Actor Eckhart is playing himself

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NEW YORK

It took Aaron Eckhart a decade to go from being accosted in the street by viewers angry with his dead-on portrayal of one of film’s great misogynists to playing a leading man whose smiling visage prominently graces a top studio’s film poster.

But it always made sense that the character actor with the movie-star looks would one day become a big star — just not one of those types whose off-screen personality should be confused with the characters he plays, though it happens often enough.

“No Reservations,” a romantic comedy co-starring Catherine Zeta-Jones that opens today, was the kind of movie the 39-year-old actor had been trying to find for some time.

“To play a Machiavellian or a bad guy or an arrogant snob, it’s only so much fun to do that,” the actor says. “I felt like I had more to offer.”

Mr. Eckhart is best known for playing those bad boys. His breakthrough role came in Neil LaBute’s startling 1997 debut, “In the Company of Men.” His character, Chad, with an adoring colleague, seeks to get revenge on all womankind by emotionally destroying a deaf co-worker. Mr. Eckhart has had roles in almost all of Mr. LaBute’s subsequent films, which all explore the complicated emotional and moral terrain of modern relationships.

“No Reservations” was a relaxing break from that kind of intense work.

“Obviously, Neil’s stuff is amazing,” the actor says. “There’s also a time in life when you want to breeze in and out of something. I really liked the fact this character didn’t have any hang-ups. He made you laugh. A tender heart, really.”

Mr. Eckhart has had roles in big-studio pictures before, such as 2000’s “Erin Brockovich.” His second big break came last year with his critically acclaimed work as a tobacco lobbyist in the political satire “Thank You for Smoking.” Yet it seemed he had to give himself permission to become a big star.

“Doing comedies and falling in love and getting the girl is fun,” he says, “but I had to come to grips with the fact I can do that and I’m not a bad person for doing it. I’m not going into the realm of selling out. There’s a certain independent bravado that people have, especially if you do the festival circuit, that mainstream movies are somehow evil and you’re a traitor for doing it. It’s not true. You still have to show up and work.”

Mr. Eckhart was born and raised in California and has the laid-back attitude to prove it. “Basically, I just want to go have fun making movies,” he says with a chuckle. Constantly playing the dark characters for which he was becoming known, while rewarding, isn’t always fun.

“When you’re tortured and you’re going to work every single day and you’re an alcoholic, a drug addict, an unemployed, bitter divorce, you don’t really want to get up in the morning,” he says. “You don’t have great relationships with the people around you because you’re holding that inside. When you’re doing a movie like that, you can’t shut it off.”

Sometimes the viewers can’t shut it off, either. After “In the Company of Men” and “Thank You for Smoking,” Mr. Eckhart often was buttonholed by viewers who couldn’t separate the characters from the actor who played them.

Though Mr. Eckhart is a laid-back California guy who took time off after high school to surf in Hawaii, he also comes across as a thoughtful artist who has thought a lot about the way films affect us. He thinks viewers are often deeply touched by a character in ways they themselves don’t even understand.

“I think they associate those characters with bad times in their life,” he says. “When a character like Chad walks in like that, their trigger goes off. And they can’t control it.”

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