Interview: Aaron Eckhart on playing the President

LIKE his idol Daniel Day-Lewis, Aaron Eckhart refuses to do anything by halves, especially when it comes to playing the US president, he tells Siobhan Synnot

SHOULD we stand up for ­Aaron Eckhart when he enters a room? After all, he is president of the United States this week. “A little respect once in a while would be nice,” agrees Eckhart. “But I don’t go Daniel Day-Lewis with this. There were no demands to be called ‘Mr President’ off-screen, although I would have liked that.”

Long, blond and with a Dudley Do-Right square jaw, it’s surprising that Hollywood has taken so long to vote Eckhart into the White House. Not that he looks entirely presidential today; wearing jeans and a battered leather jacket, he’s unshaven, swaddled in a woolly scarf, with a voice fogged by a cold. “Do I sound like hell?” he asks. “I think it’s overuse,” soothes the publicist.

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For the past month, he’s been talking up his new film Olympus Has
Fallen from California to China. In a ­nutshell, this is Die Hard in the West Wing, with President Eckhart kidnapped by North Korean terrorists. Only secret service agent Gerard Butler is capable of saving him, and us, and that requires plenty of bullets and cracked skulls. The film’s simple pitch has been complicated by a rival project called White House Down, starring Channing Tatum. Since neither movie would back away, Olympus has rushed into cinemas first.

Even so, it’s not the first movie to ­destroy Washington this year: last month North Korea launched its own home movie, posting a propaganda v­ideo showing the US Capitol building being blown up by a missile as part of escalating current tensions. “It is a little weird,” says Eckhart, when he’s asked what he makes of the synchronicity ­between real life and movies, before fishing out a more statesmanlike response. “I wish war on nobody; I hope everyone can come to their senses.”

In Olympus, Butler may do most of the running around, shooting of terrorists and rescuing of children, but Eckhart was keen to ensure his presidency was a vigorous and vital one, using John F Kennedy as a touchstone. He’s also ­familiar with one element of the president’s job – the public attention. “I’m not a big celebrity, or somebody like Gerry, but the president of the United States has to be calculated in his behaviour. I don’t really care what I look like in ­public, but the president doesn’t have that option.”

Eckhart’s own profile has risen and fallen over the years. His breakthrough role was as a smiling corporate sociopath in Neil LaBute’s In The Company Of Men, a villain so effective that he ­received hate mail from outraged viewers for nearly two decades and may have been typecast for a while as a go-to ­villain. Only in recent years has he felt more in control of his career; he just missed an Oscar nod playing an amoral cigarette lobbyist in Thank You For Smoking, and turned heads as tragic Harvey Two-Face in The Dark Knight in 2008.

Born in California 45 years ago, Eckhart’s computer executive father and children’s author mother raised him and his two older brothers as Mormons. He knows this is a source of fascination for some, but is wary of in-depth discussion. His relationship with the church nowadays is a loose one, but there’s still a ­connection: “Once is, always is,” he says.

When Eckhart was 13, he moved with his parents and two older brothers to England, where his interest in acting began with a school production of ­Charlie Brown, The Doctor Is In, ­“although I couldn’t get a job until I was 28”. He later lived in Australia, Hawaii, France and Switzerland, and has a shrewd view on how audiences outside America may react to Olympus’s adrenalised patriotism, with its shots of tattered American flags and even a point-of-death Pledge of Allegiance speech.

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“It’s interesting living all over the world because I’ve heard America cut up every which way,” he says. “But I don’t mind that, I expect people to feel that way. I lived here during the Falklands War, and you can’t tell me that the British people weren’t as stoked about Britain – or a majority of them – as America was after 9/11. There was a palpable sense during the Falklands War of ‘we’re the British; we’re going to stand together and fight this fight’. Of course you have the political considerations and all that, but just as a people there was this sense of: ‘You can’t push us around, we are who we are.’ ”

“Intensity” is a word that crops up ­frequently in our interview. Eckhart has a slightly tormented relationship with performing, admitting at one point that “there’s not much I like about acting”. For Olympus, he spent three weeks of the shoot shackled to a railing and ­although the cuffs were clipped loosely to avoid discomfort, Eckhart tightened them back up. “My circulation was cut off and by the end, I couldn’t feel my arms,” he says. “but I don’t like to have fun making movies. I hold it dear to me to try to make it as miserable as I ­possibly can, because the audience deserve to see that I suffer.”

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His pet hate is laziness: “You look at some ­actors and you’re like, ‘Excuse me, but there’s about to be mutual nuclear destruction, the White House has just been taken over, the vice-president has just had his brains blown out, and you look like you’re having ­afternoon tea at the Ritz.’ It just doesn’t make sense to me: go get some emotion.”

No wonder he has such a crush on three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, whose performance in Gangs Of New York is a personal favourite of Eckhart’s. “I think he’s the greatest actor alive,” he says fervently. “When you hear that he practised a year for the film to touch his eye with a knife, that resonates with me. I wish I had the balls to do that.” When Eckhart played Harvey Two-Face, he also saw some of Day-Lewis’ commitment in Heath Ledger’s immersive performance as The Joker. “He would fold himself away in a corner, talking to himself before a scene,” Eckhart recalls. “That takes guts ­because everyone in the crew is watching, and it can be embarrassing. People can think you’re crazy, people can gossip about you but when you turn in a performance I think will stand for all time as the greatest Joker ever, you’re raising everybody else’s game.”

Perhaps it’s appropriate that his next film has him wrestling with one of ­fiction’s ultimate anguished outsiders, Frankenstein’s monster, although he plays The Creature “sans bolt in neck” in a rather modish update where he searches for his soul, acceptance “and kicks ass at the same time”. The film is currently having 3D added to the re-imagining, which targets a younger audience with a new fantastical world of gargoyles and demons and some additional skills for the monster. “He is proficient at the art of Kali stick-fighting,” says Eckhart, enjoying my startled disbelief. “It’s a Filipino technique using ten-inch sticks, which Mary Shelley just didn’t get around to. So we wrote it for her.”

• Olympus Has Fallen is on general release from Wednesday

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot