For the latest in our WISE WORDS interview series - where stars from a whole range of fields share the important life lessons they’ve learned along the way - we’re posing some of the big questions to AARON ECKHART.
Following his breakthrough roles in ‘Erin Brockovich’ and ‘Thankyou for Smoking’, Aaron found blockbuster success as attorney Harvey Dent in ‘The Dark Knight’. He’s also starred in ‘The Pledge’, ‘Rabbit Hole’ and ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ and its sequel.
His latest film, ‘Sully’, sees him share screen-time with Tom Hanks, co-starring as First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, the co-pilot sitting in the cockpit of US Airways Flight 1549 alongside Captain Chesley Sullenberger in January 2009, when a freak flock of geese few into the engines, and swift decisions had to be made, to save hundreds of lives, and create one of the most memorable visions ever to be seen on the New York landscape, the sight of a jet plane full of passengers sitting on top of the Hudson River.
To celebrate the film’s release, Aaron spoke to Huff Post UK about some of the lessons he’s learned along the way, how Harrison Ford gave him the words that secured his success, and how a spontaneous act of kindness by Nicole Kidman filled his heart…
What do you do to switch off from the world?
I have a ranch in Montana and on that ranch there is very little relaxing going on. I mostly chop wood, move large rocks, cut dead wood, cut trees down. Till the land, that’s what I do. It’s not at all Hollywood. It’s very redneck. I grow my beard and spend the day in mud. That’s the real me.
Or I would be on my bicycle, going up a hill. It’s the left-right motion of the brain, just like walking, puts you in a trance. Your biggest inspiration comes when you’re in that hypnotic state. That’s why people get their best ideas on long walks, riding bikes, anything with that left-right motion. I love quiet.
How do you deal with negativity that comes your way?
I’m working on that quite hard. What I’m working on is that, you cannot control anybody else, the sooner you accept the person without changing them, the better off you’ll be. Instead of trying to impede the sound of others, whether it’s a dog barking, or a traffic noise, if you can train your mind not to engage with that sound but to protect yourself within, then you can have peace and tranquillity in the midst of chaos, then that to me is the biggest evolution of life.
I’m not perfect about it, but even if you’re cognisant of it, then you can start to switch. I’m a light sleeper and I have an issue with a neighbour with a dog. I don’t want to fight with him, engage with him, bring him into my world. I want to inoculate myself so that it doesn’t matter if there are 15 dogs barking. That’s a daily pursuit that I have.
When and where are you at your happiest?
When I’m in a completely relaxed state. It doesn’t matter where I am in the world. There are places I’ve been that you think is the most beautiful, but the best place is when you have no needs outside of yourself, that’s the Zen state – when I have no needs and I’m content with myself.
What’s been the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Be yourself, and that was given to me when I flagged down Harrison Ford on the streets of New York when I was a young actor, and I said, can you give me a couple of words of advice?’ Harrison Ford said, ‘I don’t give advice, but I’m going to give you two words: Be yourself.’
And the older I get, the more experienced I get in this business, that simplicity is the key to success, both personally and professionally. If you can get your unique personality into every role that you play or whatever you’re working on, if you can get your unique point of view into your work, then you will be interesting and successful.
What’s been the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?
Learning not to label things, to be more detached. As soon as you’re judging something, you’re ending the conversation, and now you’re not open any longer. If you keep it open, and observe, perceive and wonder, then you’re open and still taking it all in. So I try not to put labels on things.
What would you like to tell your 13-year-old self?
Believe in yourself. Listen to yourself. Don’t put so much credence into your notion of what others think of you. I look at pictures of myself as a kid, and I think, ‘You wasted yourself.’ We all do this. You look at this beautiful young kid who has everything, and you say, ‘Why did you believe you were ugly? Why did you believe that you were boring? Unwanted? Unworthy? You were a beautiful young kid.’ And then you have to say, that’s human nature, that’s the journey and everyone goes through it. You have all the answers inside yourself.
What three things are at the top of your to-do list?
To write the movie, which I’m hopefully going to do next year. I want to get married and I want to have kids. I want to remain positive on that. There’s nothing in the works, but I’m 48, I’ve never been married and I’ve never had kids. I’ve been wise enough in the past to get off the bus before it was about to crash.
I’m in the dream business, I’ve always been a dreamer and I’d like to continue. We all have a voice inside of us that has something to say, and by the time I’m dead I’d just like to be able to say I’ve said it.
What do you think happens when we die?
We go onto another life. I believe that we’re eternal. I’m not sure if that means we’re reincarnated, or we turn into a energy ball. The notion of reincarnation, the notion that this life is just too short to determine your eternal fate, that’s what I question. Eternity, it’s unimaginable, to think that this life, getting gas, driving to work, watching reality TV, that that’s the test to determine your eternal fate, I don’t know that that’s the plan. I’m gravitating towards the idea that we have other lives so we can do more important stuff, but I’m not sure about what that looks like.
When have you felt that we live in the presence of something bigger than ourselves?
Nature. Chopping wood. Looking at a tree in the park. Looking at the grass. Looking at a bird. Church – I’ve had good times in church, feeling like I’ve been touched. In relationships, tender moments when you feel completely protected. I feel like I have more and more as I get older. I’m open to having them, and I try to recognise them. I believe in miracles, that everybody is in the place that they ultimately want to be.
What quality do you most treasure in relationships?
Honesty. Truthfulness. For them to be able to speak to me, and for me to be able to speak truthfully. Other qualities – wit – all follows. When someone’s a straight shooter, that’s when you get all the colours.
What keeps you grounded?
Life. All the things that this world throws at us that keeps us in check. A red carpet is so thin. All that stuff that everyone thinks is the bomb is so thin. It’s so meaningless. All you have to do is look under the red carpet, it’s just laid on some concrete in a hotel. When the cameras go away, it’s a bunch of chairs and guys picking up tripods. Everything’s magical and then the circus moves on.
What the most recent act of kindness you received?
I was on the red carpet the other day at the Hollywood Film Awards, and it was that thing, talking into cameras. I saw Nicole Kidman sitting there, and she was radiant in a beautiful gown. As soon as she saw me, she threw out her arms, shouted my name and gave me a big hug. It was so warm, truthful and honest, it was an act of kindness from Nicole, because on the red carpet you never know how you’re going to be perceived. It was a beautiful warm human moment from someone I hadn’t seen for a while, and it was a true act of kindness.
Aaron Eckhart co-stars with Tom Hanks in the film ‘Sully’, in UK cinemas now.