Opening this weekend is director Antoine Fuqua’s White House actioner Olympus Has Fallen. The film stars Gerard Butler as a disgraced Secret Service agent called back to duty when terrorists take over the White House and capture the President (Aaron Eckhart). The film also stars Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Ashley Judd, Melissa Leo, Robert Forster, Dylan McDermott, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, and Rick Yune. If you’ve been waiting for Butler to return to action, you’re going to be very happy watching Olympus Has Fallen. Not only is the film a hard R for graphic violence, it features Butler kicking ass in some great action set pieces. Watch some clips here.
A few days ago I landed an exclusive interview with Eckhart here in Los Angeles. During our wide-ranging conversation, we talked about making Olympus Has Fallen, the great supporting cast, the violence, how he got into acting, Twitter, how he prepares for a role, the way great directors craft a performance, I, Frankenstein and whether he will join the cast of Divergent. Hit the jump to either read or listen to the interview.
As usual, I’m offering two ways to get this interview: you can either click here for the audio, or the full transcript is below.
AARON ECKHART: I just don’t go to any sites. So that’s my problem.
I gotta tell you, this whole internet thing… it is just a fad. It is going away. I don’t think you need to get started on it.
ECKHART: Not right now anyway.
Not even a little. So, this means you’re not even on Twitter. Or are you on Twitter?
ECKHART: What does it mean? No, I’m not. I’ve tweeted one..I think I said “Hello, World.” And then I never did anything else. That was years ago I’m sure.
That’s really funny. Is that true?
What a lot of actors that I’ve spoken with tried out is the balance between promoting what they’re doing, promoting certain causes they’re interested in terms of having it reach a larger audience, because of their status as an actor and trying to use it for social awareness or whatever it might be… so it’s not just them saying “Oh, I’m going to the Four Seasons today!”
ECKHART: Jack Nicholson said it best: “Never let ‘em know who you are.” And that’s the problem we’re up against. Movies are supposed to be fantasy and magic. So when you have all the DVD extras and behind-the-scenes, and everybody is concerned about box office… well, I’m not saying anything new, but you’re supposed to believe that we’re all characters in this drama and it’s very difficult with Twitter. Now, I understand the need for it. I can certainly see the social aspects of it. I think for the movies it is sometimes nice to not know everything about what everybody thinks.
I actually agree with you one hundred percent. Now I love covering movies. I love movies. It’s like deep in my soul how much I love movies. I’m so lucky that I get to visit movie sets and talk to everybody, but I’ve lost the illusion of “how did they do that?” Well I know. With behind the scenes on say Inception, you see exactly how they do it. I would love to not know, like “How did they do that?” I would love where it’s just talked about, but where it’s not shown.
ECKHART: Those days are past. Everybody is so involved with [the behind scenes of it] that they might just go see the movie for [that aspect of it.] Or buy the DVD. I guess it all comes down to money anyway.
Well let’s be honest though. The movie business is a business. That’s it. I get to do this, you get to do this because there’s money on the line. All of us are so lucky in what we get to do. Now, when did you first know you wanted to be an actor?
ECKHART: I was fourteen. I was living in London. I was going to rugby practice and I saw a notice for auditions for Charlie Brown – The Doctor is In. For some reason I went to that instead of rugby practice. Because our school was so small I got Charlie Brown. I had seven solos… when he flies the kite and talks to Linus and Lucy and all that sort of stuff…now I can’t sing, so that was traumatic for everybody.
Is there a video of this?
ECKHART: No, that was before…that was in the 80s.
There still could be video.
ECKHART: Ah…no. No, I don’t think so. So that was fun. That was when I think I was 13 or 14. And that’s when I knew I was gonna be an actor. Then I did plays at my high school and fell in love, got my girlfriend, who was in my next play…I never intended to do anything else.
I’m always curious about the preparation process for actors. What do you typically do when you’re getting ready for a role? How early on are you looking at the script and breaking it down, figuring it out. Some actors I know do it immediately and some are doing it at the last second so it’s as fresh as possible. Do you mind talking about this?
ECKHART: No, I don’t mind talking about it. You need as much time as you possibly can with that script. You can’t have enough time. I guess there are two schools of thought.
I’ve spoken to both sides of this. Always curious as to what side you’re on.
ECKHART: I think you need to put [that script] into a syringe and inject it into your veins. I think you need to bathe in it, you need to cook it, you need to drink it, you need to eat it. You need to put it in your way while you’re walking so you step over it. Look at a page, paste it up places, make pictures, draw it, you know? Do everything you possibly can to infuse it into your body. Now, that being said, the way movies work, sometimes you don’t have that time.
I was going to say, when you get a role very close to filming…
ECKHART: Yeah, not only when you have the role. For example, sometimes you’re given the words the morning of. The speech that I gave at the end [of Olympus Has Fallen], I read those words for the first time that morning. So, you know, you do your best. The thing that helps is that when you do infuse it and get it into your bones is that you’re now not worried about words, you’re talking about character and behavior. Words are just an extension of images from the character’s mind. So words aren’t as important as they were. If you’re just doing something where you’re spewing words all the time then it becomes an act of memorization. But when you’re getting to know your character, and becoming one with your character, or whatever, then words just come out of you and they’re the words you’re supposed to use. Often I’ll go through a script and I’ll answer what the character before me says and then I’ll answer the character…I’ll do every part. So I’ll just, off my head, read the line and then I’ll say the answer but in my head and it’s usually the answer that’s in the script. You see what I’m saying? I didn’t explain that very well. You gotta get it inside of you. The second way is…
Well, there’s the difference why maybe perhaps I’m a bigger fan of your work than some others, I’ll throw that out there hypothetically. Speaking about number of takes though, some actors prefer the Clint Eastwood method of two takes and some love the David Fincher method of fifty.
ECKHART: It depends. I’m not against either. It’s about “When did you get it? Why is Fincher doing it? Why is your director asking you [for] more? Are you getting better? Are you finding new things?” If it’s sadistic or masochistic then I am not so into it. However, if I get it in two then I get it in two. I can get it in one. I can move on, too. But you gotta then ask yourself, “where do you see the best performances?” They’re usually in Fincher’s movies. I mean Fincher’s movies are seamless. Actors you see in Fincher’s movies, you see people do work that they haven’t done before. There’s a reason for that.
ECKHART: Yeah, and he does fifty takes. Michael Mann does the same thing. This is how you get great performances. Scorsese does it. I mean you give me fifty takes and you’re gonna get a good performance! [laughs]
When I spoke to Fincher I asked him very specifically about these kinds of things and he was explaining to me that sometimes the first six to eight takes are just like, “I’m figuring things out.” I think a lot of it for the first twenty, he’s talking about doing technical stuff, making sure that’s all perfect. The actors are just getting there. Then what he’s doing is taking, say part of your take 3, part of your take 42, and then part of take 24, and crafting your performance from all of it.
ECKHART: Well, god bless him. The man knows how to make a movie. He’s a genius of a moviemaker and I’d love to work with him. I know him. Look, the only thing that is important in a movie is the director.
Perhaps the script can sometimes be important.
ECKHART: But not as. [We need] a benevolent dictator who is a visionary. I can’t over-sell that. It’s so important. I mean look at Antoine. Antoine is taking a movie with action, and all the circumstances surrounding the film, and people are clapping. There’s a reason for that. It’s not just because it fell out of the sky. Antoine crafted this movie. Didn’t have all the money in the world, didn’t have all the time in the world, had limitations and he came up with something that was very pleasing and people are willing to want to see. If an actor has to look at a director that is spineless and gutless and has no idea what he is doing, he’s not going to be inspired to give that one great performance. If you have a director who can take an actor who does it, but is not so great…he’s middle of the pack… then he can bring him up, he can challenge him.
Speaking of Antoine for a second, he really knows how to make a movie. As you were saying, he knows how to make something that the crowd is into. He has his pulse there. Something that struck me about this movie is that it is really hard R. This is not some PG-13 thing. When you first got involved in it did you know that it was going to be so brutal and so punch you in the face?
ECKHART: No, it wasn’t in the script. Look, if you take a quarter page or half a page of script and it says “the action”… you just don’t have an idea. That is all Antoine. It’s Antoine while we’re making it and pushing us, pushing the action. Often, Antoine doesn’t know what’s going to happen, most times he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. An actor will say “I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna do this!” And that escalates as that guy gets into and adds his own thing. Really, he’s a good chef. If you get good ingredients then you can make something special. Now, my one head butt was my idea! Dylan [McDermott] went off on me and I said to Antoine, “I’m gonna hit him. I’m gonna head butt him.” He said, “Do it.” [Laughs]
There’s a great cast assembled here, right down to supporting with the likes of Melissa Leo. When did you realize that you really got something together here? Was there one person that got involved besides you that…
ECKHART: Well I was in the PEOC most of the time, the underground bunker. Melissa was impressive. Her commitment. Her ideas. Now listen, you’re talking about Fincher and actors just getting warmed up after six takes. Good actors work between takes.
ECKHART: No, not sure. Don’t be so blasé about that one.
Good actors. I’m saying sure to good actors.
ECKHART: Yeah, good actors work between takes. I say that because Melissa works between takes, she’s figuring it out, she’s committing. She’s wondering what she can do next. How can she add? What other spice can she put in there? She’s always communicating. She’s not working for herself. She’s working for the movie and she’s working for the other actors. That’s rare. That’s when you know that they’re a great actor. After that, I thought … Melissa and I have the same agent and after this shoot I said, “I would do a two-hander with her.” You know what I mean? I would do a two-handed love story with her.
ECKHART: She used to come to my trailer and we would sit outside and talk about acting and her philosophy and her experiences. When you respect an actor you want to talk acting with them. I want to get everything out of Melissa that I can. I want to get her experiences into me, or Morgan [Freeman] or whoever it is. I feel blessed to have worked with her.
Now, I heard through the grapevine that you’re going to CinemaCon to finally show some I, Frankenstein footage.
ECKHART: Yeah! Now when is that? April right?
It’s the middle of April. Now have you seen footage from the movie or is this gonna be where you finally see stuff?
ECKHART: Well I’ve looped [dialogue] for it, but what I saw was devoid of CGI. I think segments were even missing, so I’m gonna be totally surprised by it. It’s gonna be interesting.
Well I heard Lionsgate is pushing your movie and The Hunger Games sequel. Those are the two that they’re really going to be showing.
ECKHART: At CinemaCon?
Yeah. This is for all the theater owners around the world. This is the real one. It’s like Comic-Con for the important people.
ECKHART: Oh is that right? And where does this take place?
ECKHART: Oh, in Vegas. This is where Will Smith goes.
Yes, this is where everyone goes to schmooze with the people who are going to play your movie.
ECKHART: Voila. I’m excited about that.
ECKHART: God bless ‘em, man. This movie is out there.
I’m amped up for it.
ECKHART: Oh yeah, you take a modern tale of the monster of Frankenstein, put Kali sticks in his hands, and then you put gargoyles and demons and good and evil in it … and we’re talking about a kick-ass movie. We worked really hard on it. It’s got a lot of action. I did all the fighting myself, 100%, pretty much except for one fall, so I’m really proud of that.
I saw some of the set photos when you were filming in… I want to say Budapest?
ECKHART: No, in Melbourne, Australia. [Director] Stuart Beattie is Australian. I think I’m the only American in the movie.
So you signed on for [Neil Burger’s dystopian film] Divergent? Or am I wrong about this?
ECKHART: I cannot say. [Laughs]
Are you then just one of the people in talks?
ECKHART: I cannot say.