by Zoe Stagg
“Do I think aliens are going to come down? I think we’re going to kill ourselves before that… I don’t think car exhaust is doing it. It will probably be a nuclear bomb. People have been killing each other since we’ve been on this earth.”
In the geometry of masculinity, the squarer the jaw, the more acute the swagger. A glance at Aaron Eckhart and his improbably strong profile and almost archetypal classic movie-star visage, and you’d assume gruff confidence, brash indifference, a man of flashbulbs, and red carpets. Instead, the math proves wrong. One of the few truly transformative actors of contemporary cinema, he somehow pulls off this silver-screen trick in real life. Eckhart manages to be an actor’s actor, a marquis pull, and an unnoticed every-man, all at the same time.
Unrecognizable from his first breakout role as the ponytailed boyfriend in Erin Brockovich, to his Golden-Globe nominated turn as Nick Naylor in Thank You for Smoking, to Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, he splits the Hollywood atom. Celebrity and craft need not be synonymous. Describing himself as a “Q-list celebrity,” it’s clear, his anonymity is calculated and coveted. “I think it just has to do with the quality of the actor. Actors that come from a craft perspective, their characters are taken more seriously. The actors I’m talking about shy away from the spotlight, or the spotlight is not interested in them. And I’ve never been embraced by the media. I’ve never been very interesting to the media. Nobody chases me around town or cares who I go out with.”
To underscore his humble obscurity, he explains how he’s able to go from Batman blockbuster to lunch rush supermarket line without a sideways glance. It’s because the whole construct of fame has nothing to do with the star to begin with. “If people aren’t made aware that you’re in the movies, then they don’t give a damn about you. I’m talking about anyone. It’s mostly about their fantasy about what that life is.” That fantasy life is just not in his bag of characters. “I have nothing really to say that’s interesting to anyone, lifestyle-wise. I’m not a big cavorter. I don’t have a fancy persona. I would rather err on the side of people not knowing anything about me, than knowing a lot about me.”
So to be an Aaron Eckhart fan is to have to create the man from his parts. Search and you’ll find clips and quotes of him dutifully talking about a role or film, but he always appears in an official capacity. There is little candid, personal, or scandalous. The actor exists in the public forum. The man does not.
But the man does exist.
He is fragile, hesitant, modest beyond reason. Conscious that the spotlight he reluctantly courts can turn into the glare of a searchlight without warning. He responds carefully with the flinch of someone who’s been burned. Eckhart grew up in the Mormon faith, one of the few personal details out for consumption, and a truly unique one in Hollywood. As such, a question in that direction sends the guard up. “Usually when I’m asked the Mormon question, it’s a very loaded question. People have very preconceived ideas. And so it’s not something I particularly want to touch. People always have an agenda when they ask that. They’re loaded, they want to catch me in something or portray me as some sort of otherworldly person, or somehow it’s contaminated or something.” The answer comes through the training and experience of being a big screen actor. It’s not the instinctual answer of the man behind the act, whose softer explanation makes clear he’s not “contaminated,” but absolutely created by his upbringing.
“My parents are two very humble, down-to-earth people from Montana. My mother rode her horse to school and grew up without electricity. And my father was basically in the same boat.” Suddenly the genesis of his theory of anti-fame becomes clear. He wasn’t brought up to worship at the dual altar of vanity and attention. “I’ve never been into jewelry or clothing or anything like that. I have a healthy suspicion of all that stuff.” The practicality and realism that keeps him grounded in heady Hollywood also tempers any glee of a job well done. Pride is a sin he doesn’t have to confess. “I wish I was more of an optimist. I can do it, but it’s more a conscious effort. I come from a family of hard grinders. The other shoe is always going to fall. It’s hard to embrace your victories.” And in the ultimate irony, he claims he’s not a perfectionist because he’s never achieved anything remotely approaching perfection. In a quiet understatement he finally admits, “I am hard on myself.”
Religion and philosophy rarely stop at the self, and Eckhart’s view doesn’t end there either. “I’ve looked at very many religions and philosophies and they basically all boil down to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself.’ We’re all trying to get to the same place. I think if anything, we’re just more political than ever, or driven by a particular agenda. I think that people feel like they have to protect things more today.” He tries to demur, claiming to be “just an actor,” but it’s that very study of humanity that makes him well qualified to offer his opinion. “I know our nation is becoming more polarized. I don’t know about more. I’ve only been on this planet for my 42 years, but I do know that religion can be very divisive and polarizing and I grew up with it, so it’s part of my fiber.” The polarity exists within as well. “It’s been a dance for me, but I feel like stories should be told. And I personally like to explore edgier material. So you have to reconcile that with yourself, and I feel like that’s mostly where religion is going, toward a self-reconciliation.”
Eckhart’s work ethic and pragmatism are never out of reach. “My whole philosophy on life is that life is work. And that’s my own life. I’m the most content when I am working steadfastly and headlong into a job. I feel like in our country and in the world, if people are getting agitated, it’s because they’re not working” He himself might not be optimistic, but he is for the rest of us. “That’s the great thing about this country, that we are tirelessly ingenious, and we will find a way.”
If work is one way to escape hard times, in his recent film, Rabbit Hole, with Nicole Kidman, he explored another: humor. Specifically, gallows humor, that sardonic shield against pain. Without pausing, he admits he uses it every day. “Humor is… what else do we have? It’s the thing that feels the best when everything else feels like shit. And it doesn’t cost anything.” Though, as is the case with most everything in his world, it’s not just what you see on the surface. The jester can be king. “It’s a mark of leadership in my opinion. If you can be relaxed enough to see the humor in something under duress, then you are a special person. Somebody who has the presence of mind to take care of others through humor in hard times is a good person.”
And hard times are finding their way into our entertainment, reflecting themselves into our popcorn. In Battle: Los Angeles, a 1942-inspired Sci-Fi invasion film, the “others” aren’t just aliens. “It’s a manifestation of everyone’s inner fears.” Playing Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, it was a world Eckhart loved getting lost in. “The film is a love letter to the Marines. It was filmed with their consent and they were with us the whole time. I have mountains of respect for the armed forces. We did it as accurate as a bunch of dumb actors can do. It’s the only character in my life that I felt sad when I had to leave.” He still carries a little bit of camo-fever. Though his 42 years would let him sneak in the Army, he’s too old for the Marines, even though he’s sure he could “Oorah!” with the best of them. “Of course, nobody was shooting back at me, and I had a nice trailer.”
But fake Hollywood little green men aside, does he really think there’s anybody out there? “I don’t know what the government knows. If you really boil it down, and you really believe in religion, or you believe in God – if you’re willing to believe there’s life after this life, then what aren’t you ready to believe?” Though recent mass bird and fish deaths prompted one entertainment magazine’s blog to suggest that The Core star might have the answer, he laughs and clarifies. “Do I think aliens are going to come down? I think we’re going to kill ourselves before that.” And not environmentally. “I don’t think car exhaust is doing it. It will probably be a nuclear bomb. People have been killing each other since we’ve been on this earth. It’s going to be the thing most unlikely that will afflict the most damage. Or life goes on and nothing happens. I think most of our fears happen in our head and we all just agree to go to work and try to feed our families and not be so worried about each other.”
Though a boot-strapping individualist, he clearly does worry about others, to the extent of not wanting to make it about him. The theme of “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” is absolutely tireless. “I’m not an actor who’s a self promoter in that way. I give to give. I’m not a champion for any cause. Look I’m a surfer, I’m a sportsman, I like things to be clean, I like dogs to be useful, I like kids to have musical instruments… I think that’s what we can all do, is instill our kids and the citizens of the world with a sense of optimism and a sense that they can do anything they want. I think that that’s the greatest lesson. That’s more important than money.”
From his struggling start as an actor in New York City, it’s a lesson of the optimism of poverty he learned well. “New York is hands down the best city in the world. It’s a city that I immediately embraced. I went straight from college to New York City. I was money poor, but I had the greatest time of my life. It’s the most beautiful jungle in the world.”