage beneath a pleasant and appealing façade. His latest film, Olympus Has Fallen, places him in the middle of the action as a kidnaped U.S. President facing an unprecedented terrorist attack. In an exclusive interview with Mani, he talked about working with director Antoine Fuqua, as well what’s required to bring the emotional fire that helped him make his name.
Question: Someone said that sooner or later, every successful actor gets around to playing the President. What attracted you to playing this one?
Aaron Eckhart: It was Antoine Fuqua mostly. He’s been blowing me away as a filmmaker for years. I like to work with filmmakers who, for lack of a better term, have balls. Who really want to push it and want to go all the way, who have new ideas and who let their actors act. We saw that in Training Day and we saw it in Brooklyn’s Finest, and I wanted to be a part of that. As for playing the President, I never thought about it. It seems like I’d be a little young for the role. But that’s what he wanted, a physical guy who was active and had a young family. A guy who could take care of himself, who helps balance out the movie. You don’t want a Jell-O President in the bunker. I said that to Antoine. I said, “you gotta let me hit somebody.” I didn’t get to hit enough people, in my opinion. I like to hit people in the roles I take. I like to get hit. It keeps the energy levels where they need to be.
Q: Was that physicality a part of the appeal?
AE: Definitely. I’m pretty physical. I keep myself in very good shape, and I’d just gotten off of I, Frankenstein, where I’d been just in top, top shape. I’ve been boxing for about fifteen years, so it’s second nature to me. It was more difficult trying to keep that energy up while being tied to a rail for three weeks. I felt like that rail would not exist, like I would tear that rail down, and yet I was stuck to it. You know whenever you see a scary movie and you spend the whole time being scared? It’s very difficult to keep that energy up and to make it real. So I had to figure that out, seething and trying to stay three steps ahead of the bad guys mentally, but also looking for opportunities to hurt and discourage them, to buy time.
We got beat up, sure. We were up there for eight hours a day, we lost feeling in our arms. People got hit in the face, I got hit in the face. But that’s all par for the course. The real challenge was keeping the mental edge for all of that time. Figuring out this character who wants to fight, but who also has to be the President, and fight back while being stuck where he was.
Q: You’ve taken intense roles before from other directors. Does that energy change with different projects and different directors?
AE: You bring your energy, and the director works with that. I bring intensity right off the bat; nobody has to tell me to get intense. It’s the way the directors use it that matters, how far they want to go with it and how much they trust it. Antoine was really good, because he would take it and go further. He’d get everyone on the same page and let me do my thing. The problem with filmmaking sometimes is that you’re making different movies for other actors. You’re in different movies, in terms of the energy levels. For instance, I didn’t know what Gerry [Butler] was doing for most of the film, though I assume he was kicking ass. But we needed everyone in the bunker with us to be on the same energy level. Otherwise you feel like there’s no tension there, no stakes. It has to be higher in there than anywhere else in the movie. And that’s what Antoine was so good at. He would kick us in the ass and get us going; that’s really important.
Now, what a director does with that afterwards, I’m not responsible for. That’s where his job takes over and my job is done. If I make it real for me, then it has to work. It can be different, and you have to mix it up a bit, but if you have the right emotions inside of you, then the truth for that particular character will emerge. That’s my main concern when I’m working.
Q: Does it help to have apparatus around you? Costumes, make-up, explosions, special effects?
AE: None of that stuff; it’s other actors. I always rely on other actors. If you broke down in front of me right now, it would be more emotionally resonant than any alien or spaceship anyone could come up with. It’d be the same watching you groom yourself or talk to your kid on the phone. Humans are like fire; they’re fascinating. They demand attention. They’re always moving, they always have energy. Special effects and make-up are fun for the audience; I can see their allure. But they become more alluring the more human they get. So why should the camera move away from that? That’s my philosophy about moviemaking. Stay on the people, stay where the energy is. Too many movies get away from that but trying to cater to a perceived demographic. But you don’t need that. Look at The Dark Knight. Huge, gigantic blockbuster, but it’s still about people. People grappling with emotions and grappling with each other. Heath Ledger was the perfect example of that. He was such a joy to work with. The make-up was fantastic, but it was what was in his eyes and what he conveyed with them. That’s just a gift as an actor, the opportunity to play off of that and draw energy from that kind of human expression.