For a guy with so much riding on his looks, Aaron Eckhart isn't afraid to take a punch to the face.
While filming his new international spy thriller, "Erased," Eckhart told us that he took plenty of punches, to the face and elsewhere. Eckhart plays Ben Logan, a decommissioned CIA agent who finds himself on the run from his former employers. When his teenage daughter, played by Liana Liberato, gets embroiled in the high-stakes game of cat and mouse, Logan takes matters personally.
We spoke with Eckhart recently over the phone about the film, how he's basically been in training since "Erin Brockovich" (2000), and why taking punches is far easier than relating to a teenage girl.
"Erased" opens Friday, May 17, in limited release.
Adam Pockross: I spoke to you a few weeks ago for "Olympus Has Fallen." Congratulations on the success of that.
Aaron Eckhart: Yeah, I think to everybody's surprise. It just did really well. And internationally, as well.
AP: Were you surprised?
AE: No, but I think it exceeded expectations for sure. Well, it exceeded expectations in a lot of ways, not only box-office, but people — the absolute enjoyment they get from watching this movie. I mean, I haven't seen it in a long time, I have to say. People are viscerally excited about the film and continue to be all over the world. We went to Moscow, London, Rome, and South Africa promoting the movie and in all of those places, they are just overjoyed.
AP: Are you an action star now?
AE: I don't know. I'm an actor. I'm an actor and I'm a part-time cyclist and photographer. I don't know. I love action. I grew up on it. I'm 45 years old, so I grew up on Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Redford, Rambo, and Harrison Ford and I've always enjoyed action. I've always enjoyed creating tension with sort of fundamental elements like the running and the car chases, the fistfighting, and that sort of thing.
That's what excited me about this movie, was that there's no green screen in this movie. There are no explosions really, and everything is practical. I did all of the fighting myself, and then you have the father-daughter love story going on, or hate story in the beginning, and then turns into a love story. Those elements really attracted me to the movie.
AP: Between "Olympus Has Fallen," with the boxing scene, and then in this film with the hand-to-hand combat, what kind of training did you do?
AE: Well, ever since "Erin Brockovich," I decided if I have to do fighting in a movie and be in shape for films that I was going to learn a skill for each film. So I started boxing. And I've continued to box for 13 years. For this movie, I did three months of really hard-core jiu-jitsu and MMA every single day. And then on my next film, "I, Frankenstein," I did six months of the Filipino art of Kali stick fighting.
AP: So, you didn't bring that stick-fighting training to this one. That training was separate from "Erased"?
AE: Yeah, I did jiu-jitsu. I had a great guy named Olivier who was a French special forces, MMA, jiu-jitsu expert — just the greatest guy in the world. And he and I every day would go out in Malibu in the parks and beat the crap out of each other: Get each other in strangleholds, and break each other's legs and knees and all that sort of stuff. He just taught me everything, all of the pertinent moves and that sort of stuff.
I have to say that you feel quite empowered by that sort of thing, although these guys could just absolutely wipe the floor with you at any moment. It's like a kid playing with a lion, but you do get your eyes opened to this world out there that if you actually know how to fight, it's a very empowering sensation.
AP: Yeah, I did a little taekwondo back in the day and it just totally changes the way you look at the world. You walk into a room and you size people up.
AE: Yeah, it's important to know how to throw a punch, know how to take a punch, how to move away or into somebody, how to use their weight against them. Most people would punch in the face. These guys taught me things. A lot of times in the Asian martial arts, you're not worried about the face. When somebody throws a punch at you, you punch the fist, you punch the forearm, and all of these pressure spots before you even get to the face.
By the time you get to the face, you've worn out his hands, worn out his forearms, worn out his biceps, worn out his shoulder, and then when you get to the face, you can do whatever you want with it. When you get that into your head, it's insane. Forget about the legs, and the kidneys, or everything else.
AP: You've got a million-dollar face; I hope you're covering that thing up.
AE: Man, my face gets hit all the time. In "Erased," I got punched in the face. I bent my thumb all the way back to my arm and ripped all of the ligaments two days before we started filming. So, all of those fight scenes, I basically couldn't use my left hand. It's dangerous business. In "I, Frankenstein," I was hit with sticks, knocked out. It's crazy, especially if you want to do it yourself, which I think is the best way to do it.
AE: Well, because you don't want to work so hard preparing for a character, and then fighting is a big part of these characters, telling you who they are. You don't want to give it over to somebody else who doesn't have all that work inside of them. They don't know how to walk. They don't know how to throw a punch. But it's not just about the punch. It's about how you feel about that punch and what you do after the punch, and all that sort of stuff. You'd rather do it yourself.
AP: So, was it harder taking punches or learning how to relate to a teenage girl?
AE: Teenage girl, especially when she's talking about her boyfriends, music, and all that sort of stuff. And I don't have any kids, so I'm so out of touch. But that's also the interesting part, too. And on the last day of filming, when she jumps up into your arms and says, "You're crazy, but I love you." It's nice. You feel like you did your job and that you two were a unit, a working unit, which the film needs.
AP: So, were there any cross-generational things that you were like, "Wow! I had no idea the kids were into that!"?
AE: You'll find out pretty quick it's just the same crap you were talking about. It's mostly about boys. I like to talk about what she thinks that he's thinking, and what she wants from him, and all that sort of stuff. That's very interesting to me because when you're that age, you just don't come out and tell someone, "I like you." You don't say those things. Everything is hidden and it's disguised, and so I always like to find out what she's thinking, or whomever I'm working with — if it's Abigail Breslin or if it's my son in "Thank You for Smoking," or whoever. It's fun to get into their heads.
AP: What aspects of perfect thrillers does "Erased" offer?
AE: Well, the thing that fascinates me most about it is the clandestine parts of it. It's the handoff, it's the dead drops, it's meeting at 3 o'clock in the morning, it's putting somebody in the trunk and driving them across borders, and that sort of thing. That's what fascinates me. It's the doublespeak, it's the lying, it's the double lives, it's the danger. And I like the fact that Ben Logan has a double life, that he speaks a language that basically nobody else in this world speaks, that his life was fraught with danger, high danger, death, survival, that he's a risk taker, and he's extremely smart and successful at it. And also he has integrity.
AP: What are some of your favorite thrillers?
AE: "Three Days of the Condor," "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold," I love anything that has to do with Russian-American sort of CIA, KGB stuff. Even James Bond fits in the genre in a way. He is a spy, a master spy. I love reading all spy novels. I'm a junkie for that. I think I've read every one. Yeah, I just love that stuff.
AP: Do you have a favorite author in the genre?
AE: I love Clancy, Nelson DeMille, Vince Flynn ... I love John le Carré. There's not many people I don't ... Brian Haig. I have them all. Stuart Woods. I'm actually producing and starring in a movie that we bought from a book of Stuart Woods's. We're making a movie about it right now.
AP: Are you directing that as well?
AE: No, I don't think so, not at this time.
AP: Last time we spoke, you said you are looking to go in that direction.
AE: Well, this is a part of it. Mostly, it's about control. I don't think I would direct a movie that's going to be this big, not as my first movie. But I definitely want to get into a smaller human drama, for sure. I'm definitely going in that direction.
AP: So, away from the action?
AE: Well, I think there's action in everything, and intrigue in all of that. It doesn't matter to me. I don't even really know what a genre movie is, because I see it all as the same kind of stuff, which is: people just interacting with each other under extraordinary circumstances. Look, if somebody dies in a drama and somebody dies in the action movie, it's all the same to me as an actor.
Even with aliens in "Battle Los Angeles," I looked at that as a war movie. I never really considered aliens at all in the movie. It didn't make any difference to me. It's still a life-or-death situation and how you get yourself back to normal.
I look at acting as, "What do I have to do to make it real?" and then that's what I go for.
See Aaron Eckhart in the "Erased" theatrical trailer...
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