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From a working partnership with celebrated indie auter Neil LaBute to helping Julia Roberts win an Oscar for Erin Brockovich, Aaron Eckhart's career has been quietly simmering away. Now the Californian's career is bubbling to the boil with The Core, his first big Hollywood blockbuster. He tells Shannon J. Harvey the secret to his success.

"Kiss lots of leading ladies," Aaron Eckhart confesses with a chuckle down the line from his Hollywood home. He sounds calm and relaxed, more like the moustached and bandannered biker dude George from Erin Brockovich which brought him to mainstream attention in 2000 - than the excitable geophysicist he plays in The Core, a corny disaster movie kind of remake of Journey to the Centre of the Earth. A movie he politely calls "good clean fun."

"He's kissed the pick of Hollywood sirens"

And Eckhart should know all about kissing leading ladies. He's kissed the pick of Hollywood sirens, from Roberts in Brockovich to Renee Zellweger in Nurse Betty to Gwyneth Paltrow in Possession. Landing a smacker right on the lips of Hilary Swank in the climax of The Core means he's smooched three Oscar winners. Not bad for a guy few might recognise. "Yep, I've been the lucky one," he says with the kind of cool, slow Yankee drawl you might equate with Bruce Willis or even John Wayne.

Yet Eckhart has always teetered on the brink of becoming a household name. The lithe, unconventionally handsome 34-year-old has enjoyed a string of solid supporting roles (The Pledge, Any Given Sunday), and movie buffs will know that his partnership with fellow Mormon Neil LaBute has born some of the most scathing black comedies (Your Friends and Neighbours, In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty) America has produced.

Somewhat surprisingly, Eckhart agreed to star in The Core because he actually wants a shot at the big time.

"I'm not going to be the brooding actor in the corner who won't do action movies," he says. "Not anymore, anyway. I don't want to starve when I'm an old man, for one thing, and in general I want to give this my 100 per cent. I'm not afraid to do more heroic roles. Not anymore, at least. So yeah, I guess this is my shot at the big time."

"It was hard to keep a straight face sometimes"

Switching from low-budget, well-written dramas to working with blue screens on a big-budget Hollywood movie wasn't alway smooth sailing. "A lot of it is up to your imagination and taking direction like 'Okay, turn left,' and, 'Now there's this coming at you'," Eckhart says. "I had to learn how to do it. It was hard to keep a straight face sometimes, and a lot of the scientific dialogue we just didn't understand. But we figured we had a job to do, so let's do it. I could get used to all this running around, kissing girls, not saying much, and doing all those athletic things."

In fact, Eckhart knows the silly sci-fi can be viewed as one big metaphor for sexual reproduction. When I ask him what it's like penetrating the earth in a ship that looks like a giant phallus, he laughs knowingly. "Yeah, we came up with a whole bunch of catch phrases for the movie," he says. "Global procreation. Nuclear ejaculation. You name it.'' He laughs again when asked if making The Core was a pleasurable experience. "It was weird, you know, because none of us could believe our eyes when we finally saw who else had been cast. These guys are all great actors; Stanley Tucci, Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo, Bruce Greenwood. We kind of all looked at each and said 'you too?' But I signed the contract, you know, and we all felt that way about it.
We all said, let's try to have fun making this movie and to add as much personality as possible." Sometimes, Eckhart admits, it was hard to keep a straight face, what with having to deliver lines like, "we'll be okay if we can just ride these magma flows!"

"Stanley Tucci and I got to manhandle some nuclear bombs," Eckhart says, "and there were times we were laughing so hard that he almost literally went to the bathroom in his space suit. It was so ridiculous, and we had to be so serious. But we were always very aware that what we were doing was family entertainment. It's just a movie where you can go and have fun for a while."

"Surfing was actually my religion for a long time"

Fun seems to be the key to Eckhart's charmed life. After high school, he studied acting for a year at "a small Sydney theatre school" (he can't recall the name), and worked part-time as an usher at a local movie theatre. It was a good time to indulge his other love - surfing - and the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Northern Californian took advantage of it. "Surfing was actually my religion for a long time," he said. "I wasn't that good at it back then, but in Australia I would wake up real early every morning and go catch some waves."

He then took the next three years off to ride the waves in Hawaii and to ski in France. His father is a computer executive, his mother a children's book author, and the family - who still have a house in Sydney - moved around a lot, living in California, England, Switzerland and Sydney. Aaron eventually graduated with a film major in 1994. But it was the friendship he formed while at college with writer-director Neil LaBute that really set him on his course to Hollywood.

"It's a strange situation, I guess," Eckhart says. "Neil is a great friend and he's also the main reason I am where I am." He's reluctant to discuss the religious aspect of his life, but admits that the college they attended was very conservative. "Neil and I just developed a working relationship and came up with these pretty edgy plays," he says. "Some of them would only last opening night because the school would shut the theatre down. It was very controversial."

Still, Eckhart's partnership with LaBute flourished, and soon led to more mainstream roles. And if Eckhart wanted The Core to be his move into leading man blockbuster territory, he's achieved his goal in spades. Despite the US$80m film only making US$30m at the box office on its bow, he's filming two more big movies. And again he's paired with some stellar leading ladies.

"You've got some fine women down there!"

Without a break he went from The Core to Paycheck, John Woo's adaptation of the Phillip K Dick's story with Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman. After that, he saddles up for the Ron Howard western The Missing, in which he stars with another Aussie girl, Cate Blanchett. He might even get to kiss her, too. "I'd love to!" says the still single actor enthusiastically. "And Nicole. You've got some fine women down there!"

Published June 12, 2003

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... in The Core

... in Erin Brockovich

... in

... in Nurse Betty

... in In the Company of Men

INTERVIEW about In the Company of Men - by Andrew L. Urban

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