Unlike a lot of actors, Aaron Eckhart maintains a great balance of starring in indies and blockbusters – muse to Neil LaBute, he appeared in his films In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors as well as starring as Harvey “Two Face” Dent in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster The Dark Knight. He also has a chin dimple that rivals Cary Grant’s, which can never be a bad thing.
For his latest film, Olympus Has Fallen (directed by Antoine Fuqua), Eckhart gets back into blockbuster mode as the recently widowed President Asher, who is held hostage in the White House by a terrorist group. While his former Secret Service Agent/boxing buddy Mike (Gerard Butler) infiltrates the White House in hopes of saving the day, the President never backs down, even while being held hostage.
Eckhart talked with us about his everyman approach to playing the President, the fallout of his character in The Dark Knight, potential upcoming collaborations with LaBute, and a possible name for his autobiography.
Can you first talk about your approach to playing the President? Because you seem to have played him as just a regular guy…
Yeah, when Antoine first approached me about this, he wanted to portray the President as a youthful, effortless President. He mentioned the JFK sort of type, with a lot of charisma, a young family… a guy who’s trying to work outside the box, not the traditional paradigm of a President. And also, a guy who’s taken hostage, but who can still go toe-to-toe with those guys.
That was very important – you don’t see the President head-butting people or having boxing scenes. But that’s what attracted me to the role, actually, because I didn’t really have interest in playing a politician, per se, even if he is the President. But I do have an interest in being physical. In today’s world, the President is much more sportive and youthful, and you could believe that he could box or play basketball… so that’s what we were going for.
Going off the physicality of your role, you spent much of your screen time bound to a rail in the bunker.
Well, I lost feeling in my arms for most of the movie… but you have the “what can I do?” and the “what can’t I do?”. So, I’m tied to a rail, but why can’t I kick him in the face? Why can’t I kick him in the balls? And then you have the psychological aspects, like how could I damage or slow down my opponent? So, it becomes a chess game, because you have to trust that the people out there are trying to rescue you and get the situation under control. What I tried to do with the limited time I had was to control the room.
Can you describe the relationship between your character and Gerard Butler’s Mike? Because while he worked for the President, they had a nice camaraderie, as demonstrated by that boxing scene.
Yeah, the boxing scene was very important, (a) to show the relationship with Gerry, the Secret Service Agent and (b) that the President is physical, that he could mix it up and sweat and all that sort of stuff. That he’s not afraid to take a hit. You always wonder when former Secret Service Agents are interviewed with “what did you think of Carter?” or “what did you think of Reagan?” it’s always surprising. I wanted, as a President, if that question were ever asked of me, that I had a good relationship with the Secret Service. I think that’s important for the movie, and for there to be an emotional bond so that if Gerry doesn’t make it, then there’s an emotional consequence.
Especially since during the boxing match, they are on equal footing, even though outside the ring, that isn’t technically true…
It’s surprising too, because you don’t open a movie where the President of the United States is boxing.
I feel that’s something Obama would do though. He seems to be fairly physically active.
Yeah, he likes to play basketball. And I’m sure when he’s playing basketball, he’s not wearing the Presidential Seal. Probably a pair of Jordans and a pair of shorts, right? He would be just one of the guys. And I think that’s a cool image. And I think it’s important that my character know how to box. Because it how would it look if Obama were playing basketball and he wasn’t any good? Like he wasn’t able to hit the rim, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs] It’s good that he could do a jumper and that he can defend. It just adds another layer of respect from the people.
If you had to choose, would you be more comfortable in the President’s role, being powerful and hugely in the public sphere, or in the Secret Service, having power behind the scenes?
Oh gosh, I probably would be Secret Service. I’m quite shy and I usually want to get away from people [Laughs]. I’d rather be invisible. That’s why I don’t do too much press and all this sort of thing. You don’t really see me anywhere. So, I like the idea of the Secret Service. Also, the President has a lot to think about that he probably doesn’t want to have to think about and be responsible for. I can’t even get married, so how could I be the President of the United States? [Laughs]
Veering away from the movie, in The Dark Knight, you only got to be the villainous Two Face for a few scenes toward the end. Was part of you hoping that you would survive to wreak havoc on Gotham in a whole movie?
No, I was happy to be in the movie as is and work with Heath [Ledger] and to have gotten as much story time as I did. You know… I’ve never had a recurring role. I always sort of like to move on. But if someone came to me and said, “We want to make a movie about Two Face,” I would consider that for sure. But I would make Two Face nice. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Well, the Tommy Lee Jones Two Face in Batman Forever was less serious, really comic book-y. And yes, given that Christopher Nolan made your film, yours was so much darker.
Yeah, if you look at what Heath did with The Joker, I mean, he’s as real as you get. He revolutionized The Joker, and in my opinion, revolutionized comic book movies. And yeah, that’s what Chris [Nolan] did. And I think that’s much more fascinating and much more rewarding for the audiences because they really feel like they have to work to get the movie. There’s a lot to be learned in comic book movies. Because there’s the dark and the light, the good and the bad… the choices you have to make, the consequences, the company you keep. All that sort of stuff, it’s applicable to the world and all kinds of storytelling. Comic books… they really an impact because they have such a large audience and now videogames. They still call them videogames, right?
[Laughs] I think so, anyway… I don’t play them.
Yeah, I don’t either. But I know a lot of people who do. Right? PlayStation… that’s a videogame, right?
Mmm hmm! [Laughs] You also have a really great history in working with Neil LaBute. Is there anything in the works between the two of you?
Well, we had breakfast the other day. And Neil’s always trying to get me to do plays and stuff like that… do movies. So we’re going to do something soon. I love Neil, he’s a dear friend of mine… and you know, it’s all about timing. You know what I mean? We’ll see what happens.
[Looks at my beat up Moleskine that I’m reading questions out of] Is that your journal?
This is just…
…your work journal?
Yeah, and other random notes I take. It’s almost full now.
That’s what your autobiography’s going to be called… “Random Notes I Take.” Or I’ll call mine that…
[Laughs] I’ll let you have it. I don’t think anyone wants to read my autobiography. So… you do a great mix of independent films, like your ones with Neil, and larger budgeted films like this one. Does your process differ from film to film?
No. I mean, they treat you real well with both, and storytelling is storytelling. But once you’re in front of the camera, whether it’s a digital camera, a film camera, 16mm, or a Nikon Sure Shot. My job is to be truthful under imaginary circumstances and that doesn’t change, according to equipment. Even if you shot me on your iPhone. When you’re on The Dark Knight, for example, and you’re in front of three of the largest green screens in the world, that doesn’t do anything for your acting. I have to believe that my face is split in two… that’s my job, right? Same thing in the theater… I don’t believe there’s much of a difference between theater acting and film acting. No matter what, you just have to be truthful.
Olympus Has Fallen is in theaters today.