Veteran actor Aaron Eckhart stars in alien war movie Battle: Los Angeles alongside Michelle Rodriguez and Bridget Moynahan. He talks about feeling old at only 43, what attracts him to war movies, and his impression of Johnny Depp when they arrived on set for The Rum Diary, which is released later this year.
Emmanuel Itier: What excited you about this movie?
Aaron Eckhart: Jonathan (Liebesman--director). Jonathan hadn’t gotten the job yet, and I got the script and thought, "Jeez, an alien movie. I’m not sure." And my agent said, "Get in the room with this kid." And I got there, and his presentation—he did all the aliens himself on his own software with no money and all this, and that was very impressive. And I said, "You know what? I just want to make a war movie. I don’t care who the foe is—if it's aliens or whatever--I want to make a war movie." And he pulled up YouTube and showed me a bunch of Marines going house to house, and he said, "This is what the movie is going to look like." And I said, "I’ll do it." And that was at least a year before we shot it. And we filmed it that way. With all due respect to our brave Marines and our soldiers, I felt like we cinematically went to war. And I think it shows up on the screen. We did boot camp, we lived in rank and ate in rank and showered in rank, and all that sort of stuff, which created an immense bonding process with the young guys. They all got to know what kind of girls they liked and what they drank and all that sort of stuff, which I think helped in the film immensely.
EI: This is your first basic war movie...
AE: God yes. Not my last, I hope. I loved it. I ‘ve not made a career of being physical in my movies, but I love sports. I’m a very physical guy, and I just loved running around and pretending that things were firing on me. There’s no doubt about it—I want to do a war movie, I want to do a western, and I’d like to do an alien movie. I guess I hit two birds with one stone. But that whole thing of make-believe... Look, in reality, there are a lot of ugly things happening in the world. This is an alien film we can all get behind. Yes, there are some deaths. We can understand them. But it’s an entertaining movie. And I did like that actually too. This movie is not politically insensitive. It’s not any sort of nationalistic or anything like that. It’s just a good fun war movie, I think, that anybody can get behind...which I liked.
EI: What were you looking at on set? What are you seeing when it's not there? And did they show you pictures of what you were supposed to be seeing?
AE: No, we had Jonathan with a bullhorn about two feet from us. [Laughs] "They’re coming now, they’re loud." We did have some guys in funny suits running around, but it’s interesting... They wore white suits with black dots on them. I don’t know what they call them, but...I’ll tell you what. This is not a green screen movie. This was a movie where we shut down freeways and crashed helicopters, tanks overturned, cars, bombs going off... We used real bullets without the rounds in them, so you’re really shooting. We really learned our weapons, and they were loud. You put all that into the mix and you don’t need any aliens. You feel like you’re at war. For example, let’s say you’re shooting on the freeway and it’s smoky and everything, you can’t see in front of you anyway, so if you were just behind a car whatever, you would think that you were at war. And since we all basically come from Los Angeles and this area—all the landmarks: Venice landmarks, the coffee shop, the laundromat and all that sort of stuff is very believable. So we felt like it was real without having the actual enemy.
EI: Any injuries?
AE: I broke my arm in this movie. I tried to get fancy on a stud—it’s at the end part on that rock where things have to come out like this, and I had to run and jump off it. I said to the cameraman, because there was a beautiful explosion back here--this great ball of fire--and I said, "Hey, what happens if I do this?" And he said, "Try it..." and I had the full pack on, everything. We were miserable, and I just slipped, and I fell about seven feet, flew right on my arm and my head, just barely missing some rocks, broke my arm, kept on going, finished the scene. I went to the doctor, but they didn’t put a cast on it and we finished the movie. It was about two or three weeks to go still. I put on the real gear. So those guys have 40 pounds...I mean, in terms of the weight, it was pretty good, but it was significant in that weather. It was basically summer in Louisiana that we shot the movie, so we were, by 9:00 in the morning, sweat through and exhausted, and I don’t think there was any makeup in the movie. People were getting their teeth knocked out because, when you have your weapons and you’re swinging around like that... That was fun.
EI: The emotional scene was really well done...
AE: That was important to me because whenever you do an alien movie...because, god bless us, it is a popcorn movie, it’s an entertainment movie--you have to find the heart in these movies, and also to really anchor the film. So that was really important to me. The boy was important to me. Losing his father... I mean, it’s tricky because you’re asking a boy in the audience to get to know the father and the boy together, to lose the father, and then to say to the boy, "You have to go on." His dad just died. It’s very tricky because you have to be reverent to the father. And you have to be cognizant that the son is going through psychological hell, and then just to say, "Jump on my back and let me be your dad and let’s go..." It’s a tough thing to do. We struggled with that a bit. I felt we found a good relationship between Nantz and the boy. It was very important to me to not only to physically get the stuff right with the Marines, but also to feel like I had a history in the Marines, and the time where I say this guy’s name and that guy’s name in that scene, that was an important scene for me. So I felt like those movies honored the troops. They honored their job, but then we got down to the business and got to the fun stuff.
EI: What are your views on aliens?
AE: I think we’ll all kill each other before someone outside gets to do that. [Laughs] I think we need to be looking a little closer to home. It’s interesting. I can say I’ve had one of those experiences myself. I was out in the desert in New Mexico and I saw something weird. That’s all I know. I won’t go into detail, but something was moving fast. I don’t rule it out. Why would I rule it out? What I feel that is interesting about the human psyche is that we always, right off the bat, consider it to be malicious and threatening to us, as opposed to being something benevolent and useful. I think that’s human nature. We always feel threatened by things we don’t know. But there are definitely some weird things going on...
EI: Tell us about your character...
AE: Staff Sergeant Nantz is stuck in his career. He’s got to go on and live the rest of his life. This is all he’s known. If we just isolate those and talk about the movie business... I certainly feel that now I’m an older guy in this business--I’m not older older, but I’m up there. I can say that I’m a veteran. I’ve been doing it for 15 years, I’ve made 30 movies, and now where do I go? Am I stuck? How do I reinvent myself? What am I going to do now? What if I retire? What if I do something else in my life? So I feel those are very real questions that I ask myself as well. And for Staff Sergeant Nantz, sometimes things take care of himself, and sometimes (he) stops asking the question and just rolls with it.
EI: One of the lighter moments is when Nantz is feeling old with all the young soldiers beneath him...
AE: I liked it. I looked at these guys, and they don’t have any wrinkles. It’s funny because I feel I’m their age. I feel like I’m as strong as they are, (but) I look at them and they’re different than I am. I look at my face and it’s falling off, and I never thought I’d get to this stage. So I always called myself an old man with them. And of course I’d always be beating them while I was doing it. I liked that because a lot of those guys, I could be their dad. And also what’s interesting about that relationship--I always asked them, "When you look at me, what are your thoughts? Do you think I’m old, man? You ever think you’ll get to my age?" It’s interesting to hear their answers.
EI: You're too young to be talking like this. You're not that old...
AE: I’ll be 43 next month. The reason I say that is because I am at a different point, and I do look at these kids, and they’re 19 years old, and I feel like I want to know what’s going on. Because I think about what I was I like when I was 19. I wasn’t smart enough to be in the movies at 19 like these kids are. So I guess, psychologically, it’s interesting for me.
EI: One of my favorite scenes is the one you and Cory (Hardrict) did when he talked about his brother...
AE: That was a big scene. Our relationship was very important to be in the movie because you established that there was the brother and all this stuff, and really our two characters, at the end, come around together. That was a difficult scene, I felt, because, making this movie, it gets intense, and I don’t think the other scene made it in, but actually there was a time when I take Cory...we get in a real fight in the movie and, again this is the real business of death--Cory’s brother died. And he blames Sergeant Nantz. So that runs deep, and now I have to bring him into war, where he’s questioning my judgment, and I can’t afford that. So there are some issues there. It was a hard scene to film, and it was a very emotional scene. I think Cory’s great. He’s beautiful in the movie. Cory’s got a lot of emotion, and he really is a hard worker and wants to get it right, so he helped me out, and I thought it was a beautiful scene. I thought it was a very heartfelt scene. I think it really brought all the Marines closer together.
EI: What was your passion getting into acting in the first place, and how has that changed?
AE: I’m as hungry today as I’ve ever been. I feel like those 19-year-old kids that are still looking to get a job and prove myself and all that. I got into acting in high school when I was 14, and I did Charlie Brown, The Doctor Is In. I played Charlie Brown, and I never looked back. In fact, I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t an actor. But I still have a lot of roles, I think, that I’d want to play. And I like this kind of role. I like being a leader kind of thing. I’m very proud of this movie too, because this is a family movie. There’s no sex in it, there’s no swearing, it’s not ultra-violent... We can understand the violence. I think there are themes in it that are important for kids to see, that people can learn something and feel good about the movie, and that was important to me. It was one of the reasons I did the movie, and any time we could augment that or...I tried to do that. I’m not responsible for the final cut, and I felt that—this is the time for heroes in the movie business. Any way you can do it, I think it’s good.
EI: You're with another old actor, Johnny Depp, in The Rum Diary...
AE: Johnny’s older than I am, but Johnny has a couple of kids. I still have all that to go. So that’s what I’m feeling.
EI: How was that experience?
AE: It was good. The thing right off the bat is that everybody on the crew had done at least six movies with Johnny. So imagine that. You’re going to Puerto Rico... I didn’t know it at first. So I got on the set the first day, and Johnny is hugging the crew—that’s friendly, you know—and talking about kids and knows all their names. Jeez, he’s really... I’m always looking looking at people and saying, "How does Johnny do it? How does Nicole act on the set? How does blah blah blah..." And then I learned that that he just brings his family around. He’s whole family is the crew. He’s given these guys at least six jobs. He takes them all to do Pirates together. They did this movie. They love Johnny. And I learned to love Johnny. He was very good to me. We had a good time, we laughed a lot. He’s got a quirky sensibility about him, chooses quirky material, very passionate about Hunter S. Thompson, and was just a great guy.
EI: You also have a passion for Hunter as well...
AE: Not like Johnny. I'd read some of Hunter’s stuff, but Johnny—I can’t tell you all the rituals Johnny did before filming to get into character. You’ll have to ask him about that, but he definitely had Hunter’s spirit there on the set with him.
Columbia Pictures' 'Battle: Los Angeles' is released on March 11, 2011.