Aaron Eckhart

High in the lonely hills, across the street from the home of a dead man, the handsome stranger who wants to be a cowboy is singing a country song. It’s confident, with just a hint of sorrow, and he beats out a rhythm on his own chest as he sings the chorus in a pleasant tenor: “I tip my hat / I roll my shoulders back / I give the quick tuck, fix me up / The future Mrs. Me is walking by.”

Aaron Eckhart trails off—he wrote the song, but he can’t remember any of its three verses. This may be why he makes his living playing characters with golden hair and black hearts, not songwriting. The song’s a few years old, from a period when Eckhart was dating a country singer and kept his TV tuned to CMT. “I told Tim McGraw it would be a big hit for him,” Eckhart says. McGraw disagreed.

“I don’t really listen to country music anymore,” Eckhart confesses. “I just listen to sports radio.”

Aaron Eckhart, now 39 years old, has been a film actor for a decade—for most movie-goers, he’s probably still more recognizable as a face than as a name. He’s the guy with the distinctive cleft chin: one of the rare American actors who looks like a man instead of a boy. Eckhart’s resume includes the role of Julia Roberts’ stalwart biker boyfriend in Erin Brockovich and the horribly disfigured Two-Face in next year’s Batman installment, The Dark Knight. But in two indelible roles bookending his career, Eckhart has portrayed, well, evil incarnate.

The evening news is full of men wearing nice suits who do terrible things, convinced that it’s all for the greater good or just not caring about the consequences. Nobody renders these modern American villains like Eckhart. He kicked off his film career in 1997 with In the Company of Men, where he played Chad Piercewell, a businessman who sadistically dates a deaf girl just so he can crush her spirit after a few weeks. Key line: “Let’s hurt somebody.” Eight years later, Eckhart portrayed another monster wrapped in an expensive suit: Nick Naylor, the immoral tobacco-industry flak in Thank You For Smoking, who sells lung cancer with a smile. Key line: “My job requires a certain… moral flexibility.”

Good as Eckhart is in these roles, he’s not sure he wants to keep playing them. “Everybody says the bad guy is the most interesting part,” he asserts. “It’s total bullshit. The bad guy might be doing bad things deliciously, but the good guy’s got the dilemma, he’s got the girl.”

Even though you’ve done your best work as villains?

Eckhart shrugs. “I’m not in a bad-guy mood,” he says. “I’m in a good-guy mood. I want to make more romantic comedies.”

Step one in that program: No Reservations, where he and Catherine Zeta-Jones play New York City chefs. She’s the control freak, while he’s the free spirit in loud pants. (Unfortunately, their relationship meshes awkwardly with another plotline, about an orphaned nine-year-old girl.) The British press has been saying they had an affair, which Eckhart says he finds flattering: it means their onscreen romance seemed plausible. “People say, ‘You guys had great chemistry.’ Yeah, but it’s work. That’s your job. You’re paid to go fall in love with that person.”

Eckhart can cook a little now: “I know how to make a reduction, how to filet a fish.” To prepare for his role, Eckhart trained at Melisse, a four-star French restaurant in Santa Monica, where he learned how to handle a knife and listened to the chefs abuse each other. Getting access to new skills from world-class experts is one of Eckhart’s favorite things about making movies, whether it’s chicken-deboning for No Reservations, motorcycle-riding in Erin Brockovich, or boxing in The Black Dahlia. For him, playing a character often means throwing himself into the physicality of it: “Not forcing it, but saying for the next five minutes I am going to be that character physically. Then all of a sudden, your body does things that you don’t know. And if you do that consistently, that’s when people will start saying you’re special.”

This attitude is the culmination of a lifetime of outdoor activity. At school, Eckhart played sports that included baseball, soccer, and rugby. He spent years of his life as a surf bum, and then a ski bum. He bought a property up in Santa Barbara just so he could surf more often. He doesn’t get to surf as often as he’d like, and he’s had to give up skiing and snowboarding recently, because if he breaks a leg on the slopes, he puts an entire film crew out of business. So Eckhart shadowboxes most days, and has taken up golf and tennis for the first time in many years. If there’s a hill, Eckhart wants to climb it; put him in a car, and he’ll see how fast it goes. He’s gotten tickets for driving his Porsche Turbo at approximately 120 mph.

Today, Eckhart’s driving his Land Rover, and pretty much following the speed limit—maybe because he’s jetlagged after returning to LA from London, where he’s been shooting The Dark Knight. We pull into a parking lot off Mullholland Drive, high in the hills, and wind our way down a hiking trail. Eckhart snaps off a dead branch by the side of the trail, and as he walks, prunes it of its twigs until he has a thin white wand, which he swings through the air experimentally. He gestures across the canyon at some particularly lavish properties. “Denzel lives over there, Stallone lives over there,” he says. “Those are fifty-thousand-square-feet houses.” He lets that sentence hang in the warm air for a moment. “What do you do with fifty thousand square feet?”

We pass two young women in shorts walking the other direction; they greet us in stereo and with slightly excessive friendliness. I ask Eckhart if he thought they recognized him. “Yeah,” he says. “Which means I should be very nice to them. I don’t actually like people looking at me—I’ve had to force myself to embrace it instead of being afraid of it.”

Out of Eckhart’s dozens of movies, only a few get him identified by the public. “Nobody recognizes me from Erin Brockovich,” Eckhart says (probably because of the beard he sported in it). “Nobody saw Company of Men.” Those select souls who did see the movie had extremely strong reactions to it: one women slapped him. Now people are spotting him from Thank You for Smoking: quick-thinking nicotine addicts will sometimes just flash a pack of cigarettes at him.

“In the inner city, it’s always The Core,” Eckhart says ruefully, remembering being hailed recently by an especially exuberant fan who had just purchased the DVD. “You bought The Core?” Eckhart said. “Come on, man, pick another movie.” In case you never saw the 2002 flick, it’s about a mission to the center of the earth to kick-start its molten center. Also starring Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo, Stanley Tucci, and Alfre Woodard, the movie has one of the highest combined totals ever of top-notch actors and completely ludicrous plot elements. The way Eckhart tells the story, he saw Tucci at the first table read and said, “What are you doing here?”

Tucci replied, “What are you doing here?”

The answer for Eckhart: it was shortly after 9/11, he hadn’t worked for a while, and he figured that if the world was going to end, he wanted to die in a nice house. He wouldn’t go down that road again. “When you’re reading scripts, you want them to be Three Days of the Condor. But you know when they suck. If you can make five million dollars doing a shitty movie, and if you can sit at home afterwards and be okay with that, you should do it,” he says. “But people will bring that movie up for the rest of your life, and for me, it hurts too much.”

So much of Eckhart’s work concerns masculinity, and the ways in which testosterone can twist us–how did he learn to be a man? He summons up a roll call of movie stars who seemed to live by a moral code: “John Wayne, Cary Grant, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Robert Redford.” He chews on the question. “Being Mormon had a lot to do with it. And my dad, although I didn’t realize it or appreciate it.”

Eckhart has some cowboy longing in his heart. He recently bought a vintage photograph of John Wayne walking into the sunset. An even larger investment was the 1,200-acre property he bought in Montana; he wants to make it into a personal retreat with cabins and horses and fly-fishing. His father’s retired from the software industry, and Eckhart asked him to develop the property. “I thought nothing would make him happier,” Eckhart says, “and that’s what’s happened. He’s building houses and drilling wells and putting cameras on rattlesnakes and following them into their dens. They’ll drive the snakes into a sack and then they’ll relocate them. Me and my dad have more of an even power structure now. When I was growing up, it was more him telling me what to do, but now, I’m accepting his knowledge and he’s giving it to me.”

Eckhart’s not a prig, but he’s a morally serious guy–which makes him an anomaly among Hollywood actors approximately on the order of being an albino. Something he will talk about with anybody who’s interested, and even some people who aren’t: Where do kids learn their moral code? “If it wasn’t instinctual, then how did it become societal?” he asks. He’s not just square-jawed—he’s a little square.

“It weighs on my mind,” he says. “If you smoke in a movie, you really are affecting people. Gunplay, drugs, violence, gangs: You glorify those things. If you make treating your mother badly look good in a movie, people are going to do the same thing to their mom.”

Eckhart, the youngest of three brothers, was raised Mormon in Silicon Valley, although he always had something of the rebel in him: his dad threw him out of the house after he pierced his ear with a safety pin. The family moved to England when he was 13, and Australia four years later. In Sydney, Eckhart attended a school that required uniforms: he made it through one day. He switched to an acting conservatory, but when he graduated a year later, he moved to Hawaii just so he could surf.

“Surfing is like a religion too,” Eckhart says. He spent a year living in Hawaii, surfing twice a day; he even got a perm because the salt water was wreaking havoc with his hair. “If you perm it, you can just shake the water out of it,” he says.

“I owned a car that we bought for $125 that we called The Gecko,” Eckhart remembers. “It was infested with cockroaches and geckos–every time we opened the door in the night, we had to take off our thongs and beat the seats to kill the cockroaches.”

Then he spent two years in France and Switzerland, doing missionary work for the Mormon church. Eckhart hadn’t planned to attend college when his missionary stint was done, but some of his friends were going to Brigham Young University, so he went too.

At BYU, he met a grad-student playwright named Neil LaBute, who wrote especially dark dramas and was the TA for Eckhart’s class on Ethics in Film. “He seemed to be perfecting his portrayal of a student, half listening, half paying attention,” LaBute says. “He had a surfer rack on his Subaru, but when he went to work, he became somebody else.”

“I wouldn’t be here today without Neil,” Eckhart says. “He had a certain belief in me–I don’t know if it was because I was the only one who would act in his plays. In a sea of… something else at BYU, we were an island.” LaBute prized Eckhart’s ability to play deadpan, and how his Abercrombie & Fitch looks made it possible for audiences to stomach him as a treacherous professor or a gay-bashing high-school student at the prom.

“He’s got very little fear,” LaBute says. “He feels safe and settled, and he’s got a strong base of people around him. That security lets him drop off the deep end for a part. It’s like Altered States—he knows he can always come back.”

Those LaBute plays did not meet with the approval of the powers that be at BYU, who went so far as to lock the theater (forgetting that LaBute had his own set of keys). Sometimes LaBute and Eckhart would have to stop rehearsing so they could hide from security. “Am I responsible for Aaron’s downfall?” LaBute asks. He doesn’t think Eckhart was seeking out rebellion, beyond the normal student impulse to push the boundaries: “It was a complicated year, but he felt that the work was important.”

Unlike many of his classmates, Eckhart didn’t get married and settle down in Utah after graduation: he moved to New York to become an actor, not realizing how tough that might be. “It’s not that I had a great belief in myself. It was just ignorance.”

Eckhart got small parts in beer commercials, but not much else. A few years later, when LaBute cast him in Company of Men, he was so eager, he hitchhiked across the country to Indiana for the eleven-day shoot. After the movie came out, Eckhart moved to Los Angeles and started partying the way that only a lapsed Mormon really can. About four years ago, he had an epiphany. He doesn’t want to share the details, but the essence of it was that he was tired of picking fights and not remembering the night before. With the help of a hypnotist, he stopped drinking and smoking and going out to clubs. “When you don’t do that, you have a lot of time on your hands,” he reports. “You get up real early and you go to bed real early, and all you want to do is work.”

Even clean, Eckhart isn’t a poster child for the Church of Latter-Day Saints: he guzzles coffee and on-screen, he portrays various unsavory activities. Although he’s fallen away from the faith, he values what he learned from it: “If you want to know something, ask and it will come to you. Religion’s a huge thing for me to this day—my moral code came from that.”

Not long after he got sober, Eckhart decided he needed to stop being precious about his career. “I just wanted to get out there and have more fun, as opposed to trying to do the perfect movie and being perfect in the movie,” Eckhart says. “I realized that during the time I spent deliberating, I could have already done the movie. Especially indie movies, which only take two to six weeks. I can easily stall reading a script for that long.”

On paper, Eckhart seems like he should be one of the biggest movie stars in the world: he’s good-looking and an accomplished actor. But on paper, the Dallas Mavericks are two-time NBA champions. So why isn’t Eckhart a bigger star?

He doesn’t fumble for an answer–he’s clearly thought about this. “People allow themselves to be as big as they allow themselves,” he says. “Early on, I didn’t feel comfortable being a leading man. You have to know how to work the game and what movies are star vehicles. It’s taken me a good ten years to figure out who I am and what I want to do and how I can do it. I never knew how things worked. I didn’t even know people had hair extensions–I just thought their hair grew fast.”

In the forthcoming Nothing Is Private, Eckhart plays a grown man who ends up in a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old Arab-American girl. Director Alan Ball says, “Aaron wasn’t afraid to go where he needed to go with this incredibly difficult role. A lot of actors don’t want to do anything that would be unlikable—they’re more interested in making themselves into a commodity. Aaron is very much an artist.”

Eckhart doesn’t actually agree with that: “I don’t think acting is art–it’s craftsmanship. Saying ‘I’m an artist’ is an excuse for people to hide their insecurities. I’m a worker going to work.”

There’s been a lot of work lately. “Thank You has changed everything,” Eckhart says quietly. “I think people really have a relationship with me because of that movie.” Upcoming projects for Eckhart include Bill, for which he gained thirty pounds and donned a fat suit. The cast also features Jessica Alba: “I didn’t know she was so huge. Me and Jessica had a pretty fun time, fatting around.” He’ll also star in Traveling, as a motivational speaker coming to terms with his own grief. But for seven months of this year, he’s committed to The Dark Knight, playing the ultimate schizophrenic: Two-Face, who oscillates between good and evil based on the flip of a coin. Eckhart experimented with elaborate coin tosses before deciding that he was making too much work for himself.

“I do better with active characters than passive characters,” Eckhart says. “I’ve learned it takes a certain personality of actor to really nail a passive role. I enjoy the action genre–I like to be physical and run around. I’m still looking for an action-movie script that’s really good and fresh.” He pauses. “It doesn’t even have to be that good.”

We return to Eckhart’s house in Coldwater Canyon, across the street from where the late Charles Nelson Reilly lived. Eckhart’s last home had previously been owned by Ringo Starr, and included outré touches such as a grotto and a bathroom completely covered in mirrors. This one, 2300 square feet, is a simpler place; although Eckhart’s lived here four years, he’s only gotten as far as decorating half the bedroom and half the living room. He reflects, “I’d love to have somebody come in and do up my house, but I’m too much of a control freak. I can’t buy furniture, dude.” Eckhart claims the problem is a crippling addiction to leather chairs.

Inside the house, a walk-in closet is halfway converted into a darkroom; Eckhart shows off some of his photos, the best of which capture the California sunlight and the steely-gray quality of the Pacific Ocean. A beautiful blonde girl breezes through the living room: this is Ashley Wick, Eckhart’s girlfriend for more than a year. They met at the gym in New York; Wick works in the fashion industry, but has flown out for a short visit. After being charming for sixty seconds, she leaves to run some errands. I tell Eckhart that I’m guessing he’s never had any problem pulling girls.

He grins. “Life’s been good. But anybody can pull as long as you know your thing—if you’re a photographer, or if you play guitar. If you don’t know your thing, then it’s difficult to do anything. I always wanted to be a rock star.”

Growing up, Eckhart would try to win girls by being sensitive and writing songs for them. More than once, a girl he was in love with ended up with his older brother, Adam. “I always felt what they felt,” Eckhart says. “And he didn’t care what they felt. He clearly stole my girlfriend from me, but when I say that to him now, he doesn’t know what I’m talking about.”

All three Eckhart brothers now live in Los Angeles, and regularly barbecue together. All have the family chin; none are married. “We have a huge fear of commitment,” Eckhart confesses. “We place a premium on independence. Yeah, it’s a little disturbing.” Eckhart’s personal goal now: “I gotta work on getting some kids,” he says vaguely.

We end up in Eckhart’s kitchen, which is adorned with more photographs, including one of his dog Dirty getting a Rolf massage. We have a long conversation about what parts of himself he draws on when he plays a villain; Eckhart insists that he’s not tapping into some inner core of darkness. “A lot of times in The Company of Men where I have to do really bad stuff, I’m thinking completely joyous thoughts. And in the context of the movie, it looks hideous. I justify, in whatever way I can, the emotion and intent of that moment, which has nothing to do with how I feel as a person.”

Sometimes Eckhart has a more external approach. “It’s just using what you have physically,” Eckhart says. “If I have to get hurt, I’ll put nails in my shoe. For Bill, I had to pretend that my nuts hurt, so I put a clothespin on my nuts.”

You did not.

“Why act it if you can do it?”

The answer seems obvious: because you’re hurting your nuts.

Eckhart grins. “You might find some gold and really get a moment that’s believable. Otherwise, you’re just learning your lines and saying them—there’s no art in that. People say, ‘Why do you want to put a clothespin on your nuts?’ You know what? Because that’s what I do for a living.”

Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in substantially different form) as the cover story of the August 2007 issue of Men’s Journal.