A decade ago, Eckhart's movie career began when LaBute, an old film-class friend from Eckhart's days at Brigham Young University, called him out to Indiana to make In the Company of Men. It was no-frills filmmaking: Eckhart hitched a ride cross-country from New York City (where he was a struggling actor) and LaBute picked him up at a truck stop along Highway 80. Then, after the movie exploded out of Sundance and he had great new offers, Eckhart got kind of scared. He didn't want to carry a whole movie on his shoulders. Too much pressure, at least for a guy who didn't really know what he was doing. So he began what he calls his ''apprenticeship,'' taking on supporting parts for great directors in Any Given Sunday, Erin Brockovich, The Pledge, and a few more LaBute movies.
His ideas for the future sound equally out of the ordinary. Eckhart, who was raised Mormon, is one of the few actors in Hollywood who will publicly admit to being ''spiritually grounded,'' and he says he wants to make more movies ''that show the good side of people.'' The ''charming, happy-go-lucky, opera-singing, pancake-flinging guy'' in Martha seems to fit the bill.
Eckhart also loves Bringing Up Baby: Ideally, he'd take the kinds of smooth parts his idol Cary Grant played. ''He was always smiling on the inside,'' Eckhart says of Grant, ''and I like those roles. As an actor, you're always looking for the meaty stuff. You want to play Serpico, and you look up to these guys De Niro and all that. But maybe that's not me. Maybe there's another side of me. That's what I'm coming to know about myself.'' He does have some darker movies lined up, he says, ''but the key is to make them funny and likable.''
Don't assume you got the guy pegged as a softie, though. There's still a devilish glint about him. He doesn't drink anymore ''It was getting in the way'' but he likes to date. ''I'm dating as many people as I possibly can, but nobody seriously,'' he says, after bursting into wicked laughter. ''No, dating isn't the right word. I'm hanging out with as many people as I possibly can.''
So he's a complicated guy! ''I'm certainly not a deacon, I'm not a priest,'' he explains. ''I'm sure people think I'm a Mormon, but I don't know that I'm a Mormon anymore, you know? To be honest, to be perfectly clear, I'd be a hypocrite if I did say that I was, just because I haven't lived that lifestyle for so many years.''
Right now, the work is first. Prior to Martha, Eckhart shot several indies back-to-back in addition to Smoking, there was Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia and Conversations With Other Women, with Helena Bonham Carter, both out later this year. He prefers running himself silly. Nothing seems to slow him down. Even during dinner, Eckhart never gets around to taking off his woolly winter coat, or the scarf roped around his neck.
''I don't drink, I don't smoke, I go to bed early, I get up early, I'm ready to go,'' he insists, talking fast. ''I wanna chew it up, I wanna work every day. It's like when you're on stage. I wanna be on stage every minute of every second the play's going. Because that's where the fire is. That's what people come to see. That's where the gold is. The gold's not backstage, the gold isn't in your trailer, it's right there in front of the camera.''