In the Batman movie The Dark Knight, Aaron Eckhart played district attorney Harvey Dent, whose face is horribly disfigured in an explosion. He notched a Golden Globe nomination as the spokesman for Big Tobacco in Thank You for Smoking. And he played opposite Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich.
But until My All American, he had yet to portray a larger-than-life icon, one who's regarded in burnt-orange circles with an almost papal reverence.
"I didn't know anything about Freddie Steinmark or Darrell Royal going into this," Eckhart says about the player who died of cancer and the University of Texas legend who coached him and his Longhorns teammates to a national title in 1969.
"So, I gave myself an education with the help of former players and Edith," Eckhart says, referring to the widow of the three-time national championship coach, who died of complications from Alzheimer's disease in 2012.
"The thing that kept popping up about Royal was his intensity. He was intense about football and was both loved and feared. He was a politician of sorts who had to manage players and coaches but also boosters, faculty, the university and citizens. So, I ate the elephant one bite at a time."
What emerges is an artfully understated performance in a movie that bears the dual burden of being an underdog-wins-big sports adventure and a cancer story. Somehow, Eckhart zeroes in on the perfect tone in a supporting performance that serves as a foil for underscoring Steinmark's character and courage.
"I had to talk myself off the ledge of playing such a legendary coach," Eckhart says during a recent phone interview. "When people talk about Coach Royal, they do so with reverence."
Eckhart spent his early years in the San Francisco Bay area, then moved to London when he was 13. He has lived in Hawaii, France, Australia, Switzerland, New York and Los Angeles, where he's based. What has each place taught him? That human beings, at their core, are the same.
So, the way to deal with a story that carries the emotional complexities of My All American "is to be as human and as truthful as possible," he says. "I think those resonate the most. When you're talking about a cancer story where a kid eventually loses his life, at such a young age, it's all about, 'How can we learn from this?'
"It's a sad reality faced by families all over the world. My All American can serve as an inspiration for those people. It engenders courage and honor, using those people around you to help get you through it. That, for me, is what this movie is all about. Freddie did it with a sense of optimism, with courage. I think that shows very well in the movie. But it also shows the pain and the fear. We know the ending, but we still need to see the story and to learn from the story."
Royal's vaunted triple-option offense is echoed in Eckhart's career of late: The 47-year-old actor has gone from playing no public figures to suddenly playing three.
In movies that won't be released until after 2015, he plays Kevin Rooney, the trainer of troubled boxer Mike Tyson, in Bleed for This, and Jeff Skiles, the co-pilot of Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who in 2009 safely landed a crippled airliner on the waters of the Hudson River and became an aviation legend. In the latter, Clint Eastwood directs and Tom Hanks plays Sullenberger.
Eckhart says he agreed to My All American "because I wanted to be a part of a movie that the whole family could see and be inspired by and entertained by. In today's age, with superhero films and cartoons, I feel a greater responsibility as I get older to be more of a teacher, in a sense, or an example. And this movie fits into that paradigm perfectly."