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Thursday 03 February 2011

Aaron Eckhart interview

Aaron Eckhart is good looking, clean living and one of the finest actors of his generation. Then why is he still single at 42?

Aaron Eckhart has a jaw so square it’s almost cartoon handsome. His eyes are implausibly piercing and twinkling. He is lean, athletic and wearing a navy suit that was handmade in Italy. His presence is intense, almost disturbingly so. Yet he is immaculately mannered and attentive. His dirty blond hair is almost military short. It is as if he were trying to rein himself in, curtail excess.

In Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men he was an arrogant and angry marketing executive who flirted with, seduced and cruelly dumped a deaf secretary as part of a plan hatched with his brutal friends just to prove he could. In Thank You For Not Smoking he was glaringly amoral as a lobbyist defending the rights of smokers with a smile that he says was inspired by Tony Blair. As Twoface, Batman’s foe in The Dark Knight, he made you feel sick just looking at him.

He’s frighteningly good at being bad and even better at being ambiguous. Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan says it is because ‘he has an aura of a good man pushed too far’.

When he played opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in Possession and Catherine Zeta-Jones in No Reservations, tabloids had them linked in real life. They were not. He’s just good, incredibly good, at acting intimacy. When you watch him with Nicole Kidman, with whom he stars in the intense but quirky new film Rabbit Hole, they have both an ease and unease with each other. They play a happy and successful couple who are devastated when their little boy is killed in a road traffic accident.

The film is about the effect of such a terrible loss on a relationship. Both performances are finely tuned and complex studies in rage and guilt, but they also manage to be funny, and are rightly tipped for awards.

Shooting, Eckhart says, was ‘six weeks of intense feelings. As an actor you want to be challenged, but staying in that head space…’ He shakes his head. ‘When you’re able to throw it off at the end of the film it felt good.’

Does he mean it was like a grief workout? ‘That’s a good way to put it. You talk to people going through grief when you are in rehearsals. You have to dwell on those feelings and nurture them. My character, Howie, tends to gravitate towards group counselling. He admits to needing help and Nicole’s character is the opposite. If two people have lost their child you are not two as one any more, and there’s the question of physical intimacy: are we going to have more children? Do we believe in God? Why would God let this happen to us?’

In a super sunny Los Angeles hotel room a year after making the film, Eckhart seems to be able to darken instantly. ‘There are definite stages of grief, but no chronology. The stages aren’t 1, 2, 3, 4. It can be 5, 4, 2, all mixed up and unpredictable like the English weather. One minute despair, then sunshine, then you’re levelled off.’

Did he have personal experience of loss on which to draw? ‘Well, I can tell you my dog died. I had strong feelings about that. I still do. I know it’s not your child.’ He looks guilty for almost comparing his dog to a child, so I reassure him that when my dog died I was also very upset. His dog was a golden Labrador called Dirty.

‘I had been on the promotion tour for Batman. I came home and Dirty died a few days later. I realised he had waited for me. When I came home he was wagging his tail and looked great. There’s no doubt in my mind he waited to say goodbye.’ His voice thickens in his throat.

His character in the movie finds comfort in looking at the video of his little boy that was on his phone. Kidman’s character is the opposite. She wants to get rid of all his clothes, his toys, even the house they lived in.

What was Eckhart’s way of dealing with grief? Again, we return to the subject of his late pet. ‘I still have all the leashes displayed prominently,’ he says. ‘I have pictures everywhere and I still look at his pictures. I still find hairs of his. I talk about him all the time.’ He pauses. ‘Hopefully I will have kids one day.’

Maybe he could just get another dog? ‘I’ve got to get a wife at some point,’ he says, matter of factly. Does he need the wife before the dog? ‘If I get a dog I’ll never get a wife. I’d like a harem of dogs, wiener dogs all the way up to great danes. But I’ll never settle down until I get a wife.’

He sounds like he’s talking about getting a wife as if he’s ticking it off a shopping list for the supermarket. ‘I’m reduced to looking at it like that. I’ve had many girlfriends and I continue to have, I just haven’t found the one, and that’s problematic.’

He’s 42. Perhaps he’s thinking it’s the right time for a wife? His most recent girlfriend was the actress Molly Sims. That was on and off for 18 months, and finally off at the end of last year. Is he searching for the perfect wife? And if so, might that explain why she doesn’t exist?

‘I do visualise on the sort of person,’ he says. ‘I believe if you contextualise something then it will manifest in your life. I have done that with houses, cars, jobs. It absolutely works and it’s not hocus-pocus.’

Perhaps it works better with inanimate objects and jobs. ‘I believe everything in life has a spiritual component and everything's fair game. And people say: “Oh, you want the perfect wife.” Well, actually, I do.’

The role in Rabbit Hole is enormously thoughtful and he fully inhabits the skin of good father, of good husband. Still, I think people have him down as the good guy who’s really bad. Or the bad guy who might be tortured, the coiled spring, the ambiguous villain. There’s a sly smile. ‘Ah yes, they love the good bad guy.’

After his debut in In the Company of Men women spat at him in the street. After this film they’ll want to hug him. ‘My only agenda on this movie was that we should sell how we were as a married couple. How we moved around each other was important. I didn’t want the person in front of me to be the idealised partner. Married couples don’t talk to each other at dinner. They answer questions with their backs to each other. They don’t open doors for each other,’ he says.

‘I’m fascinated by people who stay together. My parents have been married 48 years. I’ve not been able to recreate that. I find it difficult to be with people intimately for so long.’

Eckhart was born in San Jose, California, where his father worked for a computer firm. But when he was 13 his father’s job moved to England, where they lived in Walton-on-Thames. He had just started surfing and being interested in girls when he was brought to rainy days and a pink cottage. This was when he first started feeling like an outsider.

His parents went on to move the family to Australia, then Hawaii and Switzerland. Today, he says he has a ‘great’ relationship with his family: ‘Both brothers live in Los Angeles and my parents down the road. They figure in my life on a daily basis.’

He gave up drinking years ago, followed by smoking, both by self-hypnosis. ‘I couldn’t be happier with that decision. I recommend it to anybody. I did not go to AA.’

Indeed, you wouldn’t expect him to be the all sharing type. He’s much more the ‘I can make myself do anything’ type. ‘I haven't had a drink for seven or eight years. I’ve changed my lifestyle. I don’t go out. That’s not just because of drinking, it’s because of getting older. I’ve outgrown it, plus all my friends are married and have kids. I’m very interested in my health and I want to live the rest of my life very healthily. I feel 100 per cent in command of myself, so, when I get up, I never have to ask, where have I been? What have I said?’

He admits that drinking was a way to cover up insecurities. There also seems to be some guilt associated with alcohol and excess which stems from his upbringing. His parents are Mormons. Is he religious? ‘I can’t really say I’m a practising Mormon now, but there are influences. You have it in your blood and bones. To me spirituality transcends any sort of organisation, but I believe there is a right and wrong and a higher power.’

I read a story that when he was a child his mother found him very hard to read, not demonstrative at all. ‘She called me the peacemaker, a kind of diplomat. I would always try to make things comfortable with my brothers. I was the youngest. While my middle brother was more aggressive, I would be quiet in my room, playing my guitar, writing songs.’

The young Eckhart was shy and emotional territory seemed difficult. ‘I think I’m a tough personality. I’m too intense and that doesn’t make for great relationships because I’m too demanding.’ Is he happy in his own skin? ‘No.’

It doesn’t make sense. He looks gorgeous and he’s been applauded everywhere for his recent role. He’s coming up in The Rum Diary with Johnny Depp, which he really enjoyed, and The Battle of Los Angeles where he’s a big hero in a family blockbuster, tipped to be one of the biggest movies of 2011, yet he seems malcontent.

He tells me about the songs he used to write in his bedroom as a teenager. He still writes them. ‘Song-writing used to be my life but I got hurt by it. I believe I’m a good song-writer, but other people don’t share that. I would have loved to have done it as a profession. It’s very personal.’

Is that what he’s afraid of, revealing too much of himself? ‘I don’t know. I think it’s more I’m a genius. Other people don’t share that opinion, so I go, b----- it, I’m not going to do it. I wrote a song for Sheryl Crow, but she didn’t like it.’

He sings me another song he’s written – it’s clever, funny and just a little bit tortured. Its title? The Future Mrs Me.

  • ‘Rabbit Hole’ is released on February 4
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