Thursday 26 April 2018

Film: Aaron Eckhart - Rolling with the punches for his art

Transformation: Eckhart is all but recognisable as Kevin Rooney, the trainer of Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), in his new movie Bleed For This
Transformation: Eckhart is all but recognisable as Kevin Rooney, the trainer of Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), in his new movie Bleed For This
Robert De Niro in Raging Bull

Paul Whitington

Aaron Eckhart is best known for playing characters who look wholesome and all-American but have hidden agendas, or sinister personality traits. In everything from The Dark Knight and Erin Brockovich to Rabbit Hole and Thank You for Smoking, he's established himself as an assured and unfussy character actor whose smooth looks are often deceptive. But in his latest film, Eckhart is all but recognisable, so much so that if I hadn't seen his name on the credits I wouldn't have known it was him.

Bleed for This, which opens here next week, is a gritty and unpretentious boxing picture based on the true story of Vinny Pazienza, a bombastic 1990s junior middleweight champion who refused to give up his dream of fighting again after he broke his neck in a car accident.

Miles Teller plays Vinny Paz, who's told by doctors he'll never walk again never mind box, but begins tentatively training with the help of a new coach, Kevin Rooney.

That would be Mr Eckhart, heavy-faced, balding, anxious-looking and carrying an extra 40 pounds. His transformation to play the legendary Staten Island trainer, who also coached Mike Tyson, is remarkable: he seems entirely subsumed by the character, a tortured man with demons of his own. He and Teller share some powerful scenes, and Eckhart also locks horns with Ciarán Hinds, who plays the boxer's over-protective Italian-American father.

"It's the third time I've gained weight for a movie," he tells me when we meet, "and it might just be the last time! It's hard - my skin can't take it. It took me three months to do it. I'm a very active person, I keep fit, so imagine what the mind does and the body does when you just stop dead, and go from eating goat cheese salads to eating cheese pizzas and banana splits and not exercising at all, and the weight starts to pile on.

"But then in a way I think it was a good contrast from what Vinnie is: Miles had to lose weight, get in great shape, learn boxing and choreography. I went the other way."

And the physical transformation definitely helped him fully inhabit the character he was about to play. "You know, this is how Kevin Rooney looks," Eckhart explains, "so I felt I had to make every effort that I could to get there, and it also put me right into his state of mind. The first time we meet Kevin Rooney in this move he's just been fired by Mike Tyson, at the height of his training career.

"Rooney feels betrayed, he feels neglected, he's at the bottom, he's drinking too much and gambling. This the state we find him in, so it really helped me as an actor to gain the weight and to put myself in that state of mind."

Is he a method actor? "If method means I try to stay as close to the character as I can at all times, I would say yes. Like it's so hard to get into character, I always say to people why would I want to get out of character between takes, or when I go home at night? And it's beneficial for the other actors around you, it's better for them if they look around and they see your character, rather than you. It just makes for a better movie experience."

Aaron's preparations for Bleed for This were exhaustive, to say the least. "I love boxing personally, I train with boxing, you know, so I love to be connected with it. To prepare for this movie I spent time with Manny Pacquiao [an eight-time world champion] and Freddie Roach, the great trainer, so I would go to Freddie's gym each day in Los Angeles, I was a fly on the wall, I saw how Freddie talked to Manny, how he grabbed his hands and how he trained him, and then I went to Vegas and saw an actual fight.

"Unfortunately, Kevin Rooney is actually in the hospital with dementia, so I wasn't able to spend time with him, which would obviously have been invaluable."

Instead, he found out as much about Rooney and his life as he could. "I looked at every recording of him I could find," he tells me, "and I completely memorised all his interviews, so any time I had to improvise, it was verbatim words that Kevin had said at one point or another in his life, which was very helpful for me. I think it also made the character more authentic for those who know Kevin."

It is hard, Eckhart agrees, to avoid the clichés when you're making a boxing picture. "Yeah, whatever you do, you can't really get away from the fact that you've got a fighter, and a trainer, there's a ring, and there'll be blood. I think what differentiates this movie is that this colourful personality, Vinnie Paz, is not a humble fighter waiting for a shot, he's more like give me the shot or I'll beat the f**k out of you. So he's a colourful personality, he's like Ali, he doesn't apologise in any way for who he was."

Bleed for This may yet feature in the awards season, and Clint Eastwood's Sully almost certainly will. Eckhart is very good in it, playing one of Hudson hero Sully Sullenberger's co-pilots. When I spoke to Aaron, he'd just attended a secret screening of it at the London Film Festival. "Man, they loved it," he tells me. It's also out here next week.

Born in Cupertino, California in 1968, Eckhart actually spent part of his childhood in London before returning to the US to study. Though he took to acting young, success was not instant, and bartending and bus driving helped pay the bills through the late 80s and early 90s. His stage collaborations with Neil LaBute eventually got him noticed in Hollywood, where solid character turns in films like Any Given Sunday and Erin Brockovich marked him out as a talent to watch.

Given his easy charm, and reassuring handsomeness, he might have ploughed a comfortable furrow as a romantic leading man, but instead he seemed to search for ways to subvert perceptions based on his appearance.

"I've never been secure with the sort of leading-man, all-American character," he says, "my instinct has always been to play against your looks. As a young actor, I always played against looks because I was more interested in the craft of acting, I'm not a model, you know, and so I think that if you're going for longevity, you've got to focus on acting. All my heroes are real actors, they might be good-looking actors, like Paul Newman or Brando or whoever, but they've always based themselves in technique."

Eckhart first showed just how good he could be in Jason Reitman's 2006 satire Thank You for Smoking, in which he played Nick Taylor, a positively Mephistophelean tobacco lobbyist who smilingly contests the scientific link between smoking and lung cancer. "That was a character I loved to play, a character who is moving forward and never looking back to the carnage behind him, and is willing to say terrible things and not be apologetic about them. There's a certain exhilaration in playing those guys."

His performance in Brian De Palma's noir thriller The Black Dahlia was widely praised, and he showed real courage playing a sexual predator in Alan Ball's Towelhead (2007).

He more than held his own opposite Christian Bale and Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan's 2008 blockbuster The Dark Knight, playing Gotham's suspiciously wholesome-looking district attorney, Harvey Dent. The success of that film led to lots of action movie offers, but Eckhart doesn't seem to work like that.

"I try never to repeat myself," he says, "though sometimes I think that things would be easier if I did. I always say that if you do the same character three times in a row and make an impression on people, you'll work forever, and people will know who you are and you'll have a brand.

"Everybody's concerned about branding these days, but I never did that, I always went from one thing to the next. I don't have any plan, whatever comes up I will basically decide on the spot whether I'm going to take the movie or not. Things are more interesting that way."

So Eckhart moves from project to project, choosing scripts on instinct. "That's about it," he shrugs. "If I can see myself, if there's an image in my head, if my body starts moving as the character while I'm reading the script, that usually means that I have to investigate.

"My next question to my agent usually is do I have the option for this, I have to get this. So once the blood starts flowing and you see yourself doing the actions of the character, it gets easy after that."

The greatest boxing movie

Robert De Niro in Raging Bull

You could make a case for Somebody Up There Likes Me, or The Fighter, When We Were Kings, Requiem for a Heavyweight or even Rocky, but the best boxing picture of them all has to be Raging Bull. It was Robert De Niro who persuaded Martin Scorsese to shoot the biopic after reading a book on the life of 1940s middleweight, Jake LaMotta. Scorsese hated sports in general and boxing in particular, and wanted nothing to do with it, but after nearly dying from a drug overdose, the director took on the project as a way of rehabilitating himself.

A tough Italian kid from the Bronx, LaMotta became one of the world's most celebrated middleweights in the 1940s. But he was also a self-destructive and jealous man who managed to destroy his career and life. Scorsese's decision to shoot in black and white and set slow-motion fight scenes to the music of Giuseppe Verdi proved inspired. De Niro (above) was truly remarkable as LaMotta, and underwent perhaps the ultimate method acting challenge in preparation, learning boxing and even taking part in a couple of actual fights before gaining 70lbs to play the older, sadder fighter. The result of all this remains breathtaking.

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