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.
Based on the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole marks a major comeback for it’s star, Nicole Kidman, after the visually-splendid big-budget bombs “Nine,” “Australia,” and “The Golden Compass,” which contributed to the untimely demise of it’s distributor, New Line Cinema.
In fact, since “Moulin Rouge!” made her a bona fide star in 2001, Kidman’s Hollywood dalliances have been disappointing, to say the least. Remember “The Stepford Wives?” “Bewitched?” “The Invasion?” Didn’t think so. Of course, some of the blame may fall on Kidman’s impossibly rigid countenance, besieged by a bevy of Botox. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis described Kidman’s evil sorceress character in the aforementioned “Golden Compass” as “a goddess of icy perfection” who looks “exotically alien” with her “alabaster skin” and “for once, the smooth planes of her face, untroubled by visible lines, serve the character.”
Well, as Vulture pointed out, Kidman’s forehead lines are back, and better than ever in RABBIT HOLE.
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), and adapted for the screen by the play’s writer, David Lindsay-Abaire, “Rabbit Hole” centers on a married couple – Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) – whose life is turned upside down when their young son is killed in a car accident. The couple chooses different paths of grief, with Becca striking up a flirtation with a troubled young comic-book artist, Jason (Miles Teller), the driver of the car that killed Danny, and Howie losing himself in his past. Dianne Wiest also stars as Becca’s mother. Time called Kidman’s powerful performance her “career-best,” and the turn garnered her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. Thankfully, the role takes Kidman back to the edgier, challenging territory she explored in films like “Birth,” “Dogville,” and “Margot at the Wedding.”
MMM attended the New York press conference with “Rabbit Hole” stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, as they chatted about how they prepared for the role, their own experiences dealing with grief, and playing house.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Nicole, this Project probably wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for your involvement. Can you talk about what struck you about this story, made you option it, and get it going as film?
NICOLE KIDMAN: I think just I immediately connected with the subject matter, obviously. It was interesting to me from the review and then when I actually read the play the character, the whole story I thought was so available. I could just immediately just jump in and feel. We were saying, John [Cameron Mitchell] and I did an interview yesterday, that this whole film, we didn’t approach it from an analytical point of view. We did it from a sort of visceral place and that’s sort of what it’s been.
MMM: This is a lot about the process of grief and dealing with grief, and I thought you guys could talk about what you learned about that process and maybe if there were any experiences that you had that you were able to connect this to that made it easier for you as actors or in terms of translating it as a director, how you dealt with the process of grief and analyzing the experience of dealing with coming out of it.
AARON ECKHART: I’ve never had any serious loss in my life yet, so I just had to empathize and just did research. It’s all in the script really, the script is so beautifully written, and just hanging on to Nicole that takes you through it.
KIDMAN: I think for me, it’s something that I’ve always wanted to explore. I’ve explored it in other films in different ways. I explored it in a film called ‘Birth’ which was in a whole different way. So I feel like it’s territory that I would even explore again because it’s so much a part of our journey; what we love, what we lose, the fear of that. And those emotions are so palpable and so powerful that I’m just drawn to exploring them and expressing them. But I think that with this film it’s very much about a family as well and it’s about how a family works through it together, about how you can help people and how in some ways, you’re just so isolated. I think that’s what Howie and Becca are, completely isolated, and yet they are reaching out and they don’t know how to connect. I find that so touching and it was something that was beautifully, beautifully rendered in the screenplay. It’s a very difficult place to exist in, but also the words came easily and the emotions. Actually, a lot of it was how to keep them in because they were available I think to all of us and all the actors in the film. A lot of it is restraint because as actors those areas are mined quite a lot.
MMM: Nicole, did you attend any counseling situations with Aaron?
KIDMAN: We both had different experiences. I tried to and I was told, ‘Unless you’ve actually lost a child or a loved one you’re not to come into the room.’ I completely respected that because they said, ‘It’s just too raw and it’s too dangerous and it’s a very sacred place and we can’t let you in to observe.’ I’m glad that they didn’t now, when I look back because the way that the emotions came to me in the character were through just my own, the way that I vibrate and the rawness of loving my children. I was able to leap there very quickly. I was amazed at how deep that well is and how available it is. It’s probably as David [Lindsay-Abaire] said, that he wrote about this thing that terrifies him the most and as an actor I played the thing that terrifies me the most. Aaron has a different story.
ECKHART: I did attend one of those, it was a grief-counseling group like we had in the film, and like Nicole said, it was raw. People had just lost their child the day before, two days, three days, a week before, and there was a lot of emotion in it. I gave my story in the character and all that stuff, which was interesting. I only went once and that was it; I didn’t feel like I needed to go back. I thought it was a little unethical and somehow duplicitous.
MMM: Can you talk about how being a parent helped you play this role?
KIDMAN: I mean it’s one of those that for me I could go right back into the place that we existed in so quickly. So that it means that the strengths of that love, I mean it’s profound. I think from the minute that you have a child or the minute that I’ve experienced taking care of a child, being the caretaker of a little one, the power of that and the responsibility of that and so therefore the fear of the loss of that child is extraordinary. I still can’t even watch some of the scenes because they affect me so deeply and I’ve never had that with a film. I’ve seen this film because I’m a producer a number of times. I probably won’t see the film again, if that makes any sense. I watch two scenes and I’m like, ‘Ugghhh,’ because it still affects me so deeply. So I think that’s the power of parenting and playing this role.
MMM: How did you end up picking John Cameron Mitchell to direct the movie? Since you’re the producer I’m sure you had a lot of input.
KIDMAN: Yeah, and I just think that I work by my gut and Per Saari, he and I optioned the material and we worked on the script with David, when we heard that John had worked on the script we were like, ‘Wow,’ that he was really interested in it I thought, ‘How unusual because of what he’d done and that he was interested in it.’ That’s what piqued my interest. Then I spoke to him on the phone and I just really liked him. I mean, it’s that quick. We shared things, but we didn’t have any extremely deep conversation. I just liked him and I’ve made most of my career decisions based on very quick, spontaneous things. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. And I like bold directors. I like directors that go against the norm in a way, and I thought mixed with this material and his heart, which he has a big heart, was a good combo.
MMM: How was it you were able to build that sort of relationship where you’re two people fractured by a very traumatic event and kind of walking on eggshells around each other?
ECKHART: Again, I’d have to go back to the writer first of all, and the director. John created an atmosphere of trust on the set, first of all. I think Nicole said it really is the restraint of having feelings and not being able to say them or knowing how you say them or doubting any relationship you’ve had, questioning your love, questioning god, questioning life, doubting yourself, hearing everything you’re saying as if it’s being said by somebody else; that kind of stuff. Not being able to touch a partner that you’ve been best friends with for 20 years or 10 years, 15 years. So all five senses then have to be revisited and reintroduced into your life, and I think for me in terms or approaching this role was how do I touch my wife? How do I talk to her? How do we survive this? It was all in the script really; you didn’t really have to go any further than that. It was only just really playing it. And then John, having gone through this before and being such a good actor himself and being very sensitive to this sort of stuff really guided us and shepherded us through this. He would whisper in our ears adjustments and that sort of thing. And then for me watching the other actors and watching Nicole approach her craft as an actor was extraordinary. The attention to detail, the adjustments that she would make were insane and very challenging and very true. So it was pretty easy.
MMM: Do you feel that your character is wishing for her husband to have an emotional outburst even more than she wanted to be going to Counseling and talking about the tragedy?
KIDMAN: That I needed to have an emotional outburst? He did? No. I mean it’s eight months down the road. This is something that answers the other question about how we prepared to play the role — we rehearsed. We talked. Part of the preparation that I do as an actor is that I create from birth through now, which is sort of like my homework, of where we met, how we got married, all of those things, what happened to my father, because you never see my father, just all the details of the performance. Then you come to the rehearsal period and then you do scenes and then you sort of slowly layer the performance. So, no, I don’t think it’s an emotional outburst. I’m not saying that didn’t happen in the period of eight months prior that you don’t see. That’s what I find very beautiful about this film, that this is not about five days after. This isn’t the day of the loss. This is eight months. This is life. This is how do you stay alive, how do you choose life when you feel like everything to live for has been taken away. How do you then live? That’s the subtlety of the film. How do you live with someone that you used to have moments of great joy with and a normal life with when suddenly you’ve been completely destroyed? That’s why I wanted to make the film; because there are so many people in the world existing in those places. I’ve certainly been in a place of extreme depression and pain where choosing life everyday is a choice, if that makes sense.
MMM: When you’re shooting such dark material what’s the atmosphere off camera? Is there joking or are you trying to maintain that level of emotion at all times?
KIDMAN: Well, with someone like Miles [Teller] I purposely didn’t have any conversations. I didn’t want to rehearse the scenes. John and I talked about it and you sort of want to keep the tension and the way in which we were relating which was through some nervousness and those things. That’s good for the performance, and I think that I probably stay a little bit in character for the whole film. I’m kind of half aware and half not aware. For this sort of film it’s not like you have to be called by the name of the character, but certainly something, there’s the presence of the character at all times. Aaron and I would talk, but a lot of our conversations were about our lives. That was good because there was an intimacy to the conversations that I probably wouldn’t have had with him if we weren’t in a deeply intimate film together. That’ll always remain secret. We had a lot of interns and stuff on the film, which is nice because you have people that just absolutely want to be around that are new to filmmaking and so they have an enormous amount of enthusiasm and energy and curiosity. That’s a good energy.
ECKHART: We also lived in a little neighborhood, a beautiful bay. We took walks around. Nicole one time was in her pajamas walking around the neighborhood.
KIDMAN: [laughs] Not my pajamas. My Ugg boots. And the other thing is that when you have the writer on the set you can be very nervous because the idea of not pleasing him holds…it’s like, ‘David is here!’ But he was so supportive and encouraging and he came to some initial rehearsals as well. I’m always asking questions of the writer. I just love it because they have the key. They usually have the key.
MMM: I think you did an extraordinary thing here especially considering that you had the toughest job?
KIDMAN: I don’t know if it was the toughest job, but in terms of, she’s in so much pain and so unable to let it out and trying desperately to move on and cannot move on. So that’s why she lashes out at herself and then hurts other people and then there’s regret. I mean it’s so complicated, each little [aspect] and that’s why I wanted to make it a really sort of detailed performance. So, I hope that it makes people feel not so alone. That’s the point of it.
RABBIT HOLE is now playing in select theaters.