Aaron Eckhart: Aaron from Erin

How is it possible that the guy who played Julia Roberts's love interest in the smash hit Erin Brockovich doesn't get recognized? Because Aaron Eckhart has never played the same guy twice, as his recent role in Nurse Betty proves.

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Aaron Eckhart has no indication that he's about to be ambushed and mortified. There's no hint of predators lurking. His interviewer is the model of decorum. It's a balmy July evening. We're in Westwood, chatting poolside at the W hotel, which is so trendy that the menu requires English translation. ("Plantain pappardelle... smoky sofrito... mango lime mojo.")

Eckhart, lean, blond, square-jawed and 32, is meeting with me to promote his new film Nurse Betty, in which he costars with Renée Zellweger, Chris Rock and Morgan Freeman. Still flushed and wet-haired from a two-hour boxing workout, dressed in a dark T-shirt and black pants, he orders bottled water and lights a filtered Camel. We chat for 10 minutes and then, as if on cue, a tall blonde in a skintight dress saunters over.

"Can I bum a cigarette?" she says and looks Eckhart up and down. Does she know who he is? Is she coming on to him? Now, it so happens that just prior to her approach, Eckhart had been saying that he can still walk the streets unrecognized because people don't make the connection between him and the odd assortment of characters he's played during his short but explosive career. In 1997 he starred as a calculating misogynist in In the Company of Men. Then he played a flabby masturbator (he gained 40 pounds for the role) in Your Friends & Neighbors. After that he starred as the hairy, teddy bear of a biker who softens up Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. Granted, the first two were low-budget, film festival favorites, but how could anyone who makes it with Julia Roberts in a huge hit still be off the radar screen? I decide to put Eckhart's anonymity to the test.

"Do you know who this man is?'' I ask the slinky blonde. Now Eckhart groans, sinks down in his chair and covers his face.

"This is absolutely ridiculous," he says.

"Have you seen him in any movies?" I persist. The woman bends down to get a closer look at Eckhart's beautiful, bearded face. He's now twisting into the fetal position and worn make eye contact with her.

"I'm not a huge moviegoer," she says.

"That's the first thing they say," moans Eckhart.

"Oh, c'mon, work with me here," I say to him.

"No, this interview is over," he says.

"OK, tell me who you are," says the woman. She's genuinely curious.

"I have to go," says Eckhart, who makes no effort to leave.

"No, please tell me."

"OK, I'll tell you," he says. "I'm Mark Wahlberg." There is a slight resemblance. "Did you see The Perfect Storm?"

"I just saw it," she says. "It was really great."

"I was the guy with the girlfriend."

"Ohhh," She steps back and regards him as one would a painting. "You've lost weight."

This observation brings Eckhart out of his funk (he bragged to me earlier that he's down to 168 pounds), and now, gallantly, cupped hand warding off the breeze, he lights the woman's cigarette. She runs over to gush to her friends about who she's just met. Eckhart turns to me and mutters, "That was terrible. I will not for-give you for putting me on the spot like that."

"I put her on the spot, not you."

"It would have been nice if she had recognized me."

Eckhart still might be just another pretty face in the lobbies and lounges of major cities, but to Hollywood insiders, he's one of the hottest actors going. Aside from Nurse Betty, he just finished shooting the Sean Penn-directed cop drama The Pledge, in which he costars with his idol, Jack Nicholson. Next he'll leave for London to film the Neil LaBute-directed Possession, a love story that costars Gwyneth Paltrow and is based on the erudite A.S. Byatt novel. The Hollywood experience he'd first like to discuss, though, took place a year-and-a-half ago when he got a call from Oliver Stone, who wanted him to play an assistant coach in Any Given Sunday, "He called me on Thursday and asked me to start shooting on Tuesday. I wanted to work with Oliver. I had heard stories of how he gets performances out of people, and I wanted to experience that."

Keep in mind that at that point, Eckhart was an actor used to shooting two-character, dialogue-laden scenes in bedrooms, like he did for In the Company of Men. "My first day on the set I walk onto the football field and Oliver's filming drills. Huge players all around. Oliver is yelling at me, 'Get in there.' I didn't have anything specific to do. There was nothing in the script. After a couple takes, Oliver comes over and says, 'Aaron, you gotta get in there and mix it up with the guys." So on the next take, I start yellin' at some players and, afterwards, one these big bruisers comes over and says, 'You tell me that again, and I'm gonna kick your ass.' And I say, 'I'm your fuckin' coach, motherfucker!' This guy didn't know what role I was playing. No one introduced me to the players or told them I was the coach and they were supposed to respect me. It was crazy like that the whole movie," In case you don't recall this sequence, you should know that most of Eckhart's scenes were cut from the finished film. He did get a nice note of apology from Stone, though.

Next, Eckhart went up against several brand-name stars for the boyfriend role in Erin Brockovich. The studio didn't want him, but director Steven Soderbergh did, and, after Eckhart read with Julia Roberts, she gave him her blessing, too. To research the part, he bought a motorcycle, grew a beard, wrapped himself in biker attire and roared around the streets scaring young mothers and setting off car alarms. Not content to be merely "the boyfriend"--or "arm dressing," as he calls it--Eckhart was determined to challenge Julia. "I made a contribution to that film that grounded Julius character. I was a pillow for her rage."

"What was it like working with the biggest female star in the world?"

"Julia was a godsend," says Eckhart. "She made a happy camp for everyone. She was generous and outgoing with everybody."

In the film Roberts is called upon to make no less than five fever-pitched, profanity-laced tirades. It must have been exhausting for Eckhart to go through some of those scenes with her. "No, it wasn't," he says. "I was surprised how 'on' she was all the time in terms of her emotions, her vulnerability, her sensitivity and also her rage. I can't remember a scene we had to do too many times. She's a real pro. I learned a lot from her."

As far as Eckhart's performance, this is the response he received from the real biker guy he portrayed: "You were good but if you'd studied with me, you'd have won an Academy Award."

Eckhart was at the dentist's office when Sean Penn called to talk to him about being in The Pledge, which is based on a book by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and tells the story of a cop who, just before he retires, pledges to find the killers of a woman's child. "Did you have to audition for that part?" I ask. "No, thank the Lord."

"Tell me about your first day on the set with Jack Nicholson."

"I looked around and saw Jack and Sean and Sam Shepard, and I'm thinking, "What the fuck am I doing here? What's wrong with this picture?" But Jack took me under his wing and let me in on his process. He claims he'll never write an autobiography so I tried to get everything I could out of him."

"How long do you think it'll take before you feel comfortable with heavyweights like him?"

"I hope I never do. I want always to have to prove myself. It makes me more interesting as an actor. It's terrible to watch a complacent actor. I admire the actors who lay it out there."

"Name a few."

"Jack in Five Easy Pieces. De Niro in Cape Fear and Jacknife. Duvall in The Great Santini. When you make the bold choices that those guys did, the audience might not go with you. But when you absolutely lay it out there, when you show the audience your soul, that's art."

Thanks in part to writer/director Neil LaBute, Eckhart has already challenged audiences more than most actors do in a career. When you think of notable director/actor duos, Hitchcock and Cary Grant come to mind. So do Kazan and Brando, Scorsese and De Niro. Though it might be premature to add LaBute and Eckhart to the list, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that in less than four years they've created a substantial body of work. LaBute wrote and directed In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors. He's also directed Nurse Betty. While Eckhart has worked for other directors, its hard to imagine a LaBute film without Eckhart. In fact, their relationship is so tight that when LaBute sent Eckhart the script for Nurse Betty, LaBute said, "Tell me which part you want to play." It was Eckhart who chose the role of Renee Zellweger's brutally insensitive husband, who gets scalped by Morgan freeman and Chris Rock.

Eckhart and LaBute met in the early '90s at the most unlikely of Hollywood launching pads: Brigham Young University. Eckhart grew up Mormon in Silicon Valley. ("I'm not a paradigm for that religion although I have intense religious beliefs, and that Church is very dear to me," he says. "I don't feel like I've abandoned them or they've abandoned me. I'm just trying to figure out myself and I can't be ruled by any institution that wants me to act a certain way if I don't feel like acting that way.") LaBute was a Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant; Eckhart was an undergraduate majoring in film and theater. They met in a course called Ethics in Film, and won Eckhart was acting in LaBute's raw, unethical plays. LaBute knew he needed a handsome, charming actor who, merely by being attractive, would be the beneficiary of the audiences' good will. Then LaBute could confound expectations by making this character, say, a gay-basher or a back-stabber. Not surprisingly, the plays were not popular with everyone at BYU.

And how did this handsome, charming guy do with the coeds at BYU? "The women were not my type," says Eckhart. "They wanted a Honda, a backyard and kids.. and all by the age of 23. I wanted a woman with dreams and a little more backbone."

"So you must have left Utah."

"Yeah, I went to New York."

"Why New York instead of Los Angeles?"

"Because I used to watch Bob Hope/Bing Crosby movies, and I loved the romance. In one of them Hope had just gotten married, and it was their first holiday together. They had no furniture, it was freezing in their apartment, but he brought home a little Christmas tree. And I always thought, that's what I want to do. I want to go to New York and have a little tree and a romance like that."

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