I want to affect someone's life - Aaron Eckhart
Aaron Eckhart chats to Will Lawrence about playing Frankenstein, and how he's yet to find his career defining role
American actor Aaron Eckhart remembers walking through a casino with Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn. "People have a lot of things to look at in a casino, but it fell almost completely silent," he recalls. "Chins dropped to the floor. That's how Jack and Sean affect people. I was with them and could see it."
Nicholson and Penn are Hollywood heavyweights. Eckhart, whose most notable movies include Erin Brockovich, Thank You for Smoking and The Dark Knight, is more of a middleweight, maybe edging the cruiser-weight division. Did the casino moment lead him to savour his relative anonymity, one wonders? Is he glad not have that notoriety?
"No, I am not," he counters, "because Jack and Sean have done work that has affected people. I'm not after people's adoration, but if I can affect them so deeply through my work, then that is a good thing.
"That is why a person is an actor. I have worked with great people in my life, people like Gary Oldman, and they've really had an impact with their work."
Eckhart is not moaning, he is simply stating a fact. He feels that he has yet to deliver his seminal work. Take his well-loved performance in Erin Brockovich, for example. Audiences adore his character, George, the motorbike-loving, child-caring rocker that is Julia Roberts' rock.
"But no one recognises me from that movie," he says. "People liked George, he made an impression on people, but no one seems to remember that it was me playing the part. People just see George as George.
"No one really recognises me at all, because I don't play the movie star role in life away from junkets and promoting a movie," he continues. "I guess people know me a bit from The Dark Knight, because young people saw it.
"Thank You for Smoking I think is my most appreciated film. People really smile and light up," no pun is intended, "but I don't think I've made an impression on people.
"Some actors have really influenced people's lives," he continues. "Look at Pacino or De Niro, people have really grown up with them. I have never had that, and I still want those roles that will affect someone's life. That's what I aspire to. If you're looking at Raging Bull, or Taxi Driver, they affected me."
At 45 years of age, Eckhart still has time to summon that killer performance. Take Matthew McConaughey, for example, who has gone from Hollywood joke to Oscar favourite, the last few years of his career littered with brilliant performances in brilliant films. Eckhart could yet do the same.
Eckhart is back in cinemas this week, albeit in a story that is more pulp than Pulitzer. The team behind the Underworld film franchise have launched another potential series, featuring gargoyles and demons and a famous monster. It is inspired by Mary Shelley's creation and is titled I, Frankenstein. Eckhart takes the title role.
"Most people think you just want to make an action movie and learn martial arts and stick-fighting, but I learned other things as well," he says of the film. "I looked at Mary Shelley and I looked at this movie and I saw a man rejected by his father, by society and living on the periphery and I have felt this way. I still do. And you look around the streets of London, New York or Paris and you'll see it.
"When I was becoming a teenager I was sitting in the back of my parents' Cadillac listening to Pink Floyd, while everyone else was out partying. I was out there by myself because I felt unwanted. If you'd asked me then if I felt like a monster then I'd have said, 'Yeah!'
"I felt uncomfortable in my skin; I couldn't ask a girl out." He smiles. "I got over it! You have things that help you get over it."
One move that helped Eckhart was his parents' decision to relocate from California to England when the youngest of their three sons was 13-years-old. He looks back on this time fondly, reminiscing about TV shows like The Young Ones and Grange Hill.
"I arrived in England when I was 13-years-old. There were no restrictions on age when you wanted to go to the pub it seemed. It was unbelievable." Having been raised a Mormon, he embraced his new found freedom with gusto.
"I look back with great memories of gigs at the Hammersmith Odeon, learning to drive, travelling through Europe. I got to know another culture and got to see America from afar. There was the Falklands crisis, Thatcher and Regan, seeing America through European eyes. And I loved the pub."
His penchant for the pub stayed with him and, he concedes, became a rather big influence in his life. Whether alcohol ruined his relationship with former fiancée, actress Emily Cline, he does not say. But it definitely had a negative effect on his life, leading him to quit drinking and smoking, trading hedonism for health.
"I was a big drinker but I don't have to worry about that anymore," he says. "Drinking can come between you and a good relationship. You can make bad choices when you are drinking. Everyone says, 'Why not just have one drink?' but I think plenty of people have proved that some people can't just have one. Just one is not as good as having none and having a clear conscience.
"It tears me up when I hear things on the news, like this young kid had been drunk-driving and drove his car through someone's front window and killed them. The gentleman was sleeping and it had me thinking that this guy had spent his entire life waiting to be killed by some drunk fucker.
"I was starting to do stupid things myself," he continues. "And when you're in this business, it's often not just drink that's the problem. But I've had my time and I am happier now. I am into cycling. I get up 5.30am, I'm fit and I don't have to worry about what I said the night before."
He notes, however, that he was able to enjoy drinking Guinness in Ireland before his abstinence kicked in. In 2008 he was given the James Joyce Award by The Literary and Historical Society at the University College Dublin.
"We had cookies and wine, in plastic cups, and then went to an amphitheatre and I was given this award. They flew me over from LA, it was good fun.
"Like I say, I have quit drinking, but I hadn't at the time so was able to enjoy the Guinness. It's much better drinking it in a pub in Dublin than out of a can in LA! I do love the time I have spent in Ireland."
Why was he granted the award, I wonder? Was it for a particular performance? "I have no idea," he laughs. "When someone gives me an award I always presume it's because someone else has dropped out of the ceremony! I'm the guy who will say 'Yes'. I've quit asking those questions."
Hopefully, he says, he won't have to ask those questions in the future; he will be turning in performances that people adore. Then, perhaps, when he walks through a glittering casino in the future, all eyes will turn to him.