It’s good to be president, Aaron Eckhart said about his starring role in the Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) action thriller “Olympus Has Fallen,” which opens in theaters March 22.
“Everything from now on is slumming,” joked the handsome 44-year-old actor with the killer dimpled chin during a press junket for the film last week at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. “No matter where I live, I’m done. It was fun to play a president.”
Granted, being president doesn’t look like much fun in “Olympus.” The Prez is kidnapped by North Korean terrorists led by the scary Kang (Rick Yune), who hold him and his son Connor (the terrific child actor Finley Jacobsen) hostage in an underground bunker in the White House.
Gerard Butler, who stars and is also the film’s producer, plays Mike Banning, a disgraced Secret Service agent who infiltrates the besieged White House to save the President and possibly the country. There’s lots of gun battles, hand-to-hand combat and bloody violence. The body count is high.
The stellar cast is rounded out by Academy-Award winning actors Morgan Freeman (Speaker of the House), Melissa Leo (Secretary of Defense), and Oscar nominee for “What’s Love Gotta Do With It?,” Angela Bassett (Head of the Secret Service). Other cast members include Dylan McDermott (former Secret Service agent) and Radha Mitchell (Banning’s wife).
So was your first reaction when you saw the script, “Wow, I get to play the President”?
Aaron Eckhart: Guess what? I talked to Antoine first. He brought me in and he said, “Look, this is what we’re doing and this is why we think you’d be good for it” because — and this is really what sold me — he was looking for a youthful president, a president that’s physical, that has a young family, that can take care of himself.
Gerry [Gerard Butler] has the burden of the film, he has the crux of the movie on him, but Antoine wanted to balance it with a physical president that could take care of himself, so you would have energy on both sides.
I dug that. I thought it was a good idea. I thought I could work with that and then have the wife die and what it’s like as the President to have your wife ripped from your hands in this horrific car crash, and then have to deal with issues of State, terrorism and having to contend with the American public.
Did you ever dream of being the President when you were a kid?
Never. I always wanted to be an actor. I started acting when I was 13 in high school in London. After that, I said I’m done. I don’t need to go anywhere else. I’ve never thought of anything else.
I have a healthy respect for the office of the President of the United States. Having to ask myself questions, possibly that he would have to ask himself on a daily basis, it’s immense and immeasurable, and it would be a drag to have to contend with. You know, what’s going on over there with these people and this hurricane, and it’s really tough. I wouldn’t want to do it.
Look at this movie … I mean, you know, gotta make decisions on the fly that have life and death consequences. You’re talking about one of the greatest nations on earth. What’s real and what’s not real? Do you trust the people you’re working with? Do I kill my son or do I do this? Do I sacrifice this person for that? That’s what drama’s all about, I guess. That’s why I’m an actor.
The first scene is a boxing scene. Did you want that to come back later in the film?
Yeah, I thought it would be good. Look, you are boxing in the beginning. It does a lot of things. It paints your president as being physical. He can take care of himself. He’s not being intimidated mentally, psychologically or physically.
It also creates a great relationship with the Secret Service, who’s your main character in the movie. You know, that they can speak honestly to each other, which I think is very important. They have a certain trust, which goes beyond the profession.
Movies can only be so long. I thought I should have had a nine rounder in there with Kang, putting on the gloves. But Antoine didn’t think that was so hot. I tried to get my back with the head butts and also taking a punch, too, you know. Like I would say to Antoine, I think he should kick me in the face here, hit me here … because you want to give the audience a good ride and entertain the audience, but also [because] you’re balancing out the movie in a way.
Gerry’s out there doing that and doing his thing, but you want to have sort of an equalizing, balancing force over here, which I thought was important for the film.
You’ve played politicians in some of your films. In “The Dark Knight,” you played politico Harvey Dent/Two-Face. Did you draw on your experience in that role in playing the President?
Somebody just pointed that out to me. I never really was aware of that. And then they pointed out that in “Thank You for Smoking,” I was a lobbyist, right? Yeah, so I have to say it didn’t occur to me. I’m not that smart because I just become so focused on what I’m doing. But I guess I look trustworthy in a suit, which means you should never trust me. That’s drama, too. It all helps.
Working with Chris [director Christopher Nolan] on such a big movie as Batman, it helps. It helps calm you in the next one, I’ll tell you that. It doesn’t get any bigger than Batman, and the stage was big and there was a lot of responsibility, so it does help. I don’t know that I’m totally consciously aware of how it helped me, but I know it did.
After all the physical stuff in the beginning of the movie, what’s it like doing nearly all the second part of the film chained to a rail?
I honestly lost feeling in both my arms throughout the entire movie because I’m a crazy actor. I like to feel like I’m actually in the circumstances, so I would be tied up there most of the day.
I wouldn’t have them cut it down or stuff like that. I would make myself lose feeling in this arm or whatever it was, you know, to feel like that was happening to me, which helps you as an actor, but it’s very difficult. And then finding things to do with that and finding reasons why you can’t break the rail, which I could have done.
Was there anyone you modeled your character after?
Antoine brought up JFK for the youthfulness and effortlessness he had, and the charisma, and yet going up against the big problems like the Cuba problems, the crisis with Russia … I mean, you can look at Obama today, and that idea of a young man who has a young family. The questions that these guys have to ask themselves on a daily basis. To have to deal with that sort of thing and then be concerned with what’s happening at school with your children …
So we tried to get the human element in and then the wife … how does my son deal with the passing of his mom? If we had a couple more hours, we could have made that movie. You have to show a lot in a little bit of time. I think these are all issues and questions that you have to ask yourself.
You work with Ashley Judd for about ten minutes, and then it’s bye. What was that like?
And it was the first day, too. Ashley is great, and she has a mind like you wouldn’t believe, like jumping beans. She’s very intellectual and educated and likes to talk about a diverse range of topics. She has a lot of ideas … It’s interesting, because I’d met Ashley over the years, but I never had an intimate relationship with her in terms of a friendship, so you’re asked to portray this couple in love, [which is] necessary for the movie.
She was great because she’s a pro, so she went right into it and started improvising. Half the stuff is made up what she said [laughs]. [I’d go] what are you talking about? She would say stuff that would crack me up. Like I would have no idea what she was talking about, which is good.
And Antoine takes it and makes his music with it and cuts it all up and makes it look good. I think one of the greatest challenges of movie making is you have no relationship with the person or very little, and then have to convince the audience that you have a huge history together.
There’s a lot of potty mouth swearing in the film, but not with your character. Why?
I tried to go the other way. I tried to make it that the President would not swear. And Ricky, our consultant, I’d said, “Would he, [the President] say that?” And he’d say, “No, Aaron. I don’t see the President saying that.”
Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. But I ask myself this question: “How do I want the President to be portrayed? What is my vision of the presidency?” Now, I wouldn’t want my president to be swearing here and there and everywhere, like I do. I would want him to be calm, collected, rational, logical, steel-hearted, you know? A heart of stone. A rock.
So the swearing, I know I did swear in this movie, but I always regretted it, I have to say. I wish I’d found another way to do it, but sometimes when they [the terrorists] give me crap, [laughs] … you’re still human and you’re gonna swear.
I think being hit in the face, and some guy’s showing you the United States being ripped to pieces, you’re going to say [expletive], but I want you to know that there was a conscious discussion about that.