Aaron Eckhart’s favorite actor is Cary Grant. Eckhart’s own career has veered all over the place: His breakthrough was playing a remorseless corporate sociopath in “In the Company of Men.” He’s played villains since, but even there lies diversity: a lovably amoral nicotine lobbyist in “Thank You For Smoking” and a tragic Two-Face in “The Dark Knight.” Elsewhere he’s played heroes (“Battle: Los Angeles”) and love interests (“Erin Brockovich”). Now, in the new “Olympus Has Fallen,” he’s the president of the United States.
Yet Eckhart latches onto Cary Grant, an actor who, with a few exceptions, kept to a certain (peerless) shtick. “I always feel like he’s so good that he’s not regarded as an actor,” Eckhart explains. “Maybe he didn’t have the range that people expect a modern actor to have. But there’s never been anybody like him.” Eckhart pines for a radically different era of screen acting. “They had multiple partnerships: Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. They got to know each other. So they were comfortable together. In movies today you don’t get to know the person you’re working with as well as you’d like.”
But today’s actors are judged by versatility, forever required to stretch their talents. “The most important part about being an actor is being truthful. It really doesn’t matter what I play, even if it’s the president,” he says. “You want to do different things, too. I’ve done big and small. I’ve been a pedophile, I’ve been a war hero. There’s not much I won’t do.”
Eckhart has done his share of action movies, including “Olympus,” which is “Die Hard” in the White House. Eckhart’s prez is kidnapped during a siege by rogue North Korean terrorists and has to be saved by secret service agent Gerard Butler. “Every movie’s an action movie. I don’t care if it’s a drama or a romantic comedy. You’re playing around. Everything’s a struggle.”
Playing the president required him to craft his ideal head of state. “I want somebody to look at me and feel confident, to feel like they elected the right guy, to feel like I was capable and honest, speaking truthfully to them. I wanted to be someone who was not easily coerced, that I wasn’t corrupted.”
Of course, there’s also the fear of being typecast. Early in his career Eckhart voiced concern about relentless villain roles. “I’m still conscious of that. When you’re playing the villain where you’re sort of trying to take down something, it’s not so interesting.” Typecasting isn’t always bad: Cary Grant got to play charming men of refinement. Villains can be less fun. “Being a villain, you have to deal with so many hard-core emotional issues. You spend a lot of time reading the diary of Jeffrey Dahmer and stuff like that. And it gets old after awhile. Basically you’re hanging out with a bunch of s—heads.”
Playing villains or heroes come from the same place, though. “The main challenge of being an actor is to be multidimensional, to be a whole person. Whether you’re the protagonist or the antagonist, you still have a life. You still have parents. You still have to put gas in the car. If audiences believe that, then they’ll get past the fact that he’s cutting people into little pieces. They’ll start going back to the history and ask why he’s cutting people up. And that’s when you’re more fulfilled as an audience member. A villain can laugh as well as cry. A villain can be tender and compassionate.”