Although he's impressively self-effacing and easy-going in person, smug and self-confident are two of the traits Aaron Eckhart is often called upon to play in films
In his new movie "Love Happens," the "Thank You For Smoking" and "In the Company of Men" star places plays Burke Ryan a self-described grieving guru who travels the country pitching his "A-Okay!" seminar. Naturally, Burke has some unresolved emotional entanglements of his own to deal with, a process that occurs over one week in Seattle, with the help of a flighty florist, played by Jennifer Aniston.
Burke is yet another Eckhart character who could probably sell ice cubes to Eskimos, but he made sure to work with writer-director Brandon Camp to keep the character from being too slick and potentially unpleasant.
"They wanted to make this guy an out-and-out car salesman, that he show a flicker of remorse. Not remorse. That's not the word. A flicker of consciousness of what he was doing," Eckhart tells reporters at the "Love Actually" press day. "He was aware that he hadn't come to closure with his wife's death and that he was sort of living a lie and I think because of that, I think an audience is more willing to believe that he could fall in love, that he could repair himself."
Don't assume, though, that Eckhart is entirely condemning snake oil salesmen and lifestyle gurus.
"It's an interesting question about religious gurus and Sunday morning religion guys, is everything they do, even if they're self-serving, are they still helping people?" he ponders. "I do believe that they are. I believe people gain solace from them and comfort and get strength from them. And I think Burke is helping people... I think that it makes for good drama that he be kind of a slick guy who's trying to brand himself in the media and make a good living through this and everything, but the thing I really liked about the movie was that I was conscious of not making him too 'Thank You For Smoking.' I wanted to make him have a heart, even when he was manipulating or when he was slick, I wanted him to have a heart or to know in his mind that he was going too far."
No matter how "Love Happens" is being marketed, it's a very frank examination of how people handle death.
"Studying grief and all that sort of stuff and talking to people who have been through that, it's just so heartbreaking and heart-wrenching and it's really a life-long thing," Eckhart explains. "It doesn't stop and there's no time-table and it reoccurs at birthdays and holidays. I've never dealt with it myself, so I count myself lucky, but I'm sure people in this room have and I felt like I wanted to honor them as much as I could."
Oh, but don't worry. It's also still a love story of sorts and Eckhart has nothing but kind words for Aniston.
"Well, Jen's such a better actor than I am," he says. She's just so effortless all the time. I really get jealous of people like Jen, because they seem just to do it. You know what I mean? And her timing and how playful she is and yet can turn on a dime and just be so thoughtful."
And "Love Happens" has comedic elements and Eckhart has nothing but kind words for a fine feathered co-star.
"That damned cockatoo," he laughs." He was so funny... Here we by this river. I sitting on my hands and knees talking to a cockatoo. There's a camera there and a whole bunch of people. Then there's wranglers on either side yelling at the cockatoo while I'm trying to do the scene and I'm trying to concentrate and say my words and they're going [he mimics a wrangler mimicking a cockatoo] and jumping all over the place. It was a nightmare. But I felt like I had some good moments with him."
Eckhart adds, "He was a giving actor. He stayed for off-camera. He didn't come into my trailer. He actually did some very, very funny things. I think a lot of that was improv."
"Love Happens," featuring Aaron Eckhart, Jennifer Aniston and a cockatoo opens on Friday, Sept. 18.