I believe in Aaron Eckhart. Long before he burrowed a permanent place into every comic book movie lover’s heart for playing Harvey Dent/Two-Face in The Dark Knight, he was one of the most underappreciated actors kicking around indie film. He jump-started his career with In The Company Of Men, delivering one of the great slimy misogynistic businessman performances decades before Wolf Of Wall Street. Despite having leading man stature, Eckhart focused on years of impressive character work in projects like Your Friends & Neighbors, Nurse Betty, and The Pledge instead of chasing Hollywood fame. Then he broke out in 2005 through Jason Reitman’s first (and still best) feature Thank You For Smoking and suddenly in middle age Aaron Eckhart became a movie star.
After that, he pulled the ole Nic Cage trick of moving from small movies into headlining action flicks with a string of blockbusters like The Dark Knight, Battle Los Angeles, and Olympus Has Fallen. This week Eckhart takes on the role of Frankenstein’s monster and jump kicks demons and gargoyles in the face in I, Frankenstein. It’s not his most artistically ambitious movie, but it is a great actor taking on an iconic role in a high profile comic book adaptation and such things are worthy of attention. CGM recently got a chance to chat with Aaron Eckhart about his career and latest role, proving that in the hands of an actor of his stature, even a silly Frankenstein action movie can be serious business.
Comics Gaming Magazine: Looking back on your career, it’s interesting that early on you started with more dramatic and smaller movies and now you’re getting into bigger action movies. It’s supposed to be the other way around. Was this something that you always wanted to do at some point?
Aaron Eckhart: Well, I am going to be dead soon, so I wanted to be able to do at least one action movie before I die. (Laughs) You know, it’s funny, because when early on in my career when I started working with Neil LaBute and everyone else, I was very much into independent movies. I wanted to work with my heroes. I was very much at the time into that whole “brooding actor” sort of thing, and for a long time it important to me that I kind of stay away from Hollywood. I avoided romantic comedies and stuff like that very deliberately. Ultimately, I’m glad that I did because it made me who I am today and all that. But now as I have sort of gained more experience and over time – just today I realized it has been 17 years now since In the Company of Men – and I feel like I have fulfilled that quotient of my career and now I can actually let myself have fun, you know?
I love action movies. I grew up with Harrison Ford and Rocky and Star Wars and Butch Cassidy and all that sort of stuff, and one day I just decided that I did want to have fun. I just got to a point where I would get scripts and it would just be monologue after monologue after monologue, and I’d just sigh and think, “You know, I just don’t want to say any more words. I’m sick of it! Why am I saying so much? I have nothing to say! What else could I say?” (Laughs) I envisioned my ultimate movie at that point would be something where I would be running on top of a train and grunting. I think I have sort of fulfilled that now. But I do have to say that I still love independent films and smaller films. I hope to not only be in them more in the future, but I hope to even direct one. I think this year there’s going to be a lot more of that. Something with no camera moves. Just two people just loving and fighting against each other in a room and that sort of thing. I really want to get back to that. But I am really glad that I can do the action stuff. I’m glad that I’m still in good enough shape and that people are willing to pay me to do it. (Laughs)
CGM: Do you think that staying away from Hollywood for so long gave you more of appreciation for making bigger movies like I, Frankenstein when you got into them?
Aaron Eckhart: Yeah. I mean, you can really hurt yourself if you just take whatever comes along right out of the gate. I think it was really great for me to get that kind of apprenticeship and tutelage instead of just deciding that I would want to go out and be a star. I’m not at all interested in being a star in the sense that I want to be known all over the world and have a ton of Twitter followers. I have no interest in that. Never have. I don’t want to be in the papers and blah blah blah. So early on, it was all about the quality of acting and working with the best actors and I think I did that. Some were better than others, but I feel like I have always worked with seriously good actors. Now I feel like I have that experience where I can relax a little bit. Not to say that I relaxed on this movie, because this was probably the hardest movie I ever made. It absolutely depleted me, both emotionally and physically. We’ll see what happens next, but I think because I did that all early on in my career can help propel me in my career into my sixties. It gave me street cred that I might not have otherwise had.
CGM: When you are playing someone like Frankenstein’s monster, there have obviously been a lot of different visions and designs over the years and many different directions to take it. How did you and everyone else arrive on this take on the character? Did the idea of neck bolts or anything like that get tossed around?
Aaron Eckhart: (Laughs) That was my first question: “Are we with or without the bolts?” There was a lot of discussion about the look. Obviously, he’s an amalgamation of bodies and body parts, so you have to find a way to visually put him together. How are you going to do that? How are you going to make him active, dynamic, and new, yet still be the monster that we know and love? The core is there. You can see the stitching and everyone can recognize that and that idea. But the big question when you think about the past designs is, “Where do the bolts even come from?” I mean, it’s not in the book.
Why have them? Why can’t he be this guy who’s put together like this? In Mary Shelley’s original vision, this guy is banished into the wilderness, living off the land, and basically educated by animals. Where does that factor into it? So, we get pretty far away from that and we put him into this modern, Western European kind of Underworld-looking city, but we talked a lot about the little details of his appearance. We talked about all of the different scars. Where they would be placed, how they would be represented, how they showed the passage of time, how it would look in relation to the clothing and the setting. That sort of thing.
CGM: Did you ever look at any previous performances of the monster for inspiration?
Aaron Eckhart: No, I just went right to the book. The book was just gold. Jeez, the anger between the father and the son and the name-calling and how it breaks up this family. It’s a freakin’ tragedy, but you know, there are a lot of people who are living that same tragedy today, and that’s really what’s important about the film. Here’s this guy who feels unwanted, and unloved. He feels ugly. That’s a biography of my teenage years, you know what I mean? (Laughs) And I think a lot of people in their teenage years or not too far removed from them to no longer remember them would probably think the same thing and in similar ways. I thought that was cool that we could do an exciting movie and we had someone like [writer/director] Stuart Beattie who could bring in things like gargoyles and demons and balance it with a story about making your own life decisions and choices.
CGM: You mentioned before how physically draining this movie was. How intensive was the preparation for the action sequences?
AE: I got extremely fit for this movie. I trained for six months to learn Kali Stick Fighting. Every day I would get together with my trainer for three hours and then directly after him I would go to my own physical trainer and go through all of the other stuff, like eating right and all that sort thing. But his body is reflective of his interior, of his mind. He’s gotta be hard. He’s hardened. He has to be lithe, agile, quick, and dynamic. He’s being pursued, so he has to have a certain learned set of skills. He’s lived for 200 years, and all that still has to be reflected in the body. After that it’s just a matter of getting through the movie. I did most of the stunts myself. I did all of the fighting myself. I think there are just a couple of stunts that I didn’t do just because they wouldn’t let me. That really beat me up. But that’s not to say that I was ever taxed to the point of potentially feeling like a failure, and that was really because of that preparation. Had I not done that, there’s no way we ever would have gotten the movie that we have now.
CGM: And why was the film so emotionally draining for you?
Aaron Eckhart: Just dwelling on the story and always portraying a feeling of rejection and loneliness. When we were talking about the movie, Stuart always said that he wanted to see me filled with rage. And you can just go back to Mary Shelley’s vision of what the Frankenstein story should be, that’s all there is. There’s just this deep sense of misunderstanding and this hatred that he has for his father. He has such a wanton desire for love in the book that goes unfulfilled, and over time this hatred just gets built up and built up. His father never gives him an explanation. He tells him he wishes his son was dead. I actually went on the internet and I looked at videos of abused children telling their stories. Stories about psychologically, physically, and sexually violated children. And if you guys ever want to understand that kind of rage or see what that kind of rage is like, you should look at that sometime.
One particular video had this young girl and her father had abused her for a long time going back to when she was just a young, young girl, and she finally had the guts to come out and make this video about and directed at her father. And it is… emotional, just full of rage. For some reason I just watched it over and over and over again. It’s the kind of thing that ensures you would never be the same. Why would you do something like that? To your own daughter? To your own son? To your own… I’m actually going to cry even thinking about it now. So that’s how deep I tried to get in that sort of way, to tap into that rage towards my father. Because there are millions of kids out there that might feel the same way that aren’t able to express it like this young woman was, and how that can ultimately affect your entire life and your future relationships. It’s crazy to try to think about it all the time, but I tried to stay in that area the entire movie, and that’s what was really draining.
CGM: Was there any trepidation of playing a character as iconic as Frankenstein’s monster? Did you even like those kinds of movies when you were growing up?
Aaron Eckhart: Yeah, but not the ones you would think of, really. I loved The Blob, and Jaws. Man, remember The Blob? (Laughs) I love The Blob. The Fog was great. Anything that rhymes with “blob”, really. (Laughs) I did like all of that kind of stuff. I love outer space stuff. I also really liked The Munsters, which kind of got me into Frankenstein, and then Dracula and vampires and Nosferatu. I wouldn’t ever say that I was an aficionado or an expert on these kinds of characters, but I’ve always enjoyed them. I really enjoy any story that’s well told. It’s the same thing with this movie. People will ask me, “Do you see this as a monster movie?” And I really don’t see it that way because I’m personally a human being that has a heart and soul and feelings and blah blah blah, so the only way I can get into this as an actor is to deal head on with that emotional content. Mary Shelley basically set the template that I would be playing someone that was a science experiment, but was still very much a man. She made him a person with all these really complicated feelings, and that was basically where I went. I think that it was society that made him a monster. They called him a monster, but he never felt like a monster other than the fact that it was all he had reflected back to him by society. He always felt like a human being.
And the other thing is, think of all the people in life who are born deformed or with some sort of malady and you go out into public and you have to assimilate, especially younger people. How are they looked at and how must they feel if someone ever misunderstands or hates them because they don’t understand it? You get bullied, and teased, and it’s almost unfathomably hard. My job is… (Laughs)… and you probably just think it’s an action movie! (Laughs) As an actor it’s never just an action movie. Someone is always dying and someone is always going through some kind of pain, and that’s what’s needed to make these kinds of films work. People are always getting betrayed or getting knocked down, and when you’re an actor, that’s the stuff that’s fun to you. But just going out and shooting off a gun or something like that with no emotional content behind it just isn’t fun. Well… no that’s not true. Sometimes it can be. (Laughs)
CGM: Finally, there’s one thing that I’ve got to ask you. I’ve always loved In The Company Of Men, but always wondered if anyone ever came up to you and said, “I love that movie. I am that guy!” It’s one of those movies that is very easy to like for all the wrong reasons.
Aaron Eckhart: (Laughs) You know, a lot of people have. It used to happen a lot more. Now not so much because it seems like it has largely been forgotten, but there would always be business people in an airport or somewhere that would just be like (Whispers) “I love that f**king guy. That dude has balls. I don’t know why everybody hates that guy.” (Laughs) But those same guys are who the character was based on, so basically they are just saying “I love myself,” not realizing that they just made fun of themselves.