Interviews - Actors
Feature Interviews A to E
> Aaron Eckhart
YOU FOR SMOKING
By Brad Balfour
Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
March 20, 2006.
actor Aaron Eckhart transforms the most insidious of characters into
memorable moments of cinema
witness what he did with his character in director Neil Labute's In The
Company of Men – he makes the master pro-smoking lobbyist, Nick
Naylor, of Thank You for Smoking almost heroic.
relative newcomer Jason Reitman directing his feature debut, this film –
based on the equally provocative book by Christopher Buckley – charts a
very dangerous course through the stormy waters of black comedy. Yet with
a sterling cast that includes William H Macy as an anti-smoking Senator
and Maria Bello as a fellow lobbyist (pro liquor), he succeeds at making
the audience think without even realizing it.
You read the book at some point.
Well I read it afterwards. I was actually shooting in Canada so Jason
flew up there and talked to me about doing the movie. I had read it, but
had already been committed to another movie. And I read it and I said,
"Wow! Boy! Nobody else wants to do this? How come?" And I met with Jason
and within the first few minutes of meeting him, I knew I wanted to do
this movie and he was going to do a fantastic job. How I knew was that he
was so composed. He's young, but he did the adaptation of it, and then
just had a command of what he was going to do. He had a great vision. And,
after seeing the movie, I think Jason executed the script and he put in
all the little markings, all the little icons, and the little sounds.
All those little things make it funny, they're like an exclamation mark or
a symbol at the end of the scene. You'll have a scene, which is funny in
and of itself, and then he'll go "ka chhhing!" Like this, and then he'll
get another little rise out of you. He paced the movie; he'll get a big
laugh then have a small boom-boom-boom. It's almost like a little musical
in that way. He is pretty exceptional.
This character could almost be a lead character for Neil Labute except
this time he's screwing over the whole country, not just his friends or
(Laughter) Well, this movie [does the opposite to what Neil would
do]; Jason really grounded this movie with the father-son relationship.
I'm not sure that Neil would have done that or if he would have
manipulated that relationship in another way. But I think this movie has
heart, which is important for a comedy because ultimately you have to
laugh, and walk out of this movie feeling good about yourself. It achieves
that while being so politically incorrect; having such a difficult subject
matter, it achieves, [creating those] hopeful and optimistic feelings.
You must have been worried that it might be misunderstood or
Everything that was in the script is in the movie, but there were some
things that were a little difficult to say and I had to do a dumb thing –
double check with Jason. I'd be like, "Are you sure you want this in the
movie? But if you want it in, I'll say it." And that's where somebody like
Neil or Jason is so special because, if this doesn't fall flat, if it
doesn't carry over into the next scene, if it doesn't make you laugh and
titillate you, you're dead. You're just being arrogant; you're being all
these things that they think a tobacco lobbyist is.
Your character in Labute's In The Company of Men has been so
strongly associated with Aaron Eckhart that you must have had to deal with
that in terms of other films you've made, yet you've done very different
That's just been the strongest one. That was the most visceral character
I've ever played. It was so out of the box. Nobody knew who I was; they
had no expectations of the performance or the film. So that was seared
into people's minds. I think the role that people most remember me from is
Erin Brockovich. And thank God for that because it's been difficult
You like those insidious characters.
Well, I really like working for Neil. I don't think everyone can pull it
off material like this, and not everybody wants to pull it off. I find, as
exhilarating as it is for the audience to watch it, its even that much
more exhilarating to play it. And when you get it right, or your director
comes out and says, or if Christopher Buckley sees a scene and goes,
"That's exactly how I wrote it." That's something special. There's an
energy, a spark, you know. When you're talking to your kid, or a cancer
kid, boy, when he's sitting next to you and you're saying your words, and
you reach over to him and go "You did a great job kid." You just have [to
make that feel real.]
(Laughter) You feel like you're really on the edge there.
I came up with that and that's the fun stuff, I guess, because it is
I noticed also, not only did you have to think of comedy, but it also
has to make you think. Look at that moment when Nick tells the kid, and
tells the senator [from
Vermont, the home of cheese], "More people die of cholesterol."
Right, it is informative.
I was thinking, I'm like, "Who thinks of dying from cheese?"
Right cheese, that's a very funny scene.
But also thought-provoking.
Yes, and true. There are other things besides cancer killing us. In New
York City, we ingest about a pack of cigarettes a day. So, we're all sick
here. It's a smart movie, and that's why, if you are putting it with
Neil's stuff, or whatever, because it falls into the realm of smart
comedy. Jason was just telling me that he had been screening it around for
universities and they're getting a really good response. This movie can
live and die in the universities. And with those kind of people; it's
going to do really well in New York because it challenges people. It also,
the great thing about the movie is, in my opinion, it doesn't take sides.
It makes fun of everybody, everybody's in there. You have my character,
Nick Naylor, and you have his ex-wife [Kim Dickens] and you have the
journalist [Katie Holmes] and they're all kind of protagonist/antagonist.
So, you walk out of there picking who you like and then going on. And I
think that's smart of Jason not to have chosen sides.
As an actor, you have a forum to say whatever you want and know that it
can go out there and be misinterpreted.
Yes, and you have to be careful. In this movie, what Jason says can be
different things. Christopher Buckley [the novelist] could say this is a
political movie, but I personally think this movie is a comedy. I look at
it only as a comedy. I was thinking about it today, in preparation for
this and I thought to myself, "This was never a political movie for me.
This was never about tobacco. It was about this character that I would
love to play, who really is spinning things and loves to talk and gets
himself in these crazy situations and gets himself out." That's fun to
play as an actor. Now I hope that there is talk, political talk, about
this movie and talk about tobacco and all that sort of stuff because that
means people are going to go see it.
What was it like to play a father?
I like working with kids. I like the fact that I'm making a conscious
effort in my lobbyist career to work and be a father or family figure
because I like what the father can teach the son. I like the mirroring
image. I like the problems that arise in family circumstances. I like the
conflicts and the tension and also the resolution of family. I think that
the audiences like to see that. The scene where we are doing our homework
together – I'm doing my homework and he's doing his – I just got choked
up. It's a scene that I like because he's mirroring me and I'm mirroring
him. We're both affecting each other; we both have something to say. You
know he's going to grow up to be a little mini me. And I think that's
important for audiences to see. How that relationship can work.
Do you have kids of your own?
I don't have children. I would like to have children. I'm working on a
movie now, and there's a nine-year-old girl. Right now it's called The
Untitled Scott Hicks Project. It's a remake of "Mostly Martha,"
a German film about good cooking. It stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and me;
that's a dynamic I like a lot. Kids are so sweet. They're much more
intelligent. Probably you guys know more than me. They're so smart, you
know, and really can take care of themselves. And you know, Cameron
[Bright, his son] would teach me, because he is from Canada.
Like the director…
Like everybody. I'm given citizenship. I've done so many movies there. But
just, you know, they can teach you as an actor a lot of things too. So
it's good, I like it; I want to do more of it.
What was it like working with Jason?
Was there a lot of improvisation before the shoot or during different
No, there wasn't, not that I couldn't have. I do my own form of a little
like shake and waddle and I get my energy up. We rehearsed it and Cameron
and I also with Sam Elliott who was awesome in the movie. Who could be a
better Marlboro man than Sam Elliott?
(Laughter) The ultimate.
We all couldn't believe it though when he said to us, "I smoke Kools."
Everybody, the whole crew, was outside the doors, and they go, 'Ahh!'
Did the script change much?
No, that's what I was about to say. It was, from its inception, pretty
solid. And that's the way Jason is as a person, that's the way he directs
his movies, it's the way he basically runs his life. So it's not like I
couldn't throw something in, and I did throw some things in, but he had a
very good idea of how he wanted the pacing to be. And how he wanted it to
sound, look, how he had already been cutting it in his head. Of course, I
I always wanted to try things, but I learned pretty quick to trust him and
trust that his setups were right. If I had something to say after that I
certainly would. But it wasn't like we were trying to find things on the
day. When we got there we knew what we were going to do. And there were
such good actors in this movie.
did you add?
I added this, (Motion that causes laughter), which seems to get a laugh in
Which I like. I would just add stuff. Like I said something to J.K. "And
you are cigarettes J.K." Not much, probably nothing really. Just the
How is it working with JK Simmons? He’s one of my favorite actors.
The guy's solid as a rock. He was so funny all the time, you know, when he
says that "Come on people." It was perfect. Jason was like, 'I got this
guy JK.' He walked in and it was "boom," nailed it every time, funny, had
a great take on it; I loved him.
When you read the script, did you find something where you were
fascinated or did you say "Jesus how am I going to make this argument
about cigarettes? How am I going to justify this?"
Right, but it takes a good script, good writing, and again, I didn't look
at it as a tobacco movie. That's why you can go out and make mafia movies,
or make Dahmer movies or whatever, as an actor you can make it whatever
you want. But, I felt like, lobbying is not against the law. And lobbying
for tobacco is not against the law.
People are doing it everyday, for alcohol and firearms and other things,
probably, you know, cheese companies. So everybody's lobbying, so it's not
against the law. The one thing about creating a character is that you
cannot dislike your character. If you do, you're doing a disservice for
the audience. You have to love your character; and not only that, but your
character has to be loved by his mother and father, and they don't have to
be, but in other words, they're good people [to someone]. Any person who
is a good people that does bad things is a good character.
And here you have a tobacco lobbyist, and there is a strong argument, who
is saying, "Look, tobacco is not illegal. Millions of people do it every
single day, and if you try to take cigarettes away from this country or
Europe, they'll kill you." So there is an argument there. That's why
debate in school is so fascinating when people do it. Let's say I had to
take the side of something that I didn't think was right. I could still
feel it strongly and then afterwards we'd be euphoric. There's euphoria in
all this, its really just drama.
How did Jason tell you what he wanted?
With his index finger. (Laughter) How did he tell me? First of all,
we had to trust each other, so we had to make that [work], and we did it
through rehearsals. I usually tell a director, "I like it to be whispered
in my ear, or I like for you to come up to me and have our own private
conversation so that it's between us. We can say anything we want between
us." And so he would do that. He would come up. And then, you know,
sometimes you just look across the room and he'll do this or whatever. For
example, if John Woo [director of Paycheck], after a cut he liked
it he would go, "CUT." If he didn't like a cut, he'd go "cut." So you
basically read it and then after he comes back from the monitor, he comes
back slow, and then you go, 'don't say anything, I know.' Then you go and
do it for him right, or how he wants it. That's how actors and directors
usually work. If there's a real problem, he'll come up and there were
times we sweated it out.
What was it like working with Katie Holmes?
Seems like you had good experiences with all your cast mates.
I did. Katie Holmes came in; again it was interesting, because you're
saying, "Okay, we're going to put Katie Holmes in a wind tunnel and throw
rain on her and all this sort of stuff. It was like, Okay, we're going to
have this sex scene with Katie and you." We were concerned about that.
You know, how it was going to fit into the comedy. We had serious
discussions with Jason because neither Katie nor I wanted to get unclothed
and have this kind of huge sex scene. I don't think the script called for
it; it didn't need it. So we talk to Jason about that, and that was
probably my main concern about the script. And Katie had the same concern.
Jason was like, "Trust me; this is how I'm going to do it. I'm going to do
it from across the room. Its going to be." I think we were fully clothed
the whole time, weren't we? But it had to be titillating too. So it was
important to make it that way because you had to get the feeling that we
were doing it. We laughed a lot, I'm sure. Katie and I became pretty good
friends, and had a pretty good attitude about it. It ended up being funny,
which is good as opposed to scary.
Were you thinking, 'oh God I'm going to do this scene with her,' and
all these expectations are thrown out there, like what if she's going to
We cleared that up pretty quick. I'm not sure if it was contractual or how
it was with us, but Jason, because we trusted him, we knew he wouldn't
take advantage of us. And we knew it would be in good taste. Everything in
the film had the potential to be explosive. And this was just another
example of that. Jason really handled it in good taste. Plus the fact
that, even if you do shoot it, you could always cut it out of the movie,
which it was.
you cast early on?
I think I was cast first because you know, you have to get your mink and
then everyone comes around. I can't remember who was cast second. But,
after I got involved, Jason pretty much, got Duvall in the movie, and even
Dennis Miller, who did a fantastic job, and Joan Lunden. She was
great, really. They cut her a little bit because the scenes and the
economics of that, but I was very impressed with everybody in the movie. I
can't remember everybody's name right off the bat, but you know it was a
hell of a cast. Anyway, I don't want to go through everybody here.
Was it the largest cast you have worked with among all of your movies?
Well, I get lucky, and I'm very happy about that. It makes a difference,
for example [to have people like] David Koechner, who played the gun
Oh he was so good.
was so great. Jason was like 'I've got the perfect guy for this movie.'
He's known for comedy.
Yeah. I didn't know him. I wasn't familiar with his work. He was
unbelievable every single time. He added so much, brought a lot of fire.
So Jason had a really good idea of who would score in the movie. JK was
another one. He's like, 'I know this guy's going to be awesome.' And Rob
Lowe was absolutely amazing, absolutely brilliant in it. So was William
Macy, Todd Luiso, who was great because he just gave that straight look.
How did you approach the idea that you once your character had sex with
this person that you would tell them all of your secrets?
It would have to really be an expressive scene to believe that I would
divulge it all.
Like "it was so great that I'm going to tell you everything…"
Yeah. Oh, the sex was so great?
That's how it was portrayed in the film.
That's right, it must have been. Either that or I've just had bad sex my
whole life. Those are the things that you get to decide.
And you've never been in a situation like that?
Oh! Have I been in a situation like that? No, that hasn't happened yet. I
don't think anybody cares enough. See, she really was going to make her
career on this. This was going to be, if you think about it, about
trapping a tobacco lobbyist in this day and age. I don't think anybody
from any magazine is going to get rich off me.
Isn't it ironic though she was doing an expose that she's being naked
the first night? Did you guys laugh about that at all and appreciate that
rather ironic thought?
The whole movie's like that.
After you do a movie like Erin Brockovich you get this heat on
you. Have you met with a guy like Rob Lowe's character [super talent agent
Jeff Megall] in the movie? A guy who says if you do this, this, and this,
you could be and have everything.
(Laughter) Well, I don't know if they go to Komodo levels but there
are people out there that can make that happen. I feel like I am with an
agency that can make that happen.
In the days of the studio system, they put you into movies until you
achieved that point. Now, it almost seems like actors don't want to get to
Well, the X variable is the actor because I could have my next ten movies
lined up and they could be a certain kind and I would be made and they
would make more money off me. But I always think actors have more power
these days than they know. Ever since Mary Pickford and all those guys,
they went off on their own, it's changed. They can only strongly advise
you. But the thing is, if you have a dip in your career or if you make a
mistake, then they psychologically gain more power and say, "look, this is
what you have to go do." There are a lot of times you will listen to him
and go do what they say.
Did you teach your agent about that part?
My agent's a woman but I don't know that she's capable of wearing a
kimono. I don't know that she does. She's in the office that late, but I
have to say, I don't know what she wears.
And Jason is calm in contrast to working with Brian DePalma?
No. Brian was calm. I loved Brian. I loved working with him. We did a
movie in Bulgaria together called The Black Dahlia with Scarlett
Johannson and Hilary Swank. Brian was another great pro. He knew what he
wanted. He was working with professionals, he showed up and expected us to
be ready and we were. That's the way I like to make movies. Jason, having
been around his father [Ivan Reitman], and been on set and been around
great actors and really having filming knowledge he is very prepared. I
fully expect Jason to become a major American director.
Do you have ambitions to direct yourself?
I would like to sometime. I would really like to get great performances
out of actors.
Is there one project you'd like to do?
No, not at this time.
What's become of your film Conversations with Other Women?
Thank you for asking that. it really is a great movie. Have you guys seen
Conversations with Other Women, it's directed by a first time
director who lives in New York, Hans Canosa, another guy who is going to
be going through the roof. It's a movie I'm very proud of with Helena
Bonham Carter. It's a little romance, I won't tell you the story because
you'll figure it out. It's a mature adult film, about adults – romantic,
touching, hurtful, all these things. It's a small movie, very low budget,
very contained, but I think you're going to like it a lot.
So you don't smoke. Did you ever smoke?
I did smoke for a few years. I gave it up like three and a half years ago.
So, there's no smoking in this movie. I was never in peril making this
movie where I was freaking out in my trailer trying
to find a cigarette.