Aaron Eckhart is a serious actor - he has appeared in only four comedies in a 20-film career - who chooses roles carefully. His ruggedly handsome looks and athletic frame have secured him leading man roles in action movies and dramas, but he pursues distinctive acting options, playing a wily tobacco lobbyist in “Thank You for Smoking,” a romantic chef in “No Reservations” and the schizoid villain Two-Face in this summer’s Batman film “The Dark Knight.”
“I like to think of my characters as complicated,” Eckhart said recently. He was publicizing his newest film, comedy No. 5, “Meet Bill.” The role is suitably complex, a downtrodden executive with an unfaithful wife, a teenaged life coach, and fantasies of owning a donut shop.
Writer/co-director Melisa Wallack so impressed him with her script that Eckhart signed on as the film’s executive producer. “I remember her saying that when you go to the mall or the airport you just see Bills all over the place. People who give every indication they’re pretty settled in their lives. But they have steam coming out of their ears. They’re feeling a lot of pressure and not doing what they want to do.
“The whole experience was new to me. Playing a reactive character, a middle-aged guy, has nothing to do with my life,” the 40-year-old actor said. “The comedy genre was a stretch for me. I’m not sure what my niche is in the comedy world.”
Physically, it was a stretch as well. He gained 30 pounds for the role, then wore a fat suit on top of that while shooting in a St. Louis summer heat wave. With his sagging posture and a haircut that would get you a full refund and the manager’s apology at Great Clips, Eckhart transformed himself from a Hollywood poster boy into a dowdy lump of a guy.
“I felt like if Bill were a sculpture, if he were a Rodin, over the centuries the weather and the wind and the water would have rounder his shoulders. That was the whole posture.” Bill’s slumping demeanor, shambling walk and jiggling spare tire “really had a psychological effect,” he said.
Wallack and her husband, producer Bernie Goldmann, split directing duties on the film, their first foray behind the camera. “It was very busy with Melisa feeding her child between takes,” Eckhart said. “I was a little worried about it. A couple things went through my mind. Are these people going to be fighting with each other? Are they going to divorce each other on set? I don’t want to go through that. Are they going to be able to get me through this? And do the film justice and do what’s right for the film, instead of protecting each other?
“Filmmaking is a daunting, daunting, tiring task. You have to contend with so many people and logistics. There’s something to be said for experience. At the end of the day no film is perfect, even when you have the best. I’ve made films with guys whose planning is impeccable. And the films were flops,” he laughed.
The film’s tight budget and month-long shooting schedule were worlds away from Eckhart’s experience on Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Batman film, he said. “We filmed it for seven months, which usually would be next to torture. But it was a dream. I’ve never seen anybody work like Chris. How effortlessly he did it, with humor, a kind of quiet confidence. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Eckhart shared a few scenes with Heath Ledger, whose performance as the Joker impressed him deeply.
“Whenever he was around, there was electricity. People knew. He had the total respect of the crew and they liked to watch him. Crews think that most actors are pompous, arrogant so-and-sos. To be 28 years old and to have that depth and independent thinking was remarkable,” he said. “As much as it saddens me what’s happened, I just am so grateful that he is in this movie. And that I got to work with him. I think everybody on the set felt the same way.”
Eckhart’s voice may soon be coming to a cell phone near you as part of a viral marketing campaign centered on Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent’s run for office. “That will reach about 4 million people, which I think is cool,” he said.
Eckhart doesn’t think of his character, a conscientious lawman turned murderous vigilante, as a villain, “just someone who does what he does. As Harvey Dent, he’s a very hardworking crime fighter. As Harvey Two Face, he’s still a crime fighter, just in the wrong way. He takes justice into his own hands. But then so does Batman. The problem is, Harvey tries to kill Batman, that’s when you get in trouble.”