He’s been an enemy to Batman, fought aliens attacking Los Angeles, represented the tobacco industry, went to the center of the Earth, and can be seen leading the upcoming comic book movie I, Frankenstein – but not until he plays President to an America under siege in Olympus Has Fallen. Yes, Aaron Eckhart surely has quite the diverse background of characters, but he always delivers – and does so yet again portraying the leader of our marvelous country.
This weekend at the Olympus Has Fallen press day I had the distinct honor of sitting down with Aaron and a few other journalists where we were allowed to pick his brain about a number of topics concerning the film and his career. Read on to hear Mr. Eckhart discuss the physicality of his role, what it’s like to play the president, and the gritty nature Olympus Has Fallen so properly shoots for.
To start things off, we asked Aaron what drew him to the part of President Benjamin Asher. Could it have been the politics, terrorism, action? Let’s find out:
Aaron Eckhart: Well, it was more like Antoine [Fuqua] – the director. Antoine called me up, we went to his office, and he explained what he wanted to do. Of course I’m a huge Antoine fan, I love his movies, and I have a huge confidence in Antoine where whatever he can do, he’s going to set out and make a kick-ass movie no matter what.
Then again, being the president is always fun. I’ve always, well, not always wanted – I don’t know what I’ve thought about as an actor. I have immense honor for the office of the President, I never thought that I would actually play the President, but then to be in the room with Morgan while I’m playing the President going “Wait, who are you. Is he the President? Is he God?” [Laughs]. It was fun to be in the Oval office, and it was actually kind of special to be there with Morgan, and Melissa, and so on.
I like action, and I really like what Antoine did. What really sold me in the beginning was the fact that Antoine said “I want this President to be youthful, I want him to be physical,” because Gerard Butler has to do so much physical fighting in the movie, you don’t want to see the President of the United States be taken captive and just lay down. That’s why they establish the boxing scene in the beginning, he’s very physical, he gets his in. I was saying to Antoine all the time “Why can’t I do a left here, kick him in the balls there,” I was always trying to come up with ways of the President being more physical – we got the headbutt in and stuff like that.
I think it’s fun for the audience to see me being physical, so that’s really what sold me – Antoine and me being able to get mine.
We then asked Aaron about the replicated White House set that was built in Louisiana where Olympus Has Fallen was shot, because I guess destroying the real one was out of the question:
Aaron Eckhart: We’re so familiar with the presidency because of the 24 hour news cycles. We see the President both personally and professionally so much, we feel like we really know the President, so being in [the White House] and the history of it – look, I’m a guy that’s lived all over the world my whole life, and I’ve come to have tremendous respect for my country and the responsibility of the President, especially the decisions he has to make on the fly.
Here you have the President of the United States, he’s just [gone through an event], and then he has to go and deal with the people of the United States of America and all that entails, and then having these bad guys take over the White House? You have to think fast, you have to compartmentalize, and you have to be mentally strong – that was a challenge for me, how do you do that? You want your President to be strong, but you don’t want him to be Rambo – not that I have anything against Rambo. That’s what the Secret Service is for, that’s what Gerard is for, that’s what the film is about. It’s about the people that you have around you, who facilitate the office of the Presidency and all of the politicians, and how invaluable they are.
You want to have confidence in the President, but you also want to feel that he’s a real human being.
Playing off confidence we then asked Aaron how it was working with such a strong ensemble cast:
Aaron Eckhart: Getting back to Antoine real quick, he creates an atmosphere of trust, so everybody on that set believes they can do what they want. So here you are with Melissa who’s just firing off eight cylinders of V8, as you look at her going “What did you just say?” [Laughs]. When she’s singing “God Bless America” while she’s being dragged across the floor – that was hers. I remember sitting there as she’s singing [starts laughing heartily] – it’s just fantastic.
A lot of that stuff, like when Dylan had the camera in front of my face, when I first saw that it was like “You’re going to put that in my face?!” Everybody had ideas that heightened the drama in the movie, and it was unexpected so you really didn’t know what you were going to do, and Antoine was like “Yeah, do it,’ like the headbutt, when I headbutted Dylan or whoever it was. Plus it was like three weeks we were in that little room, so by the end we were pretty crazy, and I couldn’t feel my arms for most of the movie [raises arms overhead to mimic the pose in which he's tied to a railing for most of the film], they were just vibrating.
It was fun, we came up with stuff, I thought we infused it with some energy which I think was needed.
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A common theme on the day was finding out what the cast and crew thought were the most surprising or fascinating facts while working with the specialists on-set. This was Aaron’s answer:
Aaron Eckhart: Really what the interesting part for me was the comportment of the President, because we had Ricky there who really knows his stuff, and I would talk to him and question “How far do I go here?” It was the human aspects of the President to stay in charge, to remain confident and how to psychologically defend myself against these people, how would I go at them to break them down psychologically – that’s interesting stuff. I couldn’t do it physically, I had to trust that [Gerard Butler] was out there, but what could I do in the meantime? What could Melissa’s character do in the meantime? That was an interesting challenge.
Being shot! After I was shot, Ricky came to me after the first take and said “Aaron, yeah, OK, that was good, but usually you get dry mouth, you can’t speak, your eyes roll in the back of your head,” and I said “How do you know?” He just lifts up his shirt and he’s got a bullet wound right there and I’m just like “Got it!” That helps.
Also looking at Antoine when you’re in a boxing scene, and knowing that Antoine is a Golden Glove boxer is helpful because he comes and he says “Throw a double jab” or “Come with the left hook here,” you understand. Sometimes as an actor you want to say to your director “You get in here and try it,” and with Antoine you know that he can, and he would. I can’t tell you how valuable that is as an actor, for me, for Gerard, for everybody. Antoine has a way of calming his actors in the midst of craziness, he’s a good man.
Playing the President is quite the role though, so the next thing we asked Aaron was how he shook off his role, but then to lighten the mood up, we also asked him to imagine Olympus Has Fallen recast with all past-generation actors. Who did he pick for himself? Let’s see:
Aaron Eckhart: Cary Grant as the President. He’s my favorite. He would have done such a good job. It actually would have been interesting to see Cary do it because how would he have done it? Would he have been physical? That’s an interesting question, what kind of movie would it be?
As for shaking off the role emotionally and physically, I’m just glad to get feeling back in my arms. That was my primary.
I didn’t have a movie to go to after this so it was pretty good, but always there’s a time after a movie where you have to let it shift through you, more so what I find difficult as an actor is being content with the “in the moment” exercise of being yourself and being a character at the same time. In movies, in drama, in the theater, you’re never asked to be a really nice guy who does really cool things. You’re always asked to be either at an emotional distress ten, you know, beating somebody up, crying, hating on somebody, prostituting yourself, drugging yourself, or whatever, because that’s what drama is – right? Look at this movie! But then it’s how do you be normal with all of these feelings that you’re fostering, because you isolate that part of your personality and then you feed and nurture that part so you’ve always got it on your mind. I think that’s the bigger question for an actor.
Moving on to some of Aaron’s other projects, we then brought up his movie Erased (releasing in May), asking which film had a more action heavy role:
Aaron Eckhart: Both physical, but in Erased I have a bigger chunk of the action, a bigger physical part. Erased is a very, very physical movie.
I know for [Gerard Butler] and I know for me, and for everybody in this movie – you get beat up. I don’t know how many times I’ve been hit in the face. On Erased I got hit in the face, on I, Frankenstein I got slammed with a stick in the back of my head, fell down, and I knocked myself out. I’ve ripped my thumb back over here [motions to his thumb tearing back farther than it humanly should] in rehearsals of Erased, like not even in the middle of shooting. I remember one time on Erased they had the camera right here [motions right behind him], and I come back to swing [a punch] like this and just punch the camera right out of the cameraman’s hands, knocked him down – you’re always doing things like that in the movies.
It’s all tough, it’s all dangerous, and you know what – it sucks a lot of the time. Even being in the ring with [Gerard Butler] is tough. You’ve got to think “I’m going to get hit, I’m going to hit,” and you know you just have to be friends afterwards because that’s how it goes.
We ended by hitting Aaron with a big-picture question, asking him what are the characteristics that make an action thriller a classic, and what are some examples of those classics:
Aaron Eckhart: Good directors. Directors, directors, directors, directors, directors – that’s it baby.
Look at In The Line Of Fire. Now I don’t remember that movie too well, but I do know it was a bodyguard looking after the president who was a damaged guy who had to go deal with a crazy dude. That’s not so far away from any other movie that’s ever been made, right? You go back to Clint Eastwood’s movies, but what makes Dirty Harry a classic? I guess it’s just one unique individual’s vision of a story. That’s what a classic is, and some guys are just better at it than others.
You look at something like Poltergeist right? The one-liner on Poltergeist is “Yeah, this chick comes out of the television,” but then you see it – of course it was a huge movie on me which is why I say it. What makes Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid a classic? Look, you’re going to say the players and all that stuff, right? Redford and Newman? I think it’s bigger than that.
A big thank you to Aaron Eckhart for taking the time for this interview. Be sure to catch him leading our nation against terrorists in Olympus Has Fallen when it hits theatres on March 22nd!Previous