NEW YORK — In a movie climate that often responds with warmth and clemency to the superficial and inane, “Rabbit Hole” isn’t just the unlikeliest of features, it’s a minor miracle: Directed by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) and adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the film stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as Becca and Howie, whose 4-year-old has died and who can’t seem to get over it.
What keeps “Rabbit Hole” honest, however, is honesty — an actorly quality much valued by the enigmatic Eckhart (“In the Company of Men,” “Erin Brockovich,” “The Dark Knight,” “No Reservations”), who spoke with John Anderson in Manhattan.
Q. How do you approach a film like this, where the subject matter is so unavoidably weighty?
A. The trick to playing a film like this is doing the smaller stuff, the intimate stuff — how do you make the marriage believable? How do you make the kitchen believable? The silences. And do you have the guts to deliver the silences? There are big scenes, yeah, that’s the big news, and this is obviously Nicole’s movie. But those little things, finishing each other’s sentences. That’s what I find challenging.
Q. You’ve worked with some of the more interesting directors around (Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone, Neil LaBute, Brian De Palma). What do you respond to in a film?
A. When I see a movie, if it’s Cassavetes or Mike Leigh, the people live. They are. No matter what their role is, they have a complete life. Of course, Mike Leigh takes six months to a year to rehearse his films. When people say, “You have a month to prepare for this, it’s not a problem,” I say, “Yes it is! It’s a big problem.” I was talking to Al Pacino years ago, we did a film together, and I said, “Jesus, Al, how did do you do it? ‘Serpico,’ ‘Dog Day ...’” and he said, “We had a year, two years, to prepare for those movies; I lived as Serpico for six months. I wouldn’t have even thought of doing it another way.” It’s unheard of now. You’re being difficult in the business if you want to take that much time. What’s the first thing you hear about Daniel Day-Lewis? “Oh, he took a year to prepare.” Yeah, and look at his performance. It’s riveting, it’s so specific. Every actor dreams of that sort of thing.
Q. So why the difference now? Does it cost too much to rehearse?
A. It’s really the whole star-ego trip — a star doesn’t have the time, he has to make a new film, doesn’t want to commit that much time. Or she doesn’t like to rehearse.
Q. What would be ideal for you?
A. Whenever I hear about professional athletes, I think about my business. Why don’t I have a coach, not just an acting coach or an audition coach — I’m talking hardcore coaching. Working out eight hours a day, with a coach. It just doesn’t exist. I’m talking about a guy, like a cyclist, going so far beyond the script it’s insane. Living a life — if I’m playing a spy, I become a spy. But it just doesn’t happen.
Q. What’s the real dividing line between the good, the bad and unwatchable?
A. The guys I have worked with know how to tell stories. They’re interested in their characters. Look at Nicole: She’s insanely interested in acting and the craft. She has expectations of the director and her fellow actors and that’s why it’s so good to work with someone like her. You go in saying “A, I need to be prepared, I want to be prepared, I am prepared, and, B, I’m going to have a fulfilling experience: I’m not going to have to push her to be better.” I can, through my performance, but I’m not going to sit in my dressing room going, “Why isn’t Nicole any better?” Whereas, let’s just say, there have been times when actors have sat thinking, “Why can’t the people around me be any better?”
Q. How come we don’t see you more than we do?
A. I’m wildly uninteresting. It’s true. I have no personality within my industry, which is interesting to me. And yet I’ve worked with some incredibly good people. I’ve had my failures but they’ve always been interesting failures. If I pat myself on the back for one thing in my career, it’s that I’ve been diverse.