HEAT VISION

Aaron Eckhart on 'Wander' and the 'Dark Knight' Lie

Aaron Eckhart
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
The actor looks at the highs and lows of indie filmmaking and reflects on Harvey Dent, 12 years later: "He would’ve told the truth."

Aaron Eckhart is living on the edge these days, and he couldn’t be more excited about it. With April Mullen’s Wander set for release Dec. 4, Eckhart is at the beginning of a “three or four” film run of independent releases that offer him freedom he’s rarely found in the major studio system. On the set of Wander, Eckhart embraced the daily unpredictability of independent film, especially since it suited his character rather well. In the desert-set thriller, Eckhart plays Arthur Bretnik, an unhinged private investigator who’s trying to expose the conspiracy behind his daughter’s death.

“Independent moviemaking is certainly more like the wild, Wild West. You’re on the edge all the time. You don’t know if you’re going to make your days. You don’t know if you’re going to have enough money for the next day. There’s also a lot of freedom in that,” Eckhart tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I can’t even think about all the times in [Wander] where we didn’t have what we needed — or it didn’t seem like it — and we had to improvise. But it’s exciting to me because I can change the words if I want. I can improvise. I can make stuff up. When I’m on a big-budget movie, I’m not doing that. It’s more corporate.”

Eckhart, who’s most known for his unforgettable turn as Harvey Dent/Two-Face in Christopher Nolan’s crime epic The Dark Knight, is also weighing in on the lie created by Batman (Christian Bale) and Gotham City police commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) at the end of the film. The lie, which was a counter response to the Joker's (Heath Ledger) corruption of Dent, pinned Two-Face’s murders on Batman in order to protect Dent’s reputation as Gotham’s “white knight.” Despite Batman and Gordon’s good intentions, Eckhart believes that Harvey would have disagreed with their decision.

“He would’ve told the truth. That’s the great thing about Harvey Dent. Despite whatever is going on, he’s a truth-teller and he’s a moral center,” Eckhart explains. “Harvey Dent was out there fighting for every man and woman, for truth and justice, and he put himself on the line. But having done so, he got bit, and he was forever changed. But you don’t want to lose your Harvey Dents in life. No matter how much money or pressure there is, no matter how much coercion, control or corruption there is, Harvey Dent is going to stay true to the moral center and the truth. People can rely on that, and you don’t see that today.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Eckhart also discusses his relationship to the major studio system, why Nolan’s sets are indie-like and his first reaction to the Dark Knight script.

So who or what piqued your interest in Wander?

Well, it’s always really about story and character, and when you’re reading a script, if your five senses get involved while you’re reading it, it’s a good sign. So I just thought, “Hey, it would be a great acting challenge to go play this character and it would be fun to play this character.” It’s some guy who’s half out of his mind, and he’s thought to be paranoid and crazy. He’s also grieving the death of his child, and he’s removed himself from society, in a tin can out in the desert. Everybody thinks he’s nuts, so I like the story of the little guy going up against the insurmountable big guy and winning in a sense. There are three things in life that are tough to take, which are coercion, control and corruption. I call them the Three Cs, and that’s what this movie deals with. You have a man who wants to be free and live his life, and yet, he has to live with the pain of his daughter’s death because somebody was doing something nefarious and he caught wind of it. Then he got punished for it, and we see a lot of that today. We see a lot of that in the world. It’s the idea that the big wigs make experiments on us and use us as their pawns. To them, death is nothing. It’s all about power and greed, and here you have a guy who’s basically nothing. He’s dust. He’s down and out. He’s nothing to nobody. He has nobody, and yet, he stands up to the forces of evil. I like that story.

I loved the visual of you and Tommy Lee Jones — the two actors who are most commonly associated with Harvey Dent/Two-Face — hosting a podcast in the middle of the desert. I was hooked right then and there.

(Laughs.) Yeah.

Would you and Tommy work quickly together, or would you push for a couple more takes just for curiosity’s sake?

Oh man, I always want more takes. You can’t give me enough takes, but that being said, we were pretty good with that. It was such a magical moment. I mean, listen, you’re out in the middle of nowhere, the desert in New Mexico, and you’re sitting next to an Airstream. I forgot all the crew and that sort of stuff. I got them out of my mind. And then, to just play that wonderfully written scene, it was awesome. I loved it. I loved just going off like that, and then improvising too. There was a lot of improvisation in the sense of what’s on my mind? What’s on Tommy’s mind? What do we think about? It was that sort of stuff, and whatever they take, they take. But Tommy was right there and he jumped in. From the day Tommy got there, he got it. Obviously, he’s a pro. He’s a great actor, an Academy Award winner, and it was a joy to work with Tommy and to say these words.

What makes someone like Arthur so conspiracy-minded at the start of the movie? Is it a distraction from grief?

Obviously, he’s consumed by grief over his daughter and wife. However, throughout history, you have patterns of people who have power and control, and their minds get up to imagining things and doing devious things. They also have the wherewithal to do those things. So people get up to some devious things that are perpetrated on the public at large, but in the movie, Arthur didn’t look at it as conspiracy. When somebody says something is conspiracy theory, it’s a way of shutting down the conversation, and that’s what he was fighting against. If something is a conspiracy, if it’s true, then it will bear the weight of scrutiny. And [finding the truth] was what Arthur was doing … If you start putting the dots together like Arthur and you go, “If you label this a conspiracy theory, I don’t give a crap. It’s the truth. Just because you don’t want me to talk about the truth, you’ll do everything you can to stop me, and you’ll label me as this, that and the other.” If you look at the news today, you’ll find incidences where this is happening all the time, but people get scared. If you challenge people in a way, you’re going to take away their power and their money, and they can’t let that happen … Everything can’t be a conspiracy theory. Now, some things can, but everything can’t.

Since independent film doesn’t have the resources of the major studio system, do you root for a film like Wander just a little bit more?

Well, not more or less, but I root for it, though. I’ll tell you that. I enjoy making [independent film], and I’m in Wander, so I root for it. I also love the people who made it and who invited me to be in it. But I don’t really have a relationship with studio film anymore. I guess the last studio film I was in was Sully. Is that right?

Does Midway count?

Well no, actually. Midway was a Chinese-financed movie outside of the studio. It was obviously a huge budget, which makes it more like a studio film. But listen, I’ve always said that the movie business is the wild, Wild West because you’re there, you’re by yourself and you’re making this thing, this baby. And it’s one of the last bastions where if somebody screws up, you don’t see them the next day. That’s it, because you can’t afford it. There’s too much money on the line, and you don’t have enough time. And so it’s like the wild, Wild West. Independent moviemaking is certainly more like the wild, Wild West. You’re out there. You’re on the edge all the time. You don’t know if you’re going to make your days. You don’t know if you’re going to have enough money for the next day. You have a small crew. There’s also a lot of freedom in that. And especially with Wander, being in the middle of the desert in New Mexico, trains would go by and I’d just say, “Let’s go follow the train!” So we’d go bark at the train, and film it. (Laughs.) I love that. I don’t know if it’s in the movie, but I love it. It’s great for the character and it’s great for the crew. So I love independent film. Now, again, you’re always on the edge. I mean, I can’t even think about all the times in this movie where we didn’t have what we needed — or it didn’t seem like it — and we had to improvise. You just have to pull it together, always. I can remember movies that I did where I had producers tell me, “Every single day, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to film the next day.” It’s scary, especially if you’re a producer. And yet, I have three or four independent films that I’m going to go do that are even less of a budget than this one. But it’s exciting to me because I can change the words if I want. I can improvise. I can make stuff up. When I’m on a big-budget movie, I’m not doing that. It’s more corporate. However, that being said, I’ve always had very great experiences on studio movies. The Dark Knight comes to mind and if I were to talk about The Dark Knight, I would say it was just a big-budget independent movie.

Every time I talk to an actor who’s worked with Christopher Nolan, they make that same point about his sets and how they feel surprisingly intimate, or indie-like, despite the $100 million to $200 million price tag.

That’s the way Chris handles his movies. Nobody really goes back to their trailers too much. It’s not an extravagant set in terms of what’s off-set. Everybody is expected to be on-set all the time and involved in the movie. The crew is exactly the same way, and that’s what I really liked about The Dark Knight. Chris is firmly in control of everything that goes on in that movie. Now that I think about it, the difference between independent and studio film is when you have an auteur. When you have somebody who is in control of the mechanism of the movie, that’s an independent movie to me. When you have producers and the studio coming in and dictating what scenes to do, how they’re played and what words to say, that, to me, is a studio movie. That is corporate and that’s not as fun. I like to call the director a dictator. They’re either a benevolent or a malevolent dictator, but it has to be that way. When you can go to the director and say, “Hey, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that,” and they go, “Yeah, fine, do it,” and nobody argues with you or questions you, then that’s a good day.

At the end of The Dark Knight, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman (Christian Bale) decided to lie for the sake of Harvey Dent and what he meant to Gotham City. Thus, Batman took the blame for Two-Face’s murders, and that lie created peace for the next eight years. But just for the sake of speculation, do you think Harvey, prior to Two-Face, would have approved of their plan to create a lie on his behalf? Or would he have wanted them to tell the truth?

No, he would’ve told the truth. That’s the great thing about Harvey Dent. Despite whatever is going on, he’s a truth-teller and he’s a moral center. And not only that, he’s the face of truth, right? I don’t want to say he’s not hiding behind something, but he’s not. Now, when he becomes Two-Face, he is. But Harvey Dent was out there fighting for every man and woman, for truth and justice, and he put himself on the line. But having done so, he got bit, and he was forever changed. But you don’t want to lose your Harvey Dents in life. No matter how much money or pressure there is, no matter how much coercion, control or corruption there is, Harvey Dent is going to stay true to the moral center and the truth. People can rely on that, and you don’t see that today. Again, I don’t want to say hiding behind a mask, but superheroes are behind masks and capes, et cetera. Well, what about the superheroes that aren’t hiding behind a mask? What about the superheroes that stay true to themselves and to the greater good — without any superpowers? Where are they? And that’s what’s exciting about Harvey Dent, especially in a town like Gotham where everybody’s corrupt. It’s so dark. See, that’s another thing too. When you become a politician, you’re expected to become corrupted, and it’s only those people who do not become corrupted that stand out. Otherwise, life is a lie. Here we are, worshipping politicians, sports stars, celebrities and all this sort of stuff, and yet, we don’t know if they’re corrupted or not. We don’t know why they’re making their decisions or what’s going on behind the scenes. So when you find out that somebody’s been true to themselves and true to truth, that’s a rare bird. So I believe Harvey would not approve of Two-Face or the lie that was told.

Everybody expected The Dark Knight to be Batman versus Joker, and while it does have that component, the story is really all about Harvey. Were you pretty blown away when you first realized that the film revolves around Harvey?

Oh my gosh. Let me tell you. I had a meeting with Chris and he said, “I’ll have the script delivered to your house.” Well, this guy comes and delivers the script, and he’s sitting outside in my driveway while I read this novel. (Laughs.) Was I surprised? I thought I would be on page 26 for half the page. I thought, “You can’t have room for that many main players, right?” You’re talking about Gordon, Joker [Heath Ledger], Batman, Rachel [Maggie Gyllenhaal]. You have all of these characters, and yet, they all have equal play. And not only that, the writing is out of this world, right? I could not believe that Harvey Dent was actually in this movie and that I was going to play him. So I thank Chris for that. Some scripts are whatever; you get through them and hey, fine. But The Dark Knight was a novel and it was thick. It was like reading literature. And there’s something about Gotham City too. You have a city that’s oppressed and being run by a criminal gang. People can’t go out during the day, everybody’s scared for their safety, and the people that are paid to protect them are corrupted. They’re part of the gang and nobody can trust anybody. Sound like anything that’s familiar? And then people are looking to a superhero for their liberty and their freedom. Not only is it a great story and a great movie, but this is what cinema and art are all about. It’s a reflection of our times. Chris knocked it out of the park and that’s why that movie is so important. And then, obviously, the performance of Heath. What a special, special movie. I was happy to be a part of it.

Wander is available in select theaters, on-demand and digital Dec. 4. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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