On a street corner in Natchez, Mississippi, Aaron Eckhart is overlooking the mighty river. It’s hot out, even hotter in the car he’s sitting in with its clapped-out air conditioning.
He’s in a contemplative mood. It could be the weather, the river rolling along, the emotional experience of talking to The Big Issue or the part he’s preparing to play.
“Way back to Shakespeare or Oedipus, it’s always about betrayal or murder or loss,” he says. “People are fascinated watching it. As an actor, in order to make people believe, you have to actually go to those places.”
Can you switch it on and off?
“You got to stay there. You have it bubbling on the surface all the time. And you look at everything through that prism. You never want to get too far away from it.”
Would this interview be different if you were getting ready for a romantic comedy?
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“Yeah of course. We’re having a conversation but I’m getting ready for the film that I’m doing right now, which is pretty heavy.”
Heavyweight indeed. The upcoming shoot is for Rumble in the Dark. On IMDb it promises to be about “a bareknuckle cage fighter who seeks to repay his debts in a final, desperate attempt to salvage the family home of his dying foster mother”.
“You know, I should do comedies,” Eckhart says. “I don’t know if comedies are easier, but it’s probably easier to get through the day.
“A lot of people that say the ultimate actor is the actor that can be telling a joke and all of a sudden they’re crying on film. I’m not that actor! I wish I could do it.”
Aaron Eckhart has always had classic matinee idol looks and the work ethic of someone who doesn’t. His break came opposite Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. Starring roles in indie films followed until his role as Harvey Dent/Two-Face in The Dark Knight brought about more blockbusters – playing the President in Olympus Has Fallen then London Has Fallen; being Tom Hanks’ co-pilot in Sully.
In his latest release, Wander, he plays Arthur Bretnik, a former cop who descended into paranoia after an accident that killed his daughter and left his wife catatonic. He gets pulled into a conspiracy involving a New Mexico town where people are trapped, tracked and stripped of their identity by sinister dark forces. It’s another cheery challenge for Eckhart, who says about the subject matter: “As an actor, it’s the ultimate place to go.”
On the first day of Wander’s shoot, director April Mullen told everyone onset not to talk to the star of the film.
“I can’t tell you how heart-warming it is that she would take the time out in front of everybody,” Eckhart explains. “That unburdens me. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to people, it’s just I have a job to do and my job is going to take a little bit of concentration.
“People love the idea of the method actor because they’re living their part. That has given credence and legitimacy to acting. Brando changed the whole world and now it’s a badge of honour to be called a method actor because you take yourself seriously, you take the craft seriously. I’m not saying I’m a method actor, I’m saying you do whatever you can to become as believable as you can.
“I remember with Heath [Ledger on The Dark Knight], he was in the corner talking to himself. Waving his arms, mumbling. He took that role extremely seriously. And what did it do to me, what did it do to everybody on the set? It made them take it seriously.”
But is that how actors can get reputations for being difficult to work with?
“That is the game right there. The question you have to ask yourself is: would you rather be well-liked or lay it out all on the table?
“I cannot tell you how important that question is. I cannot tell you how much influence that question has in this business. Because in order to be liked you have to be joking around all the time. You have to be entertaining the troops. It takes a lot of energy and effort to be well-liked.”
That’s not to say Aaron Eckhart isn’t a bit of a joker himself. There’s a knowing self-deprecation in the soul-searching he’s doing.
“There’s an age-old question about whether your craft is significant or not, if it’s worthy,” he continues. “People don’t look highly on actors… I don’t know if they do or not. And I don’t really care. But ever since the beginning of theatre, actors have been Gipsies, outliers or clowns.
“And if an actor has a voice politically, does your work substantiate that? You’re always looking for validation.
“I think one of the ways to do it is to challenge yourself and show the audience that I still want to push myself, even though I might fail.”
Arthur Bretnik in Wander is a complex part and Eckhart, as ever, throws everything at it. But I’d still like to see him in a romantic comedy next time.
“Me too,” he says. “You know what my dream is? To be third banana on a half-hour television series. You know, the dad that comes in once a week and says, ‘Hey, how you doing, son?’
“That’s the good life. I’m 53 out here doing a cage-fighting movie. Sometimes I sit and go, ‘Aaron, what are you doing, man?’”
Wander, starring Aaron Eckhart, is available to buy or rent on digital download now
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