You could set your watch to Aaron Eckhart’s handsomely chiseled features — but do so at your own peril. As he’s proved time and again on screen, Eckhart excels at portraying deceptively charming men: be they manipulative executives (his breakout In the Company of Men), big-tobacco spin doctors (Thank You For Smoking), or literally, physically duplicitous district attorneys (The Dark Knight). Which isn’t to say he won’t play nice, reasonably normal guys, of course, as his excellent (and strangely Oscar-overlooked) performance in last year’s Rabbit Hole attests. This week, however, Eckhart’s up to his smooth-talking tricks in The Rum Diary, playing against Johnny Depp as the impeccably-dressed but otherwise rather rapacious Sanderson — an American businessman out to turn postcard-perfect Puerto Rico into a lucrative tourist resort. We spoke with Eckhart recently, where he talked about the film, his thoughts on writer Hunter S. Thompson, and the art of playing the likeable bad guy. But first, he ran through his five favorite films.
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
My five favorite films? I have no memory, that’s my problem. [Laughs] Well one of them would be Apocalypse Now. I mean, you could tell that the movie was made in madness, as madness, and that, to me… someday I want to make a movie like that. Total consumption.
And then I’m gonna say… What’s a modern movie that I’ve seen? How about… you know a great movie that I saw was… [extremely long pause] Oh, I got a movie — the one where he goes to the Turkish Prison. Midnight Express. There you go. That movie terrified me. [Laughs] Go to Turkey, but do your hash before.
Next, Eckhart on The Rum Diary, staying sober on set, and playing charming bad guys.
Did you have a good time on the film?
Aaron Eckhart: I did. I enjoyed working on a movie that Johnny’s in, and produced, and is so passionate about. And Hunter, you know — it was an opportunity to be a part of, I guess, Hunter’s legacy, in a way; Johnny’s sort of taking up that mantle. So it was a good time making the movie.
Bruce Robinson said you were his first and only choice for Sanderson.
Well I feel like it’s always an honor when people are thinking about you, especially when you don’t have any idea who they are, you know — in terms of, like, you don’t know that Bruce is thinking about you. Somebody who you’ve admired for years will say, “Oh I was thinking about you,” or “I’m gonna offer you a part,” and you say, “Well, I’d never think that you were thinking about me.” It’s always flattering, and it’s good to know. But I’d done these sorts of parts before, you know, where I play a sort of all-American businessman who’s unscrupulous — so I think Bruce felt like I could do it.
“Cruel beauty” was his description of you.
Cruel beauty, yeah. [Laughs]
It’s kind of a compliment.
Yeah. I think he’s talking about Sanderson. I think with Sanderson, you know, you’re developing paradise and you have a creative vision of how you’re gonna do that; you have to step on some toes and not everybody’s gonna like what you’re doing. I think that’s how the whole world’s been developed; some people love it and some people hate it. Plus, I mean the character’s written to define the protagonist, who’s Paul Kemp/Johnny, so my character was really set up to play the antithesis of Paul — in every way, from the way we dress, to our attitudes, and then have us come together and work together. So it’s sort of one of those characters where you’re set up to fail, but you’ve gotta play it with heart and soul.
Do you find it challenging to play that kind of character?
The challenge is that you have very little to work with, and you have to make him human and multidimensional — to make the audience conflicted and say, “Well, I like him, he’s charming, but I don’t like what he’s doing,” so they say, “Yeah, he’s the bad guy, but we like him anyway.” That’s probably the hardest thing about that. I think Giovanni [Ribisi] had the hardest part — he really had to put a lot of energy into that.
It was quite a performance. You’ve had experience in playing this kind of charming character — in Thank You For Smoking, for example; though he was far more likeable. Had Bruce and Johnny seen that?
Oh I’m sure, yeah. With Thank You, he was the protagonist, so he was given much more time. But in a role like this you don’t have that time; you have to get it across immediately. As soon as the audience sees you they have to be immediately able to form an opinion about you.
I think you did it pretty well.
Well, I did it. [Smiles]
Were you a fan of Hunter’s before doing the film?
Well, you know, I was familiar with Hunter. I certainly wasn’t an aficionado. I’d read some of his articles and his books early on when I went to college, [along with] Bukowski and all that, but I was refamiliarized through this movie — through reading the script and reading the book and then hearing stories from Johnny and listening to Bruce, and their research. So I am a fan of his. I’m intrigued by his lifestyle: how he managed to make it all work and be a professional at the same time.
It’s quite a feat, when you think about it.
Yeah. [Laughs] I mean, think about it yourself: trying to write, you know, and being completely bonko in this hotel room — and then trying to be coherent. Hunter had a pretty elite following, too — it’s not like he was writing for dummies. He was a very smart dude. I think everybody’s very intrigued by that lifestyle. And I think Johnny does it really well.
Johnny and Bruce spoke of Hunter being a “presence” on the set, having his chair and his bottle there every day. Did you feel he was around?
[Laughs] Oh yeah. I’m sure we made jokes about that. Bruce and Johnny had their morning ritual — I’m not sure if they told you about that?
Dabbing themselves with rum before the shoot?
Did you partake?
Your character’s meant to be relatively sober, I suppose.
Yeah. [Laughs] Plus those guys, you know, when you’re the director and you’re number one and you’re the producer, it’s like — it’s almost like they had their own little club, you know. And that’s the way it should be, because they’re creating something — it’s a birth; they’re bringing life to something. I mean, I was there, but I enjoyed watching it. I thought it was a lot of fun. You don’t see that every day. Was it a bottle of Jack Daniels they had?
Oh, Chivas Regal, yeah. Plus, I don’t drink.
Which is all good for your character, to a certain extent — you don’t want to be part of the clique.
No, you don’t want to be best friends with Johnny and his character, and all that sort of stuff. Although we had a really good time making the film. Like I said, you’re set up to go head-to-head. It’s an unlikely friendship that turns bad. You always find yourself, when you’re making movies — even if people say, “Well, I’m not a Method Actor” or whatever all that s— means — you always end up sort of playing your role in the movie. If you’re the bad guy, you’re the bad guy, you know what I mean? You naturally fall into those roles ’cause that’s what you’re hired to do. It sort of permeates your off time.
The Rum Diary is in theaters now.
If British writer-director Bruce Robinson had only made one film — 1987’s inimitable comedy Withnail & I — he would have been assured a place in the annals of cult movie history. And it very nearly became the case, too. Having finished his follow-up, 1989’s overlooked but frequently brilliant satire How to Get Ahead in Advertising (again starring Withnail‘s Richard E. Grant), Robinson took his talent to Hollywood and had such a wretched experience on his first studio picture, Jennifer 8 (1992), that he vowed never to direct a film again.
When the combined forces of Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp came calling, however, Robinson found himself being made an offer he couldn’t refuse. The result is The Rum Diary, a long-gestating passion project for Depp instigated when he and Thompson unearthed an unpublished manuscript from the late gonzo icon’s early years as a writer. Functioning as a companion piece — and a prequel, of sorts — to Terry Gilliam’s (screw the critics) classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary explores Thompson (via his proxy, journalist Paul Kemp) in his formative period as a journalist, as he begins to find his authorial voice in a haze of barmy booziness.
We sat down with Robinson to talk about the challenge of bringing Thompson’s novel to the screen, the weirdness of being back in Hollywood, and how Depp — who previously tried to bait Robinson to direct Fear and Loathing — finally lured him into taking on this job. But first, kick back with some lighter fluid and enjoy Robinson’s five favorite films.
The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin, 1925; 100% Tomatometer)
The first one is The Gold Rush, by Charlie Chaplin. It’s the apogee of his genius. I saw that film when I was 11 or 12 years old in a cinema in Ramsgate, Kensington, and there were three people in there with me. Nothing has ever made me laugh as much as that. I remember, literally — in those days they used to have a velvet kind of cover over the balcony — and I remember hanging over and laughing at the sheer f–king brilliance of the comedy in that film. The one I saw was just black-and-white, too; this was before Chaplin put a voice-over on it, which I don’t enjoy — I don’t think it serves the film well. There are certain things in there, you know — around cooking and survival and stuff — that kind of are in my soul now, as someone who tries to tell stories too.
The second one is Bicycle Thieves, by De Sica. That was the most moving film I’ve ever seen. The scene in there where the dad has lost his bicycle and he takes his kid out for a pizza in 1948 Rome, and the kid is eating it but he’s not ’cause he can’t afford to pay for it, is one of the all-time most moving scenes I’ve ever seen in a cinema. It’s an amazing film.
The third is Psycho. The reason that Psycho is the most extraordinary film to me is the mood in that movie and the fact — and it’s kind of a cliché to say it — that we’re following this woman’s story and suddenly it’s ruptured and she’s dead: What the f–k have we got left? I don’t know a moodier or better kind of horror film. It’s the darkest movie ever made, for me. It’s quite remarkable.
The fourth one, which is kind of a weird one, is Dog Day Afternoon. Because of Al Pacino’s performance. He has a line in there — maybe it’s his line, maybe it’s the screenwriter’s line — he says “Kiss me, kiss me,” to the cops, “I liked to be kissed when I’m getting f–ked.” It’s one of the all-time great lines in cinema.
All the President’s Men, because of my hero, William Goldman, who wrote that film. Here we’re sitting in the dark watching a movie and we all know what the denouement is — we all know how this film’s going to end up; they’re going to bust Nixon’s ass — and yet we’re on the edge of our seats all the way through that movie. Of course, it’s Pakula’s fantastic direction and these fabulous actors at the height of their career — Hoffman and Redford — but primarily it’s William Goldman, who managed to write a film where we all know what’s gonna happen, and yet we’re compelled to watch this process. Imagine if, in Psycho, the title sequence was Perkins putting on his wig and robe, so we all know it’s him — that’s the problem Goldman had to deal with. We all knew it was Nixon. And yet he managed to pull it off. Blew me away, that film. The performances, and the writing… who was that actor who played the editor? Jason Robards. He tells them to go after it. I wish the press would behave like that today, you know: “Go after these f–kwits, and nail them.”
Next, we have a wide-ranging chat with Robinson about The Rum Diary, adapting Thompson’s book, his return to directing and working with star-producer Depp.
Bruce Robinson: Would you like a beer?
RT: I would but this could get swiftly out of hand. But please, by all means enjoy yourself.
Well I will. And I don’t care if they f–king carry me down [to the press conference], frankly. I’m so jet-lagged. It’s such a weird process [doing interviews] but I know you’ve gotta do it. It’s just, you know, if someone asks you to describe your movie you only know so many things, and I’m gonna start speaking Korean very soon to explain this movie. [Laughs.]
Fair enough. [Laughs] You talked about your love for All the President’s Men and those journalists going after the “bastards” — was that a theme that drove you in writing and shooting The Rum Diary?
Well, not entirely. When Hunter wrote The Rum Diary he had no idea he was going to become “Hunter Thompson” and gonzo and all the rest of the stuff, but subsequent to that one’s able to read all of Hunter’s stuff and the way he did go after them. He was a rageful man. He didn’t use bullets, he used words, which is a fantastic thing to be able to do — and he had the talent to do it. So there’s a line at the back of the film where Johnny has essentially found his voice, and he says, “I make a promise to the reader… I’m going after them, and it’ll be a voice made of ink and rage.” And when he loses, which he does at the end of the film — they f–k him up — he says “I smell ink.” That, to me, was something to do with Hunter, in the best way I could do it, anyway, with all faults.
Hunter and Johnny apparently took delight in hauling you out of retirement. So once they’d gotten you to write the script, how did they lure you into the director’s chair? Was Hunter still alive at this point — did you meet him?
I met him once around 20 years ago, and we didn’t have anything to say to each other.
Why was that?
I don’t know. I went into the [Chateau] Marmont hotel and he was there and we sat in a room, like you and me, for two hours and we never said a word to each other. He had a wet towel on his head.
Were you daunted?
Pretty much. I was a fan and he was an icon. He had all of his equipment — the coke, the grass, the Chivas Regal, the smokes and stuff. And anyway, I sat there for two hours, as close as I am to you, and we never said a word to each other. And then I said, “Okay Hunter, I’m off.” “Okay.” And I left. So that was the end of that. But Johnny has told me that Hunter was a big fan of Withnail & I and he liked watching that, which is the reason that he and Johnny chose me as the writer for this film. I don’t write like Hunter but I do write in the same kind of vernacular, you know, no jokes, but hopefully comedic rage — which is one of my motors, ’cause I’m f–king angry about so many things but I like comedy. That was the reason Johnny said, “Will you write it?” I wrote it, and then he said, to my astonishment, “Will you direct it?” My answer was “No.” And then he sort of went after me. [Laughs]
Because at the time you were still very—
And Johnny had been after you to do Fear and Loathing before that.
That’s right. I said “No.” It was in the Sunset Marquee Hotel. He said, “You’re gonna direct this.” “No, I’m f–king not!” And I didn’t, and wouldn’t, and couldn’t.
Are you glad you didn’t make it?
It would have been a very different film if I had done it. It would have been a very different film. Terry Gilliam is someone I admire tremendously, but I wouldn’t have done it like that. I’d have made it much dirtier and wouldn’t have tried to make it look like a Ralph Steadman. Terry made a great film, you know, and people love Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But there wasn’t enough time, when Johnny was talking to me there wasn’t enough time for me to have a look at the script. I can only do what I can do.
How did Johnny sell you on directing The Rum Diary?
He bullied the sh-t out of me. [Laughs] He bullied me, and he also wooed me. He bullied me in the sweetest imaginable way, and he bullied me with really good quality wine. And finally I just thought, well here’s the world’s number one film star, if he wants to take that kind of risk he can have who he wants. If he wants that kind of risk, f–k it — I’m 65-years-old, you know, I don’t give a f–k. So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Did you enjoy returning to directing?
I loved it.
Because it was the right environment?
Because of him [Depp]. He’s a very powerful figure in this industry, and if Johnny is looking after you — if Johnny is saying, “Hey, stay off — he’s alright” — then you’re in the most protected and prestigious position you can be in as a film director, because you’ve got this major f–king star looking after you. If it hadn’t worked out very well, god knows it might have been a f–king bloodbath. [Laughs]
Are you happy with how the film turned out?
Have you seen it?
I have. I’m a fan of the book and I was unsure going in to it — the trailer gives it an uneasy sense of it being a “wacky” sort of bender.
Which it isn’t. It’s a serious film.
It must have been a hard book to adapt, especially streamlining Hunter’s characters as you did.
Yeah, we had to do that. We had to throw Yeamon overboard, because there were two leads in [the novel]. So I made a couple of changes. Johnny’s the reason the film’s being made, and you can’t have two people playing Hunter S. Thompson — and Hunter cut himself into two characters [Kemp and Yeamon, in the novel]. Did we want two Hunters for the film? No. And I shifted the girl [Chenault, played by Amber Heard] from Yeamon, who’s gone, onto Sanderson [Aaron Eckhart], which ups the dramatic ante of the film I think. I’m very pleased with it. I think it’s funny. There are some very funny sequences.
It’s funny, but not in a way that the trailer leads you to expect it to be funny. It’s comedy that evolves not from jokes but from—
From the environment.
Right. I mean, Giovanni Ribisi was just in that world.
He’s fantastic. Giovanni was taking — in a sense we all were — incredible risks, ’cause he was right on the edge.
There seems to be a hint of Withnail in his performance.
Quite strongly, actually. I remember saying to [actor] Ralph Brown when we did Withnail — I knew this hairdresser, who was a hairdresser of a girlfriend that I was living with, and [affects Brown’s dopey geezer drawl] “she used to talk like that” and she’d say to me, “Do you understand? Do yoooooooou? ” She was the thickest f–king idiot I’ve ever met. When Ralph came along to play Danny the Dealer, I only said it to him once, that “Do you understand, maaaaan? Is it cool with you?” and he picked up on that instantly. It was the same with Giovanni. He’s kind of like that, you know — he got it, and made it his own.
Did you and Johnny discuss how Hunter’s “Paul Kemp” voice, or lack thereof, would evolve into hints of his “Raoul Duke” persona over the course of the film?
Well, I mean Johnny kind of did it organically, in that the only time he starts kind of getting into a Hunter voice is… I needed a catharsis in the film, so I cooked up that f–king acid scene, to say this was five, six years of Hunter coming through that religious lobster that was [saying] “god, now I’ve found the voice!” Of course it isn’t the f–king lobster talking, it’s Johnny/Hunter talking — when he talks about god and “Does the world belong to no one but you?” And then Johnny spontaneously, because he’s a f–king amazing actor, puts it into the typewriter: “I make a promise to the reader.” And if you see his fingers — in Fear and Loathing he’s typing like this [gesticulates with exaggerated fingers], which is insane, but nevertheless it’s a caricature — but here he kind of [moves fingers somewhat less wildly]. “I make a promise to the reader, it will be a voice made of ink and rage,” and Hunter’s starting to come out of his mouth. I thought it was f–king magic when he was doing that. That’s nothing to do with me, that’s him.
I don’t think it’s remarked upon enough, but Johnny Depp is one of the great finger actors of all time.
I know. I was constantly trying to shut that down. [Laughs]
You had to curb those fingers?
Only a tiny bit. I wanted him to be still and keep the faith of his power on screen. Why is he a film star? He sticks to the celluloid like f–king glue, Johnny Depp. You could stay there for 10 minutes, you know, just on his face, and people would watch it. We had this running joke and he actually used it in that Pirates film. I work in the middle of nowhere in England, this 16th-century house, and I came out of my writing room one night at about midnight when my family were away; and as I came out of the door I saw this huge black boot come down on the top step, and I went like that [flails hands in front of him], running up and down — I thought it was Jack the Ripper. I’m writing a book on Jack the Ripper, have been for 10 years. And I did that and it really amused Johnny, so he used it in Pirates. But there are a couple in [The Rum Diary]; he does one or two of those.
It does conjure that sense of what his “Hunter” would become.
Yeah. He moves through that film. I wanted him to become more… he becomes an active motor drive of the narrative in the third act, but he’s [initially] an observer in this film; I mean you get that, when you’re watching it. He’s observing this weird f–king life that he?s slowly becoming absorbed into. And that’s quite a tender thing; slowly making him into the power. “I smell ink,” he says. [Pauses] Am I talking bullsh-t?
No, of course not. You feel that he’s taking it all in.
And he becomes the power at the end of the film. When he says it’ll be a voice of ink and rage, he says you’ll smell it: “It’ll be the smell of bastards and the smell of truth.” For me, and for Johnny, there Hunter Thompson was now born.
The Rum Diary is in theaters this week.
For a Texan-born actress with a love for classic American muscle cars (she drives a ’68 Mustang), starring opposite Nicolas Cage in a grindhouse-style thriller called Drive Angry would seem like the ideal role. It came as no surprise, then, to discover Amber Heard’s enthusiasm for both the fast and scuzzy sensibility of the movie and her co-star’s typically unusual performance, which includes — in a move inspired, says Cage, by poet laureate Walt Whitman — his character Milton drinking beer from the bloodied skull of a deceased foe. Heard plays tough Southern girl Piper, who, after catching out (and beating the crap out of) her no-good cheating boyfriend, finds herself on the run with Nicolas Cage’s escapee from Hell. The part calls for plenty of lurid cussin’, dirty fist fights, and blowing people away with large weaponry… while somehow managing to be sweet in the process.
We caught up with Heard for a chat ahead of the film’s release, and asked her about her role alongside Johnny Depp in Bruce Robinson’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary.
RT: What got you interested in this — was it Nicolas, or the cars?
It was the fast cars, loud explosions, great music, big guns and saving the world with Nicolas Cage — in a pair of Daisy Dukes. Oh, and the icing on the cake was the ’69 Charger.
RT: Did you two do a lot of the driving?
Yeah, I did a lot of my own stunts. I did my driving; I had a great time. They definitely hit casting on this one, because I can’t imagine a better role.
RT: You look like you were physically involved in a lot of those fights.
Yeah, well I didn’t want my stunt double to have all the fun. [laughs]
RT: How rough was it?
I think there’s something to be said for going home, tired, bruised and a little broken — you know, scraped and all that.
RT: You got into actual scrapes?
Yeah I did. Many a night I had to come home and dress some wounds. But it’s like, this is the kind of movie that, if you didn’t get your hands dirty making it, you didn’t do it right. It was a lot of fun. I mean, just to get to play a character that has an opportunity to throw punches and spit blood and wear cowboy boots and still be the sensitive element of the films — I had to carry the heart of the movie and still throw some mean punches. It was kind of a nice thing to work on.
RT: What was it like working with Nicolas Cage?
Nic is… Nic is like one part Zen and one part crazy. There’s something to be said for the perfect mix of the two that just produces the most unique recipe — the perfect recipe — for a hero of this genre, which we all know Nic to be. He does something different with these characters, the hero character: he brings so much more to the set than what’s written on the paper. And there was a lot to work with on the paper.
RT: Was there a moment that surprised you in Nicolas’s performance?
He brought something out of my character, the relationship that they form — the bond that they form right away didn’t feel forced. It was very natural. They’re kind of elegant, with each other; their relationship is very sweet and it’s really nice that we could execute that, because this is the kind of movie that could easily have gotten lost on. And you do root for Milton, and he could have been a character that you really hate: I mean, we know that he was a bad husband and that he was running with the wrong crowd and he leaves his friend behind — all this stuff, there are a lot of reasons to make you not like him. But the fact that he can make you love him by the end of the movie, it’s a testament to Mr. Cage’s abilities.
RT: Not to mention the fact that he can drink beer out of a skull.
[laughs] It’s one of the best moments of the movie. And that one moment where he just decides not to throw away the skull — he decides to keep it for a future keepsake — that’s just the brilliance of Nic Cage. That’s just him.
RT: You’re playing Chenault, Paul Kemp’s (Johnny Depp) girlfriend in The Rum Diary, which I’m excited for. What can we expect from the film?
You should be! I’m, excited for it too. I haven’t seen it yet but I expect it to be the beautiful movie that I know it could be. It’s based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson, as you probably know, and the material that we had to base this script off of is, unto itself, its own brilliant piece of art. I think Hunter S. Thompson’s such an amazing artist and writer, and we had a lot to work with. But Bruce Robinson took that and turned it into something that only Bruce Robinson could create — in his mad brilliance. And I think Johnny Depp is the only person alive that could handle the subject matter, and do it with the elegance, grace and intimacy that he brings to it, having known Hunter. I couldn’t have asked for a better gig, really. It’s kind of rare in this business, even though you wouldn’t expect it to be, but it’s rare that I work with true artists and that’s what I felt like working with Bruce Robinson and Johnny Depp — he’s a true artist, and he really wanted to create something that felt like art. I’m really lucky to have gotten the opportunity to work with everybody. It’s a dream job.
RT: It’s great to see Bruce back directing.
Yeah. I was a fan of his from Withnail and I, and I think Bruce is really the perfect person to execute the vision of Hunter S Thompson’s. If anybody understands that madness, it’d be Bruce.
RT: How was Johnny’s Paul Kemp, as opposed to his Fear and Loathing portrayal of Hunter’s alter ego?
It’s totally different, because Hunter S. Thompson, at the point of writing The Rum Diary, was very different to the Gonzo he later became when he wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter at that point was pre-Gonzo… he was something a little bit more pure.
Drive Angry is released this week.