“Bleed For This” is now playing in select cities. For our review, click here.
Aaron Eckhart walks into the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel looking about as athletic and toned as a middle-weight boxer – you’d think it was he who had to get in fighting shape for “Bleed For This,” the new boxing biopic about Vinny Pazienza, the boxer who trained his way back from devastating spinal surgery to defend his World Champion title.
But here, Eckhart plays Kevin Rooney, Vinny’s trainer who was suffering from drinking and gambling, which Eckhart had to gain forty pounds to embody. Even at this stage of his career, he proves he’s full of surprises. Which is why when he walks in holding a tiny white dog and says he’s going to do the full interview as the canine (he doesn’t), it should also come as no surprise.
In our round table interview, Eckhart talks about the difficulty of gaining weight, working with Clint Eastwood in “Sully,” and what’s next – directing.
“Bleed For This” is such a contrast from your last movie, “Sully,” because we could recognize you in “Sully.” In this movie, people will watch for fifteen, thirty minutes before they realize it’s you.
Well, I mean, if you go and look at [boxing trainer] Kevin Rooney… at this time, he had just been fired by [Mike] Tyson– and he was once a good fighter himself- and he sort of lost himself. Gained weight, psychologically he was damaged, felt betrayed, started drinking and gambling, let himself go, and that’s where we first meet him. So, I tried to look like him – I gained forty pounds, I shaved my head and tried to tackle that accent.
Were there any facial prosthetics you used?
I stuffed some stuff up my nose. We had plastic tubes that we had in our noses all the time that would just give you a little bump right here.
(points to nose)
When did you start gaining weight? This movie was shot two years ago.
Yeah. I circled a date on the calendar about two and a half months, three months before, and said, “OK, this is the day I’m going to stop roping, biking, lifting, and all that sort of stuff, and I’m going to start eating pepperoni pizzas.”
And that day came way too soon! You know, most people think it’s a dream. But you know, to just stop working out has a psychological and metaphysical, or metabolic effect on you. I obviously got bigger jeans, and I never buttoned the top button, and I would walk around the mall… you know, we were in Rhode Island, and my hotel, or apartment, was connected to a mall, and I would just walk around with my pants unbuttoned, my belt, a big shirt, and I would just walk around going–
(imitating Kevin Rooney)
“No, Vinny Pazienza, pound for pound’s the best fighter in the world.”
And I would just walk around this mall all day long until I had to go to the set or whatever… it was that kind of a thing. But you know, everybody in this movie, from Ted Levine, to Ciarán Hinds, to Miles [Teller]… obviously, Katey [Sagal]… you couldn’t look anywhere and not see people’s passion for this movie. You could see it in Ben [Younger, the director]. Everybody was on fire. We had very little time to do it.
“I gained forty pounds, I shaved my head, and tried to tackle that accent.”
Twenty-four days – to do a boxing movie!
Yeah. But in retrospect, it didn’t seem… maybe to Ben it seemed rushed. To us… to me, anyways, I felt like – you know, in independent film you’re not getting all the coverage. That’s fine by me, doing everything in two shots and master shots. That means you get to communicate, everybody’s working at the same time.
That’s better for an actor because now your response is going to be in the movie! It’s not like I have to now go cover you, so we can overlap each other… we can be more natural. I think it’s better for a movie. And that’s why, I think oddly enough, independent film is a better experience overall for audiences in terms of cinema verité, or reality.
But “Sully” was so great. And that was a Warner Brothers movie?
“Sully” was a lot of the same way. Clint–
Doesn’t overthink things.
Yeah, oh my gosh, Clint does not. In fact, I remember the first day we were there on the Harbor, on the Hudson. We had all of the first responders, it was the actual drivers of the boats, the captains that were actually there on the day, and they said, “OK, we’re ready to roll.” There are hundreds of people around, and nobody had told us one word about what we were doing. And I said to Tom [Hanks], “Tom… we’re ready to roll…” and Tom’s like, “…OK.”
So Tom said, “I’m going to go down here,” I said, “OK, I’m going to follow you there,” you know, as actors will do, because you know, survival at that point. And, boom – we worked it out. Clint never said a word to us, and –
And that was the only take you did?
We did it a few times. I think it’s Clint’s reputation that he doesn’t do takes… I will tell you a story…
We’re in the hotel room and it was just me, so Tom wasn’t in the picture. And so, I did the take on the bed once, and I was where you are, and Clint was back here with the camera, so he’s pretty far away from me… and so it’s just a whole shot of the room. And I did [the take], and Clint goes, “OK, that’s enough of that crap.”
And literally was like, “OK, let’s move on.” And the DP’s like, “Clint… Boss… let’s just move it a little closer, change the lens, and we’ll just do it one more time.” I didn’t say anything, I was perfectly happy with that. And so Clint’s like, “Yeah, yeah, let’s do that.” So we did it a few more times. But that certainly does happen!
But you know, it doesn’t exhaust your actors, which is great. And there were times where I asked Clint, I’d say, “Hey, can I do it again?”
“[In ‘Sully,’] Clint was back here with the camera, pretty far away from me… and so it’s just a whole shot of the room. And I did [the take], and Clint goes, ‘OK, that’s enough of that crap.'”
And he would do it?
Yeah, but he’d let you know too, that he trusted you. I remember in rehearsal one time, we were around the table, the first time we meet the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board], and we went through it in rehearsal – which Clint didn’t really like to do too much – and Clint just kind of looked at us and said, “Well, that’s why I hire great actors.” And then just shot the scene. Which tells you that you’re doing a good job. He’s happy you’re there, and so we don’t ask too many questions.
I remember the first day we were shooting, the first day I was on set – I’m climbing up the ladder, and then the camera’s here, and I walk up past the camera there. And, for some reason, I had a question. You know, like, “What are we doing?” And Clint was here, and so I get up and start walking toward Clint – Clint just turned around and walked away. And I said right there, I said, “OK, that’s how Clint works.”
You and Miles had done “Rabbit Hole” together, but you didn’t have too many scenes together. What was it like building the chemistry for this movie?
It was good to know Miles a little bit. Any time that you’re on a movie, and you have a previous experience with somebody, it just makes everything so much easier going into it, because you can relax a little bit. And Miles and I have the same agent as well, it was good.
As a supporting actor, your job is to define your star, the protagonist of the piece – you’re there to move around him. If you look at Tom, if you look at Miles, whoever it is. You suss them out with the tone, how they’re going to lead their pitch, what they’re going to do, and then you find your way around them. It’s all about defining your hero.
And so, very early on, Miles would be in the gym with his trainer, choreographing fights and going through doing the mitts and that, and I would come and I would just sit there. And then all of a sudden, I’d just pick up the water bottle, and I’d start watering Miles. Then I’d start toweling him off. Then I would start telling him what to do. Meanwhile, his trainer’s looking at me going, “Uhhh…”
But as an actor, I create my job right off the bat. So, nobody gives Miles water but me. Nobody towels Miles off but me. Nobody massages Miles but me. Nobody does anything psychologically, but me. That way when we’re in the movie, it’s just so natural that he expects me to give him water, and when I come to him he opens his mouth. It’s not like, “OK, I’m going to come to you and then you’re going to open your mouth,” – that’s too late. We’ve ruined the reality.
So, that’s my job. And plus, the trainer-fighter relationship is sacred. There’s so much trust. It’s so dangerous, it’s so vulnerable, that you have to have total trust there. And the stakes are at the highest level, so that’s another thing we have to create. I have to make Miles look at me like I have the keys to the kingdom. Like the holy grail is right in here.
Did meeting Rooney help you get into that mentality?
I never met him.
Has he passed?
No, he’s in the hospital with dementia. And I never got to meet him. I met his son. My preparation for this film was with Freddy Roach at Wild Card boxing gym. [He] let me be a fly on the wall during the Pacquiao-Bradley fight. So the months before they were in camp, I would come every day, and I would just sit on the wall and watch Freddy train Manny. How he did the mitts with him, how he talked to him, how he watered him, how he dealt with him when he came to the gym, how he did, everything.
Then I went to the fight, and I was there behind the scenes, so I was in Manny’s hotel room. I was in the locker room before and after watching how Freddy manipulated the other team, how he manipulated the ref – and it’s a huge, huge deal. Freddy would tell me things, subtle things, that he would do to psyche out the other fighter. Even if he was just passing him in the hall. And he said every little thing counts. Which was great for me, because I could then incorporate that into the film.
“I have to make Miles look at me like I have the keys to the kingdom. Like the holy grail is right in here.”
And while you were doing that, that’s when you were doing your pepperoni pizza dinners?
Well no, I wasn’t. In fact, I was this weight or lighter than I am now. And, look – Kevin Rooney’s a big deal in the boxing world. He trained Tyson, he was with Cus (D’Amato), he was with Vinny. So people know him. So when I went to Freddy at first, he had absolutely no belief in me whatsoever, because here I am, looking like I look with this California accent, and I didn’t have much belief in myself either at that point.
And when I went to Vegas. I met all the promoters, from (Larry) Merchant to the old promoters, and I said, “I’m playing Kevin Rooney.” And they go, “Well I know Kevin, and you look and sound nothing like him.” But I knew in the back of the mind what I was gonna do for this part.
What do you think of the Oscar buzz surrounding your performance?
(Pause) I don’t know anything about it.
No… I don’t know anything about what you’re talking about.
I think that there are good performances in this movie, and so, we’ll leave it at that. I mean, I was happy to do the part.
I’m going to direct a movie. That’s what I’m going to do. I feel like I’ve worked with such great directors and writers and actors, I really want to go see if I can go tell a story from beginning to end, and get outside of myself. I really want to work with great actors and push them like Ben pushed us, and that’s the most exciting thing, is to work with actors. I’m gonna give that one a shot.
“Bleed For This” is now playing in select cities.