Oscar File: Will Ever-Smiling Aaron Eckhart Soon Be Saying, ‘Thank You’?

Actor also dishes on upcoming flicks, says he's still hated for 'In the Company of Men.'

Life has come full circle for Aaron Eckhart. After fully launching his film career with an indelible portrayal of the very worst that the male species has to offer in 1997′s “In the Company of Men,” this year he brought us “Thank You for Smoking” main character Nick Naylor, a man with a dubious profession — he lobbies for big tobacco — and suspect moral compass.

Newly released on DVD, “Thank You for Smoking” recently earned two Golden Globe nominations, one for best musical/comedy and one for Eckhart’s commanding comic performance. MTV recently talked to him about his acclaimed role and why he’s watching his weight from here on out.

MTV: Nick Naylor describes himself as one of “the few people on this planet who know what it is to be truly despised.” The same could be said for your character, Chad, back in “In the Company of Men.”

Aaron Eckhart: There are a lot of similarities. There’s no remorse in either one. They do what they do and they’re proud of it. They also do things that are morally dubious and unattractive. But they also have strength. People enjoying watching that. Most people are guilt-ridden, so if they see a character onscreen who isn’t, they almost admire that character.

MTV: What was the thought process for taking the Naylor role after you read the script?

Eckhart: The thought process was, “You’re telling me the top five guys didn’t want to do this?” Right out of the gate it was a freaking tour de force. It was a shot out of a cannon. I couldn’t believe it. It was so well written. It’s [director/co-writer] Jason [Reitman]‘s film, no doubt about it. He’s the mastermind. After five minutes of talking to him, I really felt like he could do it, and he did.

MTV: What happened in those five minutes? He’s a young guy.

Eckhart: He was 26 at the time. He sat there and answered my questions. He didn’t move side to side. He looked at me in the eye. I said, “Why do you want me in this movie?” And he said, “I want you to smile. You have a great smile.”

MTV: On day one of filming, did you know what you were doing with this part?

Eckhart: I’d probably like to shoot day one over. [He laughs.]

MTV: What scene was that?

Eckhart: I’m not going to tell you. [He laughs.] You’re never sure of anything on day one except that you’re getting paid — and you’re not even sure that’s for real.

MTV: It’s been about a year since the film was shown at Sundance and your sex scene with Katie Holmes was mysteriously missing. There have been a lot of conspiracy theories. What happened?

Eckhart: [He laughs.] The truth is I don’t need to know the truth. The truth is what Fox says is the truth. I know less than you do probably. I can’t figure it out because it wasn’t that much of a sex scene. I think it probably gave the movie more press than the actual movie did.

MTV: What would the sultan of spin, Nick Naylor, do to nab an Oscar nomination for you?

Eckhart: What wouldn’t he do? [He laughs.] I really don’t think it’s going to get that far. It would be the everyman approach. That’s the thing about Nick — he’s out there saying he’s just sticking up for people’s rights. He feels like he is the one getting victimized. That’s the art of great spin.

MTV: Do you believe you have to love your characters?

Eckhart: No. I don’t feel that way. Most cinema, theater and literature is riddled with hideous characters. That’s what drama is all about. If you’re just going to play good guys you might not have a job.

MTV: Do you ever get intimidated working with legendary actors?

Eckhart: I get more intimidated by the material. Can I do what is demanded of me? If you can do the material, you can do it in front of anybody. What’s intimidating about it is everything before, like, “Oh sh–, Robert Duvall is coming to the set today. What am I going to say to him? Hi?” [He laughs.]

MTV: Do people still mention “In the Company of Men” to you the most?

Eckhart: It’s the most appreciated of my films for sure. People always say to me, “You’re in ‘In the Company of Men.’ I hated that guy.” The movie should be called “In the Company of Men: I Hated That Guy.” Ten years on and people are still giving him sh–. Poor Chad. [He laughs.]

MTV: That film’s director, Neil LaBute, told me once you two had spoken about another film with the character.

Eckhart: Yeah. We wanted to do a film every 10 years about Chad’s life. But I don’t think Neil owns all the rights to it, so that’s why we’re not doing it. We would be doing something if we could. I’m totally into it. We talked about how in one movie Chad’s life could go into the toilet, where he’s not the sharp stud he once was. He would be overweight …

MTV: Are you still willing to do that for a part?

Eckhart: I just did it. Son of a bitch, I just gained 30 pounds for this comedy, “Bill.” I’m just losing it now. You’re going to have to pay me a lot of money to do that again. It’s such a hassle, and that feeling that you get is horrible. I was in an elevator with this girl and she was showing me hotel rooms I was going to stay in while filming, and just out of the blue I said to her, “I’m not usually this big.” She didn’t ask. [He laughs.]

MTV: Tell me about this film you did with Alan Ball, the creator of “Six Feet Under.”

Eckhart: It’s a racial and social commentary on an Iranian-American girl who lives in Houston. It’s about her growing up and everything that comes with it. It’s a drama, man. It’s pretty heavy. I’m a little bit of everything in it. I’m a bigot and a molester. [He laughs.]

MTV: Another nice guy for you!

Eckhart: Yeah, I hit all the bases in this one. [He laughs.]

Check out everything we’ve got on “Thank You for Smoking.”

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