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."
Thankfully, Mr. Eckhart hasn't entirely left behind the dark stuff. He's playing District Attorney Harvey Dent, who later becomes Two-Face, in the upcoming Batman film, "The Dark Knight."
He's also keeping his independent cred with the upcoming Alan Ball film "Nothing Is Private."
"For me, there's no difference between the two, except that in a small movie, nobody sees it, and they don't pay anything," he says with a laugh.
"Conversations With Other Women," a clever two-hander in which he starred last year with Helena Bonham Carter, was made for $300,000, he notes. "That's not even touching a percent of people's living expenses on movies, and yet it's one of my favorite films that I've made because I loved the experience of working on it. Nobody saw it."
Perhaps he can combine his new leading-man status with the kind of meaty roles he's so good at playing. He laughs, recalling that he told Neil LaBute, "Go surprise people and write a romantic comedy."
He met the director when both were students at Brigham Young University. Mr. LaBute's films have been controversial in Mormon circles. Is Mr. Eckhart still a member of the church?
"I have my own relationship with it. It's not something I talk about a lot," he says. "It is to me what it is. It's a part of who I am; that's how I grew up."
One guesses it must be difficult to be both a leading man and someone whose life is informed by religion. "The only difficulty I think in having a certain value system is the roles that you choose," he says. "I'm OK with the movies that I make. A lot of people don't like Neil's movies. I happen to like them a lot and love playing those characters because I have the confidence that I'm not wholly one way, wholly bad or wholly good; people are complex."
Aaron Eckhart, it seems, can play them all.