Aaron Eckhart on Bleed for This: ‘A Great Comeback Story’

The Dark Knight and Olympus Has Fallen star on transforming himself for his gritty new boxing movie.

Bleed for This is ostensibly the story of Vinny Pazienza, the charismatic Rhode Island boxer who suffered a broken neck in a car accident and was told he may never walk again, let alone fight, but came all the way back from his injury to make a triumphant and improbable return to the ring. Pazienza (played by Miles Teller) was aided in his comeback by trainer Kevin Rooney, a former fighter turned trainer who began working with the “Pazmanian Devil” while at his own lowest ebb both career-wise and personally, and who guided Pazienza into becoming a boxing legend.

Rooney is played by Aaron Eckhart, the rugged yet chameleonic actor known for his roles as Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, President Ben Asher in Olympus has Fallen and its sequel, London has Fallen, and his breakout portrayal of a vengeful, misogynistic corporate worker in In the Company of Men. As Rooney, Eckhart shaved his hairline, gained a lot of weight and affected Rooney’s accent and mannerisms in an outstanding performance that should get him some attention in this year’s Oscar race.

But Eckhart is not concerned with that — he’s all about delivering the best performance he can and doing whatever it takes to get there. We spoke about the difference between a leading man and a character actor, immersing himself into the role of Rooney and more — including his thoughts on The Dark Knight eight years later — recently in Los Angeles.

Den of Geek: We actually met on the set of Battle: Los Angeles, I was on one of the set visits.

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Aaron Eckhart: Oh yeah. In Louisiana?

In Louisiana, yeah. Baton Rouge. We saw one of the big battle scenes.

We had some battle scenes in that movie. I honestly felt the way that we filmed that movie, that we were at war. I mean, using all those cameras, all the weapons were firing at the same time, the movement, it was a fun movie to make.

What did you know about these guys, Kevin and Vinny, before you came onto this?

Zip.

Zero?

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I did know that Kevin was Tyson’s trainer. I didn’t know that Vinny was five-time champ. Although Vinny fought in Vegas and fought some big fighters, I think he was definitely a stylistic fighter. He was more of a regional fighter in the sense that he’s huge in Rhode Island, I mean he is Rhode Island’s prodigal son. To this day. I mean we got so much help filming from the locals, and they were so passionate. All those crowd scenes they showed up and for 12 hours were just yelling.

I didn’t know that Kevin was a fighter. I didn’t know he existed. But then I became quite knowledgeable about him. I did all my research, he’s a fascinating character because he was a fighter before. He gave up his career to train Tyson at Cus D’Amato’s request, which wasn’t what he really wanted to do at the time. He still wanted to continue his fighting career. He’d go and do smokers on the weekend, little fights, and he finally gave it up and they went to the top. Then Don King basically came in and Tyson fired Kevin, and broke him.

That’s where we find him when we see him first, he’s drinking, he’s gotten out of shape and lost his confidence. Basically he lost his reputation. He was humiliated and embarrassed and that’s why this movie is so great. Vinny’s trainer told him he should quit the game and these two meet, they get themselves back up. It’s a great comeback story, everybody loves that, a comeback story.

Kevin’s in the hospital with dementia, so I never got to meet with him, but I worked with his son Kevin Jr. I went through fight camp with Manny Pacquiao and Freddie Roach, when he fought Bradley and was in their corner. That’s how I got my sort of real life experience for the film.

You box too as a hobby?

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Yeah, I box as a training and a fitness thing. I’m not a fighter. But I’ve been doing it for 20 years, I do it to this day in my workouts every day. It’s helped me, it’s difficult to throw a punch correctly. It’s difficult to move your feet like a fighter and to put the two together and then put defense in there. It’s extremely hard to make that look real. Miles did a great job. For me, I’ve done the mitts for 20 years. That was invaluable to me, all those little things in my own training and what I got from Freddie and Kevin Rooney Jr. It made it really easy for me to do the movie in that sense. The sacred bond between fighter and trainer. Getting Miles to trust me and let me move around him and touch him and to give him water and all those little things that sells it. I had experience with that.

You’ve played rugged guys, you play romantic leads. You had to change that for this film.

I consider myself more of a character actor. That’s how I started my film career. With In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors…leading man is fine if you’re a character, but to be just good looking and handsome and charming is just not good enough.

Let me rephrase that. We haven’t seen you transform quite like this.

Let me take you back. Your Friends & Neighbors, I gained 45-50 pounds for that and was just schlubbing that. I’ve done several films where I have not, in fact, I sort of take pride in the fact that I haven’t gone the leading man route.

I’ve had a 20-year career, so a lot of movies have done better than others, but I’ve made a conscious attempt not to be the leading type. Yeah, I’ve done it, and maybe those films got more attention. But my purpose as an actor has been to serve the author’s intent and serve the director’s intent. I’ve never gone out there and try to be the golden boy. I am much more interested in telling the story and trying to my best job I can. I’m just trying to tell a story I want to tell.

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After coming off I, Frankenstein, which was not a success, which was not critically acclaimed, I had to get back to work. I had to get people’s belief back in me again, I had to challenge myself. I had to do something new. That got me to this movie. Did I have a little fire under my ass? Yeah. I’m an actor, I have a career. I need to work, I need to continually re-invent myself and show people I still have chops and I’m not interested in just taking the golden route to my retirement. I’m still very hungry about acting and filmmaking in general and storytelling, but careers go different ways. If Frankenstein worked it would’ve done good things for me. It would’ve allowed me to do other things, but it didn’t. Or Battle: Los Angeles. You’re always trying to get somewhere, and maybe the point is don’t try to get somewhere. Just try to do good work.

That being said, I worked my ass off for I, Frankenstein. I worked as hard in I, Frankenstein as I did in this movie, easy. Or Battle: Los Angeles or whatever they are. I always put my heart and soul into things, but you just never know what’s going to work.

And this movie?

I worked hard for this movie. Yes it was a chance to challenge myself to do something that was different in the sense that I’ve never — his accent is from Mars. The guy is from Staten Island, but he’s broken his face so many times and he’s from the streets and he has a very unique way of talking, and the weight and all that sort of stuff. The only reason I did that is because that’s what Kevin Rooney looked like and I’m playing a real guy. It’s my duty as an actor to embody that character.

That means gaining weight, shaving my head and talking with that accent, that’s what I have to do. I would never go in there and say, “Well, I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this because it wouldn’t look good, or I’m doing another movie because I want people to see me that way.” I’ve never shied away from being ugly on film and being undesirable on film. That’s a good way of describing a leading man. I’ve never tried to be desirable or pleasing the crowd in a sense of saying, I’m America’s next leading man, charming guy. I never will. Maybe I’ve played romantic characters like in No Reservations or whatever, but that’s just because that’s what the character is.

We’re all human and we’re all vain to some degree. Do you learn early on as an actor to let go of that vanity?

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Yeah, that’s exactly why after In The Company of Men I fell into, right off the bat I was an unknown actor, I had done a decent job in this movie and people were saying let’s put him right on the fast track and let’s go right up to Hollywood movie star. I said, “No.” I went and gained 50 pounds. I went and got a red mustache and played that character (in Your Friends & Neighbors). That set me off and said, “No, I’m not going to play by these rules.”

I like to look undesirable in film. I don’t give a shit what I look like in film. I honestly don’t. What I want to do is, be the part. Whatever that takes, if it means looking good and fit that’s what I do. The fun for me about this business is the craft of acting and the exhilaration, because it’s not really about how I look. It’s about creating energy and the circumstances of the other actors and creating a sense of reality.

In this movie we did it. There’s a real sense of reality in this thing. Ben (Younger, writer and director) wrote a great script, Vinny’s life is electric. Everybody in this cast was on fire, totally committed, totally working together to find that magic on a daily basis and that doesn’t happen every movie. I’m very proud of the way I look in this movie, in the sense that I did what they asked me to do.

The classic ideal of what a leading man should look like…Jack Nicholson showed over and over again, our idea of the good looking blue-eyed, blonde haired American guy doesn’t mean shit if he can’t act. It’s all about charisma. Leading man is all about a unique point of life, if your point of view is different, but it’s magnetic and electric, doesn’t matter what you look like. You’re going to be 20 million bucks a picture on 4,000 screens. Because everybody’s going to go, “Wow, look at that guys’ point of view.” That’s been proven over and over again. If you’re a really good looking guy who’s a meat head and can’t act and doesn’t have a point of view, you’re not going to get a job.

It’s like going to see a concert of a girl you wouldn’t necessarily be attracted to, but she’s a hell of a singer, songwriter, and she can move on stage, and then go, “I want that girl.” Because creativity and intelligence are attractive. See, maybe I knew this unconsciously, or subconsciously early on in my career, that everything is about point of view. That’s why Vinny is so electric. The dude has an absolutely unique point of view about fighting, about life, about his role in this life. That’s why this movie is great, because it’s electric. You’re like, “Dude, this guy broke his head, had screws in his head. Against everybody’s life and potentially paralysis, he went back and became middle weight champion of the world.” Who’s going to do that?

We’re almost out of time. They announced Angel has Fallen is going to go into production. Are you doing that?

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Oh, no, no. The president is now playing golf. I’m in my presidential library, I’m playing golf, and I’m out of danger.

He’s out.

Yeah, I have nothing to do with that.

Do people ever stop you on the street, especially with this year we’ve been having and say, “How come we can’t have a guy like Asher running for president?” (Note: this interview was conducted shortly before the U.S. presidential election took place.)

Yeah, mostly it’s on Twitter or something like that. People say that. It’s interesting, what people say to me about being the president or whatever. Now, the movie’s not about me. It’s not about being a president, but if I had to embody that part, what do I want? They say, “Well, did you model them?” I say, “No, I didn’t model off anybody.” What’s important to me about a president, honesty, truthfulness, serving the people in their best interest, giving up themselves, all the sort of noble qualities that leadership should have, right? Sort of the noble qualities we’re fighting against today in our presidential election. That’s what I wanted to embody with Asher. I get a lot of “Aaron Eckhart for President and Morgan Freeman as Vice President.” Or vice-versa, whatever it is.

Let’s take Morgan for this example, as president. Morgan instills a sense that he’s a gentleman, he’s got gravitas, he’s secure, and he gives us that feeling. That’s what we want. Somebody who’s stable, who’s solid, that’s going to represent us as we feel, you know, and I think that’s what people are grasping for right now.

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Right.

But Asher’s done. In fact, my agent told me about that yesterday, that they’re going to do another one.

I’ve never talked to you about The Dark Knight specifically, but it’s still to most people the gold standard of superhero movies. If the right role came along with you go back into that genre or do you feel once you’ve hit the top of the mountain it’s hard to do it again?

That movie was a genre movie in the sense that it was based on a comic book, but that movie was so real. Between Heath (Ledger) and Chris (Nolan), and the script, that movie is so much about more. It’s about social issues, it’s about a city being under siege. It’s about vigilantism. No one else is going to help you, the people you trust, so I’m going to have to do it myself. We all have those feelings today. I mean, to me that’s still a very pertinent movie. It’s not a jokey movie. There’s no humor, when people are in danger, they’re really in danger. When people are dying, they have real feelings in that movie.

I’m not going to say, I’m never going to be in those movies. It’s not really up to me, but if I did, I would like it to be about something. I would like to try to solve a problem, plus who is going to those movies? 13, 14, 15, 16, 17-year-old kids that are in the adolescence, who are molding their psyches and coming up asking questions and looking for answers. Looking for the courage to get through adolescence, to see what the purpose of life is. That’s sort of what comic books were about, it’s sort of what the genre was about, and maybe they’re sort of getting away from it. I don’t know what those movies now are going for now. What are they trying to teach us? Or is it just about box office?

That’s why I think the (Dark Knight) trilogy is the gold standard. Because Chris asks questions and tried to solve the questions. I think a kid can go to The Dark Knight, and look at that movie, and go, “Okay, I can recall that or I’m going to re-use that somehow in my life, to better myself or to get through a hard time or a bad time.” Like Rocky, which is not a superhero movie, but I remember when Rocky changed my life. Star Wars, same thing. That’s why the first Star Wars was so effective. I don’t know what I’m going to learn from the superhero movies today. I like to see the ones that are asking some questions, trying to solve them through the story.

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