You could set your watch to Aaron Eckhart’s handsomely chiseled features — but do so at your own peril. As he’s proved time and again on screen, Eckhart excels at portraying deceptively charming men: be they manipulative executives (his breakout In the Company of Men), big-tobacco spin doctors (Thank You For Smoking), or literally, physically duplicitous district attorneys (The Dark Knight). Which isn’t to say he won’t play nice, reasonably normal guys, of course, as his excellent (and strangely Oscar-overlooked) performance in last year’s Rabbit Hole attests. This week, however, Eckhart’s up to his smooth-talking tricks in The Rum Diary, playing against Johnny Depp as the impeccably-dressed but otherwise rather rapacious Sanderson — an American businessman out to turn postcard-perfect Puerto Rico into a lucrative tourist resort. We spoke with Eckhart recently, where he talked about the film, his thoughts on writer Hunter S. Thompson, and the art of playing the likeable bad guy. But first, he ran through his five favorite films.
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
My five favorite films? I have no memory, that’s my problem. [Laughs] Well one of them would be Apocalypse Now. I mean, you could tell that the movie was made in madness, as madness, and that, to me… someday I want to make a movie like that. Total consumption.
And then I’m gonna say… What’s a modern movie that I’ve seen? How about… you know a great movie that I saw was… [extremely long pause] Oh, I got a movie — the one where he goes to the Turkish Prison. Midnight Express. There you go. That movie terrified me. [Laughs] Go to Turkey, but do your hash before.
Next, Eckhart on The Rum Diary, staying sober on set, and playing charming bad guys.
Did you have a good time on the film?
Aaron Eckhart: I did. I enjoyed working on a movie that Johnny’s in, and produced, and is so passionate about. And Hunter, you know — it was an opportunity to be a part of, I guess, Hunter’s legacy, in a way; Johnny’s sort of taking up that mantle. So it was a good time making the movie.
Bruce Robinson said you were his first and only choice for Sanderson.
Well I feel like it’s always an honor when people are thinking about you, especially when you don’t have any idea who they are, you know — in terms of, like, you don’t know that Bruce is thinking about you. Somebody who you’ve admired for years will say, “Oh I was thinking about you,” or “I’m gonna offer you a part,” and you say, “Well, I’d never think that you were thinking about me.” It’s always flattering, and it’s good to know. But I’d done these sorts of parts before, you know, where I play a sort of all-American businessman who’s unscrupulous — so I think Bruce felt like I could do it.
“Cruel beauty” was his description of you.
Cruel beauty, yeah. [Laughs]
It’s kind of a compliment.
Yeah. I think he’s talking about Sanderson. I think with Sanderson, you know, you’re developing paradise and you have a creative vision of how you’re gonna do that; you have to step on some toes and not everybody’s gonna like what you’re doing. I think that’s how the whole world’s been developed; some people love it and some people hate it. Plus, I mean the character’s written to define the protagonist, who’s Paul Kemp/Johnny, so my character was really set up to play the antithesis of Paul — in every way, from the way we dress, to our attitudes, and then have us come together and work together. So it’s sort of one of those characters where you’re set up to fail, but you’ve gotta play it with heart and soul.
Do you find it challenging to play that kind of character?
The challenge is that you have very little to work with, and you have to make him human and multidimensional — to make the audience conflicted and say, “Well, I like him, he’s charming, but I don’t like what he’s doing,” so they say, “Yeah, he’s the bad guy, but we like him anyway.” That’s probably the hardest thing about that. I think Giovanni [Ribisi] had the hardest part — he really had to put a lot of energy into that.
It was quite a performance. You’ve had experience in playing this kind of charming character — in Thank You For Smoking, for example; though he was far more likeable. Had Bruce and Johnny seen that?
Oh I’m sure, yeah. With Thank You, he was the protagonist, so he was given much more time. But in a role like this you don’t have that time; you have to get it across immediately. As soon as the audience sees you they have to be immediately able to form an opinion about you.
I think you did it pretty well.
Well, I did it. [Smiles]
Were you a fan of Hunter’s before doing the film?
Well, you know, I was familiar with Hunter. I certainly wasn’t an aficionado. I’d read some of his articles and his books early on when I went to college, [along with] Bukowski and all that, but I was refamiliarized through this movie — through reading the script and reading the book and then hearing stories from Johnny and listening to Bruce, and their research. So I am a fan of his. I’m intrigued by his lifestyle: how he managed to make it all work and be a professional at the same time.
It’s quite a feat, when you think about it.
Yeah. [Laughs] I mean, think about it yourself: trying to write, you know, and being completely bonko in this hotel room — and then trying to be coherent. Hunter had a pretty elite following, too — it’s not like he was writing for dummies. He was a very smart dude. I think everybody’s very intrigued by that lifestyle. And I think Johnny does it really well.
Johnny and Bruce spoke of Hunter being a “presence” on the set, having his chair and his bottle there every day. Did you feel he was around?
[Laughs] Oh yeah. I’m sure we made jokes about that. Bruce and Johnny had their morning ritual — I’m not sure if they told you about that?
Dabbing themselves with rum before the shoot?
Did you partake?
Your character’s meant to be relatively sober, I suppose.
Yeah. [Laughs] Plus those guys, you know, when you’re the director and you’re number one and you’re the producer, it’s like — it’s almost like they had their own little club, you know. And that’s the way it should be, because they’re creating something — it’s a birth; they’re bringing life to something. I mean, I was there, but I enjoyed watching it. I thought it was a lot of fun. You don’t see that every day. Was it a bottle of Jack Daniels they had?
Oh, Chivas Regal, yeah. Plus, I don’t drink.
Which is all good for your character, to a certain extent — you don’t want to be part of the clique.
No, you don’t want to be best friends with Johnny and his character, and all that sort of stuff. Although we had a really good time making the film. Like I said, you’re set up to go head-to-head. It’s an unlikely friendship that turns bad. You always find yourself, when you’re making movies — even if people say, “Well, I’m not a Method Actor” or whatever all that s— means — you always end up sort of playing your role in the movie. If you’re the bad guy, you’re the bad guy, you know what I mean? You naturally fall into those roles ’cause that’s what you’re hired to do. It sort of permeates your off time.
The Rum Diary is in theaters now.