Aaron Eckhart knows he's demanding. "Oh, yeah," he said in Toronto on Monday. "I'm challenging. I'm not demanding like, I need special-colour M&M's. I'm demanding in that I need to be allowed to try things when I'm making a movie, to have an atmosphere of creativity. I demand to be allowed to try to be good."
At this point, we're 10 minutes into a 15-minute conversation, and we've reached a tricky place. Eckhart has a career that's hard to categorize. He started strong in the late-1990s in two Neil LaBute films (In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors). He's worked for Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich), Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking) and Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight). But he hasn't found an easy or recognizable groove.
Now he's playing a monster in a film that's admittedly a departure for him, I, Frankenstein. Based on a graphic novel, it's an expensive update of the Mary Shelley classic, laden with special effects – and baggage. It was directed by Stuart Beattie, who wrote two of the Pirates of the Caribbean films and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. By the time it opened yesterday, I, Frankenstein had been bumped from two earlier release dates, and late January is not exactly an auspicious launch time.
Neither of us is admitting what we think of the finished film, and we're both aware of that, too. Eckhart is sitting on a sofa, dressed in black (jacket, shirt, jeans, lace-up shoes). He's 45, with a cleft chin and the requisite actor frame: large head, lean body. His manner is direct – not testy, but he knows there's an edge to what he's saying, and he's saying it anyway.
We'd started our chat innocently enough. I asked Eckhart how long he'd spent daily in the makeup chair to play Frankenstein's monster (who's called Adam), and how he'd passed the time. His answers: two to three hours, and quietly. He likes to think – to stare at his eyes in the mirror, to have conversations in his head, even crazy ones. He doesn't like to play music or read or gossip. And he doesn't like others to do that stuff around him.
"I want to get closer to my character, not father away," he says. "When I'm thinking, I'm working – planting seeds. I could be talking to myself in a little boy's voice, saying, 'Daddy, come get me.' Or be talking to my father about why he did this to me."
The point is, he wants to concentrate. His character may be doing extreme things – killing demons, burying the "father" who made him. But as an actor, "I take it totally seriously," he says. "Otherwise, what's the purpose of doing it?"
Here's where our conversation starts sliding onto thin ice. Eckhart recently worked with an assistant director who'd worked with Jared Leto on Dallas Buyers' Club, which earned Leto an Oscar nod and numerous awards. "This AD said, admiringly, 'Leto stayed in character the entire time,'" Eckhart says. "Why are people so impressed when actors stay in character? Why don't more actors do it? I'll tell you why: It's hard to do. There's so much pressure not to. Because you make the crew uncomfortable. You're deemed difficult. You're weird. You can't imagine the pressures to get you out of what you're hired to do. You have to fight all the time."
Eckhart doesn't understand why more directors don't foster his kind of intensity – why, for example, they don't alert the crew to stay out of an actor's way on a tough day. He always says to directors, "Audiences don't notice lighting or camera moves. Performance and character are what they're looking at."
In fact – and oh, the cracks are spreading beneath us now – Eckhart thinks most directors are afraid of actors. "They view us more as competition than as a partner," he says. "The first thing you hear about an actor is, 'He was nice.'" He furrows his broad brow in puzzlement. "Ooo-kay, but I don't understand that. Why would you want your actor to work his entire life to get these feelings, and then throw them away, just to be genial to people on a set? If I do that, I'm not going to have those feelings when I need them."
I am torn. Do I skate away from this line of conversation, because I like Eckhart's work and respect his honesty? Or do I let him keep going, though he may crash? I keep going.
Is Eckhart suggesting that his artistic demands have prevented some directors from hiring him? "For sure," he answers. "People want to have a good time. That's the bottom line. But in my defence, every actor who I admire has a difficult reputation. I'm not saying mean. I'm saying they're artistically disciplined. Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, Christian Bale, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Those are the guys I'm looking to. I always endeavour to be great. And I endeavour to work with people who want the same thing."
Some directors understand what Eckhart wants. "Neil LaBute, because we were friends and did theatre together," he says. "And Antoine Fuqua, on Olympus Has Fallen. He's not afraid of his actors. He relished the idea of always going further. But most guys, if you fight back, they shrink."
When I ask who, Eckhart finally stops himself. "No," he says laughing. "I'd never say. But I've got spirit, I've got passion. To me, that's a great thing." Eckhart isn't directly blaming timid directors for the rockiness of his career, but he's not shying away from implying it, and that's rare.
He's not finished, either. Eckhart also thinks many male characters are too timid. "I'm interested, now more than ever, in projects that explore what it means to be a man," he says. "My version of a man."
Which is? "I can't exactly articulate it, but it's around the notion of responsibility," he replies. "The responsibility a man has to his children, his partner, his place in his community. The steps he has to take, the sacrifices he has to make, in realizing that. I think men have become afraid to voice who they really are. We've become afraid to be men. It's certainly reflected in movies today. I want to make movies that address that, get back to an original toughness, that code of, 'This is who I am.' I think there's a lot to mine there."
Eckhart holds out hope that he can find like-minded filmmakers who'll go there with him. "I want to say what I want to say, and I don't want to be penalized for it," he says. "Sometimes I have to temper myself so much that I almost can't be around people. But I don't want to do that; I don't want to have to mould myself into somebody else's vision of me. I want to roar, man."