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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Interviews - Actors > Feature Interviews A to E > Aaron Eckhart



By Brad Balfour

Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 20, 2006.

Though 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.

With 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 women.

(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 misinterpreted.

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 roles.

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 out there.

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 dangerous.

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.

So 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 takes?

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 come prepared.

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.

What did you add?

I added this, (Motion that causes laughter), which seems to get a laugh in the trailer.


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 little things.

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 get undressed…?

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.

Were 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 lobbyist.

Oh he was so good.

He 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 that point.

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.

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Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 20, 2006.

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Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 20, 2006.