Aaron Eckhart doesn’t take his “lighter” movies lightly. Sure, the 45 year old actor can laugh and joke about the fun he has making movies in various different genres and with various different sets of skills that he needs to employ on a daily basis, but he always gives his absolute best every time he takes on a new role.
Take for example his work as the lead in the upcoming action-fantasy I, Frankenstein (in theatres this Friday). Eckhart plays the famed monster of Mary Shelley’s creation, but in a future forward-looking version of London as a potentially soulless and immortal human-creation that’s caught amid a war between hellish demons (led by Bill Nighy) and almost angelic gargoyles (led by Miranda Otto and Jai Courtney), the latter of which find him an uneasy and possibly irredeemable abomination and the former want to capture and harness the secret of human reanimation that he seems to possess.
To hear Eckhart tell about his experiences in a downtown Toronto hotel this week while on a promotional tour for the film, the research he put in was intense compared to what most other actors would put into a big budget blockbuster. A veteran of both blockbusters (The Dark Knight, Battle Los Angeles, Olympus Has Fallen) and smaller independent fare (In the Company of Men, Rabbit Hole, Thank You for Smoking), Eckhart never makes the distinction between high drama or fun, putting in an exemplary amount of effort and background work into his performances, sometimes for roles that other actors might shrug off and approach entirely cold.
We sat down with the really fascinating to talk to and remarkably thoughtful Eckhart about his recent shift towards higher profile films after starting off in independent movies, constructing the look of a modern monster, the physical preparation for the role, and the surprising amount of deep emotional research he did that took just as heavy a toll.
With regard to your career it’s kind of interesting that early on you started with more dramatic and smaller fare, and it seems like lately as you’ve been getting a bit older you’ve started getting a lot more action oriented roles. Was this something that was kind of a happy accident or something that you really wanted to work towards at some point?
Aaron Eckhart: (laughs) That’s funny. Well, I am going to be dead soon, so I wanted to be able to do at least one action movie before I die. (laughs) You know, it’s funny, because when early on in my career when I started working with Neil (LaBute) and everyone else I had been working with, I was very much into independent movies. I wanted to work with my heroes, like Sean (Penn, director of The Pledge) and people like that. I was very much at the time into that whole “brooding actor” sort of thing, and for a long time it was always really important that I just kind of stay away from Hollywood. I avoided romantic comedies and stuff like that very deliberately.
And I’m ultimately glad that I did because it made me who I am today and all that kind of stuff. But now as I have sort of gained more experience and over time – just today I realized it has been 17 years now since In the Company of Men – and I feel like I have fulfilled that quotient of my career and now I can actually LET myself have fun, you know?
I love action movies. I grew up with idols like Harrison Ford and Rocky and Star Wars and Butch Cassidy and all that sort of stuff, and one day I just decided that I did want to have fun. I just got to a point where I would get scripts and it would just be page after page after page or monologue after monologue after monologue, and I just would sigh and think, “You know, I just don’t want to say any more words.” (laughs) I’m sick of it! Why am I saying so much? I have nothing to say! What else could I say? (laughs) I envisioned my ultimate movie at that point would be something where I would be running on top of a train and grunting. (laughs) I think I have sort of fulfilled that now.
I will have to say, though, that I still love independent films and smaller films, and I hope to not only be in them more, but I hope to even direct one, too. I think this year, for me, there’s going to be a lot more of that. Just something with no camera moves, two people just loving and fighting against each other in a room, that sort of thing. I really want to get back to that.
But I am still really glad that I can still do the action stuff. I’m glad that I’m still in good enough shape and that people are willing to pay me to do it. (laughs)
Since you did stay away from Hollywood for so long, do you think that time away from that kind of spotlight helped to refine what you would come to think would be a fun movie to do at this point in your career, and did it give you a better appreciation for what it takes to make a “good, fun movie”?
AE: Yeah. I mean, you can really hurt yourself if you just take whatever comes along right out of the gate. I think it was really great for me to get that kind of apprenticeship and tutelage instead of just deciding that I would want to go out and be a star.
I’m not at all interested in being a star in the sense that I want to be known all over the world and have a ton of Twitter followers. I have no interest in that. I never have. I don’t want to be in the papers. Blah blah blah. So, it was all about the quality of acting, working with the best actors, and I think I did that. Some were better than others, but I feel like I have always worked with seriously good actors. Now I feel like I have that experience where I can relax a little bit. Not to say that I relaxed on this movie, because this was probably the hardest movie I ever made. It absolutely depleted me, both emotionally and physically. We’ll see what happens next, but I think because I did that all early on in my career this can propel me in my career into my sixties. It gave me street cred that I might not have otherwise had.
When you are playing someone like Frankenstein’s monster, there have obviously been a lot of different visions and designs on what the creature would look, sound, and act like. What kind of input did you have in the character and what kind of discussion was had about it? Did the idea of neck bolts or anything like that?
AE: (laughs) That was my first question. “Are we with or without the bolts?” There was a lot of discussion about the look. Obviously, he’s an amalgamation of bodies and body parts, so you have to find a way to visually put him together, and how are you going to do that? How are you going to make him active and dynamic and new, and yet still be the monster that we know and love?
The core is there, right? You can see the stitching and everyone can recognize that and the idea. But more of the question when you think about the past designs is “Where do the bolts even come from?” I mean, it’s not in the book. Why have them? Why can’t he be this guy who’s put together like this? In Mary Shelley’s original vision, this guy is banished into the wilderness, living off the land, and basically being educated by animals. Where does that factor into it?
I mean, yeah, we get pretty far away from that and we put him into this modern, Western European kind of Underworld looking city, but we talked a lot about the little details of his appearance. We talked about all of the different scars: where they would be placed, how they would be represented, how they showed the passage of time, how it would look in relation to the clothing and the setting.
And, I mean, I would say that this is a film that’s primarily for, say, a younger audience. Would you agree with me?
AE: So you have to then have that kind of sex appeal to the character. That was all very conscious. That definitely wasn’t by mistake.
Did you ever look at any other performances of the monster before?
AE: I just went right to the book! The book was just gold. Jeez, the anger between the father and the son and the name calling and how it breaks up this family. It’s a freakin’ tragedy, but you know, there are a lot of people who are living that same tragedy today, and that’s really what’s important about the film.
Here’s this guy who feels unwanted, unloved, he feels ugly. This is a biography of my teenage years, you know what I mean? (laughs) And I think a lot of people in their teenage years or not too far removed from them to no longer remember them would probably think the same thing and in similar ways. I thought that was cool that we could do an exciting movie and we had someone like (writer and director) Stuart (Beattie) who could bring in things like gargoyles and demons and balance it with a story about making your own life decisions and choices.
Let’s talk a bit about your physical preparation for this role. Now before you did this film you were always going to the gym, but you also expressed a real fondness for cigars. So how prepared were you for the physical training and did you have to change anything in your personal lifestyle to get to the shape you’re in for this film?
AE: Well, I can say that I didn’t stop smoking cigars. (laughs) I actually have since, though. I got pneumonia this year, so I had to give them up.
I got extremely fit for this movie. I trained for six months learning Kali Stick Fighting. Every day I would get together with my trainer for the film for three hours, and then directly after him I would go to my own physical trainer and go through all of the other stuff, like eating right and all that sort of stuff. But his body is reflective of his interior, of his mind. He’s gotta be hard. He’s hardened. He has to be lithe, agile, quick, and dynamic. He’s being pursued, so he has to have a certain learned set of skills. He’s lived for 200 years, and all that still has to be reflected in the body.
Then it’s just a matter of getting through the movie. I did most of the stunts myself. I did all of the fighting myself. I think there are just a couple of stunts that I didn’t do just because they wouldn’t let me. That really beat me up. I think I was 44 when I made the movie… I think… but that’s not to say that I was ever taxed to the point of potentially feeling like a failure, and that was really because of that preparation. Had I not done that, there’s no way we ever would have gotten the movie that we have now.
You also mentioned earlier the emotional difficulty of taking on this role. What was that like?
AE: Yeah. Just dwelling on the story and just always portraying this feeling of rejection and loneliness. Stuart, when we were talking about the movie, always said that he wanted to see me filled with rage. “I want to see rage. I want to see you pissed.” And you can just go back to Mary Shelley’s vision of what the Frankenstein story should be, that’s all there is. There’s just this deep sense of misunderstanding and this hatred that he has for his father. He has such a wanton desire for love in the book that goes unfulfilled, and over time this hatred just gets built up and built up. His father never gives him an explanation. He tells him he wishes his son was dead.
I went on the internet and I looked at videos of abused children telling their stories. Stories about psychologically, physically, and sexually violated children. And if you guys ever want to understand that kind of rage or see what that kind of rage is like, you should look at that sometime. One particular video had this young girl… (long pause) and her father had abused her for a long time going back to when she was just a young, young girl, and she finally had the guts to come out and make this video about and directed at her father. And it is… (pauses) emotional and just full of rage. And for some reason I just watched it over and over and over again and the depth of this one girl’s feeling towards her father and feeling betrayed and violated and not knowing why as a little girl. It’s the kind of thing that ensures you would never be the same. Why would you do something like that? To your own daughter? To your own son? To your own… (pauses) I’m actually going to cry even thinking about it now.
So that’s how deep I tried to get in that sort of way, to tap into that rage towards my father. Because there are millions of kids out there that might feel the same way that aren’t able to express it like this young woman was, and how that can ultimately affect your entire life and your future relationships. It’s crazy to try to think about it all the time, but I tried to stay in that area the entire movie, and that’s what was really draining.
Was there also any trepidation of playing a character as iconic as Frankenstein’s monster? Did you ever like any of those kinds of movies when you were growing up?
AE: Yeah, but not the one’s you would think of, really. I loved The Blob, and Jaws. Man, remember The Blob? (laughs) I love The Blob. The Fog was great. Anything that rhymes with “blob”, really. (laughs) I did like all of that kind of stuff. I love outer space stuff. I also really liked The Munsters, which kind of got me into Frankenstein, and then Dracula and vampires and Nosferatu.
I wouldn’t ever say that I was an aficionado or an expert on these kinds of characters, but I do enjoy them. I really enjoy any story that’s well told. It’s the same thing with this movie. People will ask me, “Do you see this as a monster movie?” And I really don’t see it that way because I’m personally a human being that has a heart and soul and feelings and blah blah blah, so the only way I can get into this as an actor is to deal head on with that emotional content. Mary Shelley basically set the template that I would be playing someone that was a science experiment, but was still very much a man. She made him a person with all these really complicated feelings, and that was basically where I went. I think that it was society that made him a monster. They called him a monster, but he never felt like a monster other than the fact that it was all he had reflected back to him by society. He always felt like a human being.
And the other thing is, think of all the people in life who are born deformed or with some sort of malady and you go out into public and you have to assimilate, especially younger people. How are they looked at and how must they feel if someone ever misunderstands or hates them because they don’t understand it? You get bullied, and teased, and it’s almost unfathomably hard.
My job is… (laughs) You guys just think it’s an action movie. (laughs) As an actor it’s never just an action movie. Someone is always dying and someone is always going through some kind of pain, and that’s what’s needed to make these kinds of films work. People are always getting betrayed or getting knocked down, and when you’re an actor, that’s the stuff that’s fun to you. But just going out and shooting off a gun or something like that with no emotional content behind it just isn’t fun. Well… no. Sometimes it can be. (laughs)
Seeing that you just remembered the movie today and we talked about it a little bit, I just have to ask if anyone has ever come up to you and said that they loved In the Company of Men because they were exactly like the character that you played? Because that has always seemed like a role that will stay with you whether you like it or not.
AE: (laughs) A lot of people have. (shakes head) It used to happen a lot more. Now not so much because it seems like it has been largely forgotten about, but there would always be business people in an airport or somewhere that would just be like (makes “come here” motion with hand and starts whispering) “I love that fucking guy. That dude has balls. I don’t know why everybody hates that guy.” (laughs) But those same guys are who the character was based on, so basically they are just saying “I love myself!” and not realizing they just made fun of themselves.