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March 2006
Thank You For Smoking: An Interview with Aaron Eckhart

Thank You For Smoking: An Interview with Aaron Eckhart

by Brad Balfour

Though Aaron Eckhart transforms the most insidious of characters into memorable moments of cinema witness what he did with his character in director Neil Labute's "In The Company of Men" he makes the master pro-smoking lobbyist, Nick Naylor, of "Thank You for Smoking" almost heroic.

With relative newcomer Jason Reitman directing his feature debut, this film based on the equally provocative book by Christopher Buckley--charts a very dangerous course through the stormy waters of black comedy. Yet with a sterling cast that includes William H Macy as an anti-smoking Senator and Maria Bello as a fellow lobbyist (pro liquor), he succeeds at making the audience think without even realizing it.

You read the book at some point.

AE: Well I read it afterwards. I was actually shooting in Canada so Jason flew up there and talked to me about doing the movie. I had read it, but had already been committed to another movie. And I read it and I said, "Wow! Boy! Nobody else wants to do this? How come?" And I met with Jason and within the first few minutes of meeting him, I knew I wanted to do this movie and he was going to do a fantastic job. How I knew was that he was so composed. He's young, but he did the adaptation of it, and then just had a command of what he was going to do. He had a great vision. And, after seeing the movie, I think Jason executed the script and he put in all the little markings, all the little icons, and the little sounds.

All those little things make it funny, they're like an exclamation mark or a symbol at the end of the scene. You'll have a scene, which is funny in and of itself, and then he'll go "ka chhhing!" Like this, and then he'll get another little rise out of you. He paced the movie; he'll get a big laugh then have a small boom-boom-boom. It's almost like a little musical in that way. He is pretty exceptional.

This character could almost be a lead character for Neil Labute except this time he's screwing over the whole country, not just his friends or women.

AE: (Laughter) Well, this movie [does the opposite to what Neil would do]; Jason really grounded this movie with the father-son relationship. I'm not sure that Neil would have done that or if he would have manipulated that relationship in another way. But I think this movie has heart, which is important for a comedy because ultimately you have to laugh, and walk out of this movie feeling good about yourself. It achieves that while being so politically incorrect; having such a difficult subject matter, it achieves, [creating those] hopeful and optimistic feelings.

You must have been worried that it might be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

AE: Everything that was in the script is in the movie, but there were some things that were a little difficult to say and I had to do a dumb thing--double check with Jason. I'd be like, "Are you sure you want this in the movie? But if you want it in, I'll say it." And that's where somebody like Neil or Jason is so special because, if this doesn't fall flat, if it doesn't carry over into the next scene, if it doesn't make you laugh and titillate you, you're dead. You're just being arrogant; you're being all these things that they think a tobacco lobbyist is.

Your character in Labute's "In The Company of Men" has been so strongly associated with Aaron Eckhart that you must have had to deal with that in terms of other films you've made, yet you've done very different roles.

AE: That's just been the strongest one. That was the most visceral character I've ever played. It was so out of the box. Nobody knew who I was; they had no expectations of the performance or the film. So that was seared into people's minds. I think the role that people most remember me from is "Erin Brockovich." And thank God for that because it's been difficult out there.

You like those insidious characters.

AE: Well, I really like working for Neil. I don't think everyone can pull it off material like this, and not everybody wants to pull it off. I find, as exhilarating as it is for the audience to watch it, its even that much more exhilarating to play it. And when you get it right, or your director comes out and says, or if Christopher Buckley sees a scene and goes, "That's exactly how I wrote it." That's something special. There's an energy, a spark, you know. When you're talking to your kid, or a cancer kid, boy, when he's sitting next to you and you're saying your words, and you reach over to him and go "You did a great job kid." You just have [to make that feel real.]

(Laughter) You feel like you're really on the edge there.

AE: I came up with that and that's the fun stuff, I guess, because it is dangerous.

I noticed also, not only did you have to think of comedy, but it also has to make you think. Look at that moment when Nick tells the kid, and tells the senator [from Vermont, the home of cheese], "More people die of cholesterol."

AE: Right, it is informative.

So I was thinking, I'm like, "Who thinks of dying from cheese?"

AE: Right cheese, that's a very funny scene.

But also thought-provoking.

AE: Yes, and true. There are other things besides cancer killing us.In New York City, we ingest about a pack of cigarettes a day. So, we're all sick here. It's a smart movie, and that's why, if you are putting it with Neil's stuff, or whatever, because it falls into the realm of smart comedy. Jason was just telling me that he had been screening it around for universities and they're getting a really good response. This movie can live and die in the universities. And with those kind of people; it's going to do really well in New York because it challenges people. It also, the great thing about the movie is, in my opinion, it doesn't take sides. It makes fun of everybody, everybody's in there. You have my character, Nick Naylor, and you have his ex-wife [Kim Dickens] and you have the journalist [Katie Holmes] and they're all kind of protagonist/antagonist. So, you walk out of there picking who you like and then going on. And I think that's smart of Jason not to have chosen sides.

As an actor, you have a forum to say whatever you want and know that it can go out there and be misinterpreted.

AE: Yes, and you have to be careful. In this movie, what Jason says can be different things. Christopher Buckley [the novelist] could say this is a political movie, but I personally think this movie is a comedy. I look at it only as a comedy. I was thinking about it today, in preparation for this and I thought to myself, "This was never a political movie for me. This was never about tobacco. It was about this character that I would love to play, who really is spinning things and loves to talk and gets himself in these crazy situations and gets himself out." That's fun to play as an actor. Now I hope that there is talk, political talk, about this movie and talk about tobacco and all that sort of stuff because that means people are going to go see it.

What was it like to play a father?

AE: I like working with kids. I like the fact that I'm making aconscious effort in my lobbyist career to work and be a father or family figure because I like what the father can teach the son. I like the mirroring image. I like the problems that arise in family circumstances. I like the conflicts and the tension and also the resolution of family. I think that the audiences like to see that. The scene where we are doing our homework together--I'm doing my homework and he's doing his--I just got choked up. It's a scene that I like because he's mirroring me and I'm mirroring him. We're both affecting each other; we both have something to say. You know he's going to grow up to be a little mini me. And I think that's important for audiences to see. How that relationship can work.

Do you have kids of your own?

AE: I don't have children. I would like to have children. I'm working on a movie now, and there's a nine-year-old girl. Right now it's called "The Untitled Scott Hicks Project." It's a remake of "Mostly Martha," a German film about good cooking. It stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and me; that's a dynamic I like a lot. Kids are so sweet. They're much more intelligent. Probably you guys know more than me. They're so smart, you know, and really can take care of themselves. And you know, Cameron [Bright, his son] would teach me, because he is from Canada.

Like the director [laughter].

AE: Like everybody. I'm given citizenship. I've done so many movies there. But just, you know, they can teach you as an actor a lot of things too. So it's good, I like it; I want to do more of it.

How is it working with JK Simmons--one of my favorite actors.

AE: The guy's solid as a rock. He was so funny all the time, you know, when he says that "Come on people." It was perfect. Jason was like, 'I got this guy JK.' He walked in and it was "boom," nailed it every time, funny, had a great take on it; I loved him.

What was it like working with Jason?

AE: Calm.

Was there a lot of improvisation before the shoot or during different takes?

AE: No, there wasn't, not that I couldn't have. I do my own form of a little like shake and waddle and I get my energy up. We rehearsed it and Cameron and I also with Sam Elliott who was awesome in the movie. Who could be a better Marlboro man than Sam Elliott?

(Laughter) The ultimate.

AE: We all couldn't believe it though when he said to us, "I smoke Kools." Everybody, the whole crew, was outside the doors, and they go, 'Ahh!'

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