Aaron Eckhart interview: Olympus Has Fallen, White Cargo, The Core, directing and more

He's the president in Olympus Has Fallen, and a fine, fine actor. Aaron Eckhart spared us some time for a chat about his movies...

Note that the following interview contains mild spoilers for Olympus Has Fallen.

When the dust finally settled after the endless casting speculation for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, there was one name above all others that really fired up my anticipation for the movie: Aaron Eckhart. It’s now been well over a decade since I first discovered his work, and ever since the glorious slice of B-movie joy that is The Core, I’ve remained a steadfast fan, with the diversity in his work always drawing me towards films I would never normally consider. Yet to my mind he still remains very much underappreciated, regardless of his talent and some truly memorable performances amongst some great movies.

When a handful of us went in for the round table interview, Mr Eckhart stood up to greet us all with a handshake, and it suddenly occurred to me how strange it was to see him relaxed, laid back, incredibly chatty and friendly. He even made reference to how often he wears a suit in his movies, but Eckhart’s career is highlighted by exactly that – In The Company of Men saw his white collar worker, Chad, adorn that dress code while committing his heinous acts, the same with charming uber-bastard Nick Naylor in Thank You For Smoking and his criminally overlooked portrayal of both Harvey Dent and alter ego Two Face in The Dark Knight.

Promoting Olympus Has Fallen, in which he plays (an obviously) suited President of the United States, he puts in yet another cracking performance, and had the following to say…

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The President spends an awful lot of the time in Olympus Has Fallen chained up, did you at any point during production want to break free and throw a few punches?

Every day I tried to kill somebody. I threatened to kick somebody in the balls, or headbutt somebody, or rip the railing off. I mean I could’ve torn the railing off, I think I did a few times anyway, but you know that’s just not how the script was written. So I had to stay down there and that was the challenge of the movie, was to still have the energy and the intensity and basically stay in one place, while Gerry [Gerard Butler] is out there getting the chicks!

Did you get cramp in your arm?

I could not feel my arms for three weeks, I’m not kidding you. I went to the medic and I said “My arms are numb, I lost feeling from here down.” I mean I guess we were up there eight hours a day and then you wanna be a tough guy and you don’t want to take [your arms] down and stay in character and that all that sort of stuff, so they got real numb, but it all worked for what we had to do.

You had a short action scene at the beginning, with the boxing, how was that?

It was good because what happened was that we choreographed it and then Antoine [Fuqua, director], who himself is a golden gloves boxer, would say action, and then we’d basically throw punches at each other! [laughs] All hell broke loose! 

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Who won?

Well I mean he’s the hero!

But you’re the President!

Yeah that’s true! We got some good licks in, I’m sure he hit me, I hit him, but it was a lot of fun because it’s fun to box and get physical and Gerry likes to take a punch.

You’ve now played white collar worker, Marine, District Attorney and now you’re President, is it a surreal experience to emulate a man at the top of the chain?

Well I fit a 40 regular suit, so basically off the rack they go “Who fits that suit? Let’s get that guy!” – that’s when I get the call. You know in America there’s that whole thing of ‘every kid can potentially be the President of the United States’ and there’s that fantasy, and it’s true, and I have high regard for the office of the presidency, and I’m a patriot and all that sort of stuff, so it was fun to play the President and to think those big thoughts.

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It was fun to learn about the protocol from the experts and learn what happens when the South Korean Premier comes in, who speaks, who sits first, and then what happens in a crisis: going down into the bunker, who gets to go and who doesn’t. Basically, nobody in there would get to go except me! [Laughs] So the movie really ends after the [incident with the] South Korean Premier, in reality, so we had to take some artistic licence because the consultant would be like, “The Vice President and all the rest – you don’t get, you don’t get, you don’t get in!” and they asked, “What happens to us?” and the answer was, “You die, because they don’t care.” Interestingly enough – it’s pretty clear cut about that, like the Koreans would never have got in there.

Someone then joked about how current events were one big publicity event and he said…

Well you know we have a big machine, Hollywood’s very powerful! It’s very weird, but on the other hand – who do you pick for the bad guy these days? Whoever you pick and however you cut it, it turns out nuts. I mean do you pick the South Americas? Do you pick the Russians? You can’t pick the Chinese, or they won’t let you show the film in their country, so there’s all these considerations and it’s funny how you work… I’m sure at the beginning it was some kind of Middle Eastern deal and then they couldn’t do that. It’s funny when you hear the real scoop of what goes on behind the scenes, like who the original terrorist was, then [in reality] it just ends up being a guy like me, out of LA who’s disgruntled about his electricity bill. 

It’s strange as well, as Olympus Has Fallen is very traditional in its 80s and early 90s structure, but back then it didn’t seem to matter as much who was picked as the bad guy…

Well you know Hollywood is no longer an American event. I mean as an actor you’re talking now about what international numbers are, you’re not talking about domestic numbers. This movie’s going to make what it makes in America, but really this movie’s going to make its money around the world. So it’s a real deal, we say, “Will China allow this movie to be shown in its country, or how does it look if the bad guy’s this, that, or the other?” As the world gets smaller and there are more participants in the movie business… I mean these movies are funded by India, China, Russia so one of their stipulations is “Uh-uh, we’re good guys.”

I’m producing and starring in a movie and it’s going to take place in Columbia, Cartagena, and we want money from Columbia so we’ll see what they say about us going in there and just trashing their country! [Laughs]

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What movie is that?

It’s called White Cargo, it’s a novel by a gentlemen named Stuarts Woods, who if you go into Barnes and Noble has got a rack of books that nobody has ever heard of, and we’ve taken that and we’re just getting it going right now.

And since you’re producing, do you have any plans to direct?

One hundred percent. As soon as possible.

Are you just waiting for the right the project?

I’m not really waiting for that, I’m actively seeking that out, and that’s why I haven’t worked for a while and why I’m producing. I’m not so keen on working for other people’s point of views anymore, their vision, I want to do my own thing and be responsible for my own performance, whereas in movies where you’re just an actor it’s very difficult for you guys to see the performance that we gave, because the movie’s just cut up. I have a saying: “I can make a bad movie as good as anyone,” so that’s what I’m going to go and do. 

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It must be a mark of professional progress to take aim for that kind of position and responsibility?

I mean just look at Gerry, he produced this movie and it’s an inspiration to me. That’s why when Gerry speaks about this movie it’s from the heart, he’s passionate about this movie, he knows every detail intimately, not only of what you guys have seen but how it got to be, what the stages in the evolution of the script were and it’s just bubbling out of him. So when I look at that, it spurs me on.

What sort of project would you be looking for?

Well for me to direct it’d probably have to be a very small movie, very human movie about relationships, maybe a father and son kind of thing. This movie that I’m going to do is about a father that has to go into hell and get his daughter back, I’m less concerned about green screens and aliens and stuff like that and more concerned about real, raw human emotions.

In The Expatriate that’s just come out over here, it’s a father and daughter relationship and there’s the dynamic between you as the President and your onscreen son in Olympus, so what appeals about that?

I’m becoming an old man basically, with no children! [Laughs] It’s me just coming to that point in my life where I want kids to go see this movie and have something to hold onto, besides a toy. I want the whole family to go to the movie and everybody gets something out of it. Remember the first time you saw Rocky? I mean, [everyone was] just on fire after that movie, everybody wanted to box, and everybody that had a dream that didn’t think they could do it, suddenly got inspiration and found strength and courage, and I feel like I’d like to make those kind of movies. I want kids to believe in themselves and their fathers and mothers, and that’s what The Expatriate was about. And [Olympus Has Fallen] too – Gerry’s got his journey of redemption, it’s about family and my family, so hopefully there are deeper levels.

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In terms of your stunts, were you able to do them all yourself?

Well let’s see… I try to do everything myself, if I’m going to hit, or slammed down I try to do everything myself. I’m in good shape, I train for it and I expect it – I got hit in the face a few times during this movie, but I feel like I don’t want a stuntman to do my work for me because he doesn’t know what to do. If you’ve ever seen a stuntman run [Laughs] it can be you know… he’s representing you in other words, I’ll let them go through the glass plate windows and all that sort of stuff, like in The Expatriate, but I did all my fighting, bent my thumb back. On Battle L.A. I did the last whole month of that movie with a broken arm, but I’d rather do that than give it over to someone else, it’s too much power. 

Do you have a thought process when it comes to choosing your movies, or how you approach a role?

You know I wish I were smarter, I wish I had a better idea of what the future was gonna bring and what was going to be popular, but I’m an actor, I’m not a very good movie star. I’m trying to be an actor, so when I read a script no matter what the size of it, or what it pays, I get excited about acting and then who’s in the movie, and I try to have an acting experience every time I do a movie.

People say “Dude, it’s an action movie” like on Battle Los Angeles. I mean, I felt like that was life and death for me, but people are like, “It’s an alien movie” but not to me it’s not. When somebody dies in a movie, they die in a movie, I don’t care if it’s an independent movie or a blockbuster, I have a responsibility as an actor to give the audience everything I have.

Maybe I don’t reach to the certain level of some actors, or some are better, some are worse, but I give everything I’ve got, and I think that’s my responsibility and I say that with pride. So I like small movies and I hope to make small movies, I think that you guys like small movies maybe better or you have more respect for people who make small movies, but I think that you can make big action movies and still have good acting and good content and good plots and I like to try to do that.

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I like to think that the big movies inform people of the smaller ones, for example it was The Core that I saw years ago that put me onto your work…

The Core is an interesting movie, because I was doing a movie where Sean Penn was going to direct a play adaptation of Question Of Mercy by David Rabe and Warren Beatty was in it. Jude Law was in it dying of Aids, I was playing his boyfriend, Annette Bening and Robin Wright were in it – I mean, this thing couldn’t get more blue chip. We were working with Warren on it and he was the one driving it, then 9-11 hit, I basically called up Sean and said “Sorry, can’t do it,” and there was a script on my floor, The Core, which I had turned down before, and I thought the world was going to hell and needed some dough, so I went and did it.

Now there are consequences to actions like that, if you’re going to do a movie like that it’s got to hit, because if it doesn’t hit and it’s a big movie like that… it did okay, it made its money, but we happened to go to war the day it came out! We invaded Kuwait on Friday afternoon right when the first showing was! But you’ve got to score, that’s the great thing about Olympus is that it’s going to make it easier for people to get other movies, and that’s how the business works. So yeah, hopefully getting [a big movie] out there, more people will see movies that I’ve been in, and more people will be more willing to finance movies that I want to do, that’s kind of what it’s all about. 

And last question, Thank You For Smoking is a fantastic film, so I wanted to ask how you feel about the movie itself, or perhaps how it was to play such a great and villainous character?

That film came about as I was doing a movie up in Vancouver and was set to do another when Tracy, my wonderful agent, sent me a script and said “take a look at this”, and I read it and I just thought “I’m doing this movie!” Jason [Reitman, the director] flew up and I met him and right away I thought… you know you can tell with directors whether they’re any good, and I said, “This guy’s going to make a good movie!” [He turns to his agent behind him and says “Didn’t I say that?” and then bursts into laughter when she replies “I’ll lie and say you did!”]

That movie is the one I’m most appreciated for all over the world. I’ve been in the Okavango Delta of Botswana and people have pulled out Thank You For Smoking, I’ve been all over the world and people really get a sparkle in the eye when they think about it, they just can’t help but smile. They love Nick Naylor, they love the audacity, they love his Machiavellian spirit and they love, not the brew crew – that was us in school – the M.O.D squad. So I think I’m best at doing those kind of roles where a guy is moving forward like a shark and he leaves all the debris behind him and doesn’t apologise. I like doing those movies.

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Aaron Eckhart, thank you very much!

Olympus Has Fallen is in cinemas now.

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