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Aaron Eckhart Wanders Into Conspiracy Theory Thriller

Aaron Eckhart as Arthur Bretnik in the thriller film, 'Wander,' a Saban Films release.


As Joseph Heller wrote, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” That sentiment easily could be the tagline of Wander, a mind-bending thriller starring Aaron Eckhart as a pill-popping paranoid private investigator investigating a suspicious death in a small dusty New Mexico town.

Eckhart, best known for his performances in Neil LaBute plays and films as well as his depiction of the comic book villain Harvey Dent/Two Face in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, co-stars alongside Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Jimmy, a renegade conspiracy theorist radio host broadcasting his wild ideas about abduction conspiracies from a remote desert outpost. His theories feed Eckhart’s character’s mounting paranoia.

Eckhart’s Arthur is a clever but troubled man who believes his daughter was murdered and his wife severely brain-damaged in an “accident” a few years earlier. When he is hired to investigate the suspicious death of a young woman in the dusty forgotten town of Wander, he begins to believe the deaths are linked as he tries to track down the killer … or killers. Hyped up on painkillers and other medication, Arthur’s investigation takes him down a dark rabbit hole of paranoia mixed with anger and grief. Can anyone around him be trusted to tell him the truth?

Saban Films’ Wander is directed by April Mullen (Below Her Mouth) from a screenplay by Tim Doiron. It opens in theaters and will be available on Digital and On Demand Friday, Dec. 4.

Speaking by phone from his Montana home, Eckhart spoke about playing this distraught yet determined character, working alongside Jones (who coincidentally played Harvey Dent/Two Face in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever) and his frustration with how the worldwide health pandemic has adversely impacted his industry.

Angela Dawson: As an actor, you get to unpack a lot of emotional baggage in this film. Did you relish the opportunity to play such a troubled character?

Aaron Eckhart: I did see that when I read the script. It’s always tantalizing when I read a script and say, “Wow! I get to do this?” It’s a lot of fun. (The character) Arthur is interesting. He’s got a limp. He’s taking a lot of pills. He’s going through the stages of grief. He’s ostracized himself in this Airstream (RV) out in the middle of the New Mexico desert. He’s got weird friends. It just started adding up and I really liked it. I like conspiracy theories and how people sort of control other people, so I was pretty simpatico with this movie.

Dawson: The story moves in unexpected directions throughout. A viewer may suspect Arthur’s investigation is lead to a human trafficking ring or perhaps all the events are taking place inside his mind. But then there’s the element of implants that adds a whole other layer to the conspiracy.

Eckhart: It’s timely because nanotechnology is here. Even the microchips you see them implanting in the movie are big compared to what is possible. They’re talking about putting nanochips in vaccines. You can’t even see them. So, it’s pertinent, it’s timely and it’s scary that they can kill you with a nanochip.

Dawson: What were some of your discussions with (director) April Mullen about playing Arthur?

Eckhart: I guess it was about a year ago, I met with April in Los Angeles. I wasn’t looking too good. (He laughs.) I don’t know where I was at in my life. I had a beard and long hair. When I walked in, April was like, “That’s it. That’s the guy right there. That’s Arthur.” I immediately liked April because she’s passionate about actors. She did something on this movie that nobody’s done—for me, at least—which is she protected me like a mother hen. She also protected the character. She calls Arthur “The Silent Warrior.” She made it so I was on my own. I had my own house in the middle of the desert, just like Arthur. Nobody talked to me or anything like that. She knew it was all about Arthur and the performance, and I’d never experienced that before. It was such a relief as an actor because she took all of my responsibilities away from me. She got everybody together before the movie and said, “Hey, guys, nobody talks to him. Leave him alone.” I was like, “Thank you for that.”

Arthur is in such a place; he’s got all this grief. He’s melancholy, sad and angry—all these emotions—and as an actor you’ve got to try to incubate those and keep them in the hopper. If you can do that without any outside interference, it’s better for the character and for the movie. And she did that for me, and I’ll always be grateful to her for that.

Dawson: You’re working with Tommy Lee Jones on this, so that’s not a bad day at the office, right?

Eckhart: I love Tommy, and I look up to him and respect him as one of America’s great actors and an icon in the industry. If I’m going to work with Tommy Lee Jones or Jack Nicholson or any of these great actors, I just say, “Hey, tell me a story. What was it like doing this? What was it like doing that?” I’m just a kid that can’t get enough of the stories of old Hollywood and what it was like making those great movies. I love watching them work and finding out how do they get to where they need to be. What do they do for their characters? So, I learned a lot as well.

Dawson: Do you share a similar approach to your performance as he did?

Eckhart: Tommy’s extremely smart. He’s been doing this 40-50 years so he’s a pro. But he wants to know where he’s coming from and, technically, what he’s doing, and he asks the director a lot of questions. I’m not so much like that. I’m more emotional. I’d listen to what questions he was asking April, and think about why he wanted to know what he was asking about, and I’d ask myself, “Do I need to know that and how do I benefit from his question?” When Tommy put on those yellow sunglasses, I’d just say, “Hey, you’re my man,” because he’s so cool.

Dawson: The thing you wonder about these characters, including Heather Graham’s and Katheryn Winnick’s characters, is are they hiding something? Can you talk about working with them?

Eckhart: You have all these hard personalities and soft personalities, and Heather’s such a soft personality. She’s a relief. You can be vulnerable and she would take care of you, and take care of Arthur. She’s very important in this movie because there’s nobody who is truthful to Arthur, who isn’t playing him, except for her, and you even question that in moments because she’s dating the FBI guy. But she’s also taking care of Arthur’s (convalescent) wife, and that goes a long way.

When I was around Heather, it was a different conversation than when I was around Kathryn or Tommy. Katheryn was a little harder because she’s duping and taking advantage of (Arthur). But that’s the role she’s playing, and that’s the energy she was giving. So, I enjoyed working with both of them—Heather for her softness and vulnerability and Katheryn for the well she could sell it. She’s nobody’s fool.

Dawson: Did you think of Joseph Heller famous quote, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” when you read this?

Eckhart: You betcha. If somebody’s duping you, of course they want you to feel paranoid because it makes you crazy and questioning. The first thing anybody does in power who’s coercive is they make you and the public feel like you’re an outcast. That’s why they say, “You’re a conspiracy theorist,” because when they say that, it stops all conversations. People look no further.

What they’re trying to do is shut you up because they can’t survive the scrutiny of one more page turn or one more piece of evidence to come out. That’s what’s so special about Arthur and Jimmy (Jones) when they’re doing their radio show. They’re fearless, in that sense. They’re putting out the truth and being labeled conspiracy theorists, crazy, paranoid, and all the rest. But, ultimately, they’re proven right. (Spoiler alert) Of course, Tommy double crosses Arthur.

Dawson: The other aspect of this film is the mistreatment of the indigenous people. April is mixed Anishinaabe Algonquin, so this is a bit of a personal story for her.

Eckhart: Look at New Mexico. It’s an indigenous place in the ground and in the ceremonies. April opened the movie by assembling a tribal chief and we did a dance. They had a drum and we said a prayer. We lit some incense. It was outdoors and a beautiful morning. It was the first day of filming. We did a little dance and it was an excellent way to pay homage to their tribe and to their customs, but also to the ground that we were standing on. It was very special and meaningful to her and to everybody else, and I think it paid off.

The (producers) wanted to do this movie in Toronto, and I said, “There’s absolutely no way we can do this movie in Toronto. This movie has to be done in New Mexico.” When you’re filming in the middle of the day and it’s hot and you’re looking down this lonely road, you don’t have to do too much as an actor, or as a director. You just point the camera and tell the actors to go do some stuff over there and you’re in it.

Dawson: Have you been able to work during the pandemic lockdown?

Eckhart: It’s so hard to get a movie bonded because of insurance and all of these regulations. I’ve had four or five movies going, going, going, gone. In fact, right now I’m supposed to be shooting a movie but it got pushed to January. I know some movies are going on but it’s been tough, I have to say. Not only that, but it’s been tough that the whole industry has just somehow disappeared, and nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to question it. It’s just gone. I’m not just talking about actors; I’m talking about the whole industry. I’m talking about the crew and the caterers and the transportation people, everybody. They’re going, “Where’d my business go? Where’d my livelihood go?”

We have to make movies; that’s what we do, especially independent movies, because you’re working on a tightrope anyway. But all that great content is gone. So, I’m not happy about it. I’m sure I’m not the only one. I don’t talk to anyone about it but that’s how I feel. We’re all going to be like Arthur if this goes on any longer.

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