'Core' star Eckhart unearths ambition to be leading man

— First noticed for his turn as a misogynist in 1997's "In the Company of Men," Aaron Eckhart is trying to place himself in the company of leading men.

"I feel like I want to do more heroic roles," said Eckhart, who also has played Julia Roberts' dubious biker boyfriend in "Erin Brockovich" and Renee Zellweger's sleazy husband in "Nurse Betty."

"I haven't been able to go to most of my movies with my family," added the 35-year-old actor, who's single. "I wouldn't go to my movies with my mom and dad. ... They like it when I play good guys."

Eckhart stars as a clean-cut hero who journeys to the center of the Earth in the doomsday saga "The Core," about a team of scientists trying to save the planet from self-destruction.

Despite the actor's history of unsavory characters, "The Core" director Jon Amiel said he has always "seen a leading man lurking" in Eckhart, whose square-jawed face is topped by disheveled blond hair.

"He's wonderfully good-looking, but not impossibly good-looking," Amiel said. "He has a sort of craggy realness to his face -- more Harrison Ford than Tom Cruise."

Raised in Northern California, Eckhart moved with his parents and two older brothers to England at age 13, and later lived in Australia, Hawaii, France and Switzerland. His interest in acting developed in high school.

Eckhart's career breakthrough in "In the Company of Men" resulted from a friendship forged in the early 1990s with writer-director Neil LaBute when the two attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

LaBute's theater productions, often dealing with sexual insecurities, psychological cruelty and everyday immoral savagery, shocked the Mormon campus -- and Eckhart was often the star.

"It's a very conservative school. They're doing relatively mainstream theater and don't have an appetite for the other stuff," he said. "We just developed a relationship working really hard on our plays, and we would do them one time because the school would shut the theater down. It was very controversial."

He becomes annoyed when asked how his Mormon faith influences his work, saying he shouldn't be "the poster child" for the church.

"It's a great moral culture. It has a lot of character. It's family-oriented. It stands for hard work. It stands for believing in something. ... Whether or not I personally can abide by it 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- that's my own problem. People are titillated by that sort of stuff."

Eckhart was a struggling actor in New York, subsisting on a handful of tiny movie roles and TV commercials, when LaBute asked him to star in "In the Company of Men," about an office worker who conspires with a colleague to emotionally destroy a deaf woman for sport.

That first film for both went on to win the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival.

"My entire life changed, going from absolutely having nothing ... to getting opportunities to do great work," Eckhart said.

"Not big movies, but leads," he emphasized.

Suddenly, the actor found himself with stage fright. "I didn't feel like I could do it on my own," he said, choosing to stay close to LaBute "to slowly bring myself into this world" and learn more about the craft.

The pair made three more films together, starting with Eckhart playing a narcissist whose love for himself cripples his marriage in the 1998 psychodrama "Your Friends and Neighbors."

His first likable starring role in 1999's "Molly" resulted in a critical and commercial flop: with Elisabeth Shue playing a dreamy autistic woman and Eckhart as her supportive brother.


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