Believe it or not, Aaron Eckhart—the strapping, strong-chinned actor—was actually raised Mormon in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As an undergrad at Brigham Young University, Eckhart met playwright Neil LaBute, who cast him in several of his original plays. After graduating from BYU in 1994 and serving his required two-year mission in France and Switzerland, Eckhart spent a couple of years as a struggling, unemployed actor in New York City. Then, LaBute called, casting Eckhart as, oddly enough, a sadistic, misogynistic womanizer in his 1997 film, In the Company of Men. The film–and Eckhart–received critical raves.
Since his stunning debut, Eckhart’s appeared in a wide variety of roles. He earned critical acclaim as Julia Roberts’ nice guy boyfriend in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film Erin Brockovich, and earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for his performance as a smooth-talking tobacco lobbyist in Jason Reitman’s underrated 2006 film, Thank You For Smoking. He’s also played a pedophile in the controversial 2007 film Towelhead, Gotham D.A.-cum-supervillain Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, and a grieving husband opposite Nicole Kidman in the 2010 film, Rabbit Hole.
Battle: Los Angeles sees Eckhart return to Batman blockbuster territory, except this time he’s not the fallen white knight, but rather Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, the leader of an elite platoon of U.S. Marines that digs in and fights invading aliens in modern day Los Angeles. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman, the film is like a cross between Black Hawk Down and War of the Worlds, and also stars Michelle Rodriguez, Michael Peña, Ne-Yo, Ramon Rodriguez and Bridget Moynahan.
MMM sat down with Aaron Eckhart to chat about his method approach to playing a Marine in the sci-fi action film, how he broke his arm during a take but soldiered through, what real-life Marines thought of the film, and what he learned acting alongside Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: So were you hanging out with a lot of Marines to get yourself in a mental state for the movie?
AARON ECKHART: Yeah, you know Jonathan and I talked about this movie pretty much almost, I guess, a year before we started. So I started right away training with Marines, going through the tactical strategies, psychology, shooting a lot. I started training really early for it and then as you guys probably heard we did a three-week boot camp before. We had a sergeant major, a master sergeant and a gunny who took us through three weeks. We put up the tent, every bunk had to be meticulous in the same order, all that sort of stuff. We showered, slept, did everything in rank, so the PFCs got to do the shit work and I yelled at them a lot and the lieutenant yelled at me [laughs].
MMM: What was the hardest part about it?
ECKHART: The hardest part is getting 12 actors to line up on a straight line on a daily basis. I almost killed myself. I’m like, “Sergeant Major, how do you get people to line up on a straight line? Because…” I’m joking, obviously, but it’s really getting people to do things on a timely basis in the right manner. For example, Marines have to look a certain way, they have to wear the right equipment, they have to say the right words, they have to be ready and no back talk. And so just to watch 12 actors then transform into Marines was an interesting exercise. And who took it on wholeheartedly and who resisted and, you know, there were guys crying. It was tough.
MMM: Has your perception of the military changed after filming this?
ECKHART: It’s only been augmented. I was always in their corner. I’ve [had] a total respect for those guys. I went on a USO tour and visited them in Afghanistan. And, great guys. I’m too old to be a Marine. They told me I can’t join.
MMM: Would you if you had the chance?
ECKHART: No. No, I have too much fun being, you know… That’s the great thing about the movie business, is like right now my next movie’s a CIA [film] so I’ve been hanging out with CIAs or spooks and all that sort of stuff.
MMM: What is it?
ECKHART: It’s called “The Expatriate.” It’s about a father and daughter on the run.
MMM: Anything that surprised you as you were filming?
ECKHART: I was ambivalent about doing an alien movie because alien movies have a certain stigma — the quality or how real are they or whatever it is, right? I talked to Jonathan about that — the director — and I said if we’re going to do this movie, I’m going to be 100 percent USDA. It’s as if Denzel were going to do a movie, you know what I mean? When I see something he does, or… he’s really the guy that I look to in this sort of a movie because you never question whether or not he takes it seriously. We were up against aliens and that in itself is difficult so I wanted it to be very real, and as an actor I wanted to be like, you know… When you see “Black Hawk Down,” I’m like, “Why wasn’t I in that movie?” or “I want to make a real movie.” And I felt like we did it. It felt like from the second I put on that uniform, or started thinking about it, I was too into it.
MMM: What do you mean [“too into it”]?
ECKHART: I was into it. I was… you know, into it.
MMM: Did you find that even though there’s a green screen and aliens that you don’t really see, except for maybe a tennis ball or whatnot, that in fact it was more like a classic war movie, so you didn’t have that problem?
ECKHART: Absolutely. I didn’t feel like we’re fighting an alien force. I felt we could be fighting anybody that was coming into Los Angeles. Everything was practical on the set. So it wasn’t like that car wasn’t there or that Helo wasn’t crashed or that smoke wasn’t there or these rounds didn’t have any powder in them. We were shooting 20,000 rounds a day sometimes. I was with a 50 cal on a Humvee going through at 3 in the morning, blasting hundreds of rounds. So when you’re doing that you can’t help but feel that you’re in a war situation. Obviously we had to look up into the sky, and Jonathan coached us through that, but all you had to do is then look at the people around you too, look at the other Marines, how tired they were, how hot, how uncomfortable they were, how hurt they were, and then you had all that experience from the boot camp. I know I sound way too into this movie, but I had a lot of fun making it.
MMM: Did the Marines give your performance their seal of approval?
ECKHART: I did show it to about 2,500 marines when I went to Pendleton, Quantico, and they didn’t laugh me off the base. I was quite worried about that, actually. I tried to get all the terminology right and that sort of stuff. We trained pretty hard for that. Plus the Marines sanctioned the movie. They gave us all the Ospreys, all the Helos, they gave us the personnel. In defense of actors being wussies: I remember on several occasions Marines coming up to me and going, “Damn, you guys work hard.” I was like [big smile] because we’re working 12 hours a day every day, and so that was a compliment.
MMM: Did I also hear correctly that you broke your arm while shooting?
ECKHART: Yes sir.
MMM: And then you didn’t have it treated or bandaged or something like that? You just kind of toughed it out?
ECKHART: When the mother ship was rising I tried to get fancy. There was a beautiful orange-red fireball that I wanted to do an Air Jordan through. And so the cameraman was down here and the fireball was here and I thought I’d just run up this concrete slab that would fall and then jump off. Problem was I landed on my head and I landed on my arm. And it was [snaps finger] I heard it snap, break here and that was that. And yeah, I mean, you know, you can’t give the other guys an excuse to stop so I didn’t feel like I could do that.
MMM: Did you get the shot?
ECKHART: The shot’s in the movie, I believe. [laughs] Yeah. It’s when… I don’t know. I need to see the movie again.
MMM: Could you talk about that one very emotional scene that you have with one of the men in your command.?
ECKHART: Yeah, that scene was a big scene. Ever since we started boot camp I was on these dudes. I was in character, so anything that they said about Staff Sergeant Nantz they were saying for real and I geared it that way. You know what I’m saying? I pushed them, so when we were doing that scene, Lockett, the way he was feeling about me, he was feeling about me. So that scene was charged. I don’t think Lockett was acting. I felt like he had a lot of issues with me and I feel like he’s a good actor and he really took that seriously and he knew what I was doing. So when I had… Lockett and I went through a lot together during the movie. A lot. In terms of in boot camp and stuff, picking him up, a lot of heart-to-hearts, that kind of stuff. So by the time we got to that scene it was very loaded, very charged, and I thought a pretty good scene.
MMM: What are your favorite alien invasion films?
ECKHART: The ones that I like are like… When I saw “Star Wars,” that impressed me. “Close Encounters.”
MMM: You had two pretty demanding films back to back between this and “Rabbit Hole.” It’s interesting to see you do two very different performances. Did you feel the same way, that it would be good to have those two very contrasting experiences out there?
ECKHART: I had an interesting year. I did “The Rum Diary” before both of those. I went from “Rum Diary,” got to New York, next day started “Rabbit Hole,” drove across the country after “Rabbit Hole,” ’cause I needed to, and started this movie. I’m an actor so that’s just what I do. I like it. I like it and once the juices are flowing… But it’s funny because people say, “Well, were you more serious about Rabbit Hole?” And no, I wasn’t. A death in “Battle: L.A.” is like a death in “Rabbit Hole.” And people think it’s nuts and it’s a popcorn movie. It’s my job. They are equally important to me, so I don’t see that I need to try harder in one movie or another. I think Heath [Ledger] was — forget all the other performances that came before us in cinematic history — but Heath is the epitome of that mentality. He was brilliant. He was brilliant to watch, he was brilliant to see on a daily basis, on set in the makeup trailer, when we were putting on our makeup together. I was doing Harvey’s and he was doing the Joker’s and trying to figure it out. If you would have said to Heath, “Hey dude, this is a superhero movie, why don’t you chill?” You just wouldn’t say that to him. And I don’t think that the movie would be as special if he did, so I think we all have to strive to those standards.
MMM: I’m curious with that method approach in a film like this, how interesting does that make the wrap party, and the relationships that you guys have as actors when that’s all done and now you’re just actors together?
ECKHART: I don’t go to wrap parties. The reason why is for that reason. For those guys, they were best friends. Those guys hung out. They knew each other intimately. Michelle, everybody. Even Bridget, everybody. I didn’t. It’s not my job. I was staff sergeant; I’m not their best friend. So I have my experiences with them. I had more fatherly experiences with them, heart-to-hearts, that kind of thing. So it would be interesting to hear. But those guys really, like Ne-Yo? Totally into it. But also, like Ne-Yo, the sweetest guy in the world. Always had good stories, never ever an attitude. He impressed the hell out of me, that guy. His humility and his willingness, I was very impressed.
MMM: Can you talk about the experience you had after doing this movie, coming out of it? Because you can still see the passion that you feel about this movie and how much it affected you. So what was your next project after this?
ECKHART: I haven’t worked. It took me a long time to get over the movie. I know it sounds weird, because it’s too much, but it took me a long time to get over the movie. I took a long break after that. I’m ready for the sequel. I wear khakis, keep my hair short, stay by the phone.
MMM: Have they talked about a sequel?
ECKHART: Well, I don’t know. It all depends on how the movie performs, if people like it or not. I know Sony hasn’t said anything to me about it. But I think just in the poster, for me hopefully, just as an actor, it says — what’s the poster title like? Something like, “This isn’t the only place.” I don’t know what it is, but — [taking note of Sony PR person in the room], am I saying something bad? — I would very much look forward to doing another one.
BATTLE: LOS ANGELES is now playing in theaters nationwide.