Aaron Eckhart plays baddies best – and his latest role, as a champion of the tobacco industry, reaches new depths. ‘I think if I chose to, I could manipulate pretty much any room I entered,’ he tells Nigel Farndale
‘Look at them,’ Aaron Eckhart says, as he studies the Londoners outside the bar opposite, enjoying the afternoon sunshine. ‘They are talking, and laughing, and drinking. But I can’t see anyone smoking. Can you see anyone smoking? The anti-smoking lobby has won. They have turned smokers into pariahs.’
The 38-year-old Hollywood actor is sipping coffee in the shade of an awning and, as he studies the nonsmokers, I study him: his dusty blond, side-parted fringe; his irregular features; his cold, narrow eyes. He has a jaw like that of a cartoon character, square and dimpled – so dimpled, in fact, that curious strangers have been known to come up and explore his chin with their fingertips.
He also has a disarmingly wide and lupine smile that reveals his back teeth. He uses this to great effect in his new film, Thank You For Smoking, a wry and biting satire on the world of the Washington lobbyist. It is based on Christopher Buckley’s acclaimed 1994 novel of the same name, the one that opens with the line: ‘Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming the chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.’
Eckhart plays Naylor.
Although best known as Julia Roberts’s smooth-talking biker boyfriend in Erin Brockovich, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s thoughtful lover in Possession, Eckhart is at his most formidable as an actor when playing anti-heroes. His character in this film makes his living defending the rights of smokers and the profits of his tobacco baron boss, played by Robert Duvall.
‘He’s a yuppie version of Mephistopheles,’ Eckhart says. ‘He’s a spin doctor with a moral flexibility that is beyond most people. For audiences, I think, watching him practise his dark art will have the thrill of the taboo. Naylor is proud of what he does. He loves to argue because arguing well means never having to say you’re wrong.’
The film opens with Naylor on a talk show about to be verbally attacked by the other guests, who are all anti-smoking, include a boy dying of cancer. Instead of being daunted, he turns the tables on his accusers.
With his deadly, winning smile he asks the audience, ‘Why would we want to kill this lad when people like him grow up to be our best customers?’ Though Eckhart doesn’t smoke himself – he gave up three years ago with the help of a hypnotherapist – he does go along with the libertarian arguments presented in this film.
‘The first thing to remember is that it is not illegal to smoke,’ he says. ‘The second thing is that lobbying is not illegal. If it was, it would be a different proposition. As it is, we are left with a conscientious argument, not a legal argument. Anyway, who is going to speak for all those millions of people who do like to smoke? I assume that everybody, essentially, knows what is right and wrong, so let them choose. If someone wants to smoke and die at 50, let them die at 50. I’m not talking about health care and secondary smoking here, those are slightly different issues. But as long as someone is smoking and not hurting anyone, I say let them.’
In order to empathise with his character in Thank You For Smoking, Eckhart spent time with lobbyists. ‘The tobacco lobbyists I’ve met have been delighted with this film because they feel like they have been let out of a cage. They felt so hated. So oppressed. They felt like there was a cloud above them. Now they feel their voice has been freed and that they are not such bad people, after all. It’s funny, they told me all the strategies they use to pass legislation and influence people.
‘They don’t seem to feel any personal responsibility. Like lawyers, they feel their job is to present the best argument and then they wash their hands. They probably know that what they are doing is immoral but they have learnt to live with it. Like Nick Naylor, they have learnt to face the world with smiles on their faces.’
That Eckhart smile: it is electrifying, in the execution sense of the word. The director of the film told him that whenever his character got into trouble he had to deploy that smile ruthlessly. ‘When I was growing up, I had one of those hard faces that made it difficult for other people to know what I was feeling, so my mother told me to show my feelings more, to smile more. Perhaps I over compensated. In the film you have people spitting at my character and him smiling back. The smile helps you to like him, despite yourself. It is the cult of personality.
‘You want to believe him. He invites trust and confidence. Tony Blair is a good example of that. He is always smiling, so you want to believe him.’
Eckhart is, he says, more aware of the power of his smile than he used to be. ‘I think if I chose to I could manipulate pretty much any room I entered. Sorry, that sounds more boastful than I intended. What I mean is, if I arrive at a party and walk in slowly and confidently, and make eye contact, and smile, I know I can take control of that room. It’s also to do with being curious about people, putting them at their ease and making them laugh. Bill Clinton was brilliant at that, and Warren Beatty: ladies would say that when he talked to them they would feel like they were the only person on Earth.’
It wasn’t always that way. Eckhart used to be shy and insecure. It was partly to do with his childhood. He was born and raised outside San Jose, California, where his father worked for a computer firm. But when he was 13, his family moved to England. They lived in Cobham in Surrey, where he and his younger brother attended the American Community School.
‘I tell you, I wanted to shoot myself. In California the sun was always shining, I had just started surfing, getting into girls, not getting beaten up. In England it was always raining, we lived in a small flat, and I had to take the bus. It was very scary for me at first. I got really introverted for a while. We would come home and torture our mother for bringing us here. Within a year, though, I discovered I was allowed to go anywhere in Europe on holiday trips. My father felt guilty for bringing us here, you see.’
His parents are Mormons and when Eckhart returned to America at the age of 17, he went to Brigham Young, the Mormon university in Utah. ‘Am I still a Mormon? Well, I do think of myself as one, but I tend to make my own decisions about my lifestyle. All the things you associate with the Mormon church – being against alcohol, tobacco and homosexuals – well, I am more liberal about those things. I used to feel guilty when I drank, though. I knew it was a destructive force in my life. I wasn’t hiding bottles or anything, but I drank a lot and would get into fights. I took hypnosis for that, too. Stopped three years ago.’ He smiles. ‘I haven’t been invited back to BYU to speak, by the way, so I guess they don’t approve of me there.’
It was at the university that he met his long-time collaborator, the director and playwright Neil LaBute. LaBute’s confrontational style and malevolent humour seemed to complement Eckhart’s. They have done four films together – relatively low-budget art-house movies – most memorably, the surprise box-office hit In the Company of Men, made in 1997.
Eckhart plays an angry young marketing man who befriends another angry young marketing man. Dumped by their girlfriends, they decide to take revenge on the opposite sex by simultaneously seducing and dumping a vulnerable, deaf secretary – just because they can. ‘Boys meet girl, boys crush girl, boys giggle,’ is how LaBute summed it up. ‘Women would come up to me after that film and say they hated me and that I was a prick,’ Eckhart says, matter-of-factly.
‘One woman came straight up and slapped me.’
He reflects upon how strange it is that some people cannot accept that actors can be different from the characters they play. I ask how his own personality differs from those of the misanthropes he has so often played. ‘I do have mood swings, but I’m working on them and I do think I’m naturally quite breezy. I think it is to do with maturity. Since I stopped drinking and smoking I have become an exponentially more positive person. I’ve partaken in drugs occasionally, but I’ve never had a problem. They’d always scared me enough not to be a user. I like to work and stay fit. I wake up at six in the morning. Try and fill my day usefully.’
When I suggest that LaBute put him on the map, Eckhart becomes defensive. ‘Well, we helped each other. He had the good words and I said them in the way he wanted. Neil has a unique vision. He likes to cast a certain type of actor – classic, all-American looks – because it hurts more. If you can get the audience to fall in love with the character on appearances alone, then…’
He tails off. ‘You wanted to trust the characters I played. They were worldly, well-educated people who didn’t seem naturally dark. Yet they would rip your heart out. I got to Neil first. I called him. I used to act with him in his own plays at college where he was the other character. In that way I got to hear how he delivered his own dialogue.
‘Actors always want to over-emphasise words but that’s not how it is with Neil. He is almost deadpan, saying lines confidently and unemotionally. It makes it more malicious. More manipulative.’
I ask Eckhart if he is ever manipulative when he is dating. ‘If you study body language, which I do, you learn that you can say things with every part of your body. When you apply that knowledge to your relationships it gives you control. I’m aware of using my knowledge of body language when dating, sure. If I’m talking with a girl I can tell whether she likes me by the direction her feet are pointing. I can made judgments based on that. It gives you an advantage. You’re doing it naturally anyway, it’s just when you know about it, it lets you be two steps ahead.’
Do women ever say they find him difficult to live with? He pauses, smiles and avoids the question. ‘Being with a different girl all the time is not fulfilling. I’m sort of with someone at the moment, not strongly but getting there. I want to be monogamous, living on my ranch in Montana. I feel like I ought to get married and have children. I need to share my life with someone.’
Does he use his body-language skills in acting, too? ‘Yes. Absolutely. You bet. If you want to influence and control the audience you can do it a bit through your movements. People all know about how when a person lies they cover their mouth, say, but you can be more subtle and subliminal than that. For one role I would put my hands on my hips like this whenever my character was lying.’
He demonstrates. ‘It would just build up and some people might notice it and others might not.’ He sits back in his seat. ‘Look at my body language now,’ he says. ‘I have an open posture, leaning back, making eye contact. This says I am feeling relaxed. It also says I want you to like me because you are writing about me.’
Is he playing a role, manipulating the situation, during this interview? ‘Not really, but I know what you mean.’
We talk about how, during the filming of The Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman would run before a take so that he seemed genuinely out of breath. Laurence Olivier, his co-star, famously dismissed this approach by asking Hoffman why he didn’t just act being out of breath.
‘I’m with Dustin on this,’ Eckhart says. ‘If you need to be out of breath, why not be out of breath? It gets your blood up, gets you excited and lets you concentrate on other aspects of your character. In that sense I think of myself as a method actor. I will manipulate the people around me. To make a love scene more convincing, I will flirt with my leading ladies from the moment I walk on set.’ He smiles his vulpine smile again, teeth bared. ‘And no, before you ask, I’ve never had an on-set relationship.’