M&F: What did you think of Vinny Paz after hearing his story?
Aaron Eckhart: It’s amazing! Vinny is one of those guys that legends are made of- that don’t ever quit and don’t say “no” to finding their passion in life and commit to it absolutely. To think of what he went through just in terms of his own personal pain and overcoming adversity and believing in himself, I think it’s a lesson that we could all learn something from.
Did you spend time with Vinny?
Yeah, he was on the set. He was definitely around. He’s a great character. He has great energy to feed off of, very positive. Loves the movie. Loved telling us stories and was just a great presence.
What’s one memorable story that he told you?
What comes to mind is how a fighter shows up to a fight. Whether he thinks he’s actually inside himself. If he believes he can win. Sometimes they show up and they’re on an off night and they get into the ring and they’re like “this guy’s going to beat the shit out of me.” You don’t think about that kind of stuff. Then you say “how did you battle through?” He says “I just got in there and started swinging.” I say “Vinny, what did it feel like to knock this guy out? What did it feel like to get beaten on?” It’s always “Yeah, it doesn’t feel good.” Obviously we — the media and pundits — don’t get to feel the punches and we don’t get to get inside their minds so whenever you get firsthand accounts of that kind of stuff it’s a lot of fun.
What drew you to the role of Kevin Rooney?
Well, it’s a challenge for me as an actor. First of all, he’s obviously a real life character. He had some issues himself. He was trained under one of the greatest boxing teachers in the world and was a fighter himself and gave up his career and started training and had a certain ethos. He helped Tyson to the top. Then his life sort of…circumstances fell out from under him and he had to readjust. There’s a lot of pain in that. He was a guy that experienced a lot in the boxing world- the good and the bad and I thought that that was a good character to play.
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Did you immerse yourself in Kevin Rooney’s world?
Oh yeah. I definitely was on Kevin Rooney watch 24 hours a day. I soaked up everything. Kevin Rooney, at the time, was in the hospital so I didn’t get to spend time with him but I did spend time with his son and just immersed myself in all the multimedia that was out on him. I pretty much annoyed everybody by going around as Kevin Rooney.
What was it like having to gain weight and to shave your head?
It’s my third time gaining 40-45 pounds. It’s definitely mind-altering. You go through different mood swings and obviously your body is reacting to it. Now that I’m a little older my body takes it on a little differently. It’s uncomfortable but I think it ultimately helps you in the role and that’s the most important thing. It was a good experience overall I guess.
How does someone put on 45 pounds?
Eat. You eat a lot of pizza. I’m sort of a workout nut and so up until the day I said “okay, today’s the day,” I worked out every day. I bike. I do all my things. Then all of a sudden one day you just don’t do anything. That day is a bad day. Because obviously when you work out you get the endorphins, you get the adrenaline, you get the rush. Your body feels good, you get the energy from it. Then just to quit it all together, you’re not getting any of those things. You go through a mood swing and you start having different thoughts about yourself and then they shave your head. Then it’s all over.
I grew up on Staten Island, where Kevin was from. What was it like to talk with that accent?
Oh you did huh? How come you don’t sound like it? Give me a Staten Island accent.
[In Staten Island accent] What are you talking about? I ain’t paying no $15 for no bridge. If you ever need a 38-year-old guy from Staten Island, call me.
I needed you. I actually went and hung out in the parking lots of Walmart and Target to get the flavor. That was a challenge. Kevin has such a distinct accent and way of talking. As he got older he started to drink and all this sort of stuff. There’s a lot going on with him, but Vinny loved Kevin. They were great friends. They went through it together. They were both down and out, down on their luck. They resurrected both of their careers. They have a bond, a forever bond.
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Even though it’s a movie, did you feel guilty about playing a guy putting someone through those workouts in secret?
No way. Vinny would tell us stories. The dude was working out hardcore for five, six hours a day within that basement, which was insane. I mean, I think he would’ve done it hell or high water. He didn’t care. He was going to get back in the ring. I don’t think Vinny’s family and Kevin had a choice. I thought they were just better to watch over him because he was going to do it anyway. He was hell bent on it. You can’t fight a guy like that. You can’t sit that guy down. Today you can’t even sit him down. You just have to go with him.
What were some of the most memorable scenes that we should prepare for?
The thing that sticks in my mind the most is Vinny getting the screws out of his head. He didn’t have any painkillers, no medication, they just took the screws out of his head. That’s insane. I mean, you can imagine even putting screws in your head and then to take them out. There were six screws or maybe more. I don’t know. He said the pain was just unimaginable, but he didn’t pass out. Overall, you get the sense that this is a real Rhode Island story. We all have challenges in our lives, some greater than others, and sometimes we’re not mentally tough enough to see them through. This is a guy that got into the ring after breaking his neck and beat the shit out of guys and got the shit beat out of him. He loved every minute of it. For me, it’s a story of commitment, of discipline, and the following of your dream.
Has anything happened in your life that can possibly compare to Vinny’s?
Let’s see. I’m trying to think. Well, no. My challenges have been fairly mild – it’s hard for me to stand up sometimes.
You mentioned you do a little boxing yourself.
Yeah, I do like it. I have been boxing for quite a long time and every day I do a little bit of boxing, either by myself or with other people. I kind of know what it is to do it.
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What’s the allure to boxing films?
It’s a gladiator movie. It’s another movie where somebody’s doing something that we would never do. To get into that ring and to keep your hands up to face death, to beat the crap out of another guy, to train, to sacrifice- all these things are very appetizing for people because not everybody can do this. Like UFC, it’s just brutal. There’s something about people beating the crap out of each other that people like to see.
There’s been several other great comebacks in sports: Mario Lemieux in NHL, Nikki Louda from Formula One. Some other guys had some serious injuries. Can anyone actually compare to Vinny’s story and his comeback?
Lance Armstrong had cancer, but I don’t know if it’s worth comparing it. You take it all at face value and when you have a dream and you’re not done with that dream, it doesn’t matter what happens to you, to those guys. I think that they’re all warriors and they’re all studs and thank goodness we have them.
You said you work out every day. What’s your training regimen?
Now, I’m an avid cyclist. One day I cycle and then the next day I have what I call “The Aaron Eckhart Home Workout.” I jump up into trees and throw rocks and roll around on the ground for a while. Then I go into the gym. I alternate days. Every single day I’ll do something different. It revolves around cycling. Big muscles are not my priority these days. I’m 48 years old. I want to take care of my body. My workouts are all revolving around getting off the ground and getting up. Using your whole body in whatever you do and really strengthening the core and that sort of thing. Mostly it’s just to get the blood running and keep me from croaking really.
Once the movie wrapped, how’d you take off the 45 pounds?
The first thing I did was I stopped eating. You wouldn’t believe how the weight just falls off you. I wrapped in December and then had a movie coming up — London Has Fallen — in February. I had two and a half months to look myself again, which was worrisome. I just ran my ass off. You should’ve see me in my cycling kit right after the movie. I was bald and I was 40 pounds overweight. My little Lycra suit was stretched to the breaking point. It was a sight that would scare you. I just chipped it off and I’m back down to my fighting weight and feeling good.
It’s hard to look good in a kit when you aren’t in shape.
Yeah, you gotta let it go. You gotta make fun of it. At the end of the day you’re wearing Lycra, man. Lycra.