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Battle: Los Angeles may be a loud and action-packed alien invasion movie, but Aaron Eckhart definitely didn't treat it like your average blockbuster. The actor known for his verbally dexterous work with Neil Labute or in Thank You For Smoking describes his dream movie as one in which "I just run around and grunt," and threw himself forcefully into his Battle: Los Angeles role as Staff Sergeant Nantz, on the brink of retirement when an alien invasion throws him into direct combat with a team of young Marine recruits on the bombed-out streets of Los Angeles.
Before the movie even had an official green light from the studio Eckhart met with director Jonathan Liebesman to film test footage on the Sony back lot-- you can read lots more about that in my on set interview with the two of them. And before filming began, Eckhart and his costars underwent three weeks of boot camp training, to the point that "the line was very blurry between whether we were actors or Marines." He admits that his intense focus on the role kept him at a distance from the rest of the cast, but that he was also there to encourage his younger co-stars-- "Whenever I saw them lifting off the gas or whatever, I was right in their face." Just like an actual Staff Sergeant would be.
W Below is the rest of my interview with Eckhart, in which he talks about showing the movie to Marines, why he still wears khakis every day, and yes, how he and Liebesman are already talking about what they'd do for a sequel.
I visited the set in December 2009, and you and Jonathan were so enthusiastic about the film then, and you seem to have kept up that energy level this whole time. It's amazing to see you still so pumped about it.
But it's not a front. I am so proud of Jonathan, and I have to say Sony and myself. When this was an embryo, Jonathan said we want to make a documentary war film. And I think we've achieved that within the genre of an alien film. I've never seen anything like this.
You committed to this so early on, shooting the test footage on the back lot of Sony. What was it about Jonathan and this film that made you want to jump into this with both feet?
Jonathan came in and from the beginning was ultra-prepared. He let me see what he was seeing. He did that through YouTube, showing me a video of Marines going house to house in Fallujah, said "That's what this is going to look like." Then he says, "This is what the aliens are going to do, this is your character." And he was very open to my suggestions, and throughout the filming I very much felt part of the creative process and defining my character in the film.
You showed the film to Marines on two different bases. Did you have to convince them that even though it's an alien movie, it's really a Marine movie?
Yes, of course. First of all, any actor playing a Marine, they're skeptical. Then throw aliens on top of it. But then watching them come out of the movie, hearing them in the movie. Within the first five minutes I heard the theaters in both places erupt. Movies, certainly within the last decade, have been cynical-- there's a lot going on in the world. Not every war movie or movie involving the armed forces is a love letter. I think this movie is an entertaining look at that sort of thing, and I think they appreciate that.
Did you worry you were painting a target on your back by playing a Marine?
I remember doing my first costume fitting and putting on my uniform, I think I scared the costume designers. I took this role far too seriously. If I'm going to go out and make an alien movie, I'm going to do the best damn war alien movie I can do, for my craft. I see no sense in going to do a movie for months in which I'm not pushing myself as an actor. I had to prove it to myself, and I had to prove it to the Marines, and I had to prove it to the other actors playing Marines. You cannot let up. If you let up and give them an excuse not to work hard one day, you're dead. This movie had to be believable. Whenever I saw them lifting off the gas or whatever, I was right in their face.
You go through so much training and bulk up, so when you get in front of the camera, are you just reacting as the character? Does that change your acting?
That's the only way to do it. You're talking three weeks of intense boot camp training where you're around each other every day. By the time we even started filming the line was very blurry between whether we were actors or Marines. If I have to call out, "Lanahan!" I don't know his real name. They call me Staff Sergeant. It has to be that way, because the audience is dealing with aliens, so they already know it's not real. They have to fight all of those preconceptions to get you to sit back and lose yourself. We have to be absolutely convincing so we make the job that much easier. If you sit there and think "That doesn't sound like a Marine," then you're fighting two battles at once-- the Marines and the aliens.
How do you get this kind of thing out of your system when it's all over?
I didn't. I love this guy. I absolutely love him. I know it's weird to say, but I went home and started at a wall until the sun came up.
Has that happened to you on other films?
Yeah, that's what I do. On Rabbit Hole or whatever it is. For this movie I was so tired at the end of the day, but-- I still wear khakis every day. I'm ready.
So when the invasion hits, we need to find you.
[Laughs] Yeah. When the invasion hits I hope they'll be friendly.
Rabbit Hole is an interesting contrast, because it's so verbal and based in language, and this movie has so little dialogue. That switch has to be interesting.
I think there's way too many words in movies. My dream movie is I just run around and grunt. I think it's fun for the audiences to watch actors express themselves behaviorally instead of verbally. We have a tendency not to trust ourselves, and rely on a writer's version of something. That's why everybody loves 70s movies. The Steve McQueens of the world, the Mitchums, the Eastwoods-- they give a look and it says so much. especially in war, you don't have time for that kind of stuff.
You and Jonathan have talked to openly about wanting to make more of these. Have you guys talked details, or are you waiting until the movie comes out?
Yeah, I think so. We would be happy if this weekend this movie were successful so we could make another one, we've talked about it.
It all depends on how the movie performs, if people like it or not. Sony hasn't said anything to me. In the poster it says something like "This isn't the only place." I don't know what it is, but I would very much look forward to doing anything.